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Islamist groups in the Arab world are diverse in their political agendas, goals, and activities and thus defy simple categorization. But several trends and common denominators have emerged in the early twenty-first century.
By 2016, more than fifty Islamist or pro-Islamist parties had been formed in the Arab world. Almost half have emerged over the past decade. The groups are both new and old. The largest dates back to 1928; at least ten were formed only in 2011. Some parties have wide experience and deep social networks; others are starting from scratch.
The positions of several parties have evolved over time or because of political realities. But very few parties could be described as moderate. Most are conservative to ultraconservative in their social agendas. The vast majority of Islamist parties want Sharia law to be an essential part of the new order, but they diverge widely on how strictly or how quickly to implement it.
Many parties claim to support “democracy” or “pluralism,” but their positions often fall seriously short of real democratic values. For many of them, democracy means participation in multiparty elections and coexistence with other religious minorities, but the parties often fall short of those goals on specific issues such as minority rights, gender issues, and the extent of civil liberties.
Many parties have emerged from rigid ideologies or strict interpretations of Islamic law, but frequently there are gross inconsistencies between tough party platforms and the toned-down comments of senior officials in interviews. Members often have disparate opinions. Party websites and programs describe lofty democratic goals—such as on women’s rights—that are not reflected in practice. Many parties limit their advocacy on women’s rights to the reform of personal status law, which affects family issues such as the right to divorce, child custody, and inheritance.
In the sectarian landscape of the Middle East, no mass parties appeal broadly to both Sunnis and Shiites. Yet even within the same sect, many movements are actually rivals, such as the Muslim Brotherhood and Nour Party among Sunnis in Egypt or the Dawa Party and Islamic Supreme Council among Shiites in Iraq.
On economic policy, many parties support private enterprise and capitalism but almost inevitably want a strong emphasis on “social justice” in terms of a more equitable distribution of national resources. Even when they were outlawed, many of these movements gained popular support through networks of social services, which they favor expanding once they are in power.
Like many of their secular counterparts, the Islamist groups take strong positions in support of a Palestinian state. Many support Hamas and the use of violence or “resistance” against Israel. But some groups, such as Egypt’s Islamist groups, have said that they will honor international treaties, an implicit commitment not to abrogate the Camp David peace treaty with Israel. On ties with the United States, even those who talk to American diplomats want to diminish U.S. influence in their countries.
Of the more than fifty Islamist parties in fourteen Arab countries, the largest number emerged directly or indirectly out of the Muslim Brotherhood. The Brotherhood has a presence or offshoot in most Arab countries, although the shapes, leadership types, agendas, and names vary.
In Egypt, Jordan, and Syria, the movement has existed as an opposition force for many decades. In a few of the Gulf countries, where political parties or religious groups operating outside the state’s religious authorities are not permitted, the Brotherhood exists more as a strand of influence than as an organized political group. In Bahrain, the Brotherhood is openly affiliated with the regime; in Kuwait, the Brotherhood is a main political group.
The most dynamic new political players are Salafi groups, which have increased across the region in the twenty-first century, particularly after the Arab uprisings. Salafi groups account for the second largest number of Islamist groups in the Arab world. They have traditionally renounced a role in politics, even tolerating autocratic leaders as long as they were Muslims. But Salafis, too, differ broadly even within countries, where Salafi groups are often the sum total of several gatherings around local sheikhs rather than a single national movement.
This list includes more than fifty Islamist or pro-Islamist movements, ranging from centrist groups and Salafi ideologues to elected parties that still rely on both the ballot and the bullet. The list does not include apolitical movements, purely militant groups, or smaller parties. Click each country to learn more.
Movement of Society for Peace
History: Founded in 1988 by Mahfoud Nahnah, the Movement of Society for Peace (Harakat al Moujtama as Silm, or MSP) is now led by Aboujerra Soltani. The MSP is a branch of Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood. It previously backed President Abdelaziz Bouteflika’s regime, but split from the ruling coalition in 2012 to form the Green Algeria Coalition with two smaller Islamist groups, Ennahda and Al-Islah. The coalition fared poorly in the 2012 elections – winning only 48 of 462 seats – and failed to field a presidential candidate to challenge Bouteflika in 2014.
Positions: The 2007 platform proposed that a grand mufti serve as the chief legal authority, but the party does not call for Sharia law or an Islamic state. The party supports women’s rights to education and work, but it does not advocate changing the conservative Family Code. It supports Islamic banking, social welfare, and state control of certain sectors. But the party encourages private investments in the oil sector and the promotion of small and medium-sized enterprises. The MSP supports the Palestinian cause and calls for the return of all Palestinian territory.
Justice and Development Front
History: Founded in 2011 by Abdallah Djaballah (also a founder of the Islah and Ennahda parties, now largely inactive), the Justice and Development Front (FJD) was legally recognized in 2012. It won only seven seats in the 2012 election, compared to 48 won by the Green Algerian Coalition, and it boycotted the 2014 presidential election.
