International Relations of an Islamist Movement

The Case of the Jama ‘at-i Islami of Pakistan

February 15, 2000


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There is much written about the impact of Islamist forces on international politics. Comparatively little is known about how Islamist forces conceive of the international arena, understand their interests therein, and formulate policies to serve those interests. It is the aim of this paper to elucidate Islamist thinking on international affairs by exploring the directives that are inherent to the Islamist ideological discourse, as well as the imperatives that confront Islamism in the political arena, by examining the case of the Jama'at-i Islami (Islamic Party) of Pakistan. The Legacy of Pan-Islamism Islamist thinking about international issues begins with the vision of the larger Muslim world. Islamism since the time of Jamal al-Din al-Afghani (d. 1897), the forerunner of modern Islamist activism and a prime advocate of Islamic unity, has possessed an international, pan-Islamic dimension.

  1. Revivalists have aspired, in varying degrees, to give meaning to the Islamic notion of umma (holy or virtuous community), and even to reconstitute the caliphate as a transnational institution of authority. Such efforts as the Khilafat (caliphate) movement in India from 1919-1921.
  2. Or the Muslim congresses that convened in the Middle East after World War I have sought to put into practice the universalist claims of revivalism.
  3. The symbolism of the umma and the caliphate have since been used by activists to construct an ideal International Relations vision of sociopolitical change and to gain legitimacy and strength in politics.
  4. The central role that the desire for unity plays in Muslim politics has led some observers to view Islam and those who advocate its participation in politics as fundamentally at odds with both the spirit and reality of the nation-state system. Such characterizations are not supported by empirical evidence. Islamic universalism has been kept at bay by the reality of the nation-state. The rhetoric of universalism withstanding, Islamist organizations, such as the Muslim Brotherhood or the Jama'at-i Islami, have divided up along national lines and developed as national political organizations. In the same vein, the Islamic Republic of Iran has failed to break out of its Iranian mold, and over time its foreign policy has been decided by national interest.
  5. Still, based on the rhetoric of Muslim groups and especially of Islamist movements and parties, many continue to view revivalists as internationalists bent on overrunning national boundaries in their attempts to construct an "Islamdom."

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