Political Islam

Neo-Islamism as an Emerging Phenomenon

Tarek Chamkhi[1]

Perth (Australia),  May 20, 2105, (Alochonaa): As the term neo-Islamism is rarely used within the academic context, in journalism the term remains vague and ambiguous. Robin Wright (2012b, 9), however, insightfully described neo-Islamists as:

…more flexible [than other traditional forms of Islamism], informed, and mature in their political outlook. For them sharia is about values, civilization, and political context. Neo-Islamists are seeking the ultimate objectives of sharia but without bonding each situation to a certain religious text. They believe that Islam is dynamic and not a set of fixed rules and tenets, but rather an organic belief system that can adapt to or live with the times. Neo-Islamists can be progressive and, on some issues, even liberal. [The] Neo-Islamists trust the reform scholars.


Wright’s characterisation provides a description of neo-Islamist values and some of their activities rather than delivering a precise definition or a method of distinguishing it from other types of Islamism.

In a recent paper, Roy (2012c) used the word ‘new Islamists’ to describe the old Islamist parties that are facing a new era of transition – moving from illegality under the old regimes to power – noting the enormous changes in ideology and day to day politics:

The new Islamist brand will increasingly mix technocratic modernism and conservative values. The movements that have entered the political mainstream cannot now afford to turn their backs on multiparty politics for fear of alienating a significant portion of the electorate that wants stability and peace, not revolution (Roy 2012c, 18).


Within this context, Gerges (2013, 391) observed that the Islamist parties are slowly moving away from their traditional agenda of establishing an authoritarian Islamic state and imposing Islamic laws, “to a new focus that is centered on creating a ‘civil Islam’ that permeates society and accepts political pluralism”. The Islamist parties are increasingly becoming ‘service’ parties concerned mainly with the provision of social services and local public goods. Gerges added that “the Turkish model, [that of Justice and Development Party (Adalet ve Kalkinma Partisi, AKP] with the religiously observant provincial bourgeoisie as its kingpin and a pattern of linkage with the business classes and market liberalism, also acts as a reminder that Islam and capitalism are mutually reinforcing and compatible” (Gerges 2013, 391).

While the Arab neo-Islamists were deeply affected and, to some extent, stunned by the First Gulf War (then by the Iraq and Afghan Wars post-9/11), Turkish neo-Islamists and others in Indonesia, Malaysia and elsewhere responded pragmatically to their local political challenges (Tomsa 2012; Bin Mohamed Osman 2011). Turkish neo-Islamists constantly improved their methods and political performance over the last thirty years, but the landmark event that produced the most dramatic changes was the 1997 Turkish military coup that ousted Necmettin Erbakan’s (1926-2011) pro-Islamist government. Since then, neo-Islamists have embraced democratisation, with or without the ‘Islamic’ label. Emerging democratic tendencies and pragmatism have placed Turkey’s neo-Islamists in a better position today to participate and rule in a free, democratic society than the traditional Islamism of the 1970s and 1980s (Ergun 2012; Chamkhi 2014; Menderes 2006; Cavdar 2006).

More precisely, this neo-Islamism can be traced back to the 1990s, to the Sudanese Islamist leader Hassan al-Turabi, (1932-) who influenced other MB leaders and activists in the region, including Rached Ghanouchi, (1942-) the founder of the Tunisian Ennahda. Ghanouchi admitted the influence of the Sudanese Islamic movement on Ennahda ideology, especially its pragmatism and favoring of the participation of women within the movement and wider society (Ghanouchi 2011e).

On this tendency towards pragmatism, Gerges (2013, 392) noted that:

…increasing evidence shows that the balance of social forces among Islamists has shifted toward pragmatists. It is a generational shift that favors technocrats and professionals, such as engineers, dentists, doctors, attorneys, and teachers, who are open-minded and reformist, less obsessed with dogmas, identity, and culture wars, and more willing to build governing coalitions with ideological opponents, whether they are non Muslim, liberal, or secular. For example Ennahda in Tunisia prefers to form alliances with liberals and leftists, not with the ultraconservative Salafis.


The earliest experiences of ‘Islamic governance’ (apart from the June 1989 Sudanese coup d’état led secretly by Omar Bechir and Hassan al-Turabi) involved the Turkish counterpart establishing the first modern Islamist-secularist power sharing arrangement. The Welfare Party (Refah Partisi, or RP), headed by the father of Turkish modern Islamism, Erbakan,[2] lasted one year (1996-1997) before the Turkish army and secular elite ousted the government and thereafter demolished the RP. Shock and political failure led the way to a younger leader, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, the successful mayor of Istanbul, to review the coalition’s methods and pave the way for Turkey’s official version of neo-Islamism, the AKP, which has proven to be the most successful version to date[3].

