Islamism in Arab Fiction and Film



‘Islamism’ and associated Anglophone and Francophone signifiers such as ‘Political Islam’, ‘Islamic fundamentalism’, ‘Islamic radicalism’ and ‘intégrisme’, are far from neutral terms. It is impossible to find any agreed definition of the terms amongst the (predominantly western) political scientists, sociologists and historians of religion or theologians who develop and use them. Moreover, many of the people and groups to which such terms are applied in the Arab world also reject them as culturally alien and/or anachronistic: note, for example, that there are no exactly correlative terms in Arabic for ‘Islamism’. For contemporary scholars such as Olivier Roy, it is striking that Islamism does not name an identifiable religious, social or political phenomenon so much as the site of a religio-political problematic or aporia (Roy 2007: 63) which raises numerous methodological questions: Is there an Islamism in the singular? What is the relation between Islam and Islamism? How does Islamism take place within a specifically Arab context? How is Islamism informed by modern political ideologies such as pan-Arabism, Communism, late capitalism and postmodernism? To what extent is it possible to generalise about a phenomenon that develops over almost 100 years, involves both Sunni and Shia groups, stretches from North Africa to South East Asia and is used to name organisations as diverse as the Front Islamique de Salut and its radical offshoots in Algeria, Hizbullah in Lebanon, Hamas in the Palestinian territories, the Refah Partisi in Turkey and such de-territorialised Wahhabist groups as al-Qaeda? In what follows, we do not presume to offer a simple or monolithic definition of Islamism but rather an overview of the contemporary literature together with an outline of our own working terminology.

Historical Overview:

Islamism is generally acknowledged to be a modern phenomenon. It is commonplace for scholars to trace its origins to the establishment of the Muslim Brothers in Egypt in 1928, as an alternative mode of social and political organisation to that proposed by secular nationalists. After the drawing up of modern Arab national boundaries in the Levant and the Mashreq (Arab East), it spread and accrued momentum particularly in relation to the founding of the state of Israel and the Palestinian nekbah (1947). For scholars of the Maghreb, Islamism is generally seen to have emerged in response to the perceived social, economic and political shortcomings of postcolonial governments since the early 1960s. If Islamism is clearly related to nationalism in some contexts (as is the case in the non-Arab Islamic Republic of Iran), in others it is, at least initially, oriented against the politics of the nation state (as in the ideologies of the Front Islamique de Salut and its radical offshoots in Algeria, Hizbullah in Lebanon, or Hamas in the Palestinian territories); in yet others it is denationalised, individualized, global and anti-imperialist (al-Qaeda). In the contemporary sphere, Islamism is at once nationally specific, inflected by different strands of Islam and globalising in its influences and impact – it needs to be understood in terms of complex glocal economies.

Key figures:

Taqiuddin al-Nabhani. Born in Haifa (Palestine) in 1909, he was the founder of the Islamist political party Hizb ut Tahrir. Both parents were Islamic scholars and he graduated from Al-Azhar University and Dar-ul-Ulum College simultaneously. On his return to Palestine, he moved from teaching to the judiciary because he believed that educational curricula were defined by Western colonialist nations; the judiciary, by contrast, practiced Islamic jurisprudence and the Ottoman Islamic laws were still applied. In the Palestinian exodus of 1948 he moved to Syria, but returned to non-occupied Jerusalem as Sharia judge or Qadi in the Court of Appeal. In 1951, he went to Amman, where he held lecturer posts in Islamic Sciences. In 1952/3, he established Hizb ut-Tahrir, the Liberation Party, positioned both against internal corruption and Western colonialist dominance aggravated by the creation of the state of Israel. The Jordanian government immediately banned the party, and its members have been persecuted in Arab states since: al-Nabhani himself was imprisoned and tortured in Iraq in 1973. He died in Beirut in 1977.