Positions: The FJD released its political platform in May 2012. The party is socially conservative, and it attracts Salafi supporters. It promotes teaching the Quran and other measures to increase the role of Islam in public life. It also emphasizes national reconciliation, political reform, and diversifying the economy.
National Front for Change
History: The National Front for Change was founded in 2009 by Abdelmajid Menasra, previously a leader in the Movement of Society for Peace. The National Front for Change won just four seats in the 2012 parliamentary elections. In April 2013, the party sought greater cooperation with the MSP in an attempt to present a more unified Islamist front. Unlike other Islamist groups, the National Front for Change did not officially boycott the 2014 election, but it also did not field an opposition candidate.
Positions: The Front called for amnesty for former members of the Islamic Salvation Front and criticized Algeria’s undemocratic system. Menasra has stated that his party “believes in peaceful and democratic change,” and has called for combating despotism, corruption, poverty, and illiteracy.
Movement for National Reform
History: The Movement for National Reform (al Islah) is the successor to Ennahda, also founded by Abdallah Djaballah. After Djaballah’s departure in 2006, the party lost significant support. It joined the Green Algeria Coalition in 2012.
Islamic Salvation Front
History: Founded in 1989 by Abbasi Madani and Sheikh Ali Belhadj, the Islamic Salvation Front (FIS) won the first round of parliamentary elections in 1991. In 1992, a military coup aborted the election and outlawed the FIS, which sparked a decade-long insurgency. The FIS renounced violence in 1999. In 2011, parliament sustained the ban on the FIS. The organization is currently led from exile by Madani.
Positions: The FIS calls for an Islamic state but accepts multiparty elections. It emerged as a Salafi movement with strict interpretation of Sharia law and gender segregation.
Ennahda, the predecessor to the FJD and the National Front, was formed in the 1980s but is now largely inactive.
The Movement for Liberty and Social Justice was founded in 2007, led by former FIS leaders, most of them in exile. They have been seeking without success to convince the military that they have forsworn violence and truly embraced multiparty democracy.
Islamic National Accord Association
History: A Shiite party founded in 2001, the Islamic National Accord Association (Wefaq) is Bahrain’s largest party, led by Sheikh Ali Salman. In 2009, Abdul Jalil Maqdad and Abdul Wahab Hussein split from Wefaq and founded the Wafa Islamic Party, which has yet to be legalized. The majority of Bahrain's Shiite parties boycotted the November 2014 elections, including Wefaq.
The Bahraini government has cracked down on Wefaq leaders. Deputy Secretary General Khalil al Marzooq was charged with criticizing the government in 2013, but was later acquitted. Sheikh Ali Salman was arrested in December 2014, prompting protests across the country. In June 2015, he was jailed for four years on charges of inciting violence.
Positions: Wefaq is socially conservative and emphasizes Islamic values, but it supports multiparty elections. In 2011, Wefaq’s eighteen members of parliament resigned to protest regime violence against protestors.
History: Authenticity (Asalah) was founded in 2002 and is led by Ghanim al Buaneen. It won two seats in the 2014 elections for the Council of Representatives.
Positions: Asalah is the main Salafi political party in Bahrain. It promotes a hardline interpretation of Islam that rejects Western political and cultural influence. The party officially supports women’s rights, but Buaneen has said that the party opposes women’s political participation. Asalah views Shiites as heretics, but it sometimes cooperates with the Shiite party Wefaq on morality issues. Asalah opposed U.S. military action in Iraq and supports the Palestinian cause.
History: Founded in 2001 with close ties to the regime, the Platform (Menbar) is led by Salah Abdulrahman. It is the political wing of the Islah Society, which is associated with the Muslim Brotherhood, formed in 1941. The party secured one seat in the 2014 parliamentary elections.
Positions: Menbar seeks to strengthen Islamic values and social equality. It allows women’s political participation, but in the 2006 election, Menbar chose not to field any female candidates because its conservative ally, Asalah, opposed it. Menbar backed a women’s campaign to reform the personal status law.
Islamic Action Party
History: The Islamic Action Party (Shirazis) was founded in 2002 and led by Sheikh Mohammad Ali al Mahfudh. One of the main Shiite Islamist parties, the Shirazis originated as the militant Islamic Front for the Liberation of Bahrain. The Shirazis boycotted the 2010 elections because of arrests of its members. The party supported the 2011 demonstrations, and a Bahraini court dissolved the party in 2012.
Positions: The group focuses on political and human rights and rejects sectarianism. It calls for an Islamic state based on Sharia law.
History: Another splinter group from Wefaq, Haq was founded in 2005 by Hasan Mushaima but is not legalized. The regime accused Haq of using violent tactics. Its leaders were jailed in 2011.
