An Update to Hegghammer’s Preference-Based Analysis of Islamism

Much has been talked and written about in popular discourse regarding religion, Islam, and the rise of Islamists and Salafis following the uprisings in the Middle East and North Africa during the past year. The elections in Tunisia and especially in Egypt upended some assumptions researchers have had regarding Salafi participation in elections. Prior to the elections in Egypt, the al-Nur Party was categorically against participation in elections. According to Salafi doctrine, democracy is considered a religion, a polytheistic one where legislators are idols that infringe upon God’s sole sovereignty over mankind. Of course, not all Salafis will necessarily break from this doctrine as al-Nur has. That said, it should make one pause when thinking about how one categorizes in a social scientific sense religious groups and religiously-inspired social movements. The uprisings have created a paradigm shift in some of the MENA societies, broken long-engrained taboos, and given space to previously unexposed ideas. It is quite possible that what one thought before regarding these movements may no longer apply or is analytically more fluid due to a change in circumstance and the potential to gain from it. Therefore, this short article hopes to look at these changes through the lens of Norwegian-based jihadism studies expert Thomas Hegghammer’s preference-based analysis of Islamism.


As Hegghammer states, it is not perfect, but in terms of robustness it is the most analytically precise categorization that one has theorized. This article will address some of these flaws below, which will hopefully encourage broader debate. For now, this article will explain Hegghammer’s preference-based analysis of Islamism. There are five rationales and each has a violent and non-violent form. Here is the table Hegghammer used in his essay “Jihadi-Salafis or Revolutionaries? On Religion and Politics in the Study of Militant Islamism,” in the edited volume Global Salafism: Islam’s New Religious Movement:

Rationale Non-violent form   Violent form  
  Manifestation Examples Manifestations Examples
State-oriented Reformism MB, SaudiSahwa Socio-revolutionary activism GIA, GSPC, EIJ
Nation-oriented Nationalism Violent irredentism Hamas, LeT, Chechen mujahidin, Islamic Army (Iraq)
Ummah-oriented Pan-Islamism MWL
Classical jihadism Global jihadism


Arabs in Chechnya al-Qai‘da (AQ), QAP


Morality-oriented Pietism Tabligh, Madkhalis Vigilantism Unorganized hisba
Sectarian Sectarianism Violent sectarianism Lashkar-e-Janghvi, Iraqi militias

Here are Hegghammer’s definitions of the above rationales:

State-oriented: Characterized by a desire to change the social and political organization of the state.

Nation-oriented: Defined by a desire to establish sovereignty on a specific territory perceived as occupied or dominated by non-Muslims.

Umma-oriented: Distinguished by a desire to protect the Islamic nation as a whole from external (non-Muslim) threats.

Morality-oriented: Characterized by a desire to change Muslims’ social conduct in a more conservative and literalist direction.

Sectarian-oriented: Defined by a desire to reduce the influence and power of the competing sect (Shi’i or Sunni).

Obsolete or Update?

Overall, Hegghammer’s categorization still provides an important jumping off point for how one can comprehend differences between differing Islamist movements. There are a few aspects that could be adjusted and updated to the realities of the past few years in the West and in the MENA. First, it may be worthwhile now for one to account for differences between governing Islamist actors and non-state Islamist actors. Therefore, parties such as the AKP in Turkey, the Freedom and Justice Party (FJP; Muslim Brothers) in Egypt, and Ennahda in Tunisia as well as hybrid state/non-state actors like HAMAS in the Palestinian Territories and Hizbullah in Lebanon would be categorized in an alternative matter.

As it relates to non-state actors (since that is what the original categorization is based on), there is one group that does not quite fit the mold: Hizb ut-Tahrir (HuT). Based on its ideology it should be considered ummah-oriented and non-violent meaning pan-Islamists, yet they are far different than the Muslim World League (MWL) in purpose and goal. Additionally, although different ideologically, in recent years, Western groups such as al-Muhajirun (AM) in the United Kingdom, Revolution Muslim (RM) in the United States, and Shari‘ah for Belgium (S4B) would fall under the same type of category as HuT. Similarly, with the onset of the MENA uprisings, new non-violent Salafi groups that focus locally, but sympathize with AQ’s global message such as Ansar al-Shari‘ah in Tunisia (AST) and al-Tali‘ah al-Salafiyyah al-Mujahidiyyah (TSM) in Egypt would fall under a similar preference-based categorization as HuT and the Western groups mentioned above. As such, similar to the violent form of the ummah-oriented categorization (classical and global jihadism), I propose that there should be a dual categorization for non-violent ummah-oriented pan-Islamists: systemic Pan-Islamists and anti-systemic Pan-Islamists. I would define them as such:

Systemic pan-Islamism: Interested in pan-Islamist causes, but accept and work within the current international system.

Anti-systemic pan-Islamism: Groups that are non-violent yet want to overthrow the current international system and world order.

Therefore, organizations such as the Muslim World League would be considered systemic pan-Islamists while the groups HuT, AM, RM, S4B, AST, and TSM would be categorized as non-systemic Pan-Islamists.

These are the basics of what could be a much longer/larger discussion and argument, but I wanted to put the main contours out there to see what others thought.

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