Hassan al-Banna. An Egyptian social and Islamist political reformer, best known for founding the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood. Al-Banna was born in 1906 in Mahmudiyya, Egypt; his father was an imam and mosque teacher. He was involved in the Egyptian uprising against British rule in 1919 and launched the Society of the Muslim Brothers in 1928, one of many associations that promoted personal piety and engaged in charitable activities. By the late 1930s, however, and largely to due Al-Banna’s organisational and ideological leadership, the Brotherhood had established branches in every Egyptian province. Al-Banna relied on pre-existing social networks built around mosques, Islamic welfare associations, and neighborhood groups. He confronted a wide range of issues including colonialism, public health, educational policy and the conflict in Palestine. Building on traditional structures and stressing a variety of social issues, the Brotherhood recruited from across the Egyptian social spectrum. It was forcibly disbanded by the government in 1948 due to rumours of a planned coup, and many of its members jailed; shortly thereafter, a Muslim Brother assassinated the Prime Minister. Al-Banna was assassinated by the government in 1949.

Sayyid Qutb. An Egyptian author, educator, and the leading intellectual of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood in the 1950s and 60s. He is best known in the Muslim world for his work on the social and political role of Islam in the modern world. Highly critical of aspects of the Arab world, he also disapproved of Western and particularly American materialism. Two years spent in the USA are thought to have contributed to his radicalism. He joined the Muslim Brotherhood in the early 1950s, becoming editor of its weekly paper and then head of propaganda. After the attempted assassination of Gamal Abd El-Nasser in 1954, a crackdown on the Brotherhood led to Qutb’s imprisonment and torture. In this period, he wrote his most important works, notably a manifesto of political Islam called Ma'alim fi-l-Tariq (Milestones). He was executed by the government in 1966 on charges of plotting to overthrow the state. His radically anti-Western and anti-secular views, known as Qutbism, are an ideological influence on Al-Qaeda.

Islamism and Politics:

For the vast majority of scholars, ‘Islamism’ appears to name the site of a relation between Islamic theology and political ideology, but the precise nature of the relation itself unsurprisingly remains in dispute (Choueri 2010).

First of all, scholars disagree on whether Islamism is driven principally by Islamic theology or by a more secular political ideology. On the one hand, some thinkers see Islamism as a species of ‘Political Islam’ in which Islamic theology requires the implementation of a certain form of political or societal order (Fuller 2003). On the other, many contemporary scholars prefer to see Islamism as a form of ‘Islamic Politics’ where Islamic theology is instrumentalised in order to justify a particular political or ideological programme (Denouex 2002).

Secondly, scholars disagree on the precise political agenda that Islamism pursues and the extent to which, once again, this is theologically or politically determined. To be sure, Islamism is often identified with the project of theologico-political purification or a return to an ideal City State or Caliphate under the rule of Sharia, but it is also clearly driven by nationalist disputes, ideologies and resistance struggles: the Islamic Revolution was both a secular and a religious uprising against the Shah’s Regime, whereas Hamas and Hizbullah both began as resistance movements against the Israeli occupation of Palestine and Lebanon (Saad-Ghorayeb 2002; Roy 2004; Choueri). Finally, recent scholars (Roy 2004) seek to draw a distinction between Islamism and a new set of ‘Post-Islamist’ movements that have come to prominence since the 1990s. According to Roy, it is crucial to distinguish between political Islamism – which he defines as the attempt to build an Islamic state – and post-Islamist Neo-Fundamentalism – a globalised militancy that exists independently of any national political programme: Islamist movements would thus include the Iranian Islamic revolution, Palestine’s Hamas, Algeria’s FIS, Lebanon’s Hizbullah, the Turkish Refah Partisi and the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, whereas the paradigm for Neo-Fundamentalism would be al-Qaeda.

Arabic Terminology:

What words/concepts do Arab intellectuals use to refer to ‘Islamism’? There is no equivalent to the word ‘Islamism’ in Arabic: it can be translated in a number of different ways and its designation appears to be based on one’s position towards the phenomenon. At any rate, the vast majority of the Muslim leaders, thinkers and writers who are popularly identified with ‘Islamism’ in the West simply do not use the term in their abundant writings.

Muslims who were instrumental in creating modern ‘Islamist’ movements refer to each other as ‘Muslims’ and ‘Muslim Brothers’ rather than ‘Islamists’. For example, Hasan al-Bana, the founder of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, uses the terms al-Islam al-Shamil [Self-Sustained Islam] and al-Islam al-Hanif [The True Islam] to discuss Islam in his book Rasa’il [Tracts] (al-Bana 1978).

