Islamism in the Arab World

By Kenan Kabbani

The following essay was submitted to us by guest writer Kenan Kabbani. This essay explores the definition of “Islamism”, a brief background into its rise, and its role in contemporary Arab politics and society. This was submitted to Professor Tareq Ramadan’s course on Arab Society in Transition at Wayne State University. 

The opinions and any errors herein are, of course, solely by the author.


The Middle East and specifically the Arab World has been a focal point of radical change, international politics, and media attention in the past decades. Much change has occurred in this region since the fall of the Ottoman Empire in the early 1900s. Many individuals struggle to comprehend the current affairs of this region, and what drives the individuals and governments there to behave and act in the way that they do. To better understand the region, one must learn about the rise of Islamism in the Arab World and its effect on today’s politics and society.

Islamism is a term that is thrown around often; however many do not fully understand what it means. According to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, Islamism is defined as “a popular reform movement advocating the reordering of government and society in accordance with laws prescribed by Islam” (Merriam-Webster). It is a very diverse ideology, and its adherents come in a variety of shades. Moderates include the Muslim Brotherhood, the Turkish AKP Party, and the Tunisian Islamist Ennahda Party. More conservative elements can be seen in Saudi Arabia, Gaza, and Iran, where groups such as the Wahhabists, Hamas, and the Iranian Islamic government are present. This ideology can take more extreme forms as well, as has been seen with the rise of multiple terrorist organizations such as the Taliban, al-Qaeda, and ISIS (Islamic State of Iraq and Syria).

Islamism was not always as influential in the Arab World as it is today. When the Ottoman Empire fell, Islam was seen more as a cultural identity and less of a worldview (Carvalho 9). This sentiment increased as western concepts such as secularism made their way into the region. Soon by the 1960s, all the independent states of the Arab World had secular governments, and Islamic practices were not strictly followed (Carvalho 9). In the 1960s for example, most women in Cairo did not wear the traditional hijab (Muslim headscarf), and in the entirety of the region, prayer, prohibitions on alcohol, and fasting were not strictly observed (Carvalho 9). As Professor Jean-Paul Carvalho of Oxford University stated:

“By the 1930s, Islam had become merely an inherited culture rather than a source of practical guidance for a large part of the educated elite in Muslim societies. They were living largely outside the bounds of the sharia; prayers and fasting were less frequently observed, and the consumption of alcohol was rising”. (Carvalho 9)

Secularism was even more extreme in areas such as Turkey, where Mustafa Kemal Ataturk had formed a strictly secular government (Carvalho 9). For example, Turkish women after 1925, by law, could not wear the headscarf in universities, schools or public buildings (Carvalho 9). Turkish men were forbidden from wearing the Fez (a traditional male head garment that was common in the Ottoman period), and Islamic Schools were outlawed in 1924 (Carvalho 9). The secularization process of the region dates back to the Tanzimat reforms of the Ottoman Empire, where the Ottomans attempted to modernize and reform their empire to catch up to their western counterparts (Encyclopedia Britannica). This trend of secularization in the Middle East continued until the late 1960s, after which a notable rebound in Islamism appeared (Carvalho 7). The population of the region began to view Islam as a worldview, a model to live by, and a method of influencing change (Carvalho 13).

There are multiple causes for this shift in worldviews in the Middle East from secularism to Islamism. These include a rapid urbanization of Arab Societies, the secular despotic regimes that dominated the region, the unfulfilled hopes and aspirations of the society, a reevaluation of identity, as well as the influence of a few particular thinkers and powerful movements. In essence, the causes deal in one way or another with the frustrations of the of the disenfranchised majority in Arab societies.