Professional pragmatic young Islamists such as Erdoğan played the Islamism versus secularism game in a new way. Erdoğan refused to be called Islamist or neo-Islamist, preferring instead to be called neo-secularist or simply conservative Muslim, and advocated a neo-secularism that does not contradict Islam[4] (Kuru 2013; Yilmaz 2012; Taşpınar 2012).

Erdoğan has successfully avoided the ‘Islamism’ label and its disastrous legal consequences, whereby Turkish laws and the Turkish Constitutional Court may prohibit Turkish politicians from practicing politics or establishing any political party on religious grounds. Erdoğan’s AKP denies being an Islamist or neo-Islamist party, despite Erdoğan’s close ties with MB movements in the Arab world, his support for their causes, and the provision of logistics for conferences, academic support, and economic and commercial agreements with newly elected governments post the Arab Spring, particularly in Tunisia and Egypt.[5]

The concept of secularism, however, varies significantly. As recently as 2008, the AKP itself was defined by the majority in Turkey’s Constitutional Court as being ‘anti-secular’ and only narrowly escaped a move to have it shut it down on those grounds (Kuru 2013).

While it is difficult to compare the Tunisian Ennahda Party with AKP due to historical differences and experiences in the modern battle between Islamism and secularism (Torelli 2012), leaders like Rashid Ghanouchi believe that Ennahda will take the path of AKP and will achieve the same success. A number of Arab MB intellectuals like Ghanouchi, Yussef Qaradawi and Salim al-Awaa, have gradually transformed the Islamists’ definitions of the state, citizenship, the Islamic nation and political participation in the last twenty years, and sometimes, readjusted their goals accordingly. Such a transformation in ideology is necessary to align the party with the new religious youth who were the instruments of change in the Tunisian and Egyptian revolutions, and to encourage them to join or vote for the party in their first free elections.

It may be said that neo-Islamism after the Arab Spring has turned out to be a mixture of ‘post-Islamist’ activism at the level of the individual and old-fashioned Islamic parties reinvented by the latest ideological developments and tactical choices. Theoretically, a post-Islamist could be a neo-Islamist, but the reverse is not true. Neo-Islamists, in particular their leaders and ideologues, could not be post-Islamists without giving up the idea of implementing sharia, their political affiliations and the Islamic movement as a historic legacy.

In this sense, neo-Islamism is more tactical than strategic and less likely to constitute a new ideology. Although it contains some ideological shifts, the changes are not fundamental. Neo-Islamists remain faithful towards the dream of creating of a state based on sharia, like the old Islamists. However, this may cause some confusion, as neo-Islamists like Erdoğan and Ghanouchi have tended to dispel the notion that they are ultimately seeking to establish an Islamic state. In fact, the neo-Islamists prefer to focus on strategy rather than explicit aims, relying on the gradualist’ approach, which requires patience, concession and sometimes secrecy, rather than broad slogans and emotional propaganda. Turkish AKP leaders in particular maintain that they are not Islamists, that they advocate secularism, and have no intention of implementing sharia law (Torelli 2012; Tugal 2009; Yilmaz 2012; Ergun 2012).

Ghanouchi has stated that he would not go so far as to advocate secularism, or dropping Sharia law from Ennahda’s agenda. However, he confessed that secularism could be part of Islam as a means of achieving a separation of powers (interview with the author, Tunis: 25 April 2013). He previously triggered the sympathy of the Tunisian secularist elite, and widely surprised them in a lecture delivered at a think tank on 2 March 2012, in which he explained that secularism is not in contradiction of Islam. But he also said that religion should not be removed entirely from state affairs, as this option:

…[carries] some risks whereby things would get out of control and social harmony would be endangered. The way to do it, thereafter, is to find a balance that would guarantee people’s freedom and rights, because religion is here to do exactly that. To achieve this balance we need to go back to the issue of distinguishing between religion and politics and adjust the parameters of what is constant in religion and that which is variable. (Ghanouchi 2012, 15)


He stated further that the separation of powers in Islam is a widening of ijtihad (Islamic jurisprudence) opportunities. In the absence of a church in Islam, the interpretation of the sacred texts should remain free and open (interview with author Tunis, on 25th April 2013). While almost all Ennahda public statements fail to mention promotion of shariatisation, they also do not signal its outright rejection.

As was the case in Turkey with APK since the early 2000s, Ennahda in Tunisia, and JDP in Egypt and Morocco, new developments and pragmatic strategies have allowed neo-Islamists to win most elections since the 2011 and 2012 revolutions (Gerges 2013; Khalifa 2012; Tomsa 2012). Despite the AKP repeatedly declaring that it is not an Islamic party, and Ennahda leader’s statement above, there is no concrete indication that these organisations have given up their original missions of Islamising their states and societies. Rather, their tactics and strategies have evolved to execute the same old goals. When asked about Ennahda’s Islamic economy program, Ennahda economist Ridha Chkoundali, didn’t deny such a goal in the long term. He added that the party has not had enough time to prepare a distinctively Islamic alternative in economy or otherwise (interview with author: Tunis, 18 April 2013).

