The New Political Islam: Human Rights, Democracy and Justice


Editorial note: This blog post is based on Dr. Karagiannis’ new book on The New Political Islam: Human Rights, Democracy and Justice.

The rise of political Islam is a modern phenomenon characterized by heterogeneity and complexity. It can best be described as a social movement embodied by three generations: the Islamist nationalists, the Islamist globalists, and the Islamist communitarians. Each one of them had or currently has its own scale of engagement with the Muslim world. Islamist nationalists (e.g. the Afghan Mujahidin) fought for liberation from foreign or despotic rule in localized struggles. In spite of their pan-Islamic rhetoric, they were confined within the national borders. Thus, the early political Islam was localist in its approach. The Islamist globalists (e.g. the Al Qaeda of Osama bin Laden) attempted to confront the West throughout the world in the name of the ummah (i.e. the totality of believers). Their strategy and approach was globalist.

This book focuses on the third generation of Islamists who represent Muslim communities within and beyond national borders. Their imagined community is composed of pious Muslims, whose loyalty and identity is determined by their adherence to a particular version of Islamic authenticity. The list of adversaries now includes Western governments, Arab regimes, secularists, and other denominations. It is an all-out confrontation against those who are perceived deviant or hostile. Its adherents are far less ambitious than their globalist predecessors who did not achieve their grandiose aims. However, the new Islamists are not against globalization per se. In fact, they have taken advantage of global processes to achieve their local aims.

What mostly differentiates Islamist communitarians from the other two is that they have functioned as glocalizers of universal ideas and norms. In this way, they have contributed to the particularization of Islamism. I argue that the new political Islam is represented by three agents of glocalization: the activists, the politicians, and the militants. These glocalizers initiate the process of adoption and adaptation of global ideas, norms, and practices across time and space.

The glocalization of political Islam has been happening for several years. It is the outcome of broader developments, such as the post-9/11 notion of pan-Islamism, the social media revolution, and the fragmentation of Muslim identities, especially after the Arab Spring revolutions. The existence of glocalization alone does not explain the rise of the new political Islam. The missing link is a process of social construction that links the global with the local through cognitive schemata that are known as master frames. Social movements adopt those master frames that resonate with the culture and situation of potential sympathizers. Master frames are usually transmitted through the media, conversations, speeches, slogans, and visual representations. In this context, I make three main claims concerning the new generation of Islamists.

First, I argue that human rights are not only a fundamental set of rights and freedoms for individuals but also a powerful master frame. The master frame of human rights was first used by African American activists in the United States in the early postwar period. Islamist activists in Europe and elsewhere have increasingly depended on this master frame to justify actions and promote aims. They have portrayed Muslims as victims of discrimination and racism who deserve demonstrations of solidarity.

Second, I maintain that the global idea and practice of democracy has been used by several parties and groups as a master frame to mobilize support and wage a political struggle. In particular, the anticommunist revolutions of 1989 in East Europe appropriated the democracy master frame. Islamist politicians have sought change from within the system and have largely advocated consensual politics. Turkey’s AKP, Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood, and Tunisia’s al-Nahda have attempted the blending of Islamic and some democratic values.

Third, I argue that justice is a universal idea that Islamist militants have utilized as a master frame. Both Shia and Sunni groups have employed justice as a master frame because it can mobilize Muslims and legitimize their sectarian cause. For instance, the Sunni militants of ISIS have embraced justice as a master frame and have attempted to apply it locally. In this way, they could defend their actions in Syria and Iraq as a justice-seeking quest sanctioned by Sharia.

The use of human rights, democracy, and justice master frames shows that political Islam is not that different from other social movements. However, the application of these cognitive schemata is not always a well-defined exercise. Islamist activists have often instrumentalized human rights in the name of pursuing a Sharia-based justice. Some Islamist politicians have viewed respect for human rights, however they define them, as a necessary prerequisite for the democratization of authoritarian regimes and the creation of a just society. And Islamist militants have sought justice to safeguard collective rights.

Since political Islam is a diverse movement, a monolithic treatment of Islamists is not the most suitable approach. Liberal democracies can relatively easily formulate a strategy vis-a-vis militants, but it is more difficult when it comes to those who eschew violence. Islamist activists and politicians now use concepts and norms that the Western world cherishes. The new political Islam is a movement of movements that has been susceptible to changes and influences like the rest of the world. And it is here to stay.

Image: The Great Mosque, Damascus – Syria, via Wikimedia.

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