Why some circles of western academia sympathize with Islamism? (2)

Does Islamism represent Islam?

D.Wael Saleh

The first point: Western academic currents coincide between Islam as a religion and the Islamist groups, and consider the latter to be the only representative for Islam, ignoring other important currents in the Islamic arena, such as the trend of Sufism and the trend of intellectual renewal, etc.

The second point: It is surprising that some of these Western academics coincide between Islam and the Brotherhood in particular, and it is noticed thatsome cross-currents though they are totally incompatible, theyagree on this idea, so how does the orientalist trend in its colonial section represented by thinkers such as Bernard Lewis reach the same conclusion that the post-colonial current adopts and that targets correct understanding of the former colonies to remove the false rubble planted by the old and modern imperial circles?

Some researchers in the West used to deal with “Islamism”, the thoughts of political Islam groups, on the grounds that it is Islam itself without paying attention to the simple fact that Islamism is nothing but a kind of understanding of religiosity in modern and marginal way despite the strength of its organization and its leadership in the media scene, especially in the Pre-Arab Spring stage.

Islamism is a holistic, dynamic vision of religion that believes that there is a predetermined model that a Muslim must follow in all aspects of life and there is no other model permitted to be followed. Such model that had been originally set by human beings, they wear it as a holiness robe to replace the religion itself by the time.

In addition to the orientalist trend represented by “Bernard Lewis”, that  believes  Islam is a political religion in nature, others who belong to the “post-colonialist” trend, which is an attempt to understand societies of former colonies and calls for letting Arabs and Muslims express themselves on their own without judging them from the Western cultural and philosophical perspective, which in itself can’t be blamed, believe that the current and movement of Islamism is the only representative for the Islamic culture and religion, and therefore this stream does not hesitate to adopt absolutely some of the sayings of Islamists and consider them bases of Islam as a religion.

For example, “Talal Asad” adopts what the political Islam movements say, that the separation between religion and power is a Western criterion and a unique product of the history of Western civilization, which isn’t in line with the specificity of Islam.

Wael Hallaq, in his book, “The Impossible State”, argued the Islamists’ ability to realize their ambition to establish a state based on the structures and principles of the modern civil state, believing it contradicts with the morality of the Islamic vision of existence and of human society in general.

Burgat or Ghannouchi

Crudest example ever can be mentioned herein this regard , it is what the French researcher Francois Berga said in his testimony before the French Parliament in defense of Islamists, when he said: “A good Muslim in the eyes of Westerners is the Muslim who left his Islam (Islamism) [1] (meaning a non-Islamist Muslim).

In the face of theseideas adopted by some Western researchers deemed as axioms of the political Islam movements, there is a joke appeared in the critical Western academic milieu saying: “If you do not know“ Berga ”and“ Ghannouchi ”and you attend a joint conference for them, it is difficult to distinguish between them, and If circumstances forced you to inevitably determine who is Ghannouchi, you can bet that Francois Berga is Rashid Ghannouchi, as he is more Islamist in his speech than Ghannouchi himself.

“Islamism” is not Islam

Those who consider “Islamism” to be Islam actually maketwo basic mistakes:

First mistake:

They ignore other trends in Islam and merely reduce Islam to the thoughts of contemporary political Islam movements, just as Islamists do. In addition to “Islamism” (which believes in the complete subordination of politics to religion), contemporary Islamic thought includes other currents such as “Muslim reformism” that It is represented, for example, by Al-Azhar and the general syncretic Islamic thought, which ranges between the independence of politics or its relative dependence on religion, but in all cases it does not place politics at the heart of the Islamic project such as Islamism do. As for the third important current, it is the current of “Muslim humanism” represented by enlightened thinkers whose ideas may not be prevalent like fanatic or moderate Islamism, although they may make the future of Islamic societies. For example, the thoughts of Muhammad Arkoun and other innovators who believe in the complete independence of the politics from the religion. These are the three currents detailed with explanation for their ideas and the differences among them in my book published in 2017 “The Concept of the State in Contemporary Egyptian Thought: Continuity and Separation in the Relationship between Religion and Politics [2].

The second mistake:

This is what some Western academics make, especially the post-colonial current. The researcher, Gayatri Spivak, expressed about this in her article, “Can the follower speak?” [3]

(1988) She said that although the theorists of this current wish to make the voice of the world’s former colonies be heard, they end up committing what is completely opposite to their intention, by creating a situation in which these societies depend on some of these Western researchers to speak on their behalf, rather than allowing them to express themselves directly, as if they were destined that others speak on behalf of them during colonialism and after it.