Urbanization, or the demographic shift of the rural population to the urban centers, was a source of major demographic change in Arab society (Carvalho 12). As an example, the city of Amman, the capital of Jordan, has grown from 20,000 in the 1940s to 4 million today (Amman, Jordan Population). Similar growth rates can be seen all across the Arab World. In the 1900s, due to not being an industrialized society, much of the population was still rural and lived in agricultural villages, or as nomads and Bedouins. These small and tight-knit communities provided support as well as the basis of identity for their inhabitants. Upon moving to the urban centers, individuals not only lost their support structures, but also the community that held them to their identity (Carvalho 12). Professor Carvalho states that:

“Rapid social change and urbanization had led to massive social and psychological displacement; old sources of identity including family, regional and tribal identities were negated in an environment in which a large proportion of interactions occurred between strangers.” (Carvalho 12)

Often these individuals found new support structures as well as new identities in Islamic institutions (Carvalho 12). Compounding this was the feeling of betrayal from a large portion of the population due to the secular authoritarian governments failing to deliver on expectations of economic growth and democratization. In short, urbanization cut off connections to their previous identity, thus paving the way for the adoption of Islamism as a new identity and subsequently a worldview as well.

The rural population of the Arab World during the 1900s were drawn to the cities for two reasons: jobs which they hoped to find, and education they hoped to attain. The latter was made possible due to the newly established free public education institutions and programs such as the system implemented in Egypt by Gamal Abdel-Nasser (the president of Egypt from 1956 until 1970). These institutions and programs allowed many from rural or poor backgrounds to attain education that was previously thought unattainable; this was a major advancement in a society where, traditionally, only the urban elite received an education (Abdel Ghafar 2). The result was an increase in the number of young individuals in cities who had university degrees who were now looking for employment (Abdel Ghafar 2-3). Many of these newly urbanized individuals found it challenging to acquire jobs in the city (Abdel Ghafar 3-4). Besides the obvious negative side effects that creating a sudden surplus supply of educated workers would have on the labor market, these newly urbanized and educated individuals simply lacked the connections that are necessary in the Arab World to acquire the well-paying jobs that they sought (Abdel Ghafar 3-4, Carvalho 2). These connections, or “wastas” in Arabic, are essential to Arab urban life (Carvalho 2). A wasta can help push papers through bureaucracy, can land someone a position they want, and can also get someone out of legal trouble (Ramadan). Without this wasta, it was very difficult for these youth to climb the rungs of the socioeconomic ladder, even with the aid of their newly acquired education. In effect, these programs and institutions helped created a new middle class of educated, underemployed, and unsatisfied individuals who soon became disheartened with the secular government’s inability to provide for them (Carvalho 15). This problem is even worse today as youth unemployment is double that of the national average in many countries in the MENA region (Middle East and North Africa). In Egypt for example, the youth unemployment rate is 30% (Abdel Ghafar 5, Carvalho 37). High youth unemployment rates are a large destabilizing factor and are partial to blame for the instability that caused the 2011 Arab Spring (Abdel Ghafar 2, Schwartz).

Today there exists only one Arab country that is considered a democracy, Tunisia (Jones). In the late 1940s, only a few Arab nations were independent. Of those nations, only two (Syria and Lebanon) were considered democracies. Syria would fall into military junta rule after the March 1949 coup d’état (backed by the US), which would shatter its fledgling democracy (Wilford 101). Most Arab nations, since their inception, have been governed by absolute monarchies such as Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Oman, and Jordan, or despotic authoritarian regimes such as Egypt, Iraq, Algeria, Libya, Yemen, and Syria. After the 1950s, owing to an increase in secular-nationalism, some nations that possessed a monarchy such as Yemen, Iraq, Libya and Egypt experienced coup d’états and had their governments replaced with Arab Nationalists and Pan-Arabists (Carvalho 13). Pan Arabism is the ideology that wishes to see the Arab World united in a single nation (Berman 259). This ideology was strongly advocated for by the likes of Gamal Abdel Nasser, who formed a political union with Syria to form the United Arab Republic (UAR) (Berman 259-260). These new secular regimes had implemented economic reforms and made promises to the people that at first seemed propitious. Nationalization of foreign-run industries (such as the oil industry or the Suez Canal) and the undertaking of massive projects such as the Aswan Dam seemed like political victories for the Arabs against European Colonialism (Berman 259). Nasser’s political victory in the Suez-Crisis particularly was seen as a major win for Pan-Arabism (Saghieh). However, these achievements would be shattered by the 1967 Arab-Israeli War, in which the combined armies of Jordan, the UAR (United Arab Republic), Iraq and Lebanon were defeated by Israel (Berman 260, Carvalho 8). This defeat severely damaged the legitimacy of Pan-Arabism as an ideology, especially since it was framed from a Pan-Arabist perspective by Nasser and other Arab Leaders (Carvalho 12). These setbacks to Pan-Arabism caused the populations of the Arab World to ultimately lose hope in it and led many individuals to redefine themselves and their identity.

