Sharia and Militancy
from Civil Society, Markets, and Democracy Program and Combating Extremism through Civil Society

Sharia and Militancy

Experts say Islamic law, or sharia, holds wide appeal for Muslim populations in many countries and is beginning to spread via democratic means, but it is also being used as a tool of Islamic militancy and extremism.

Last updated November 30, 2010 7:00 am (EST)

Current political and economic issues succinctly explained.

This publication is now archived.


Sharia, Islamic law derived from the teachings of the Quran and the ways of Mohammed, is a source of law for many Muslim nations. Sharia is largely a personal code of conduct, but its tenets govern every aspect of Muslim life from financial to political to legal. Experts say Muslims in many countries want sharia to have some role in governance. Meanwhile, Islamist movements call for supplanting secular law and governance entirely with sharia, a particularly difficult issue in nations, such as Pakistan and Somalia, riven by political turmoil, conflict, and areas of lawlessness.

More From Our Experts

While some experts say sharia has the potential to overcome tribal conflict and to quiet chaotic regions, sharia is prone to abuses and manipulation in volatile regions where Islamic militants are active. Many Islamist movements, which have made sharia a cornerstone of their identity along with avowed anti-Americanism, are gaining ground through elections and, in other cases, violence, presenting a security policy dilemma to the United States. Some experts say U.S. policy solutions must take care to engage, rather than alienate, politicized Islam, including learning to differentiate between different types of radical elements within Islamist movements.

Sharia for Peace and Justice

Sharia in the Muslim world is often associated with good governance. A 2008 Gallup poll of Muslims in Turkey, Iran, and Egypt found sharia is "perceived to promote the rule of law and justice." Most Muslim-majority countries have political systems and legal codes derived from Western models. However, many of these countries have majority populations that are economically or politically depressed. John L. Esposito, a professor of religion and international affairs at Georgetown University, writes in his book, What Everyone Needs to Know about Islam, that many Muslim nations suffer from "overcrowded cities lacking social support systems, high unemployment, government corruption, and a growing gap between rich and poor," and sharia’s appeal can be attributed to a number of factors, including a widespread feeling of failure and loss of self-esteem. "Many Muslims blame Western models of political and economic development as sources of moral decline and spiritual malaise," and look to sharia for social and political order, Esposito says.

More on:


Middle East and North Africa

A 2008 Gallup poll of ten Muslim countries, including Pakistan, Iran, and Indonesia, indicates that most Muslim populations are not advocating theocracy (PDF) when they envision sharia’s role in governance. Experts say many Muslims view sharia as a means to be liberated from government corruption and believe it can exist within a democratic and inclusive framework. However, Abdullahi Ahmed An-Na’im, an Islamic law expert at Emory University, writes in his book, Islam and the Secular State, that advancing the cause of a theocratic Islamic state assumes that the ruling authorities will be less corrupt and more pious than those of a secular one. An-Na’im believes this assumption rests on a weak premise. He writes: "The fundamental defect of the idea of the Islamic state is that the logic of the invocation of religious or moral authority can be very easily inverted, so that instead of regulating political power by religious authority, religion itself becomes subordinated to power." Isobel Coleman, CFR’s senior fellow for U.S. foreign policy, says the role of sharia has been a "political football" in almost every Muslim country.

In some nations, sharia’s use is confined to narrow questions of religion and morality, in others it is the underpinning of legislation, and in still others it is the basis for all criminal and civil law. Unlike secular jurisprudence, instituting sharia in practice encompasses civil and criminal law meted out by religious clergy. Experts say that in regions where greater use of sharia laws and courts recently have been instituted, such as Nigeria’s north and Indonesia’s Aceh Province, secular law and courts have acted as a buffer for some of sharia’s harsher interpretations, such as stoning adulterers and cutting off the hands of thieves. Dalia Mogahed, a senior fellow at the Gallup Center for Muslim Studies, argues that ijtihad, the process of independent reasoning that allows for the reinterpretation of Islam to address contemporary issues, also has the power to moderate interpretations of sharia. But for itjihad to be effective, the entire community, not just religious scholars, must be religiously literate, she says.