Besides, it is noticed that this current among Western academics deals with hasty generalizations, as if the different currents and groups in post-colonial societies are a single entity in which there is no multiplicity, although they know from their Western societies that the multiplicity of groups within the same religious stream is the rule and not vice versa.

In Islam case, we can say that the post-colonial current has chosen Islamism as an expression for Islam, perhaps because it is a kind of understanding of Islamic religiosity that echoes what the researcher expects to hear in advance. As a result of the great influence of this current in the West, if sincere Muslims in the West criticize Islamism, they are described by some sympathetic non-Muslims in Western academia as being under the influence of Islamophobia. In this context, a book developed this trend was published under the title “Islamophobia in Muslim-Majority Countries.” When you thumb through the book, you will find a suspicious mixture between Islam and Islamism that reaches to the point of intellectual delirium, when the book accuses the state and society in an Arab country like Egypt, the country of Al-Azhar and the Sunni world’s destination of Islamophobia simply because it is against the groups of extremist and closed violence or the groups whose loyalty across national state borders such as the Muslim Brotherhood. [4]

Is the separation between religion and state a trait solely connected to Christianity, butblending between them a special trait of Islam?

In the previous lines, we discussed the wrong notion represented by some western researchers who deal with “Islamism” as if they are the “Islam” itself and the predominant current in all Islamic societies. In this article, we are discussing another axiom, considered wrongas well, among those researchers, there are some consider the separation between the religion and the state as a Christian peculiarity, while combining them in the way that political Islam advocates is part of the basic peculiarity and identity of Islam.

Many Western researchers have adopted, without sufficient examination, the Orientalist theory of Bernard Lewis, which says that Islam is a political religion in nature, the state constitutes one of its pillars, and that Islam takes from Judaism the idea of ​​the divine law that organizes all human affairs, even if I disagree with its jihad dimension to spread Islam In the world, even by force. At the same time, Islam is similar to Christianity in spiritually while the difference lies only in the idea of building a state instead of church. In sum, “Bernard Lewis” believes that the Islamic society, since the beginning of the Prophet’s era and throughout its history, has remained a society that has a dual inseparable nature, political and religious.

Surprisingly, there is a big deal of similarity between the orientalist trend in its colonial section represented by figures such as Bernard Lewis and others’ who belong to the trend of post-colonial societies studies that target a correct understanding of past colonies. For example, “Saba Mahmoud” sees in her book “Religious difference in a secular era” that in light of the post-independence regimes in the Arab-Islamic world, most researchers believe that a solution to the problems of that region is ready and clear enough: towards more secularization, towards more privatization of religion and removal of politics from it. The researcher criticizes this solution and tries to prove the opposite. She tries to prove in an absurd way that secularism itself is the problem, to the extent that she arrives in her study entitled “Secularism, Hermeneutics and Empire: The Policy of Islamic Reform” to the point of believing that the reformist discourse or renewing religious discourse is an imperialist project sponsored by the United States of America,the same as what supporters of political Islam groups believe.

First: This struggle over the interpretation of the relationship between the religion and politics and the mode of governance within Islam existed even before the birth of Western modernity and its spread among Islamic societies. Muslims from the beginning had multiple interpretations of this relationship between religion and state and how the relation between religion and politics in general was supposed to be. The matter had even reached to wars over the explanations for this relationship, as Dr. Abdul-Ghani Imad shows us in his book “Islamists between the Revolution and the State”

Second: The relationship between politics and religion in the image of the Islamic state is just a historical assumption or an event that occurred and ended in history but not a part of Islam as a religion and belief, exactlylike the church in medieval Europe where it imposed itself on society as a reference granting “divine right” for kings to rule, as one of the origins of the Christian religion.

Third: according to Dr. Makram Abbas, a researcher specialized in political philosophy in the middle ages, in his book “Islam and Politics in the Classical Age”,secularization, or at least a form of secularization, was part of the classical heritage of Islam, and therefore “secularism” cannot be exclusively presentedas a historical achievement and product of the west.

Fourth: Dr. Muhammad Sharif Ferjani, a researcher specialized in political science and comparing religions assured us, that Orientalist judgments that made the link between holiness and authority is exclusively in Islam are wrong, and this is what the letter of “Saint Paul” to the “Corinthians” uncovered for example. According to Ferjani, this letter is an explicit call to obey authority because it is derived from God.

Thus, the link between politics and religion exists in all religions as it was referred to in the joint book “Secularism at the Test of Jewish, Christian and Islamic Fundamentalisms,” written by the two French researchers Caroline Forest and Yamita Vinner and even in the book of Gil Keppel “God’s Revenge, Fundamentalism in the Three Religions”. According to these books,fundamentalisms in Christianity, Islam and Judaism have roughly the same worldview and the same hostility to the idea of separating religion from state.