Another blow to the legitimacy of the secularist governments was that the promised economic reforms which sought to modernize and grow the economy eventually lead nowhere (Berman 260). The White Revolution in Iran, Nasser’s Second Charter, and other similar programs of nationalization and modernization all failed to achieve their goals (Carvalho 13). These programs often included land redistribution, nationalization of key industries, minimum wages, and workers’ rights (Berman 259). However, after a short growth period, the Arab economies became sluggish and ultimately did not grow as expected. This is partially due to population growth outpacing economic growth, as the MENA region possesses some of the highest population growth rates in the world, but also partially due to government mismanagement of the economy (Carvalho 36, Berman 264). According to Carvalho, average GDP growth rates across the region were down to 0.1% annually during the 80s, and the situation improved only slightly in the 1990s as the average growth rate increased to 1.5% annually (Carvalho 36). Even with loosening constraints on the private sector, such as Anwar Sadat’s Infitah Program, growth rates did not change (Carvalho 37). The economy stagnated while the income divide grew ever greater (Carvalho 37). The MENA region experienced some of the highest income inequality rates of the 1980s and 1990s (Carvalho 38). Carvalho also cites a source which “document high and increasing income and consumption inequality prior to the Iranian revolution.” (Carvalho 38). The correlation between income inequality and the Islamic revival that was experienced in a similar interval suggests that income inequality might have been a factor in Islamic revival.


This mix of unfulfilled employment expectations due to nepotism, increased education, severe income inequality, combined with the despotic authoritarian regimes of the region became the driving force behind the reevaluation of the Arab identity and a revisit of Islam as a worldview, or a means to change one’s circumstance (Carvalho 37). Islam began to become more prominent in Arab societies, especially among the newly urbanized (Carvalho 12). Cut off from the traditional social support groups present in rural societies, and disheartened with the secular promises, most turned towards Islam (Carvalho 12). People’s participation in religious rituals increased as fasting, mosque attendance, undertaking religious studies and prayer became more common (Berman 263). Increased numbers of Muslim women started to wear the headscarf and veil (Berman 263).

This change was felt by the regimes as well. In contrast to the 1967 war, the 1973 war (the third and final war between Israel and the coalition of its Arab neighbors) was declared a “holy war” by Sadat (Carvalho 9). Sadat would also incite the name of God multiple times in his 1973 speech calling for peace (Sadat). In 1981, Sadat was assassinated by Islamist elements in the military during a parade. Multiple regimes of Muslim majority nations such as Gaddafi’s Libya rebranded their secular regimes using Islamist symbols (Carvalho 8). In 1982, various Islamist organizations in Syria launched a rebellion in Hama that was brutally put down (Benkorich). The Secularist governments responded by suppressing these Islamist movements. Religious activity was suppressed in countries such as Syria and Egypt. As Nora Benkorich, a writer for la vie des Idée states:

“En effet, dès la fin des années 1970, une vaste campagne de répression et d’arrestations a été lancée. Elle visait non seulement les Frères musulmans, érigés en boucs émissaires, mais aussi l’ensemble de la communauté sunnite.

In the late 1970s, a massive campaign of repression and arrests was launched. It targeted not only the Muslim Brotherhood, erected as scapegoats, but also the entire Sunni community.” (Benkorich)

Non-Arab nations of the region were also affected by this change. In 1979, a few years before the previously mentioned events, the Islamic Revolution occurred in Iran, giving Iran the first Islamist government in the region.

