US Foreign Policy

Politicizing Islam: Exploring Means and Objectives

Watch the event video below or click here.

The role of Islam in government continues to be a pressing issue in many Muslim societies. Since the Arab Spring that began in 2010, the world has witnessed a volatile struggle in the Arab world in particular, as well as in other Muslim majority countries, to address popular demands for change.  Some countries have seen Islamist parties rise in prominence, but that rise has created powerful reactions by leaders and societies who favor a clear separation of religion from state authority. Even more destabilizing has been the emergence of Islamic extremism, from al-Qaeda to Daesh, with its cruel and violent imposition of what is claimed to be Islamic law and the reestablishment of the caliphate.
Religious scholars and experts on Islam and Muslim politics continue to explore competing concepts and theories about Islam as the foundation of government and authority, or even the sole source of legitimacy and authority in a society. Movements that are seeking to politicize Islam vary in their methods for bringing this objective about. There is the extremist violence being conducted by Daesh/Islamic State, Al-Qaeda and others. Organizations such as the Muslim Brotherhood and affiliated groups have taken a more gradual approach, trying to work within existing political structures towards their long-term goals of pure Islamic societies. 
Movements that politicize Islam through the use of violence as their primary means are being challenged through military and security measures. More challenging is the politicization of religion through non-violent means where movements are not necessarily engaging in illegal activity, but are seeking to implement the forces of exclusion, intolerance, and discrimination as the basis of government. In both the Middle East and the wider world, it is imperative to examine not only the means used, but also the overall objectives of movements that politicize religion. When objectives are based on ideas of exclusion, intolerance, and discrimination it is necessary to examine these objectives in light of the political, social, and cultural contexts in which they operate in order to determine what responses are needed.

WHAT: A discussion examining the overall objectives of — and responses to — movements that politicize Islam through violent and non-violent means. 


Opening Remarks: Ahmed Al Hamli, President and Founder, TRENDS

Geneive Abdo, Author, The New Sectarianism: The Arab Uprisings and the Rebirth of the Shi’a–Sunni Divide
Mokhtar Awad, Program on Extremism, George Washington University
Richard Burchill (Moderator), Director of Research & Engagement, TRENDS
Hillel Fradkin, Director, Center on Islam, Democracy and the Future of the Muslim World, Hudson Institute
Radwan Masmoudi, President, Center for the Study of Islam and Democracy

Closing Remarks: Ellen Laipson, Distinguished Fellow and President Emeritus, Stimson Center

Middle East
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