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The Authoritarian Roots of Contemporary Islamist Discourse

Policy Alternatives
The Authoritarian Roots of Contemporary Islamist DiscourseDownload Publication
In this paper, researcher Tariq Azizah argues the excessive and deliberate mixing of religion and politics, as is common in Arab societies, is one of the basic obstacles hindering any serious attempt at democratic transformation, and warns about the persistence of religious references in political projects.
Azizah seeks to deconstruct the artificial set-up between religion and the authoritarian ambitions of Islamist groups and distinguish what is political and historical heritage from what is religious. For the author, the issue is not linked to one group, or to the "wrong application" of religious precepts or the "corruption of the leaders".  Rather, the problem, in essence, lies with any project that mixes religion and politics. For him, these Islamist groups, regardless of their colouring, are working to exploit the power of religion to influence the political choice of the believers.
The increasing role of Islamist movements, and their more radical jihadist versions that emerged during the Arab Spring, have had a negative impact on the direction of change, stalled or disrupted political transition, and sought to establish new authoritarian systems. Many of the foundations on which the ideologies of these groups are based come from Islamic jurisprudence, which was developed under specific historical contexts and conditions. Islamists today find in these foundations support for their vision and project, whether their power theory is based on the "Imamate" as for the Shiites, or the "Caliphate" as for the Sunnis.
Azizah considers that the pursuit of power or work toward the establishment of a new regime is primarily a political action, whatever the means, motives, goals or ideologies used. However, when Islamist groups mix their political projects with religion, they shut the door to the possibility of criticism or political difference, assuming that every criticism directed at them is an insult to religion.
To conclude, Azizah calls for caution when considering the rhetoric of some moderate Islamist movements that reject extremism and speak of "a civil state with an Islamic reference." For him, as long as there is an insistence on a religious reference in political projects, the outcome will lead to a "religious state" in some way. The difference between Islamist movements lies in the priorities and method of achieving their ultimate goal, not in the goal itself.
Photo: Protesters in Douma shouting slogans against Assad and the Islamic State, Syria, March 2017, © EPA.