This shift has also had the support of several influential thinkers and movements, whose help was essential for the proliferation of Islam and Islamism through effective use of media and providing social services (Berman 261-263). The idea behind these programs was to “win over the population through providing the services the government could not,” whether that be schooling, trades associations, transportation, housing, disaster relief, etc. (Berman 261-262). This approach was taken due to the government’s blocking of Islamist groups from “full political participation and allowed much greater freedom in civil society” (Berman 263).

One of the most influential and long-lasting of these thinkers is Hassan al-Banna, who founded the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt in 1928 (Carvalho, 7-8). What started off as a group dedicated to welfare programs and Islamic Studies instruction soon became politicized and since then became the major political Islamist opposition party in many Middle Eastern nations, such as Egypt, Syria, and Tunisia (Wright). Al-Banna advocated for a gradual moral change, more of a Jihad al-Nafs (struggle to improve oneself spiritually and internally) as opposed to an armed struggle (Hasan al-Banna and his Political Thought of Islamic Brotherhood). Some of the Muslim Brotherhood’s accomplishments include bringing the Palestinian issue to the wide attention of many Muslims and Arabs. Al-Banna was assassinated in 1949 by Egyptian secret police (Encyclopedia Britannica). His influence has been enormous not only because he founded the influential Muslim Brotherhood, but also because he introduced political Islam into the 20th-century political arena. Although the Muslim Brotherhood later adopted more violent methods to influence politics such as assassinations and violent uprisings, al-Banna did not advocate for violence (Hasan al-Banna and his Political Thought of Islamic Brotherhood).

Another influential thinker was Sayyid Qutb, a major Islamic political thinker of the 20th century. Qutb’s views were more extreme in comparison to al-Banna. Although he advocated for Islam to be a political force, he also advocated against democracy, saying democracy had no place in Islam (Mulcaire). He also advocated for Jihad on multiple occasions in both an offensive and defensive fashion (Stahl). Sayyid Qutb was eventually arrested for links to an assassination attempt against Gamal Abdel-Nasser in the early 1960s and was executed in 1966. His ideas were divisive and became the foundation for the modern Jihadist ideology due to his frequent use of an Us vs. Them mentality (Stahl). His ideas were later used by many radical terrorist groups as their ideological basis (Stahl).

Lastly, the movement initiated by Mohamed Abdel-Wahhab in the 1700s, later called Wahhabism or Salafism (the terms are used interchangeably), proved influential in the modern Arab World despite it being much older compared to the other Islamist and secular movements (Commins 18). Wahhabism is a fundamentalist, puritanical interpretation of Islam that continues to be influential in the Arabian Gulf states such as Saudi Arabia (where the Al-Saud clan and Abdel-Wahhab formed an alliance to take most of the peninsula) (Commins 19). This movement arose as a counter to the Sufi movement and originally aimed to counter some of their perceived innovations in matters of religion (Commins 20). They wanted to return to what they considered the original Islam, before the widespread innovations (Commins 31). The term Salafi comes from the word Salaf, meaning predecessor, owing to their want to return to the times of the Prophet Muhammad and his companions and the Islam that they supposedly in their opinion followed (Almaany). It was later that this ideology took a political turn. Although Salafis/Wahhabis represent a minority of Muslims globally, their voice has been amplified through financial and political backing from major Muslim nations such as Saudi Arabia who allied with Abdel-Wahhab during the 1700s, an alliance that has remained in place to this day (Commins 98-99). This extremely fundamentalist worldview coupled with Sayyid Qutb’s ideas of Jihad has often been used as justification by religious extremist to carry out violent acts in the name of religion (Commins 156-157). Groups such as ISIS, al-Qaeda, the Taliban, and Boko Haram have been described as extreme Salafists (Commins 156).

