Skip to content
Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs
Strategic Alliances for a Secure, Connected, and Prosperous Region

Daphne Burdman on Political Islam, World Politics and Europe, by Bassam Tibi

Filed under: Israel, Israeli Security, The Middle East
Publication: Jewish Political Studies Review

Jewish Political Studies Review

Jewish Political Studies Review 20:3-4 (Fall 2008)


The Potential for a Democratic Islam

Political Islam, World Politics and Europe, by Bassam Tibi, Routledge, Taylor and Francis Books, 2008, 311 pp.

Reviewed by Daphne Burdman

Bassam Tibi examines Islamist expansionism both in Muslim and Western societies, a phenomenon that appears in violent and deceptively peaceful guises. He presents a penetrating and analytical study of the West’s inability to comprehend the underlying ideologies of Islamism, which is crucial if it hopes effectively to confront this increasingly dire situation. By demonstrating its essential structure, Tibi also examines the potential for democracy in societies where classical Islam prevails.

Tibi defines his book as a “social-scientific study” and not a theological analysis. He views “religious activism” as a social fact.  However, he accepts the self-image of jihadists as “true believers …….in [their] new world order of ‘hakimiyyat Allah/God’s rule.” He argues that “religion has become politicized” and “politics has become religionized.” Quoting Sayyid Qutb (1906-1996), the ideologist of the Muslim Brotherhood, who stated “….Islam is meant for the entire globe,” he traces world-wide jihadist terrorism to this expansionist ideology and dismisses as “deceit” excuses that these actions are manifestations of outrage over Western policies in Palestine, Iraq, Afghanistan and Lebanon.

From the overall tone of the book it is clear that Professor Tibi is also a strong advocate of the Muslim world. He criticizes violent hegemonic expansionism which he sees as destructive not only to non-Muslims but also to Muslims themselves by deflecting the latter from a constructive course to build a better society.

Professor Tibi is particularly qualified both professionally and personally to write this detailed and thoughtful study because of his unique understanding of  both Islamic and Western cultures. Tibi was born in Damascus, Syria, to a family of notable Islamic scholars. As a boy he studied and memorized the Qu’ran in the traditional way, yet at that early age questioned his teachers regarding the Muslim assumption of superiority. After receiving his Baccalaureate from a Damascene French Lycée, he went to Frankfurt University, Germany, earning degrees in Social Science, Philosophy and History. At the “Frankfurt School” with teachers such as Horkheimer, Adorno, and Habermas, he embraced the “rationalism” of Max Weber. He correlates this rationalism with the tradition of medieval Islamic rationalism found in al-Farabi, Avicenna, Averroës, and Ibn Khaldun (ninth to fourteenth centuries CE), the pinnacle of which is considered the “Golden Age of Islam.” Tibi defines himself as both a reformist and a practicing Muslim.

Tibi, who heads the Department of International Relations at the University of Goettingen, Germany, is A.D. White Professor at Large at Cornell University, USA, and was previously visiting professor at Harvard University and other US universities. He has authored 27 books in German which have been translated into 16 languages, and 7 books in English.


Tibi disagrees with Huntington’s Clash of Civilizations concept, but is conditionally in agreement with Fukuyama. He maintains that the “clash” is within Islamic societies, and not between Islamic and external societies. Previously, he disagreed with Fukuyama, who postulated the “End of History” at the conclusion of the Cold War, but is now more in agreement with him since Fukuyama has acknowledged Europe as a new battleground of Western values versus values of the European Islamic diaspora.[1]

Tibi views today’s jihadist/militant radical Islamists and Islamism (deriving from the thought of Hasan al-Banna(1928) and Sayyid Qutb, with additional contributions from Ayatollah Khomeini) as a new creation. He sees its politicization as an invented tradition and a manipulation of the basic Islamic theological concepts of jihad according to the Qu’ran. This has led to the establishment of a “trans-national totalitarian organization” aimed at destabilizing the political hegemony and cultural values of Western and democratic nations, while also targeting so-called moderate Islamic nations. Tibi contrasts this current jihadism of irregular terrorist wars with the strict rules of classical jihad, as does Bernard Lewis who also notes Qur’anic manipulation and abrogation.[2]

Tibi denies that the classical jihad of the Qur’an is solely “peaceful self-exertion,” an assertion he considers distinctly misleading. Namely, when proselytizing for Islamic expansion meets with opposition, Qur’anic jihad clearly advocates fighting (qital). Such fighting is subject to specific restrictions regarding protection of the innocent, in contrast to the irregular warfare of present-day jihadists who deliberately foment terror by targeting civilian populations. Today’s terrorism is aimed both at the West and so-called moderate Islamic populations which jihadists consider apostate. Tibi discusses jihadist reasoning on these issues and elaborates on the Muslim conception of war as a permanent condition whose purpose is to establish global dominance.