Positions: Haq boycotted the 2006 and 2010 elections and rejects engagement with the regime. It supports the antiregime protests.
Muslim Brotherhood and Freedom and Justice Party
History: Founded in 1928 by Hassan al Banna, the Muslim Brotherhood is the world’s largest Islamist movement with more than eighty branches. First organized as a social movement, the Brotherhood then went through a radical phase from the late 1940s to the 1960s, when Sayyid Qutb was a leading ideologue. Officially banned in the 1950s during the Nasser era, it renounced violence in 1969 and has fielded independent candidates for parliament since the 1980s.
In 2011, it launched the Freedom and Justice Party, led by Mohammed Morsy. In the 2011–12 elections for parliament, the party won a plurality with 43.4 percent of the vote as part of the Democratic Alliance coalition. In June 2012, Morsi was elected president.
But public opposition mounted against Morsi over the next year. In June 2013, the Tamarrod (revolt) movement organized mass protests. On July 3, the military removed Morsi from office. Egypt's High Administrative Court ordered the dissolution of the Brotherhood in late 2014 and declared it a terrorist organization.
Positions: The party supports Sharia law as the source of legislation but advocates a civil state, not a theocracy. It would grant the Constitutional Court the right to oversee legislation to ensure compatibility with Islamic principles. On worship and personal status, non-Muslims would live under their own laws or traditions. Brotherhood members have voiced diverse opinions on Israel, minorities, and women’s rights. On its website, the party states that “peace treaties with Egypt can only be valid if passed by a referendum of the people,” but in 2012 the party said it would honor Egypt’s international treaties. In 2007, it said neither Coptic Christians nor women should be eligible to become president. But in 2012, the Brotherhood said that while it would not nominate either to be president, it would honor the will of the Egyptian majority.
History: Founded in 2011 and led by Emad Abdel Ghaffour, Nour is the main Salafi party and the second largest party. It was the first of three members of the Islamist Bloc alliance, which included the Building and Development Party and Asala. Together, they won 27.8 percent of the vote in the 2011–12 elections. The Nour Party initially supported Mohamed Morsi, but later backed Abdel Fattah el Sisi's presidential campaign after Morsi's ouster.
By early 2016, the Nour Party had managed to survive by backing Sisi’s regime. "Our philosophy is to avoid confrontation," said Nour leader Younes Makhioun in October 2015. But the strategy cost it support among its Islamist base. It won only 12 seats in the 2015 parliamentary elections.
Positions: A socially conservative party, Nour emphasizes social justice and calls for a civil state, but it seeks the gradual implementation of Sharia law. It officially supports democracy, although senior officials have said that democracy is a form of apostasy. Nour says that religious, personal status, and family issues for Coptic Christians should be handled by Coptic religious traditions. Nour officially supports women’s rights, but its leaders advocate gender segregation in education and public spaces. It fielded women as candidates largely because of electoral law but used flowers or party symbols instead of their faces on election material. It supports a state-led economy but also the protection of private property. In July 2011, Nour said it would hold a referendum on the peace agreement with Israel, but in December 2011, Nour said it would uphold the treaty but possibly modify parts of it.
Building and Development Party (Bana wa Tanmiya)
History: The Building and Development Party (Bana wa Tanmiya) was founded in 2011 by Tareq al Zumr and Safwat Abdul Ghani as the political party of the Islamic Group (al Gamaa al Islamiyya), a former militant group linked to Anwar Sadat’s 1981 assassination and attacks on security forces, tourists, and Coptic Christians. It renounced violence in 2002. The second of three parties in the Islamist Bloc alliance, it won 2.6 percent of the vote in the 2011–12 elections. In 2013, the party joined the "anti-coup alliance," a coalition of Islamist parties opposing President Morsi's ouster. But in 2014, the group began calling for reconciliation with Sisi's administration. It boycotted the 2015 parliamentary elections.
Positions: A socially conservative party, Bana supports multiparty elections in a political system based on Sharia. On women’s rights, the party says it wants to “solve the problem of rising marrying age and the increasing number of divorces.” It seeks a “socially just” economy but encourages private investment. Bana rejects Westernization, and it wants to reduce foreign influence in the economy. The party says it will uphold international agreements as long as they do not oppose Islamic principles or popular will. It supports an independent Palestinian state. In January 2012, a senior party member said that he would welcome al Qaeda leader Ayman Zawahiri back to Egypt.
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History: Founded in 1996 by Aboul Ela Madi, Wasat is a breakaway faction from the Muslim Brotherhood. It was not legalized until after Mubarak’s ouster. It won 1.8 percent of the vote in the 2011–12 parliamentary elections. In August 2014, the party withdrew from the "anti-coup alliance." It boycotted the 2015 parliamentary elections.