A Tool of Extremists

A growing number of countries are struggling to find a balance between secular law and sharia. And sharia has become a rallying cry for Islamic militant movements seeking to show religious authenticity. Mogahed cautioned in a 2008 Aspen Institute forum that the use of Islam by militants to influence populations shouldn’t be seen as a failing of the religion itself. Her polling shows that religion is an overwhelmingly influential factor in Muslim life--even in the most secular countries such as Turkey--and thus any social movement, whether violent or nonviolent, is likely to be framed in religious terms ( "They understand their audience," Mogahed says of extremists.

In troubled and failed states in particular, extremists often gain influence when they espouse what they tout as a purer--and harsher--form of Islam that includes bans on dancing, music, and education for girls and advocates punishments such as beheadings, say some experts. In Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Somalia, for example, Islamic militants have used sharia in the face of central government power vacuums. Rafia Zakaria, an associate political science professor at the University of Indiana, writes the use of "sharia justice as a political mechanism designed to invoke mass appeal" is a strategy that is difficult to counter (Daily Times). Among regions that are mostly illiterate, poor, and often politically marginalized, she notes, "groups like the Taliban and [Somalia’s Al-Shabaab] have succeeded in defining change as destruction and justice as spectacle." Gareth Price, head of the Asia program at the London-based think tank Chatham House, says often militants such as the Taliban aren’t really practicing sharia at all. "They just make up crazy rules," he argues. "It’s a way of maintaining themselves in power." CFR’s Coleman says prohibitions against girls’ education, for example, have nothing to do with the Quran.

Sharia and Chaos: Somalia and Pakistan’s Swat Valley

Some experts say the Islamic legal system may be useful in regions where state authority has lapsed or no state authority exists. Former CFR fellow Noah Feldman explained in his book, The Fall and Rise of the Islamic State: "In failed states, quasi-Hobbesian environments where literally no group of persons and institutions can claim to exercise a monopoly on the use of legitimate force, local inhabitants have shown a willingness to turn to self-established sharia courts to engage in the most basic form of dispute resolution." But in these cases, other experts say, it is sometimes militants, not average citizens, who benefit from the institution of sharia. Militants and sharia in Pakistan and Somalia became the focus of intense international scrutiny in 2009 and show how the battle for Islamic law is often about proving who is in control.

More From Our Experts

Swat Valley, Pakistan. In January 2009, sharia became a chief term of peace negotiations between the Pakistani government and the Pakistani militant group Tehreek-e-Nifaz-e-Shariat-e-Mohammadi (TNSM) in the country’s Swat Valley, located in the volatile North West Frontier Province. The problem in Swat is part of a growing regional conflict where militants from the Afghan-Pakistan border are fighting U.S. and Pakistani forces. In exchange for a cease-fire between government forces and the Pakistani Taliban group, which have been in conflict since 2008, the government agreed to create sharia courts. Amid this turmoil are the residents of the region, whose desire for sharia leans toward settling mundane matters such as land disputes, experts say. An August 2008 Council Special Report on Pakistan’s tribal belt notes that sharia in the region (PDF) "is driven in large part by the breakdown of provincial judicial processes, notorious for extreme case backlogs."

Shortly after the Swat deal was signed, one prominent militant leader said that no appeals to Pakistan’s secular courts (WashPost) from sharia courts would be tolerated, and another said sharia would not "permit us to lay down our arms if the government continues anti-Muslim policies." As many experts predicted, the deal failed to keep peace and the Pakistani military was forced to take control of the area, which continues to experience violence from militants (EurasiaReview). Ayesha Jalal, a South Asia expert, noted the battle waged against the Pakistani state by militants aligned with al-Qaeda was for state power and "not, as is often mistakenly assumed, for the establishment of an Islamic order" (PDF).

