Introducing the Subfields of Political Science: Comparative Politics - Part 2
By John von Heyking, August 25, 2009 in Pedagogy and Teaching, Publishing and Research
Part 1 is here.

Premodern Islamic attitudes and practices were by and large based on low expectations on what politics can achieve. Humanity is depraved, and tolerating a bad ruler or even tyrant is a matter of getting what one deserves or obtaining the best one can hope for. Because of this low expectation, Muslims historically have been able to keep distance between their political authorities and their religious practices. If one affirms the depravity of one's ruler, then one will take guard to ensure he lacks authority to dictate religious doctrine or practice. Brown observes the Ottoman empire, where the emperor had authority to appoint clerics, marks the greatest extent political authorities were able to influence religious practices.

I cover some Islamic political history, including the early generations. I also explain the difference between Sunni and Shia, with side-glances to Sufis and other sects. I point out that within each part of Islam one finds a wide range of attitudes and practices. For example, within Sunnism, one finds a Puritan extremist like Muhammed ibn Abd al-Wahhab on the one hand, and a modernist like Shaykh Muhammad Abduh (1849-1905) on the other hand.

The resurgence of political Islam has roots dating back to European colonialism, and beyond that, the defeat of the Ottoman Empire at Vienna and the subsequent Treaty of Carlowitz (1683), which forced the Ottomans to adopt the customs of European diplomacy and international law, which, according to Bernard Lewis, constituted a blow to their pride and led to a gradual decline in power.

Political Islam is an expression of the struggle to modernize, which, as we have seen, is hindered by Islam's seamless ontology that resists modernity's impulse to separate various realms of human existence. On a social level, as Olivier Roy observes, Muslims worldwide are responding to global forces that dispossess them, either by their migrating to the West, or from their rural village to the metropolis. Either way, their social, cultural, and normative markers are getting overturned, which produces anxiety. If Westerners can be criticized for asking what Islam is about (which assumes there is a single "Islam"), one similarly finds Muslims, deprived of their cultural and social markers, asking the same question. This is why, for instance, a website called has proven more useful—to whom does one look when the local imam no longer possesses authority (or one lacks a local imam)?

Political Islam, which marks a more assertive form of politics than generally found in premodern forms of Islamic political practices, is also an attempt to structure politics on a "home-grown" basis. Muslim societies in the twentieth-century tried socialism, nationalism, and Arabism, and found them wanting as well as too European in lineage. Political Islam seems attractive because it calls for the revolutionary rearrangement of society along Quranic lines. Of course, Ayotollah Khomeini learned Marxist-inspired Third Worldism (e.g., Frantz Fanon) during his exile in Paris, and Sayyid Qutb, likely the most influential Islamist ideologue, drew his critique of the materialist West from French fascists.

Of course, tracing lineage is not as important as understanding the nature of the ideology. I cover Qutb, al-Banna, and Maududi on the Sunni side, and point out the "radical democracy" dimensions of their thought. The Shi'ite Revolution in Iran was led by the clerics. I also discuss the Mahdism of the current president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

If I had time, I would spend more time discussing Islamic reformers, including Iranian Abdolkarim Soroush, and novelists, including Orhan Pamuk, whose Snow, which is a wonderful meditation on the fault-lines between secularism and political Islam in Turkey, won him the Nobel Prize.

Even so, I teach the politics of Islam with the assumption the students lack any knowledge about it. I try to avoid the politically correct strategy of purging them of their "Orientalism." Genuine comparative knowledge strives to understand political phenomena in their entirety, at least in outline, warts and all. I will have succeeded if they have gained an appreciation of the complexity of the politics of Islam.

I began my discussion of my introductory political science course by commenting on the link between political thinking and self-knowledge. If I have accomplished anything in this course, I hope I have instilled in my students a little self-knowledge, warts and all.

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about the author

John von Heyking
John von Heyking

I teach political philosophy at the University of Lethbridge, Alberta, as well as religion and politics. I received my Ph.D. from the University of Notre Dame in 1999.

My publications include Augustine and Politics as Longing in the World (Missouri, 2001), Civil Religion in Political Thought:  Its Perennial Questions and Enduring Relevance in North America (coeditor; published by CUA Press, 2010), Friendship and Politics: Essays in Political Thought (coeditor, published with U. of Notre Dame Press, 2008), two edited volumes of The Collected Works of Eric Voegelin (Missouri, 2003), as well as articles on Aristotle and friendship, political representation, citizenship, republicanism, just war, Islamic politics, politics and prophecy, leadership, the place of America in contemporary political thought, religious liberty under Canada's Charter of Rights and Freedoms, and the political philosophy of rodeo. I am also at work on a book-length study on the relationship between friendship and political order. My editorials have appeared in the Globe and Mail (Toronto), Calgary Herald, C2C: Canada’s Journal of Ideas, and the Ashbrook Center for Public Affairs. I am currently Associate Editor for History, Theory, and Law of the journal, Politics and Religion, published by Cambridge University Press. His work has been translated into Italian, German, and Chinese. I have delivered invited lectures to audiences throughout Canada and the United States, as well as in Germany, France, Switzerland, and Russia.