Veiling the Gains of Revolution: Political Islam in North Africa

Published November 14, 2012 by Chris Beck

The revolutions that have toppled longstanding North African autocratic regimes have created a power vacuum, with all manner of political groups rushing to fill it. In this unfolding scenario, it has been the Islamists, such as the Ennahda party in Tunisia, and the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, that have had the most success.  The Islamists, who have managed to operate covertly and remain organized despite government persecution in the region for decades, have resurfaced and are well placed to take advantage of revolutions started by others.  These Islamist groups pretend to offer solutions to social, economic and political problems based on their own interpretation of Islam.  Their objectives are justified by religious concepts, and their philosophical and theological roots go back centuries, with modern Islamism emerging in the early 20th century.   Although Islamists may make use of the ballot box, their ultimate objective is to build a state based on religious law, and their belief that authority derives ultimately from God rather than from the consent of the people may indicate that their commitment to democracy is only superficial. Instead of proposing comprehensive solutions for the regions many real problems, Islamists support the recreation of a glorified past utopia.  Further, North African peoples in Tunisia and Egypt have created new opportunities for themselves by overthrowing the autocratic regimes that ruled their countries for decades.  However, holding their first free elections ever, these countries saw a majority of voters  choosing parties whose ultimate goal is to establish a theocracy, not a democracy.  Revolutions launched for nonreligious causes are in danger of being hijacked by Islamists, who have taken advantage of the elimination of the formerly repressive regimes to take center stage, through the manipulation of religious concepts, use of social welfare, and support from rich petro-monarchies from the Gulf.  Islamists, acquiring increasing political power after the revolutions, are serious contenders and cannot be ignored.

Islamist Ideology and its Theological Underpinnings

The Islamists’ ultimate goal is to recreate a society modeled on the original small Muslim community of believers in the Arabian Peninsula in the seventh century.  They challenge the existing social and political order on religious grounds, and declare their political opponents to be unbelievers, and therefore unfit to rule. ‘True Muslims’ are needed to replace the ‘infidels’, and the Islamists believe that they should guide their respective people towards the instauration of a state governed by religious law (sharia). Islamists use Muslim religious concepts to justify their ends.  For example, Islamic thinking includes the concept of walaya (guardianship of one over another).  God, as man’s creator, has walaya over humans and granted sharia (religious law) for the benefit of the people.[1]  The Koran (5:55) states that “in the name of God the Merciful, the Compassionate, only God is your wali.”  Thus, secular states should not usurp God’s authority over people.  Walis (custodians; people with walaya over others), are considered especially close to God, and for the Islamists, they are the ones who would be the appropriate rulers of a state.

Muslims are meant to spread their beliefs by dawa (proselytizing), but Islamists argue that this is of paramount importance, and can be imposed by coercion.  The Koran contains an injunction stating that there is no compulsion in Islam [“Let there be no compulsion in religion.” (2:256)[2]], yet radical Islamists set out to impose their religious views on others, whether through violence or by gaining control of the state.   Other Koranic verses are less tolerant then 2:256, and where these ideas clash, Islamists invoke naskh, the process of abrogation whereby the chronologically earlier verses are superseded by the later verses.[3]  This practice comes from the Koran 2.106 (Whatever communications We abrogate or cause to be forgotten, We bring one better than it or like it. Do you not know that Allah has power over all things?)

The concept of jihad, which means, the struggle on the path to God, (both an inner struggle and an outer struggle against the enemies of Islam) takes on an expressly aggressive significance for Islamists.  Taqi al-Din ibn Tamiyyah (1263-1328), an early Salafist theologian, combined hisba with takfir to justify Muslims launching a jihad against rulers of Muslim states who did not rule on the basis of his narrowly interpreted sharia principles.[4]

Hisba (verification) refers to ensuring that people follow God’s laws, and stems from Koranic injunctions to “enjoin what is good and forbid what is wrong.” (3.110). Takfir is the practice of one Muslim declaring another to be an apostate, which is considered a serious crime in Islam (4.115),  Muslim leaders who do not practice hisba are, in Islamist thinking, unfit to rule. For the Islamists, the struggle for God becomes the struggle against the kuffar, whether they are Arab autocrats, the West accused of domination, or the Jews.

