It works as an analytical umbrella under which political analysts lump various forces that claim to be using historical Islamic texts and traditions to achieve modern political goals.
One is not quite sure exactly when the term Political Islam was invented, but there is agreement among many academics, studying politics in the Muslim world that the word most probably emerged in the 1940s in Europe to define anti-colonial movements that described themselves to be religious/Islamic in orientation.
Though it might have some roots in anti-colonial movements that emerged among the Muslims of India and Arabia in the 19th century, Political Islam is basically a 20th century phenomenon. Its first main expression is believed to be Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood that was formed in 1927.
Even though as a political tendency, Political Islam (to analysts) covers a wide range of Islamic political movements involving different sects, sub-sects, nationalities and leftist, as well as rightist rhetoric and narratives, it is the commonalities in these varied movements that makes analysts study and define them as a single ideological entity that they call Political Islam.
So what are the basic, commonly held aspects of Political Islam?
• Reaction against foreign (especially Western) political and cultural influences in Muslim societies.
• Offering political and social alternatives to replace Western political concepts and social values.
• The alternatives are based on an understanding of history, society, economics and society culled from modern-day interpretations of a (largely imagined) ‘golden age of Islam’.
• Adoption of modern technology because it does not have any particular values attached to it and can thus be tagged and used for the promotion of Islamic values.
• Introducing and infusing what are believed to be Islamic precepts of economics and politics.
Till about the late 1960s, movements associated with classical Political Islam were largely intellectual pursuits with limited political influence.
Nevertheless, they were seen with suspicion, even by those movements and groups that adopted the main aspects of Political Islam but fused them with leftist ideologies.
Thus, during the Cold War the central theological and political tussle in most Muslim countries was not exactly between ‘Islamists’ and secularists, or between religious political groups and communists/Marxists.
The main conflict was between the rightest expressions of Political Islam and the ideology’s leftist versions.
The rightist side produced tendencies like ‘Islamic Fundamentalism,’ while the leftist sides emerged with concepts like ‘Islamic Socialism,’ ‘Ba’ath Socialism’ and (to a certain extent), ‘Arab Nationalism.’
Consequently, during the Cold War, the rightest expressions of Political Islam were backed and supported by Western powers and Arab monarchies, mainly due to the fact that the leftist sides of the ideology had moved into what (during the Cold War) was called the ‘Soviet camp.’
Though the rightist sides were repressed by Muslim regimes that were operating from the left flanks of Political Islam, the right-wing of Political Islam had by and large failed to attract any worthwhile mass support.
However, things in this respect began to change between the late 1960s and 1980s. The right-wing expressions and groups of Political Islam experienced a surge especially after the defeat of the Egyptian and Syrian armies and air force at the hands of their Israeli counterparts in 1967.
Then the bankrolling of the anti-Soviet Afghan Jihad in Afghanistan by the US, Saudi Arabia and Pakistan in the 1980s also became one of the catalysts that triggered the shifting of political and social influence in many Muslim countries from left-wing Political Islam to its rightest expressions.
The ‘Afghan jihad’ also added a more militant dimension to right-wing Political Islam. It reached a nadir in the late 1980s after the Afghan conflict resulted in a stalemate and the Soviet forces in Afghanistan had to pull out.
In the early 1990s, the militant expressions of the ideology began to pull away from the orbit of its former backers (US, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan), and tried to trigger ‘Islamic revolutions’ in various Muslim countries.
Their methods of creating chaos through bombings antagonised the regimes that had formerly backed them but now found themselves under attack.
The revolutions failed to materialise, but the bombings continued. Frustrated, the militants found themselves bordering on taking nihilistic action that has caused the deaths of thousands of civilians in countries like Pakistan, Indonesia, Yemen, Iraq, Nigeria, Somalia and even Turkey.
The more classical expressions of right-wing Political Islam have tried to repair the damage by getting involved in the democratic process in countries like Pakistan, Egypt, Tunisia, Indonesia, Sudan, and Turkey.