The United States and Political Islam: The Dialectic of Hegemony and Resistance

Mohammed Ayoob

Posted Aug 27, 2009      •Permalink      • Printer-Friendly Version
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by Mohammed Ayoob

Mohammed Ayoob is Distinguished Professor of International Relations and Coordinator of the Muslim Studies Program, at Michigan State University. He is also an Adjunct Scholar at the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding.(ISPU). His most recent book is The Many Faces of Political Islam (University of Michigan Press: 2008).  The full policy brief may be downloaded [here] courtesy of the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding.

In his speech to the Muslim world from Cairo on 4 June 2009, President Obama declared: “We meet at a time of tension between the United States and the Muslims around the world – tension rooted in historical forces that go beyond any current policy debate.”  [1] This statement, however, is only partially true. Obviously there are historical forces that affect many Muslims’ perception of the West and, therefore, of the United States and vice versa. I will refer to some of them in this paper. But it is equally – if not more – true that the power structures in the international system as well as specific American policies contribute enormously to this tension.

The current distribution of power, which I have described elsewhere as the “unipolar concert,” is heavily skewed in favor of the group of industrialized Western countries led by the United States. [2] This reality produces a dialectical relationship between hegemony and resistance that is most salient in the relationship between the United States and the Muslim world. To a large extent, American policies toward issues considered important by most politically conscious Muslims are a function of the current distribution of power, which encourages a degree of insensitivity on Washington’s part toward those very concerns. Political Islam, namely, any political activity that draws upon Islamic precepts, history, vocabulary, and presumed models of governance currently embodies the idea of resistance to hegemony far more than any other ideology in the Muslim world and even beyond. [3]

I introduced the term “concert” in conjunction with “unipolar” to make the point that American hegemony is based on a consensus arrived at by most of the powerful actors in the international system, who see a great advantage in the United States playing a quasi-hegemonic role. It indicates that the United States sits atop a concert consisting largely of Western industrialized nations that share with it the fundamental objective of preserving northern hegemony, in all of its multiple dimensions, within the international system. The concert is termed “unipolar” because American capabilities, especially in the military sphere, far surpass those of its other members. This means that the United States largely determines its security agenda, since it provides most of the muscle that can be used to achieve its objectives.

The operation of this unipolar concert demonstrates not only the basic unity of the northern industrialized countries’ objectives, but also that the North-South divide is very much alive and that no amount of journalistic and pseudo-academic concentration on issues dividing the United States and Europe (e.g., Robert Kagan’s “Europeans are from Venus, Americans are from Mars”) can detract from the importance of this divide, which is determined by the international system’s power structure. [4]  Intra-concert differences on matters of strategy and tactics pale into insignificance in the face of the North-South divide.

The Soviet Union’s collapse and subsequent dismemberment, as well as the consequent discrediting of socialism, have provided a free ride for the unipolar concert both in terms of ideological hegemony and its ability to intervene in less powerful states without fear of any negative consequences. As it happens, the only ideology currently capable of mobilizing substantial segments of the South’s population to resist this material and ideological hegemony is political Islam. This does not mean that political Islam is a monolith. In fact, I have published a book that refutes this charge and demonstrates that diverse manifestations of political activities in the name of Islam are primarily determined by context-specific variables, despite the similarities they may possess in terms of the vocabulary used and the common pool of ideas from which they draw. [5]

However, there is an anti-hegemonic aspect of political Islam that runs through many of its diverse manifestations. This dimension also explains the role of several mainstream Islamist movements and groups as the primary opponents in those countries ruled by authoritarian regimes, several of which are clients or allies of the global concert and/or hegemon. Several factors help explain why political Islam is especially prone to taking anti-hegemonic positions and resisting Western domination: the historical antecedents of Islamist movements that have shaped their worldviews, the nature of regimes in several Muslim countries and their dependent relationship with global centers of power, and trajectories of American policy toward the Muslim world in general and the Middle East in particular. The complex interplay among these variables tends to strengthen the anti-hegemonic strand in Islamist political activity as well as add to its standing and popularity among diverse Muslim populations.