Fifth: Unlike this remote vision that distinguishes Bernard Lewis and the current sympathetic to Islamism from some of those affiliated with the current of post-colonial societies’ studies, the Mauritanian thinker Mr. Walad Aba analyses in his book “Religion and Identity” three distinct currents in contemporary Islamic thought regarding the issue of the relationship between politics and religion and how this affects the governance mode.First current according to Aba summarizes that relationship in some of its historical forms that prevailed in the caliphate state and the sultanistic state, which was based on the jurisprudential authority and the legal imamate as  institutional system. The second current that seeks for conferring religious legitimacy on the bureaucratic institutional structures of the modern nation state and seeks for correcting its legislative value system, where the state becomes a mere procedural organizing tool, in other words, a human system governed by a system of religious values.

As for the third and last current, it adopts the modern state and the pattern of political rationalization in the modern sense. The state here is the embodiment of common collective values and a tool of social organization that has its own internal logic, which does not contradict any religious or moral perspective. This third trend in particular is not taken into consideration by Western scholars who sympathize with Islamism, under the pretext that those who adopt this trend are minority influenced by Western modernity and are popularly rejected and that those who represent the specificity of Islam are only the political Islam groups who represent Islamism.

To conclude, Islam should not be compared at a specific moment of its development cycle to another culture at a specific moment of its development cycle as well . As Abd al-Jawad Yassin explains to us, in the context of Western Christianity, under pressure from radical developments (economic / social / intellectual), secularism was imposed on the Church, which eventually decided to abandon its historical authority in the public sphere in favor of the idea of ​​a constitutional state. On the other hand, jurisprudential Islam, in its geographical environment, has not yet been subjected to sufficiently radical pressure from economic, social and intellectual development, which may then move in the same direction in its own way.

When a team of Islamism researchers becomes a recording device that repeats the rhetoric sayings of the Muslim Brotherhood

A balanced section of the sympathetic stream to Islamism in Western research and academic circles, under the influence of both sociology and anthropology, says that analyzing the foundational texts to understand the practices and imaginations of Islamists is a shorthand for their reality and is sufficient to see what Islamists say about themselves regarding that they are democratic and that their loyalty is to their national states a for granted fact.

The French researcher “Francois Borga” is considered one of the most prominent pioneers of this trend. In the earlyacquaintance of Borga with this phenomenon through direct interviews and dialogues with some leaders of the Muslim Brotherhood, he came out with an impression, even more so,with a firm belief, that they represent moderation and that they speak on behalf of the majority in the Islamist arena.

In his recent book “Understanding Political Islam”, Borga believes that the differences between one researcher and another are primarily of systematic nature. He also believes the writings of any researcher are determined by the type of his first contact with the phenomenon in question. He applies this idea on some of his fellow French researchers specialized in the study of the Islamism phenomenon, such as “Gil Keppel”, who was first acquainted with the phenomenon through reading the founding texts of the political programs of the Muslim Brotherhood or “Olivier Roy”, who relied on analyzing their declared political slogans.

As for Borga, reducing the reality of Islamism to its founding texts or its declared slogans is a methodological error, and that the analysis of the content of texts and slogans of Islamist movements remains a mere perception of an observer from a far point and from outside the reality of the phenomenon. He also sees that these slogans are not a realistic description for the deep roots of the Islamism.

Therefore, “Burga” believes that direct dialogue in the form of interviews with representatives of Islamism is the only way capable of, for example, to show, that they do not target the application of Sharia or consider it the political constitution of the state, although this is what can be only understood  about the “Islamic” state.Borga criticizes the approaches of “Keppel” and “Roy” for assuming that the founding texts or slogans guide political practices and define the political and social imagination of Islamists and not vice versa.

Indeed, there are contrary facts and observations were missed by “Borga” and by those who belong to this current sympathetic with Islamism, that says analyzing the foundational texts can understands the practices and imaginations of Islamists as a shorthand for their reality (some of these facts demonstrated in my book with Professor at the University of Montreal, “Patrice Browder”, “Political Islam after the Arab Spring … Is it the time of the end of political Islamism?” These observations are:

First: The “experimental” approach of this team of researchers is reduced to a kind of recording and transcription of their oral discourse given during interviews with Islamist leaders, without prior, parallel or eventual reading and analyses to their written foundational texts that they keep learning, memorizing and even sanctifying. In short, the researcher is not a recording device or just a fan who is fond of the subject and the people of his study to repeat what is said without bringing them under the tools of collecting, understanding, interpreting and analyzing information, as what “El Hawari Adi” professor of sociology at the Institute of Political Studies in Lyon in France did when dealing with the Renaissance movement in Tunisia or the Egyptian Wasat Party, for example.