Finally, the Arab Spring bridged the gaps between post-Islamists, neo-Islamists and moderate liberals, nationalists, and human rights activists. These groups during the Arab Spring all came together against autocratic regimes, using modern tools of communication, ideas and techniques, in particular social media. The Arab revolutionaries of 2011 warmly embraced Twitter, Facebook and other outlets in pursuing their goals.

As discussed above, neo-Islamism is about reformed sections of its ideology, as well as utilising new tactics and new short and long-term strategies. Since the 2011 revolutions, neo-Islamists have shown a great inclination in using social media to promote their ideas and programs. They have done so through hundreds of Facebook pages and groups geared to discuss revolutionary ideas and mobilise support against their political opponents.

From the discussion above, we conclude that neo-Islamism’s adherents have adjusted their strategy and developed concepts, priorities and agendas of Islamic politics in response to the urgent question, ‘What went wrong?’ during last thirty or forty years. The impetus has been to redress prior failure to execute state shariatisation and societal Islamisation. In the absence of a proper definition, the author proposes the following definition of neo-Islamism:


Neo-Islamism is distinguished by an ethical and theological emphasis on Islam that combines social conservatism with political moderation. Neo-Islamists are united in the view that Sharia is not an immediate reform priority; however there are divisions over whether this is a tactical pause towards ultimate pursuit of Shariatisation, whether it should be diluted if introduced at some future point, or whether it should never be introduced.




[1] Tarek Chamkhi is a post-graduate researcher at Murdoch Unviversity, Perth, Western Australia. Email: chamkhi@gmail.com

[2] Erbakan entered a coalition in 1996 with Tansu Çiller’s Correct Path Party (Doğru Yol Partisi), or DYP.

[3] Turkey has experienced substantial sustained growth since turning its economy around in 2001. Today, Turkey is the world’s 17th largest economy, and a member of the Group of Twenty (G20) Finance Ministers and Central Bank Governors (G-20). Turkey’s GDP (in million Euro) rose from 219,816 in 2001 to 441,600 in 2009; its GDP growth rate was -5.7% in 2001, strong from 2002-2007, -4.7% in 2009, and an estimated 8.2% in 2010 (Çelik and Çelik 2012, 7).

[4] Ömer Taşpınar noted, “Autocratic regimes in the Muslim world often ban religious parties, which then go underground and turn violent. Turkey’s Islamists have taken a different path. Despite being repeatedly outlawed and ejected from power, pious politicians have shunned violence, embraced democracy, and moved into the mainstream”. The Economist noted in 2008. “No Islamic party has been as moderate and pro-Western as the AKP, which catapulted into government in 2002 promising to lead Turkey into the European Union”. He added that Erdoğan, who founded the party, rejects defining the AKP in religious terms. “We are not an Islamic party, and we also refuse labels such as Muslim-democrat,” he said in 2005. The AKP leader instead calls the party’s agenda ‘conservative democracy.’  (Taşpınar 2012, 127-135) The AKP’s journey from political Islam to conservative democracy is not just the result of political expediency or respect for the red lines of Turkish secularism. The evolution of Turkey’s capitalism under the leadership of Turgut Özal in the 1980s created an entrepreneurial Muslim bourgeoisie in the conservative heartland of Anatolia. The new Muslim bourgeoisie had a greater stake in politics—and became more engaged … they have been more concerned about maximizing profits, creating access to international currency markets, and ensuring political stability than about introducing Islamic law or creating a theocracy. Turkey now has thousands of such small and medium-sized export-oriented businesses, often referred to as ‘Anatolian tigers.’ The vast majority of them support the AKP. Beginning in the 1990s, the party’s assumption of political power gradually moderated the radical elements within Turkish political Islam” (Taşpınar 2012, 127-135).

[5] Turkish foreign policy has played a very active role in the Arab world post the 2011 revolutions; Erdoğan himself travelled twice to Tunisia, at least once to Egypt, Libya and Morocco, welcomed the Syrian refugees and provided limitless logistic upport for the Syrian National Council and even the Syrian Free Army. The Ennahda led government in Tunisia enjoyed special undercover support during the first two years after the October 2011 election, including millions of dollars in government aid, delegates of dozens of Turkish businessmen to invest in the Tunisian economy, and so on.


** Download the Reference chamkhi-ref

***Alochonaa.com is not responsible for any factual mistakes (if any) of this analysis. This analysis further is not necessarily representative of Alochonaa.com’s view. We’re happy to facilitate further evidence-based submissions on this topic. Please send us your submission at alochonaa@gmail.com

Categories: Political Islam

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.