The antecedents of what we call “political Islam” can be traced to the nineteenth century, when the Muslim world began to feel the full weight of the European onslaught. Islamist political activity in the form we know it today is, therefore, a modern phenomenon, as much a creation of modernity as a reaction to it. In the thousand years of Muslim history before the advent of European colonialism, when Muslims ruled over Muslims, Islam was only rarely used as a political tool to challenge temporal authority. [6] This held true among both the majority Sunnis and the Shia minority with the latter adopting religio-political quietism as a survival strategy. In general, the ulama, the religious scholars, were politically quiescent as long as the temporal rulers met the minimum standards of defending the lands of Islam and non-interference in their subjects’ practice of religion. The state was minimalist in character and largely left civil society alone as long as subjects paid their taxes and did not threaten rebellion. In other words, there was basically a live-and-let-live policy between the temporal and religious authorities; when wars occurred, they were primarily among princes and warlords seeking to expand their territory at the expense of their neighbors. Political mobilization at the popular level, which was inherent in the Prophet’s preaching even during his lifetime, became the exception under Muslim dynastic rule.

European colonialism drastically changed the nature of political authority in the Muslim world by putting non-Muslims in control of Muslim lands either directly or indirectly. Simultaneously, mass literacy and the introduction of the printing press enabled lay Muslim scholars and activists to challenge the ulama’s religious authority, thus leading to a proto-Reformation that ushered scriptural literalism and the priesthood of the individual – essential components of Europe’s Reformation – into the Islamic world. [7]  It also meant that lay Muslim activists could now interpret Islamic scriptures and use Qur’anic vocabulary to mobilize people for political ends. As a result of these simultaneous transformations, resistance to colonial domination took on the form of religiously inspired armed struggle often characterized as jihad. [8]  Calls for proto-nationalist resistance were often couched in Islamic terminology, and the faithful were called upon to resist colonial encroachment and overthrow European domination as part of their individual and collective Islamic duty to prevent Islamic lands and Muslims from falling under non-Muslim rule. Consequently, anti-colonial resistance became the modern era’s quintessential jihad. This notion of jihad has been carried over into the twenty-first century as resistance to the hegemony of, and domination by, non-Muslim great powers – the taghut (arrogant ones rebelling against God) – to use the terminology of the Iranian revolution.

Even the militantly secular Mustafa Kemal led a jihad against Europe’s attempt to carve up Anatolia at the end of the First World War. At his behest, the Mufti of Ankara issued a fatwa endorsed by 152 other muftis in Anatolia that Kemal’s decision to resist this attempted vivisection, in defiance of the wishes of the caliph, who had signed the treaty ceding large parts of what later became Turkey to the Greeks, Armenians, Italians, and French, was Islamically legitimate because the caliph himself was under foreign duress. In 1921 the Turkish Grand National Assembly honored Kemal with the title of ghazi (victorious warrior in the way of God) years before he was proclaimed “Ataturk” (father of the Turks). [9]  The Turkish war (or should I say jihad) for independence belonged to a long line of earlier (and similar) jihads, such as those in Algeria, Libya, Sudan, Somalia, India, and the Dutch East Indies, among other places. Unfortunately, unlike in Anatolia most of them failed to drive out the European invader and occupier.
Political Islam, as an ideology of popular mobilization, is the heir of these proto-nationalist resistance movements and its ideologues, the most prominent of whom is Jamal al-Din al-Afghani. This pioneer in terms of using Islamic vocabulary to mobilize Muslims against colonial domination found no contradiction between the twin forces of nationalism and pan-Islam in colonized Muslim countries. In fact, he saw them as two sides of the same coin that could be employed simultaneously to resist European domination, thereby demonstrating the paradoxical compatibility of nationalism and pan-Islam in the Muslim world. [10]

Contemporary manifestations of political Islam are heirs of this tradition of combining nationalist agendas with Islamic ones, or rather of presenting national goals as Islamic, in their attempt to mobilize Muslims to resist both domestic autocracy and global hegemony. The Muslim Brotherhood, founded in Egypt in 1928, successfully combined nationalist and Islamic appeals to become a major domestic political force. [11]  Hamas, an offshoot of the Palestinian Muslim Brotherhood, has achieved similar success in Occupied Palestine. [12]  But it was the Iranian revolution – a classic case of people going into the streets and overthrowing an unpopular regime – that provided the prime example of successfully combining Islam and nationalism for popular mobilization. [13]

A second variable that has strengthened and continues to strengthen political Islam’s anti-hegemonic strand is the nature of several Muslim regimes and their past and present links with the global centers of power, especially the United States. While Turkey, Indonesia, Malaysia, and Bangladesh have adopted (and, in the case of Turkey, consolidated) democratic systems to various degrees, several others, notably those in the Arab world and Central Asia, continue to suffer from huge democratic deficits. [14]  The authoritarian nature of many Muslim regimes, especially in the broader Middle East, which includes Central Asia, the Caucasus as well as the Middle East as traditionally defined, provides crucial political space in which Islamist political activity can expand. Closed political systems and authoritarian regimes are standing invitations to the increased popularity of such political formations, because they stifle political debate and effectively suppress all secular opposition.

