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Political Islam

in the Age of

by Kamran Bokhari & Farid Senzai

Reviewed by

Jasmina Ameti

BY JASMINA AMETI - In the Arab-Islamic world, there has been a long-standing interaction between politics and religion. Such interaction was evident in the context of the uprising of the 2011, known as the Arab Spring. Young Arabs marching for social, economic and political reforms generated optimism for change in the Middle East and the North Africa. The book "Political Islam in the Age of Democratization", by Kamran Bokhari and Farid Senzai, argues that, after the Arab Spring, the Arab Muslim world was able to experience democratic transition and that religion played a crucial political role as a source of identity. This book helps understanding the ascending composition of political Islam in the period of democratisation and offers an insight on the domestic actors as the main driver transforming Islamist perception of democracy not only in the region and beyond.


The authors elaborate on the evolution of Islamism since the 1990s by analysing ‘Participatory, Conditionalist and Rejector’ Islamists. According to the authors, ‘Participatory Islamists’ are those who perceive democracy to be compatible with Islam and understand democratisation as a later stage of the human political evolution. Bokhari and Senzai use the case of the Muslim Brotherhood, particularly in Egypt, as the most significant participatory actor. As part of the ‘Participatory’ subset of Islamism, the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood adopted a supportive narrative towards democratisation and emphasized on the electoral process as the most important factor of democratisation. Arguing for the elections, the Egyptian Brotherhood used the Arab Spring as a way to establish itself in a democratic political system and grab unprecedented power in the country’s history. Critics of the Muslim Brotherhood argue that in the case of President Mohamed Morsi, who was elected in June 2012 after the ousting of long-time leader Hosni Mubarak, his government acted exclusively in the interest of the leading party once it achieved electoral legitimacy. During the referendum on a new constitution in 2014, Morsi granted himself a wide-range of powers above any legal court and used his authority to order a new trial for Mubarak, sentenced to three years in prison. This centralisation pursued by the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood once in power is in fact in contradiction with their narrative, adherent to the principles of participatory political Islam.


As the middle ground between ‘Participators’ and ‘Rejectors’, this book offers an insight at the ‘Conditionalist’ Islamists, identified as the Salafists, who claim that their ideology is a trend or a methodology. Accordingly, after the 2011 uprisings, Salafis were forced to prove the difference between their ideology and the ideology of the Muslim Brotherhood. In the aftermath of the Arab Spring, Salafi Islam entered politics after long years of democracy rejection. An example can be found in the Libyan Madkhlists, Salafis, who supposedly do not take part in the politics, however cooperate politically and militarily with General Khalifa Haftar, leader of the Tobruk-based government of eastern Libya, in countering the opposition groups, such as the Muslim Brotherhood.


Delving deeper into the topic of democratisation and Islamism, the discussion continues with the ‘Rejector Islamists’ identified in jihadists. Bokhari and Senzai argue that, given that violent jihad is their main goal, al-Qaeda and other militant forces cannot be equated to other Islamist groups. As a part of the rejectors’ family, the authors analysed the Afghanistan’s Taliban, as a nationalist jihadist group which claims that democracy is incompatible with Islam. After the terrorist attacks against the United States on 11 September 2001, the great majority of Muslims distinguished themselves from jihadi groups. Seeing this as an opportunity to gain political recognition in the domestic arena and world-wide, the Taliban has, in recent years, transformed the movement away from its previous insurgent rejector’s position and towards achieving the status of participatory Islamists.


Having examined the rejector’s category, Bokhari and Senzai return back to participatory Islamism, analysing Shia Islamism. The authors present Iranian Shia Islamism as consisting of both democratic values and theocracy. The discussion on Shia Islamism continues with Iraqi Shia Islamists and Hezbollah. According to the authors, Arab Shia Islamism includes greater participatory values than the Islamic Republic of Iran.


Controversially, the book concludes by considering Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), presented as an example of a post-Islamist group’s transformation towards secularism. After 9/11, the AKP played an important role in countering jihadists in the global political discourse on Islamism. With regards to democratisation, post-Islamism is defined as a transition process that accepts religion’s role in public affairs while accomplishing its ideology via democratic politics and secular institutions. However, this idealised view of Turkey that the authors advance, should arguably be re-considered 5 years after the book was published. In particular, it has to take into account the strategic exploitation of electoral legitimacy by the AKP to grab unchecked powers domestically and geopolitical influence regionally. In the years after the Arab Spring and particularly after the attempted anti-Islamist coup d’état in 2016, Turkey is slowly transforming its policies towards an Islamist-flavoured authoritarianism rather than secularism. This statement can be supported by Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s use of power to crackdown on independent media, jailing journalists and labelling them as terrorists and the attempt to abolish some existing institutions and form new ones that would fall directly under his command. At the regional level, with the emergence of the Arab Spring, the AKP had an opportunity to boost its foreign policy agenda and to reinforce geopolitical influence of Turkey, and they pursued it by indiscriminately extending support to Islamist groups thorough the region.


Overall, this book is a great contribution to the literature, providing strong evidence with illustrations of the evolution of Islamism since the 1990s, and with regard to its relationship to democratisation. In sum, the analysis provides an open door for future debates of democratic principles vis-à-vis the Islamist ideology. The chapters are, however, lacking reference on the Islamists’ drift towards authoritarianism, the process to limit political freedoms and shape a strong central power of the Islamist leaders, as it is in the case of Turkey. It would have been helpful if the authors had made a clear distinction between democratic values and democratic processes, because a support for some mechanisms of democracy, for instance electoral ones, does not mean embracing democracy itself.  In other words, to provide citizens with free elections alone does not necessarily mean that a system is democratic.

19 December 2018

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