A second type of Islamism is essentially non-violent. This he designates as “institutional Islamism.” It pursues an obligatory path of da’wa/peaceful verbal proselytizing as prescribed by the Qur’an. In Europe, however, it has become the essential tool for subverting democracy by utilizing the Muslim diaspora to infiltrate legal and constitutional host institutions, exploit democratic norms of equality and freedom of speech, and gradually introduce elements of shar’ia law. Western experts (such as Daniel Pipes, Raphael Israeli, Robert Spencer and others) are in total agreement, but these views so far have had little impact on Western policy makers.


Western “unconcern”

Tibi attributes the success of this infiltration partly to the stultifying blanket of “political correctness” and cultural relativism which smothers attempts to expose the process and take effective counter measures. He writes exhaustively on this score, urging the appropriate authorities to wake up to the dangers of an Islamization of Europe. He advocates strong political and governmental action against this creeping shar’ia-ization. Since his discourse relates to Europe, Tibi does not mention the US, but here too troubling accounts of intellectual Islamist penetration are increasingly coming to light.[3]


What can be done?  Pluralism instead of Multiculturalism.

Relating to the rapidly growing Muslim diaspora in Europe, Tibi urges a dual strategy that first involves a significant security approach, and second “an effort at an inter-civilizational dialogue with liberal and open-minded Muslims as a means of conflict resolution.” The goal is Muslim integration rather than assimilation where pluralism replaces multiculturalism. This would necessitate such measures as expanded educational and social programs for Muslim immigrant youth to encourage integration into mainstreams of Western society and greater employment opportunities.

Pluralism “combines diversity with shared basic values” by contrast with multiculturalism in which the host nation concedes its basic values and sovereign rights to autonomous immigrant minorities. This will entail prodigious efforts on both sides to establish such a pluralistic Euro-Islam and to prevent the Islamization of Europe.

To achieve such an eventual reconciliation Tibi reviews cultural issues of both Muslims in Europe and host European nations. His arguments on these sweeping issues derive from his rationalist approach and the success of prior rationalist periods of Muslim history. This includes the need to curtail the influence of radical imams and Islamist recruiters of both Muslim and host-nation youths. Of even more profound significance is the controversial issue of democratization within Islam. He suggests not merely instituting elections but also using an educational process to build a civil society based on legal and administrative institutions with full respect for universal human rights, as also emphasized by Zakaria.[4]


The Rationale of Democratization

Tibi believes that “democracy is not only needed but also possible in the world of Islam in its present crisis.” He advocates a reform of Islam based on the Qur’an considered as a scripture reactive to and reflective of the troubled history during which it was written, from 610 to 632 C.E.[5] By thus “historicizing” it and relating it to its period, it introduces from the very beginning the human element of interpretation into the otherwise divine substance. According to rational theory, this legitimates and permits re-interpretation throughout the ages. This is in stark contrast with the Muslim tradition of accepting the immutability of a solely divinely inspired document. It thus becomes the lynch-pin for a reformed Islam compatible with democracy and Western concepts of human rights. The prior existence of a highly successful rational medieval Islam, and the contemporary existence of varieties of Islam in diverse cultures in South East Asia indicate that the required flexibility does exist within Islam. In a similar way, human jurisprudence was involved in formulating the shar’ia, which cannot be considered divine and immutable as demanded by Islamist imams. Such recognition would permit Islam, while retaining its self-respect, to loosen the bonds by which shar’ia demands hegemony over all others. Tibi completely rejects the institution of the shura/conciliation as a step toward democratization.