Positions: A progressive Islamist party, its ideology stems from the centrist (Wasatiya) school of Islamic thought. Wasat calls itself a “civil” party with an Islamic frame of reference that supports multiparty elections. It advocates a free market and encourages private investment. Wasat supports gender equality and inclusion of all religious minorities. It fielded sixty-nine women and two Coptic Christians on its electoral lists. It supports the Palestinian cause and the right of resistance to the Israeli occupation, but it does not seek to revoke or amend the Camp David accords.
History: Authenticity (Asalah) was founded in 2011 by Adel Abdul Maksoud Afify, Ihab Sheeha, and Mahmoud Sultan. Salafi Asala, the third party in the Islamist Bloc, won 0.6 percent of the vote in the 2011–12 elections. It boycotted the 2015 parliamentary elections.
Positions: Asala seeks to spread Islamic values and restore Egypt’s leadership globally. It believes in the strict application of Sharia law, gender segregation, modest Islamic dress, and prohibition of alcohol. Asala’s program states that political and economic international agreements should be revised. The party rejects recognition of Israel but reportedly does not seek to nullify the peace treaty with Israel.
Strong Egypt Party
History: The party was established in 2012 by Abdel Moneim Aboul Fotouh, a former Brotherhood leader. At least five of its members are detained on political charges, some of whom were involved in opposing the constitutional referendum. It boycotted the 2015 parliamentary elections.
Positions: The Strong Egypt Party is a centrist Islamist party which advocates progressive economic policy and moderate social policies. The party supported Morsi’s ouster, but opposed the military’s involvement in politics. In a 2012 interview, Fotouh said that the military “should not be granted its independence from the remainder of governing institutions.” He also indicated that formalizing sharia in Egypt’s constitution was not a priority for the party.
History: Virtue (Fadila) was founded in 2011 by Mahmoud Fathi and Mohammed Maksoud Afify. Afify then left the party and joined Asala. Fadila was initially part of the Democratic Alliance but withdrew before the 2011–12 elections because of party infighting and did not field any candidates.
Positions: The Salafi party calls for an Islamic state. It seeks press freedom but protection of moral values. Fadila does not oppose a relationship based on dialogue with the United States and Israel. The party supports an independent Palestinian state but does not wish to nullify the peace agreement with Israel.
Egyptian Current Party (Tayyar al Masry)
History: The Egyptian Current Party (Tayyar al Masry) was founded in 2011 by Mohamed al Kassas, Islam Lotfy, and Ahmed Abdul Gawad, prominent members of the Muslim Brotherhood’s youth wing. Tayyar was part of the Revolution Continues electoral alliance, which won 1.6 percent of the vote in the 2011–12 elections. In 2014, it merged with the Strong Egypt Party.
Positions: A more moderate Islamist party, Tayyar supports a civil state and the protection of individual civil liberties. It embraces Islamic values but does not seek the enforcement of Islamic law. It rejects rule by both the military and the Muslim Brotherhood, and is also known as the "third current."
Reform and Renaissance Party
History: Founded in 2011 by a small group of independent Islamists and led by Hesham Mostafa Abdel Aziz, the Reform and Renaissance Party did not win any seats in the 2011–12 elections.
Positions: The Reform and Renaissance Party calls itself a “civil” party that seeks to revitalize religious values. The party supports free market principles and privatization. It seeks an end to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and ambiguously talks about maintaining relations with neighboring countries on the basis of dialogue. It favors cooperation with Europe and the United States.
Islamic Dawa Party
History: The Islamic Dawa Party was founded in 1957 by Shiite clerics and led by Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki. Shiite Dawa initially promoted Islamic values and political awareness through education programs and demonstrations. After the 1968 coup, Dawa was repressed and became increasingly militant. It renounced violence in the 1990s. In 2014, Dawa party spokesman Haider al Abadi replaced Maliki as prime minister.
Positions: Dawa’s platform does not call for an Islamist state, and the party has increasingly moved toward more secular language and positions. It emphasizes both religious values and democratic principles, although critics note Dawa’s increasingly authoritarian tendencies and repression of the opposition under Maliki. The party supports women’s participation in politics, but only one out of forty-two cabinet posts is now held by a woman. Dawa favors a free market economy. Tensions between Abadi and Maliki have grown since the former took office in 2014, resulting in two competeing blocs within the party – Abadi's bloc favors close relations with the U.S. and is wary of relations with Tehran, while Maliki's bloc has aligned itself with Iran and against the U.S. and Saudi Arabians.
History: This movement emerged as a Shiite political force in 2003 and was led by the cleric Moqtada al Sadr. His powerful Mahdi Army militia, which targeted U.S. forces and rival Iraqi groups, was officially disbanded in 2007. A mass movement, it provides social services and youth education programs and has strong support among poorer Shiites. In the 2010 parliamentary elections, Sadrists allied with the National Iraqi Alliance, which won 21.5 percent of the vote. In the 2014 elections, Sadrists secured 34 seats, or around 10 percent of parliament.