Sharia, (law) is the all-encompassing code of ethics dealing with all manner of public and personal behaviors, as determined by Islamic legal scholars.  Sharia, derived from both the Koran and the Sunnah (the ways of the prophet Mohammed), can be interpreted literally (by Salafists) or, through the practice of ijtihad , study and interpretation, as advocated by Islamic reformists, and thus adapted to diverse geographic and historic situations.  Islamists wish to implement sharia as the basis for a country s’ legal system, ushering in a theocratic state.  Unfortunately, Sharia, because of discriminatory interpretation by patriarchal leaders throughout history, opposes equal rights for men and women[5] (and for Muslim and non-Muslims), and is therefore incompatible with modern democratic principles, such as the equality of all before the law.

Historical Forerunners 

Modern Islamism, like many other political and/or social movements, has historical antecedents. They date back several centuries, and are linked to the socio-political, and cultural crises that the Muslim empires and civilizations faced throughout history.   Unlike the early Muslims, who made great use of, and expanded, Hellenistic philosophical and scientific heritage to the point that from approximately 800 AD to 1100 AD, the Muslim world, not Europe, was the most important center of science and culture worldwide, the precursors to today’s Islamism reject importing Western ideas and values. Modern Islamism was launched in Arabia when Muhammed Ibn Abdul al-Wahhab (1703-1792), itinerant preacher and theologian, began to spread his literalist interpretation of Islamic scriptures. He believed that Muslims had abandoned their religion and reverted to jahilyya, the state of ignorance that existed before the inception of Islam. He called for a return to the fundamentals of Islam; the way it was practiced by the first Muslims.  He believed that any later additions to the interpretation and practice of their religion should be rejected to avoid damaging Islam.[6]  Today, Wahhabism, is not limited to Arabia, and is promoted throughout the Muslim world, fueled by Saudi petro-dollars.

Rashid Rida, (1865-1935) another influential thinker and eventual admirer of Al-Wahhab in the 20th century, also called for the extirpation of foreign influences on Islam. Rida, like Sayyid Qutb in the 20th century, is an ardent supporter of the Caliphate modeled on the earliest Islamic governments in the Arabian Peninsula, led by the Rightly Guided Caliphs. Rida’s ideas have been central to the development of political Islam to the present-day. Moreover, he advocated political Islam against European colonialism.

Emergence of Modern Islamism and its Proponents

The Islamist movements presently making headway in post-revolutionary North Africa trace their origins to Hasan al-Banna’s (1906-1949) Muslim Brotherhood, and Abul Ala Maududi’s (1903-1979) Jamaat-I Islami (founded in Egypt in 1928 and Pakistan in 1948, respectively.)[7]   The Muslim Brotherhood, active in Egypt and elsewhere after years of repression, coined the still used Islamist slogans ‘The Prophet is our leader. Qur’an is our law. Jihad is our way. Dying in the way of Allah is our highest hope.’[8]  Their original mantra has not changed, nor does it include any mention of modern democratic pluralism.  For the Brothers and others like them, the Koran has a solution to everything, and so an Islamic state is the clear answer to the problems of Muslims.  The Koran and the Sunnah contained instructions for living a perfect life in accordance with divine principles, and applying Islam to all areas of life would renew Egypt.

Egypt, was under British control from 1882 to 1922.  Hasan al-Banna, a schoolteacher, invoked the concept of jihad to encourage the struggle against Britain, but also to foster the spiritual strength of Muslims.  One of the original functions of the Brotherhood was to provide social welfare to Egyptian working people.  Zakat (charity) is one of the five pillars of Islam, and consequently the Brotherhood has a clear religious obligation to practice it, but the scoring of political points cannot be overlooked.  By offering social services, the Brotherhood earned the support of the poor, became very popular, and membership in al-Banna’s organization boomed, reaching over one million in its first ten years of existence.[9]  The ideology promoted by al-Banna would spread beyond Egypt, conveyed by students from other Muslim nations studying at Cairo University, and returning to their homelands after being infused with Islamist thinking.[10]  The Brotherhood adopted a dual approach to re-Islamize Egypt.  They combined a grassroots movement to proselytize and promote piety with political pressure placed on leaders to incorporate sharia principles in the legal system.[11] Operating underground for a number of years and well organized, the Muslim Brotherhood has reemerged in post-Mubarak Egypt in a prime position to steer the country towards Islamism.  Corruption and nepotism have been major problems in Egypt, and the Brotherhood, citing their religious values; present themselves as immune to such tendencies.