As previously mentioned, many in the Arab World feel disenfranchised economically, politically and socially. Thus, it is very easy to see how this frustration at the system is vented out as extremism, especially considering how young the Arab World’s population is and how many of these youth struggle to find employment. Originally those who picked up extremism were those who were most disenfranchised in the Arab World. The Palestinian Liberation Organization was among the first militant movements in the Arab world and was founded in 1964 (Wright). The PLO was known for their extremism towards Israeli civilians (Wright). Although originally secular nationalist, they later began to adopt a more Islamic perspective. In 2003 with the passing of the Amended Basic Law by the Palestinian Authority (specifically Article 4 of that law), a hint of Islamism officially entered the organization (Bolstad and Viken). This Law named Islam the sole official religion of Palestine and made Sharia the source of Legislation. The law was passed without a single Hamas member being a part of the committee which passed these decisions. More recently, Islamism has been used by terrorist groups such as ISIS and al-Qaeda to justify themselves and also to recruit from the many disgruntled youths who wish to see political change in the region (Islam and the Arab Awakening). This issue of increasing extremism is not just a Sunni issue; it is worth noting that many similar Shiite organizations exist as well, including Hezbollah, and the multiple Shiite militia groups currently active in Iraq that are helping the government in the current war on ISIS (Watling).

These tensions were vented out in other ways as well, not just through extremism. In 2010-2011, droves of people throughout the Arab World protested, in what would later be called the Arab Spring, among other things: the regimes, the lack of economic, social and political progress, repression, nepotism, and corruption (Manfreda). Many of these protesters chanted slogans calling for democracy, more rights, a new government, and better economic opportunities (Ghafar 1). However, also on the streets were many Islamist groups and factions who were using the opportunity also to express and push for their views. The Brotherhood came out of the Arab Spring with a president in office for the first time in history (Botelho). The Tunisian government is currently a coalition of several factions, among them the Islamist Ennahda faction (one of the largest) (BBC News). In Syria and Iraq, extremist Islamist groups have been among the many groups that have taken advantage of the turmoil and frustration to use arms to attempt to overthrow the governments there (Botelho). Of these groups, the most notable is ISIS and Al-Nusra. In Libya, after the nation overthrew Muammar al-Gaddafi, Islamist factions have appeared to attempt to influence the post-civil war politics (Wehrey). Although with the emergence of a second civil war, many of the Islamist factions have started their own government (Wehrey). In Yemen, the factions that overthrew Ali Abdullah Saleh gathered together to discuss a possible Government with Islamic Foundations (Yadav). However, in recent years, the Houthi group have initiated another civil war in the country (Botelho).

As can be seen, the Arab spring allowed for Islamist movements to gain ground politically in the middle east (Wright, Poirson). Currently, they are a force with much support from the population of the region (Berman 263-264). However, they possess several obstacles to their success. First, they are often not viewed favorably by the West, and as such have struggled diplomatically. Hamas is an excellent example of this, as despite winning the popular election in Gaza, they are to this day unrecognized by the United States and other western democracies (Wilson). Second, they often lack the experience to govern properly and as such can be described as politically immature in their behavior (Tariq Ramadan). The Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, for example, won the popular election after the ousting of Hosni Mubarak. However, they ruled for little over a year before being overthrown (Mecham). During that time, they faced difficulty in governing effectively, and little progress was made in solving many of the problems that plagued Egypt and led to the revolt in the first place (Mecham). It is also worth noting that even Al-Nour Party (the Egyptian Salafist Party) sided with the secular Military Junta that overthrew Mohamed Morsi and is Brotherhood government (Kingsley). Thirdly, Islamism as a political ideology is often ill-defined, when put in positions of power (as seen in Egypt) they often lack plans of action to effectively tackle the issues of the nation and of governing (Tariq Ramadan). To this end, the Turkish AKP Party has made great strides, however, in recent times, it seems that they have regressed to increasingly authoritarian methods especially with regards to their interactions with political opposition (specifically the media) (Brownlee).

Through understanding Islamism, its history, and its modern-day implications, the complex political and sociological changes and situations of the middle east can be better understood. From its humble beginnings, it has sprung to become one of the most influential ideologies in the middle east with a large array of followers and competing movements. Islamism must further develop and grow philosophically and on policy to be considered a viable political or sociological alternative for the current regimes of the region. However, for the meantime, it remains a strong force on the ground that can, and frequently does, affects outcomes in the region.

*Photo Credit: Quora

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