Even the most efficient and repressive regimes, however, cannot fully suppress the opposition expressed through the religious idiom because their opponents use Islamic vocabulary and religious and semi-religious institutions to express their opposition. Publishing houses that print religious literature, mosques and affiliated institutions that subtly disseminate Islamist propaganda, and religiously endowed charitable organizations sympathetic to Islamist causes can be used to send out political messages dressed up in religious garb and to build support for Islamist political activity. [15]

The close relationship between several authoritarian regimes in the Muslim world, such as Egypt, Jordan, Morocco, Saudi Arabia, the Gulf sheikhdoms, and now increasingly Libya and several of the “stans,” with the United States and its allies helps create the popular impression that Islamist groups are the principal, if not the only, viable opponents of both domestic authoritarianism and American hegemony. Such a perception only adds to their public standing. The latter variable, namely, American hegemony, creates a dynamic of its own, one that is related not only to the historical memories of past European domination (the “resurrection of empire,” to use Rashid Khalidi’s terminology), [16]  but also to the current distribution of power in the international system. Above all, it is related to the content of American policies that create and augment negative Muslim perceptions of the United States. [17]

The general trajectory of American policies often augments the anti-hegemonic trend in the Muslim world and adds to the popularity of Islamist forces. Above all, the unqualified and unquestioning American support for Israel, especially for the latter’s continued occupation and colonization of Palestinian lands conquered in 1967, demonstrates to politically conscious Muslims that the United States is committed to treating Muslims and Arabs not only with insensitivity but with utter contempt. Its policy of vetoing or threatening to veto UN Security Council resolutions condemning Israeli policies provides proof beyond doubt to most Muslims of an American-Israeli collusion to dominate the Muslim Middle East both politically and militarily. Its stance at the UN on Israel’s invasion of Lebanon in 2006 and the disproportionate amount of casualties and destruction it caused, as well as the massive collective punishment it inflicted upon Gaza in 2008, have further augmented the Muslim world’s negative perception of the United States. [18]

The United States has insisted that Iraq, Iran, Sudan, Lebanon, and other Muslim countries abide by UN Security Council resolutions, and yet has simultaneously supported repeated Israeli defiance and violation of a much larger number of other resolutions passed by the same body. In addition, it has blocked the passage of an equal or larger number of resolutions condemning Israeli actions (e.g., violating the Fourth Geneva Convention on the treatment of occupied populations and territories). This double standard as regards the sanctity of UN Security Council resolutions only strengthens the Muslims’ feeling that the United States is unabashedly pro-Israel when that country defies international opinion and continues to violate international law. The American insistence that Iran stop its uranium enrichment program while condoning, in fact conniving at, Israel’s possession of nuclear weapons and sophisticated delivery systems augments the feeling among most Muslims and others that American policy in the Middle East is largely driven by Israeli concerns or that of the Israeli lobby in the United States. [19]

The American occupation of Iraq has fuelled even greater Muslim anti-American sentiment, since it has been widely seen as a ploy to break up a major Arab country that could have served as a balancer to Israel, control the Middle East’s oil wealth, and consolidate Israeli hegemony in the region. [20]  The post-Iraq war rhetoric in the United States and Israel, which continues to target Syria and, more particularly, Iran, is seen as a continuation of the policy to eliminate all Muslim countries capable of standing up to Israel and challenging its American-supported military hegemony in the Middle East.

The high level of popular anti-American resentment in Muslim countries redounds to the benefit of Islamist political formations, because several authoritarian and semi-authoritarian regimes (e.g., those in Morocco, Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and elsewhere) are American allies or clients. As the United States guarantees their security, they dare not oppose (except very feebly) its policies in the Muslim world in general and in the Middle East in particular out of fear that this support might be withdrawn and followed by potentially negative consequences.