Another key thinker in the modern Islamist movement was Sayyid Qutb, an Egyptian author (1906-1966).  Qutb opposed nationalism as antithetical to the unity of the Umma (Muslim community), and believed that Islam should be the unifying factor for Muslims.[12]  Qutb, echoing Abdul-Wahhab, believed that Muslims had returned to jahilyya.  He called upon the young to create a new global Umma, and employed populist rhetoric designed for mass consumption.  Qutb’s writings espoused themes that were even more radical then the Muslim Brotherhood’s.  Where the Brotherhood wanted to create an Islamic state through reform, Qutb endorsed violent revolution against the enemies of Islam.  Sayyid Qutb shunned the West for being too materialistic, an accusation he extended to the majority of Arab regimes. Qutb was executed in 1966, but his influence survived.

Although today some Islamist groups (such as Tunisia’s Islamic Tendency Movement, now called al-Nahda), support democratic pluralism, al Banna and his followers don’t.  All of them (except Turkey’s AKP) maintain private militias.  The democratic process (if they engage in it at all) is just a means to an end.  The goal of both nonviolent Islamists and the jihadists is, in the end, the creation of a religious state.   For them, authority is derived from God, and so only a ruler who governs in accordance with Islamic principles is legitimate. Although Islamists may use the language of democracy, closer inspection of their platform and practices calls their sincerity into question.  In Tunisia, for instance, Rached Ghannouchi, co-founder of Ennahda, claims that “all citizens of the Islamic state are equal before the law, both in their rights and duties, including non-Muslims,”[13]  but he then goes on to say that certain key posts such as the presidency are reserved for Muslims.[14]  Such a state that draws on sharia as the basis for its laws and relies on Islamic scholars to ensure that they are halal (permissible) has an inherent bias against non-Muslims, regardless of what tolerant language may be employed by Islamists.

Who constitutes this movement?

Socio-political movements must draw from more than a niche group in society in order to be politically successful, and so the Islamists have forged a diverse coalition.  Islamists are rarely members of the ulama (Islamic scholars), and only Iranian Shi’a Islam is controlled by clerics.   For its cadres, Islamism drew much of its support from the emerging urban educated class.  They published their tracts on campuses, and battled (successfully) against Marxists and other leftists groups for the attention of the student body.  Often, Islamists are the first in their family to attend college, but there were simply not enough jobs for them after graduation. In North Africa, the few jobs available were taken by those who, unlike the Islamists, were schooled in the French language. The followers of Islamism were largely rural migrants, or first or second generation city dwellers. They were mostly uprooted, alienated, at times unemployed, young men, in search of reassuring values. Starting in the 1980s, Islamism began to swing towards fundamentalism.  Funding for education in some countries of the Maghreb declined in the early 1980s.[15]   Where once the movement drew upon dissatisfied college graduates, the new recruits often had no higher education.

Islam as Political Identity

The newly independent nations of Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, Libya, and Egypt had gained their freedom from Europe, but their identities were not clearly defined, as they had to deal with the socially and culturally damaging impacts of European colonization.  One attempt at creating a new political identity was Gamel Abdel Nasser’s (1918-1970) pan-Arabism, which combined Arab nationalism with socialism, and saw Egypt and Syria merge into the United Arab Republic (UAR).  Although Nasser himself remained popular, Israel’s victory in the Six Day War over the UAR and Jordan dealt a crippling blow to pan-Arabism.   With Arab nationalism on the way out, and the discrediting of socialism, (culminating in the collapse of the Soviet Union), as well as the relative failure of statist economic policies in the North African countries of Algeria and Tunisia, the door was open for a new ideology. Islamism stepped in to fill the void left by the failures of the aforementioned policies and ideologies.[16]  In Tunisia, for example, Islamist leader Rached Ghannouchi was incensed by the promotion of secularism by the state, and cited such anti-religious laws as his chief motivation for promoting Islamism.[17]  Islamists possess their own ideas as to what identity society should adopt, and  Article XVIII of Ennahda’s manifesto, for instance, supports the promotion of Muslim (in fact, Islamist) identity for Tunisia.