Positions: The Sadr Movement calls for an Islamic state and Sharia law. Initially more of a social than a religious movement, the Sadr Movement champions rights of the Shiites, the largest population group but long repressed under earlier Sunni rulers. It has been accused of attacking Internet cafes, DVD shops, and unveiled women. But the party supports women’s participation in politics and successfully fielded female candidates that exceeded the set quotas. Sadr is close to Iran, where he studied religion during part of the U.S. intervention. The Sadr Movement is fiercely anti-American and anti-Israeli.
Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq
History: The Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq (ISCI) was founded in 1982 in Iran by Mohammed Baqr al Hakim. It is now led by his nephew, the cleric Ammar al Hakim. The Shiite political party is the largest member of the Iraqi National Alliance, which won 21.5 percent of parliamentary seats in 2010. Its militant wing, the Badr Organization, broke away and established its own party but allied with ISCI in the 2005 and 2010 elections.
Positions: ISCI does not call for an Islamic state but wants Sharia law as the main source of legislation. ISCI supports multiparty elections. In 2007, ISCI indicated an ideological shift away from Iran and the rule of the jurisprudent (Wilayat al Faqih) by dropping revolution from its name and expressing loyalty to Iraqi Grand Ayatollah Ali al Sistani instead of Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. The party supports women’s political participation and has fielded female candidates in elections, but it opposes the quota system. It wants to restrict alcohol consumption and Westernization. Despite its close relationship with Iran, ISCI cooperates with the United States.
Iraqi Islamic Party
History: Founded in 1960 and modeled on the Muslim Brotherhood, the Iraqi Islamic Party (IIP) is now led by Osama Tawfiq al Tikriti and Mohsen Abdul Hamid. Once the largest Sunni Islamist party, it lost support after Iraqi Vice President Tariq al Hashimi left the IIP in 2009 to create the Renewal List, a secular party that joined the Iraqiyya electoral alliance.
Positions: The IIP has become more nationalist than Islamist; it does not call for an Islamic state but promotes Islamic values. The party briefly suspended contacts with U.S. officials in 2008, accusing U.S. troops of targeting its members.
The Shiite political party Virtue (Fadila), part of the Iraqi National Alliance in 2010 elections, is led by Ayatollah Muhammad Yaqubi. Fadila has fifteen seats in parliament and controls the provincial council of Basra.
The Association of Muslim Scholars is not a political party but previously had significant political influence. The group has lost support in recent years.
There are several smaller Kurdish and Turkmen political parties, some of which are Islamist. The Islamic Union of Kurdistan, with ties to the Muslim Brotherhood, competed independently in the 2010 elections. Another influential Islamist group is the Kurdistan Islamic Group.
Muslim Brotherhood and Islamic Action Front
History: Formed in 1945, the Muslim Brotherhood fielded its first candidates in 1989 as independents. The Brotherhood has worked within the political system but its relations with the regime have been tense in recent years. Its political party, the Islamic Action Front (IAF), was founded in 1992 and is currently led by Hamzeh Mansour. The IAF boycotted the 2013 parliamentary elections. By 2015, the Jordanian Muslim Brotherhood was struggling with internal fracturing, and a reformist branch of the group broke off to form its own organization.
Positions: Initially, the Brotherhood called for Sharia law, but it did not seek an Islamic state or oppose the monarchy. The IAF supports multiparty elections. As recently as 2007, the IAF called for implementing Sharia law and supported segregated classrooms, mandatory veiling for women, and a ban on alcohol. Women have held seats on the IAF consultative council, but the IAF does not support gender equality through legal reform. The IAF is a peaceful opposition group that may protest government policies, such as the peace treaty with Israel, but fully accepts Hashemite rule. The IAF supports creation of a Palestinian state, but the Brotherhood also supported the regime’s repression of Palestinian groups in 1970. The IAF is a critic of U.S. policies in the region.
History: Founded in 2003 and led by Haitham Amayreh, the Wasat Party is a small, centrist party of independent Islamists who left the Islamic Action Front because of the Muslim Brotherhood’s dominance. It cooperates with several secular parties and holds three seats in Jordan’s lower house of representatives.
Positions: Wasat is more moderate than the Islamic Action Front. It views Sharia’s role in legislation as flexible and supports democratic principles. Female members of the party have participated in elections and hold leadership positions in the party. The party is open to engagement with the United States and Europe.
History: Founded in Jerusalem in 1952, the Liberation Party (Hizb al Tahrir) is an international Sunni Islamist movement. The organization does not usually participate in elections and is banned in many Arab countries. In 1952 and 1992, the organization applied for legal status as a political party but was rejected both times.
Positions: The Liberation Party is a socially conservative organization that seeks to establish a caliphate. The organization does not support democracy, which it views as a Western concept, or gender equality.