More on:


Middle East and North Africa

Somalia. In Somalia, after more than a decade of failed governments and near lawlessness, the institution of sharia courts helped unify tribal leaders in the first five years of this century, writes Feldman. These courts eventually began to mature into a "proto-government," but that came to an end when Ethiopian forces invaded in late 2006. Following the Ethiopian invasion, the militant group al-Shabaab began to extend its authority and to administer sharia justice in the regions under its control, as this Backgrounder explains. In early 2009, Somalia’s government began considering the establishment of sharia for the entire country, as called for by pro-government Islamic leaders. However, al-Shabaab and other insurgents contend that the government, a moderate Western-Islamic hybrid, is unfit to implement Islamic law.

Engaging Militants

Some experts say the U.S. government should rethink its policies for dealing with political Islamic movements, which often include calls for greater use of sharia. Shadi Hamid, an expert on Mideast democracy and Islamist movements, contends the United States has taken an anti-Islamist approach because such movements often contain anti-American, extremist elements. In a 2008 report for the Century Foundation, Hamid notes in the countries "crucial to the future of the Middle East--[the United States] has chosen to take the side of secular dictators against nonviolent Islamist parties advocating for political reform" (PDF). For example, Hamid’s report notes the Bush administration continued to support the Egyptian government and ignored calls to support political reform in the country at the same time the government was cracking down on the Muslim Brotherhood--an Islamist movement that a 2008 U.S. Congressional Research Service report says has renounced violence as a political tactic (PDF). A February 2009 report from the U.S. Muslim Engagement Project, a high-level, thirty-four member bipartisan group, argues the United States should not automatically equate reform with secularism and calls for sharia (PDF) with human rights abuses and anti-Americanism.

Timothy Samuel Shah, a former CFR fellow for religion and foreign policy, argues the United States should create a dialogue that helps differentiate between factions within Islamic movements and identifies those ripe for engagement--not just targeting so-called moderates. While experts say that some Islamic militants will be unwilling to engage under any circumstances, a 2005 International Crisis Group report points out that creating a dichotomy of engagement between "radicals" and "moderates" oversimplifies complex situations. "The sheer diversity of Islamic activism mandates caution and modesty in Western policy," the report notes. "In any one country, a Muslim government may face several competing brands not only of political Islamism, but also of fundamentalist missionary Islamism and of jihadi activism, not to mention other forms of Islamic activism" (PDF).

Though these experts acknowledge that engaging groups such as the Muslim Brotherhood, Hamas, and the Taliban is fraught with challenges, some argue it is better than the alternative. "The veil is not the same as the suicide belt," Newsweek’s Fareed Zakaria writes. "We can better pursue our values if we recognize the local and cultural context, and appreciate that people want to find their own balance between freedom and order, liberty and license." Some also note that even extreme Islamic movements may moderate over time once they become part of a stable political process. CFR’s Coleman points out that Hamas, which espoused extreme views on women, has relaxed its stance somewhat to "appeal to more secular Palestinians and female voters," and ran thirteen female candidates in the 2006 Palestinian elections. However, experts say U.S. policy has been disjointed on support for militant Islamists in elections. "You cannot have elections and militias at the same time," said former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright at a CFR meeting in January 2009. "At the same time, we need to be consistent. We say we don’t want groups that practice violence to participate in elections. In Iraq, there are groups that have participated in violence. And we have accepted them."


Top Stories on CFR


Israel’s forces have moved to control the northern Gaza Strip but face challenges in tracking Hamas fighters into tunnels. Meanwhile, the costs for Palestinian civilians are intensifying pressure on Israeli leaders.

United States

As violence escalates in Israel’s struggle with Hamas, the potential for hate-based violence in the United States grows, too. American leaders need to step in to defuse tensions.


The country’s massive economic problems will be a vexing challenge for whoever becomes president.