Islamists, as discussed above, are committed to building an Islamic state, either through evolutionary or revolutionary change.   They interpret Islam in a way that has an expressly political nature, and draw upon the ideas of a number of influential Muslim thinkers.  The followers are typically drawn from the newly urban lower classes, with the leadership made up of various professionals.  Some are outright hostile to democratic pluralism, and others, in spite of their rhetoric, have questionable dedication to promoting democracy.  North African nations have real problems, including poverty and corruption, which require genuine solutions.  Ennahda, for instance, has not managed to cure Tunisia’s economic woes, which have only worsened since the revolution.[18]  Islamist moral crusading is not what the region needs to revitalize itself.  Tunisia, Libya, and Egypt have thrown off their old autocratic rulers, giving them an opportunity to create functioning democratic states.  However, it is the Islamists who have performed the best in the post revolution elections.  The imposition of sharia as understood by Islamists would nullify the victories against tyranny achieved by ordinary North Africans in the past two years.   One of the great triumphs of the modern world was the separation of religion and politics by those who recognized how detrimental to liberty theocracy is. Egypt’s new president, Mohammed Morsi, has reiterated his party’s (the Muslim Brotherhood) slogan,[19] demonstrating that despite taking part in elections, they have not renounced theocracy.  The retrograde political goals of Islamism make mockery of the sacrifices against despotism borne by participants in the Arab Spring, and it is far from certain that the peoples of North Africa are ready to trade a secular autocracy for a religious one.

Chris Beck received his B.A in History at the University of Maryland – College Park, Class of 2012.


Aboul-Enein, Youssef H. Militant Islamist Ideology: Understanding the Global Threat. Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute, 2010. Print.

Burgat, François, and William Dowell. The Islamic Movement in North Africa. [Austin]: Center for Middle Eastern Studies, University of Texas at Austin, 1993. Print.

Ḥāmidī, Muḥammad Al-Hāshimī. The Politicisation of Islam: A Case Study of Tunisia. Boulder, CO: Westview, 1998. Print.

Ḥarūb, Khālid. Political Islam: Context versus Ideology. London: Saqi, 2010. Print.

Ibn, Warraq. Why the West Is Best: A Muslim Apostate’s Defense of Liberal Democracy. New York: Encounter, 2011. Print.

Kepel, Gilles. Jihad: The Trail of Political Islam. Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 2002. Print.

Kerr, Malcolm H. Islamic Reform; the Political and Legal Theories of Muḥammad ʻAbduh and Rashīd Riḍā,. Berkeley: University of California, 1966. Print.

Roy, Olivier. The Failure of Political Islam. Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 1994. Print.

Tibi, Bassam. Islamism and Islam. New Haven: Yale UP, 2012. Print.

“Wahhabi (Islamic Movement).” Encyclopedia Britannica Online. Encyclopedia Britannica, n.d. Web. (accessed 7/10/2012) <;.

“Ikhwanweb :: The Muslim Brotherhood Official English Website.” ‘MUSLIM BROTHERHOOD’  An Ideological Protectorate of Saudi Arabia? N.p., n.d. Web. 26 July 2012. <;.

“Center for Muslim-Jewish Engagement.” Center for Muslim-Jewish Engagement. N.p., n.d. Web. 26 July 2012. <;.

“One Year After the Revolution: The Tunisian Economy Is in the Red.” Al Akhbar English. N.p., n.d. Web. 26 July 2012. <;.

“The New Egyptian President Reportedly Said ‘Jihad Is Our Path And Death In The Name Of Allah Is Our Goal’” Business Insider. N.p., n.d. Web. 15 Aug. 2012. <;.

[1] Kerr, 20-1.

[2] Even though the very next verse threatens disbelievers with hellfire. [2.257]” Allah is the guardian of those who believe. He brings them out of the darkness into the light; and (as to) those who disbelieve, their guardians are Shaitans who take them out of the light into the darkness; they are the inmates of the fire, in it they shall abide.”

[3] Aboul-Enen, 28

[4] Meijer, 48.

[5] Ibn Warraq, 210.

[7] Roy 35

[9] Aboul-enen 116.

[10] Kamal Helbawy, The Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt: Historical Evolution and Future Prospects, quoted in Political Islam: Context versus Ideology, 69

[11] Roy 41.

[12] Kepel 25.

[13] al-Hurriyyat al-’amma fi al-Dawla al-Islamiyya, quoted in Hamdi 108.

[14] Hamdi 116.

[15] Roy 51

[16] Hroub 16.

[17] Hamdi 12.

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