Islamic Constitutional Movement (Hadas)
History: Founded in 1991 by Jassem Mohalhel and now led by Nasir al Sani, the Islamic Constitutional Movement (Hadas) is the political wing of Kuwait’s Muslim Brotherhood, which was formed in 1952. Political parties are illegal in Kuwait and are usually referred to as societies. As of 2015, three members of Hadas sat in the National Assembly of Kuwait.
Positions: Hadas calls for a gradual implementation of Sharia law through a consultative process.
Islamic Salafi Alliance
History: The Islamic Salafi Alliance was founded in 1981 and is led by Abdul Rahman al Mutawa.
Positions: It seeks to implement Sharia law and establish an Islamic state. The group opposes women’s participation in politics.
History: The Umma Party (Hizb al Umma) is a Salafi party founded in 2005 by Hakem al Matairi. The government refused to legalize the party, and its founders were accused of plotting to overthrow the government.
Positions: Matairi said that the party was established to promote pluralism, transfer power through peaceful means, and implement Sharia law. But the party has criticized the democratic provisions of Kuwait’s constitution.
History: Founded in 1982 under Iranian tutelage, Hezbollah is a Shiite Islamist movement led by Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah. Hezbollah is a religious, political, and military movement that provides extensive social services; it is on the U.S. list of terrorist groups. Hezbollah’s military wing is estimated to be the second largest military force in Lebanon, after the army. It carried out several suicide bombings and kidnappings in the 1980s and 1990s and fought an open war with Israel in 2006. Hezbollah has participated in elections since 1992 and joined the government in 2005. Since 2012, Hezbollah has aided Syrian President Bashar al Assad in Syria's civil war.
Positions: Hezbollah favors an Islamic state but has also said that it recognizes the complications in Lebanon’s multisectarian setting. The group is allied with the largest Christian party. Women hold midlevel positions within the party, but it has not fielded any female candidates for parliament. Hezbollah’s militia engaged in a thirty-four-day war with Israel in 2006. In its 2009 manifesto, Hezbollah “categorically” rejected reaching any compromise with Israel or recognizing its legitimacy “even if everyone else recognizes ‘Israel.’” It views the United States as its enemy but has interacted with European countries.
The Islamic Society
History: Founded in 1964 and led by Ibrahim al Masri, the Islamic Society (Jamaa al Islamiyyah) was inspired by the Muslim Brotherhood. It is the second most important political player among Sunnis and provides extensive social services. It has run candidates in elections since 1992, although it is not a political party.
Positions: Jamaa seeks to establish an Islamic state, which it acknowledges would be difficult in multisectarian Lebanon. The group supported Hezbollah’s war against Israel in 2006.
Society of Islamic Charitable Projects
History: The Society of Islamic Charitable Projects was founded in 1980 by Sheikh Abdallah al Harari as a Sunni Islamist umbrella organization ambivalent about political participation. It had Syrian backing during Syrian rule in Lebanon but is now allied with the pro-Western Mustaqbal movement.
Islamic Action Front
History: The Islamic Action Front (Jabhat al Amal al Islami) was founded in 2006 by Fathi Yakan, also a cofounder of al Jamaa al Islamiyya, who died in 2009. It is a Sunni Islamist movement. Yakan split from Jamaa in 2006 because of its alliance with the Mustaqbal movement, which it believes serves Western interests.
The Salafist movement, founded in 1946 by Sheikh Salem al Shahhal, has grown to include some fifty organizations operating charities and schools. The Salafis historically had not participated in Lebanese politics. But after the 2005 killing of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri and Syria’s withdrawal from Lebanon, the Salafis began mobilizing their followers to vote.
Muslim Brotherhood and Libyan Islamic Group
History: Founded in 1949, the Muslim Brotherhood is the largest and best-organized Islamist group in Libya. At its first national conference in Libya, the movement elected Bashir Kabti as leader in late 2011. In 2012, it formed the Justice and Construction Party to run in the 2012 General National Congress elections. The party secured 34 seats. After Islamists fared poorly in the 2014 elections, Libya split into two rival parliaments. Brotherhood members of the GNC joined the parliament in Tripoli, backed by the Libya Dawn militia.
Positions: The Brotherhood announced that it would form a party that aims to establish a “civil state with Islamic references” and has encouraged women to participate in politics.
Libyan Islamic Movement for Change
History: The Libyan Islamic Movement for Change was founded in 2011. Led by Abdelhakim Belhaj, the Sunni group was established from the remnants of the outlawed militant Libyan Islamic Fighting Group (LIFG), which renounced violence and was disbanded in 2010. Belhadj was the military commander of the LIFG, which trained with al Qaeda in Afghanistan but did not come under its umbrella. In 2012, Belhaj formed the Salafist Watan party to compete in parliamentary elections.