This book also reflects the views of scholars already mentioned and others such as David Bukay, Nazih Ayubi, Moshe Sharon, Martin Kramer concerning the Islam of Dar-al-Islam, Dar al-Harb, and Islamist jihad. It differs in that one of its main purposes is to analyze basic structural features of Islamic philosophy/theology relevant to democratization. Tibi and his like-minded colleagues oppose the mainstream tendency which has been hugely influenced by the Edward Said school (which classifies Western scholars as proto-colonials, and attributes Palestinian behaviors solely to Palestinian victimization), and John Esposito (who considers Islamist jihad as due to multiple social causes while minimizing its religious and politicized core, and who is confident of its capability for ultimate democratization through societal factors rather than on the need for internal structural change). Not surprisingly, Tibi disagrees strongly with the claim of Esposito and Voll[6] that there can be a “democratic Islamism.” However he emphasizes the potential for a democratic Islam.

This book also shows that within the public domain there is no universally accepted terminology which adds confusion to an already highly complex subject. For example, the unsuspecting Western world lumps together as “moderates,” both Muslims without expansionist/da’wa intentions and Muslims of the opposite extreme who practice institutional, proselytizing Islamism. Tibi clarifies such issues and warns the Western world that so-called moderate Muslim states are similarly framed within the hegemonic principle of an eventual Muslim world-wide caliphate to which they would actively commit, should the possibility arise.

From a sophisticated and learned perspective this book clarifies many other significant issues, for example differences between Sunni and Shiite beliefs and cultures. It contains numerous scholarly references from all horizons, has an extensive bibliography, both contemporary and historical, and a fine index. Some repetition is noted, the author himself commenting “but my critics compel me to reiterate endlessly.” Tibi has given us a courageous book, rich in new concepts and fascinating detail derived from his widespread research and contact with significant policy makers. As an innovator, he speaks from an intimate knowledge of his subject matter. His logic derives from his rational stance together with, attention directed to relevant philosophical frameworks. He readily admits that the present reform movement is small and that there are many obstacles in its path. He is a practical thinker and not a dreamer, approaching the issue with an open and constructive mind. As mentioned above, the Qur’an considered as a chronicle which intimately derives from turbulent periods of early Islam and reflects existential realities of that time, leaves much freedom for interpretation, and therefore for reform. To skeptical readers, this reviewer points out that the Reformation of the Christian Church and the advent of Protestantism started one hundred and fifty years before Martin Luther’s time with early demands by an Englishman, John Wycliffe (1370’s),[7]  for an English-language translation of the Bible which would make it accessible to the reading public. Although profound changes require much time, and the present world situation demands urgent action, the changes which Bassam Tibi proposes can only be brought about from within Islam itself. Accordingly, a methodical assessment of the present situation as presented in Political Islam, World Politics and Europe, is an essential precondition for positive change .

*     *     *



[1] Bassam Tibi, Political Islam, World Politics and Europe (New York, Routledge, Taylor and Francis, 2008), 2,3,8,18. See also Samuel P. Huntington, Clash of Civilizations (New York, Simon and Schuster,1996); Francis Fukuyama, The End of History and the Last Man (New York, Avon Books, 1992) with a revised analysis secondary to Muslim cultural migrations into Europe; Fukuyama, “Identity, Immigration and Liberal Democracy,” Journal of Democracy, Vol.17, No.2 (2006): 5-20.

[2] Bernard Lewis, The Crisis of Islam (New York: Random House Modern Library, 2003), 39, 138-9.

[3] Lee Kaplan, “Israeli Apartheid Week on U.S. Campuses”,  26February 2007;

Daniel Pipes, “The Islamic Society of Boston & the Politicians Red Faces”  Weblog 29__October 2003 [tracing the lawsuit through 6 December 2007] ,

[4] Fareed Zakaria, The Future of Freedom : Illiberal Democracy At Home And Abroad  (New York: Norton, 2003).

[5] Maxime Rodinson, Mohammed, 2nd Edition (London: Allen Lane, 1971).

[6] John Esposito and John Voll, Islam and Democracy (New York: Oxford University Press, 1996).

[7] Ronald D Lesley, Th.M.,D.D., Facts From History About Our King James Bible (Fundamental Baptist Institute, ).

*     *     *

DAPHNE BURDMAN is a physician, certified by the American Boards of Pathology and Psychiatry as pathologist and psychiatrist; Lieutenant Colonel, US Army, Res., Ret.;