Islamists, on the other hand, usually have few compunctions when it comes to opposing American policies vocally and virulently and rebuking Muslim regimes for collaborating with the United States to promote its designs, which many Muslims see as anti-Muslim. This strengthens their political appeal, because its adherents articulate opinions held by countless Muslims As a result, the Islamists come to be seen as the primary vehicle for expressing most Muslims’ genuine grievances, both domestically and internationally, and as being larger than life because, in stark contrast to Muslim regimes, they speak to the Muslims’ concerns, whether the latter are Islamists or not. [21]

This dialectic between American hegemony (as represented by American policies toward the Muslim world and especially the Middle East) and political Islam (as represented by movements and political formations opposing both American hegemony and its local clients) is likely to have a major impact upon the Muslim world’s future political trajectory, particularly in the Middle East. As I stated earlier, Islamist movements and parties in a number of Muslim-majority countries are the principal opponents of oppressive and authoritarian regimes, several of which are allied with the United States. Consequently, they appear as the main alternatives to unpopular governments if and when regime change occurs. They have increasingly become the leading resistance movements as well, particularly in Palestine and Lebanon. In many instances, most notably in Central and Southwest Asia, they have either engaged in open rebellion or been pushed underground by regime repression. In the guise of the Taliban, they have again become the leading movement resisting Afghanistan’s being drawn into the American orbit. In Pakistan, extremists pose a challenge to the state’s very integrity as well as a major threat to the American-supported regime. [22]  The dialectics of hegemony and resistance thus go on in crucial parts of the Muslim world.

Given the widely perceived zero-sum nature of the relationship between the West in general and the United States in particular on the one hand and political Islam on the other, stability in the Muslim world can be attained only when this relationship is changed from one of hostility to one of coexistence – if not cooperation. But this cannot happen without major and fundamental changes in American policy. It is not just a question of reassessing, but also of reformulating policies directed toward authoritarian regimes, Iran, and, above all, Palestine, for these are the three issues that most affect Muslim perceptions of the United States and help Islamist organizations gain greater popularity. While President Obama’s Cairo speech gives some hope that American policy may undergo a certain reformulation, this process must move beyond rhetoric and into the sphere of action if it is to carry any credibility among Muslims.

The first concrete change will require Washington not merely to distance itself from authoritarian and unpopular regimes from Egypt to Uzbekistan, but also to put real pressure on them to reform and liberalize. The second reformulation will require the acknowledgment of Iran’s pivotal role in the Gulf and the Middle East and recognition of the fact that its nuclear aspirations must be addressed as a part of the region’s process of denuclearization. Singling Iran out for chastisement and punishment because of its presumed attempts to acquire nuclear weapons is unlikely to work and will turn out to be counterproductive. The attempt to use its disputed presidential election of June 2009 to pressure Tehran is also likely to backfire for two reasons: (1) the internal struggle for political supremacy is largely a fight between different elements of the elite wedded to the concept of the Islamic republic and (2) there is an overwhelming consensus cutting across most political cleavages that Iran has the right to enrich uranium and thus keep open its option to develop nuclear weapons if circumstances so demand. This consensus is unlikely to fracture under American and/or Western pressure. [23]

The third major change will require the repudiation of the dominant narrative in the United States regarding the Palestine-Israel conflict. This will have to go beyond the mere acknowledgement that the Palestinians’ plight is “intolerable,” as Obama noted in his Cairo speech coupling this with Israel’s need for security in order to advocate a two-state solution. [24]  Any such reformulation must entail two fundamental changes to be credible with Muslims. First, the historic wrong inflicted upon Palestinians as a result of the demographic transformation of their homeland under British rule, the subsequent creation of Israel, and the expulsion of more than half of the Palestinian population from its homes in 1948 must be recognized. The establishment and expansion of Jewish settlements on the West Bank is merely the latest act in the same play that began with the Balfour Declaration of 1917 and the installation of British rule in Palestine after the Ottoman defeat in the First World War. The current dominant narrative in the United States totally disregards this history. It therefore defines aggression and victimhood in a particularly distorted fashion. Setting the historical record straight will, hopefully, correct this situation.

Second, a fundamental perceptual change is required in American policymaking circles, which must move from characterizing the conflict as the Palestinian problem to depicting it as the problem of Israel in the heart of the Muslim/Arab Middle East. Doing so will put the issue in its proper perspective and allow policymakers to fashion regional policies in keeping with broader American strategic interests there.
No amount of presidential rhetoric about a two-state solution will be able to bring about a just solution in the absence of these two fundamental changes. It is not a matter of merely addressing nuts and bolts issues, but of reshaping Washington’s entire approach to the conflict.