Positions: The group advocates Sharia law as the principal source of legislation.
Prominent religious authorities such as the cleric Ali Sallabi and Sheikh al Sadiq al Gharyani have large followings, but they have yet to establish political parties. Sallabi spent several years in prison under Moammar Qaddafi’s rule. Gharyani was the former head of the Supreme Council for Fatwas under Qaddafi but is seen as politically independent.
Small Salafi parties and independents participated in Libya's 2012 parliamentary elections. They picked up a total of 27 seats.
Justice and Development Party
History: Founded in 1997 when the Sunni party first ran in elections, the Justice and Development Party (PJD) is now led by Abdelilah Benkirane. The largely co-opted opposition party won 27 percent of the vote in the 2011 parliamentary election and now heads the government. By 2015, the PJD was one of few Islamist parties still in power in the Middle East. But its political influence is limited because the king still holds religious and political supremacy.
Positions: Socially conservative, the PJD accepts the monarchy and does not seek to establish an Islamic state. Its positions on democracy, women’s rights, and religious freedom are ambiguous and often contradicted by members’ statements. Overall, the party has gradually adopted a secular discourse. The PJD voted for reforms favoring women in the personal status code, which was not exclusively based on Sharia law, as a concession to the monarchy and public sentiment.
Justice and Charity
History: Founded in 1987 by Sheikh Abdessalam Yassin, a Sufi leader, Justice and Charity (Adl wa Ihssan) has been outlawed since 1990. The movement has a strong grassroots presence in universities and Islamic charities. But its influence has waned since Yassin's death in December 2012.
Positions: The socially conservative group does not recognize the legitimacy of the monarchy and stays aloof from politics. It seeks radical change of the political system and advocates a democratic state with Sharia law as the main source of legislation. Women are allowed to participate in politics and Yassin’s daughter Nadia Yassin heads the women’s branch.
History: Founded by Sheikh Ahmed Yassin in 1987 during the first Palestinian uprising, Hamas (Harakat al Muqawama al Islamiya) is now led by Khaled Mashaal. Hamas grew out of the Muslim Brotherhood and is the most influential Palestinian Islamist group. It is a social movement, a militia, and a political party. It is on the U.S. list of terrorist groups for carrying out attacks and suicide bombings in Israel. After rejecting participation in elections for decades, Hamas ran in local elections in 2004 and won the 2006 parliamentary elections. In March 2016, Hamas and Fatah agreed to form a unity government and hold parliamentary elections within six months.
Positions: Hamas defines itself as a centrist (wasatiyya) movement, which implies a moderate approach and a gradual application of Islamic principles. It has increasingly democratized internal procedures, holding leadership elections. It supports women’s participation in politics; six of its female candidates won seats in the 2006 election and women sit in the party’s ruling council. But many Hamas members favor gender segregation. The group rejected participation in the Oslo peace process in the 1990s and opted instead for violent resistance. It does not accept Israel but says it will accept a Palestinian state that is based on the 1967 borders. Hamas has often mentioned a possible long-term truce. The party has had informal contact with several European countries, and its leadership has said it is willing to talk with the United States.
History: Founded in 1946 by Mustafa al Sibai, the Muslim Brotherhood is now led by Mohamed Riad al Shaqfe. The Brotherhood has participated in elections since 1947 but was banned in 1963. Membership in the Brotherhood has been punishable by death since 1980, when violent struggles took place between the Islamist group and the regime. It forms the largest bloc in the opposition Syrian National Council.
Positions: The Brotherhood seeks the gradual implementation of Sharia law but a civilian pluralist state. A 2004 document says that power should be reached through the ballot box, but its position on the role of religious scholars in politics is ambiguous. Syria’s current Sharia-based legal framework would continue to be the reference for women’s rights in family matters. The Brotherhood supports the rights of religious minorities and does not seek to change the current personal status law for Christians. The movement advocates a market-oriented economy. It does not recognize Israel, but it is open to further engagement with the United States and Europe despite its criticism of U.S. policies in the region. The movement renounced violence in 2001.
Movement for Justice and Development
History: Founded in London in 2006 by Anas al Abda and Osama al Munaj-jid, the Movement for Justice and Development (Harakat al Adala wal Bina, or MJD) is active among the exiled opposition and holds 5 out of 310 seats on the opposition Syrian National Council.
Positions: Inspired by the ruling Justice and Development Party in Turkey, the conservative party highlights Syria’s Islamic identity but does not seek implementation of Sharia law. The people’s will is the only source of legislation. The MJD has engaged extensively with Western governments.
The Syrian National Movement (Tayyar al Watani al Suri) includes both liberals and Salafis. It was founded in late 2011 in Cairo. The group holds twelve seats on the opposition Syrian National Council.