Second: The difference among researchers does not arise only because of the difference between the oral interview and the founding text, both of which are linguistic expressions at the end of the day. What makes the difference is the way the researcher deals with these expressions, so that you will be able to understand in depth the discourses of Islamists through direct interviews. These discourses must first be placed in their contexts, especially the intellectual ones, and then analyzed qualitatively and quantitatively in order to be able to understand its purpose, logic and coherence and to determine the cognitive foundations, background and theoretical frameworks that contributed to discourse formation and which are indispensable for knowing the contents, goals, criteria, space, structure and gender of the discourse.

Third: This team of researchers is usually satisfied with interviews with a small number of leaders of political Islamism, who are trained to address academic researchers and the Western media in an elegant manner that intelligently deals with the concerns of the West.Therefore it is not correct to generalize through them the image about all members of their groups, their affiliates and sympathizers, especially those speak more spontaneously and reveal the link with the hard-line founding text.

In the case of the Muslim Brotherhood, for example, the researcher was not the only one to choose the one with whom the meeting would take place, but the group had a greater role in this regard, as these research meetings usually take place with officials of political contact with the West, who are usually cadres trained to fabricate an open and unpopular speech. These interviewees usually aren’t those who work in the education sector or the da’wah sector directed to the Muslim public in general, whose discourse will of course be different and express the reality of the Brotherhood’s visions and positions.

At the meantime, Researchers from this current rarely met with any of the dissidents who left the group or with the leaders of the group who came to power in countries, like Sudan, and presented destructive models for what is known as the Islamic government (the Front for the Salvation and Omar al-Bashir deposed as a model that lasted for 30 whole years). Therefore, we can say that their interviews and case studies were very selective and not representative, in the statistical sense of the predominant manner in the discourses of the general members of the group, whose speeches are more closed, strict and less tolerant. As a result, these researchers conclude through these interviews, systematically biased, a general explanation they want to Impose on other researchers and politicians to understand the phenomenon of political Islam.

Fourth: this current has never conducted interviews with Islamists to find out their own views about the role that founding texts and slogans play in their daily practices. They are like someone who only puts what he believes on the tongues of the Islamists he meets, so, does the Muslim Brotherhood, for example, agree with the “Borja” assumption that Sharia is not the source of the legitimacy of the political system !! ( remember how the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, upon their arrival to power after the January 25 revolution, overturned their declared agreement with other national forces during Mubarak’s days over the civil state, and their constitution guaranteed a practical application of Sharia’s control over politics by establishing a religious body to which the state would return before making political decisions.)

More explicitly, this team of researchers believes that the religious discourse of the Muslim Brotherhood is merely a rhetorical façade that does not affect their practices? It seems that the “Burga” approach and its current deny two clear facts: Firstly, Muslim Brotherhood has a culture and textual heritage that is completely inconsistent with what they claim. Secondly, Muslim Brotherhood has never said that these texts no longer affect their practices and strategic goals, and they never accepted that anyone else says this about them in front of their true audience in their country, they only accept it if it remains in a closed seminar or book in a Western language.

While “Keppel”, according to Borga, ignores the interaction of the political Islamism discourse with society and its opposition to the ruling regimes in the Arab world, Borga’s trend seems to us as if he insists, without convincing justification, on ignoring and concealing the religious and ideological dimension and its decisive influence on the phenomenon.

In a nutshell, those who say that analyzing the foundational texts to understand the practices and imaginations of Islamists is a shorthand for their reality, does not use an approach that the Islamist phenomenon and its nature impose on the researcher, as much as he works to reduce that phenomenon based on texts established as a vision of the world by a small number of interviews [planned Carefully] with some of its leaders who deliberately use “artificial discourse” specifically directed at the West in order to gain its sympathy and political support.


[1]   DAECH : François Burgat, dir de recherche CNRS   21:10

[2] Wael Saleh, La conception de l’État dans la pensée égyptienne contemporaine. Continuités et ruptures dans l’interprétation des liens entre religion et politique, L’Harmattan, Collection Comprendre le Moyen-Orient, 2017.

[3]   Can the Subaltern Speak? in Cary Nelson and Larry Grossberg, eds. Marxism and the interpretation of Culture (1988).

[4] Enes Bayrakli et Farid Hafez, Islamophobia in Muslim majority Societies, Abingdon-on-Thames, Routledge, 2018, 218 p.


[1] Wael Saleh et Patrice Brodeur L’islam politique à l’ère du post-printemps arabe. Sommes-nous entrés dans l’ère du nécro-islamisme?, Études post-printemps arabe, L’Harmattan, 2017


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