These unresolved issues give Islamists a great deal of momentum because their stances coincide with popular sentiment. If the United States were to actually change its stands, it could take some of the wind out of Islamist sails by removing the major sources of Muslim grievance and, at the same time, send the message to Islamist movements and parties that there is no fundamental contradiction between American and the Muslim world’s interests and that the former’s unparalleled power will not necessarily be used in ways to harm the latter’s interests. Such an approach would likely cause many devotees of political Islam to soften their stands, rethink their attitudes toward the United States, and possibly move away from the current confrontational model that informs many of their actions. In the absence of such a reformulation, however, the current dialectic between hegemony and resistance is likely to continue in many parts of the Muslim world.


1 “Text: Obama’s Speech in Cairo,” New York Times, 4 June 2009. Retrieved on 8 June 2009 from
2 M. Ayoob and M. Zierler, “The Unipolar Concert: The North-South Divide Trumps Transatlantic Differences,” World Policy Journal 22, no. 1 (2005): 31-42.
3 M. Ayoob, “Challenging Hegemony: Political Islam and the North-South Divide,” International Studies Review 9, no. 4 (2007): 629-43.
4 R. Kagan, Of Paradise and Power: America and Europe in the New World Order (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2003).
5 M. Ayoob, The Many Faces of Political Islam: Religion and Politics in the Muslim World (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2008).
6 L. C. Brown, Religion and State: The Muslim Approach to Politics (New York: Columbia University Press, 2001), chap. 5.
7 C. W. Ernst, Following Muhammad: Rethinking Islam in the Contemporary World (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2004), 66-67.
8 R. Peters, Islam and Colonialism: The Doctrine of Jihad in Modern History (New York: Mouton, 1979).
9 B. Lewis, The Emergence of Modern Turkey, 3d ed. (New York, Oxford University Press, 2002), 252.
10 N. Keddie, Sayyid Jamal Ad-Din Al-Afghani: A Political Biography (Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1972).
11 R. P. Mitchell, The Society of Muslim Brothers (New York: Oxford University Press, 1969).
12 J. Gunning, Hamas in Politics: Democracy, Religion, Violence (New York: Columbia University Press, 2008).
13 N. Keddie, Modern Iran: Roots and Results of Revolution (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2003).
14 M. Ottaway and J. Choucair-Vizoso, J., eds., Beyond the Façade: Political Reform in the Arab World (Washington, DC: Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, 2008).
15 M. Ayoob, “Political Islam: Image and Reality,” World Policy Journal 21, no. 3 (2004): 1-14.
16 R. Khalidi, Resurrecting Empire: Western Footprints and America’s Perilous Path in the Middle East (Boston: Beacon Press, 2004).
17 The low popularity enjoyed by the United States in Muslim countries is demonstrated in public opinion polls such as the 2008 Annual Arab Public Opinion Poll, Accessed on 13 February 2009.
18 The latest example of Washington’s attempt to diminish the impact of a UN Security Council resolution opposed by Israel was its last-minute, abstention under Israeli pressure, in January 2009 on a resolution calling for an end to the fighting in Gaza. What made this appear particularly egregious was the fact that Secretary of State Rice had participated in drafting the resolution, which was deemed acceptable to the United States, until a call from the Israeli prime minister to President George W. Bush forced Rice to change her vote. For details, see J. Borger and I. Black, “US Abstention Stuns Security Council,” Guardian, 10 January 2009, Accessed on 8 June 2009.
19 J. J. Mearsheimer and S. M. Walt, The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy (New York: Farrar Straus and Giroux, 2007). Also see S. Ritter, Target Iran (New York: Nation Books, 2007).
20 M. Ayoob, “The War against Iraq: Normative and Strategic Implications,” Middle East Policy 10, no. 2 (2003): 27-39
21 M. Ayoob, “The Future of Political Islam: The Importance of External Variables,” International Affairs 81, no. 5 (2005): 951-61.
22 For Pakistan and Afghanistan, see A. Rashid, Descent into Chaos (New York: Viking, 2008).
23 Both these points are eloquently made in George Friedman, “The Real Struggle in Iran and Implications for U.S. Dialogue,” Stratfor, 29 June 2009, on July 3, 2009. Accessed on 29 June 2009. Also see M. K. Bhadrakumar, “Obama Faces a Persian Rebuff,” Hindu (Chennai), 2 July 2009.
24 “Text: Obama’s Speech in Cairo,” New York Times, 4 June 2009.

* An earlier version of this article was published as Middle East Insights No. 3 by the Middle East Institute, National University of Singapore.