The Democratic Independent Islamic Trend (Tayyar al Islami al Mustaqill al Dimuqrati) is a network of moderate Islamic activists, most of whom were based in Syria until March 2011 but have since left Syria. It is now largely inactive.
History: Founded in 1981 by Rachid al Ghannouchi, Ennahda was outlawed and repressed under President Zine al Abidine Ben Ali. In the 1989 election, Ennahda fielded independent candidates, who won more seats than did small secular parties. In 2012, it was the largest party, winning over 41 percent of the vote for the constitutional assembly in 2011. But in the 2014 parliamentary elections, it came in second to the secular Nidaa Tounes party, winning only 69 of 217 seats. It also failed to field a presidential candidate in 2014.
In 2015, however, 32 MPs from Nidaa Tounes resigned from the party, leaving Ennahda the largest bloc in parliament.
Positions: The party does not call for Sharia law or an Islamic state. Ennahda supports multiparty elections and Ghannouchi has written extensively on Islam’s compatibility with democracy. He called for Jewish Tunisians to return and emphasized support for minorities. Ennahda has said it will not change the current Personal Status Code for women, and it was the first party to support an equal number of women and men on electoral lists. Ennahda has criticized U.S. policies in previous decades—particularly policies regarding Palestine—but it seeks a cooperative relationship with the West. It does not seek active involvement in the Palestinian issue. In 2011, the party opposed an effort to outlaw normalization of relations with Israel.
The Salafi group Followers of Sharia (Ansar al Sharia) was founded in April 2011 by Sheikh Abu Ayyad al Tunisi. Since the 2011 uprising, several Salafi student and social groups have emerged. The Salafis seek an Islamic state and Sharia law. They reject political parties and democratic elections, support gender segregation and public prayer on university campuses, and favor modest Islamic dress.
Justice and Development Party
History: Founded in 2001 by Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, the Justice and Development Party (AKP) is currently the ruling party after winning elections in 2002, 2007, and 2011. The AKP is often described as the world’s most successful Islamist party and is a source of inspiration for movements across the Middle East. It is the fifth incarnation of earlier Islamist parties that were closed by the Constitutional Court because of their religious platforms. When the Islamist Virtue Party was banned, the reformists formed AKP and the hardliners established the Felicity Party. Erdogan won the 2014 presidential election with 52 percent of the vote. Former foreign minister Ahmet Davutoglu took over as prime minister in August 2014.
In June 2015, the AKP was defeated by opposition parties in parliamentary elections. But after failed attempts to form a government, snap elections were held in November. The AKP secured a surprising victory, winning 58 percent of seats in parliament.
Positions: The AKP calls itself a secular party with a socially conservative platform and Muslim values. The party has a substantive record of supporting democracy. More than any secular party, it has undertaken the democratic reforms necessary to comply with entry into the European Union and the liberal economic policies that have boosted growth. But the party has also begun to crack down on opposition media. Critics contend the AKP wants to “Islamize” Turkey, citing its attempts to criminalize adultery. The party has been pragmatic in dealing with Israel and has strong bilateral trade ties despite growing friction in recent years.
History: Founded in 2001 by Recai Kutan and Necmettin Erbakan, the Felicity Party (Saadet Partisi) has roots in previous Islamist parties that were outlawed because of their religious platforms. The party did not pass the 10 percent threshold to win seats in parliament in the 2011 elections.
Positions: Felicity is more conservative than the AKP in terms of women’s rights, the role of religion in the public sphere, and economic policy. The party led protests against the Israeli intervention in Gaza in late 2008 and has been harsher than the AKP in criticism of Israel.
Yemeni Congregation for Reform
History: The Yemeni Congregation for Reform (Islah) was founded in 1990 by Sheikh Hussein al Ahmar and Sheikh Abdul Majid al Zindani, a Salafi cleric labeled a terrorist by the United States in 2004. The party is the political arm of the Muslim Brotherhood, which emerged in the 1960s. Islah has been in and out of government since 1990, sometimes allying with leftist opposition parties. After Yemen’s government was ousted by Houthi rebels in 2014, Islah backed Saudi airstrikes against the Houthis. By 2016, most of Islah’s senior leadership was in exile.
Positions: Islah seeks social reform that is based on Islam. In 2007, the Brotherhood’s more pragmatic members won a power struggle against ultraconservative Salafis. Women are allowed to participate in politics and several prominent women, such as the 2011 Nobel Peace Prize winner Tawakol Karman, hold party leadership positions. But grassroots elements of the party would prefer women to remain in more traditional roles. Islah supports the Palestinian cause, though it is not a primary concern of the party.
Annika Folkeson formerly worked for the Center for Conflict Analysis and Prevention at the U.S. Institute of Peace. She previously worked for the International Foundation for Electoral Systems in the Palestinian territories. She has also worked in Syria and Lebanon.
Cameron Glenn, a senior program assistant at the U.S. Institute of Peace, also contributed to this roundup.