However, a number of Muslim authors do use Islamiyya to designate Islamism and Islamiyyun to refer to Islamists. One example is the Sudanese Hasan al-Turabi (b.1932) who uses Islamiyya and Islamiyyun in his book Al-Islam wa al-Hukm [Islam and Government]. Whilst the literal translation of Islamiyya is Islamic, al-Turabi employed it to designate ‘political Muslims for whom Islam is the solution, Islam is religion and government and Islam is the Constitution and the law’ (al-Turabi 2003: 49).

Other Muslim and non-Muslim writers use the term al-Islam al Siyasi [Political Islam] and al-Tayyar al-Islami [Islamic Movement] to designate Islamism and Islamist movements while an Islamist is said to belong to a tayyar Islami.

Finally, secular authors frequently use the terms Islamawiya and Islamawi to speak of Islamism and Islamists. Such terms are, however, problematic for Islamists, for whom it implies an untenable secular worldview that seeks to impose a false opposition between the religious and the political. These Arabic words are also perceived as ‘Orientalist’ and ‘Western’ signifiers loaded with negative connotations. In a similar vein, secular authors and intellectuals also refer to Islamism and Islamists with the terms Usuliyya, Usuli and Usuliyyun, which designate fundamentalism and fundamentalist(s), and Tayyar Usuli (fundamentalist group/party).


In the light of its contested history and meaning, this Project defines Islamism operationally by tracking the multi-faceted ways (both verbal and non-verbal) in which it is deployed in Arab Fiction and Film:

1. Islamism is signified verbally through the use of certain key signifiers:

• ‘Islamism’ and ‘Islamists’ [Islamiyya, Islamiyyun, Islamawiyya];
• ‘Political Islam’ and ‘Islamic Political Parties’ [al- Islam al Siyasi, al-tayyar al-Islami];
• ‘Islamic Fundamentalism’ and ‘Fundamentalist(s)’: [Usuliyya, Usuli (singular), Usuliyun (plural)];
• ‘Muslim Brotherhood’ [al-jama’ al-Islamiyya]
• ‘Religious’ [Mutadayin (singular), Mutadayinun (plural), Multazim (singular), Multazimun (Plural)];
• ‘Martyr(s)’ [Shaheed (singular), Shuhada’ (plural)]
• ‘Heretic(s)’ [Kafir (singular), Kufar (plural), Mulhid (singular), Mulhidun (plural)]

2. Islamism is signified visually through the deployment of certain key images, tropes or markers, often related to dress and other aspects of self-presentation:

• the hijab;
• the niqab;
• the chador;
• the jilbab;
• the beard;

3. Islamism is signified paratextually through its deployment and that of cognate terms in book blurbs, author/director interviews, reviews, advertising and promotion material, etc.

4. Islamism is signified contextually through association with particular social or political contexts in which Islamist individuals and groups are active such as Algeria, Egypt, the Palestinian Territories and Southern Lebanon.

Further Reading

Asad, Talal, Formations of the Secular: Christianity, Islam and Modernity (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2003)

Al-Bana, Hasan, Rasa’il [Five Tracts of Hasan al-Banna] trans, by Charles Wendel (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1978)

Choueri, Youssef M., Islamic Fundamentalism: The Story of Islamist Movements (London: Continuum, 3rd edition, 2010)

Dabashi, Hamid, Theology of Discontent: The Ideological Foundation of the Islamic Revolution in Iran (New York: Transaction, 2nd edition 2005)

Denoeux, Guliain, ‘The Forgotten Swamp: Navigating Political Islam’, Middle East Policy 9: 2 (2002)

Esposito John and Tamimi, Azam, eds., Islam and Secularism in the West (London: Hurst, 2000)

Fuller, Graham, The Future of Political Islam (New York: Palgrave, 2003)

Moaddel, Mansoor, Islamic Modernism, Nationalism and Fundamentalism (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2005)

Roy,Olivier, Globalised Islam: The Search for a New Umma (London: Hurst, 2004).

Roy, Olivier, Secularism Confronts Islam (New York: Columbia University Press, 2007)

al-Turabi, Hasan, Al-Islam wa al-Hukm [Islam and Government] (London: Al-Saqi, 2003)

Saad-Ghorayeb, Amal, Hizbu’llah: Politics and Religion (London: Pluto Press, 2002)

White, Jenny, Islamist Mobilisation in Turkey: A Study in Vernacular Politics (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2002)

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