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God vs. Westphalia: radical Islamist movements and the battle for organising the World


This article presents the operation of al-Qaeda and Hizb ut-Tahrir, two of the most radical Islamist movements, through the lens of the relationship between religion as an organising principle for world politics and the state-based logic. It examines these groups in the context of repeated attempts by religious actors throughout history to render religion the dominant and constitutive element in world politics. Prior to the Peace of Westphalia, religion had a critical role in shaping the political landscape, but Westphalia relegated religion to a secondary position. While it accepted religion's role in the domestic affairs of the units in the international system, the Westphalian order kept religion subordinated to the logic of the state system. But religion maintained its ability to provide an alternative organisation for world politics. While al-Qaeda and Hizb ut-Tahrir are highly unlikely to bring about systemic change, their ascendance should remind scholars that the existing order is not inevitable and that the resurgence of religion in international politics also involves the resurrection of interpretations of religion that compete with and challenge the logic of the state-based system.

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1 Thomas Scott M., ‘The Global Resurgence of Religion and the Transformation of International Relations’: The Struggle for the Soul of the Twenty-First Century (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2005); Petito Fabio, and Hatzopoulos Pavlos (eds), Religion in International Relations: The Return from Exile: Culture and Religion in International Relations (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2003).

2 Daniel Philpott defines religion as a set of beliefs about the ultimate grounds of existence – that which is unconditioned, not itself created or caused – and the communities and practices that form around these beliefs. See Philpott Daniel, ‘The Challenge of September 11 to Secularism in International Relations’, World Politics, 55:1 (2002), p. 68.

3 Fox Jonathan, World Survey of Religion & the State (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008).

4 Kayaoglu Turan, ‘Westphalian Eurocentrism in International Relations Theory’, International Studies Review, 12 (2010), pp. 193217.

5 Philpott, ‘The Challenge of September 11’, p. 77.

6 Watson Adam, The Evolution of International Society (London: Routledge, 1992).

7 Philpott, ‘The Challenge of September 11’, p. 67.

8 For example, see Fox Jonathan and Sandler Shmuel, Bringing Religion into International Relations (New York: Palgrave, 2004); Marty Martin E. and Appleby R. Scott (eds), Fundamentalisms and the State: Remaking Polities, Economics and Militance, (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1993); and Thomas, The Global Resurgence of Religion.

9 Note that on occasion, some of these scholars may point at the conflict between some radical religious groups and the Westphalian order. See Fox and Sandler. Bringing Religion into International Relations.

10 Juergensmeyer Mark, The New Cold War? Religious Nationalism Confronts the Secular State (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1993).

11 Juergensmeyer Mark, Global Rebellion: Religious Challenges to the Secular State, from Christian Militias to al Qaeda (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2008).

12 Kepel Gilles, The Revenge of God: The Resurgence of Islam, Christianity and Judaism in the Modern World (Pennsylvania: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1994).

13 Kepel Gilles. Jihad: The Trail of Political Islam (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 2002), p. 4.

14 Philpott, ‘The Challenge of September 11’, pp. 83–92.

15 Lahoud Nelly, The Jihadis Path to Self-Destruction (New York: Columbia University Press, 2010).

16 Tibi Bassam, The Challenge of Fundamentalism: Political Islam and the New World Order (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1998).

17 Tibi Bassam, Political Islam, World Politics and Europe: Democratic Peace and Euro-Islam versus Global Jihad (London: Routledge, 2008).

18 Devetak Richard, ‘Violence, Order, and Terror’, in Bellamy Alex (ed.), The International Society and Its Critics (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005), pp. 230–1. An early reference to terrorism by Barrie Paskings actually focused on the terror of nuclear war and its inability to foster a genuine international community. See Paskings Barrie, ‘A Community of Terror?’, in Mayall James (ed.), The Community of States: A Study in International Political Theory (London: George Allen & Unwin, 1982), pp. 8595.

19 Hurrell Andrew, On Global Order: Power, Values, and the Constitution of the International Society (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007), p. 178.

20 Ibid., p. 139. Similarly, Samuel Makinda views terrorism as ‘localized and particularistic’. See Makinda Samuel, ‘Global Governance and Terrorism’, Global Change, Peace and Security, 15:1 (2003), p. 48.

21 Makinda, ‘Global Governance and Terrorism’; Devetak, ‘Violence, Order, and Terror’.

22 Mendelsohn Barak, ‘Sovereignty Under Attack: The International Society Meets the Al Qaeda Network’, Review of International Studies, 31:1 (2005), pp. 53–8.

23 The main principles of the Westphalian system were articulated a century earlier in the Peace of Augsburg (1555), but some religious minorities, such as the Calvinists, were left without legal recognition until the Peace of Westphalia.

24 Philpott Daniel, Revolutions in Sovereignty: How Ideas Shaped Modern International Relations (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2001); Hall Rodney, National Collective Identity: Social Constructs and International Systems (New York: Columbia University Press, 1999).

25 Krasner Stephen, Sovereignty: Organized Hypocrisy (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1999).

26 Bull Hedley and Watson Adam (eds), The Expansion of International Society (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1984); Kayaoglu, ‘Westphalian Eurocentrism’.

27 Bull Hedley, The Anarchical Society: A Study of Order in World Politics (New York, Columbia University Press, 1977).

28 Ruggie John G., ‘Continuity and Transformation in the World Polity: Toward a Neorealist Synthesis’, in Keohane Robert (ed.), Neorealism and Its Critics (New York: Columbia University Press, 1986), p. 143.

29 Thomson Janice E., ‘State Sovereignty in International Relations: Bridging the Gap between Theory and Empirical Research’, International Studies Quarterly, 39 (1995), pp. 213–34.

30 Hurd Elizabeth Shakman, The Politics of Secularism in International Relations (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2008), pp. 145.

31 One may argue that Judaism is unique among the monotheist religions in its limited aspirations. But Judaism has the potential for extreme interpretations nonetheless. While it does not seek to convert the whole world, one cannot rule out the emergence of a fringe group that would seek a subordinate relationship between the ‘chosen people’ and other communities. This is an unlikely, yet theoretically feasible scenario.

32 Eisenstadt Shmuel, ‘The Resurgence of Religious Movements in Processes of Globalization – Beyond End of History or Clash of Civilizations’, International Journal of Multicultural Societies, 2:1 (2000), p. 13.

33 In fact, the actors that constructed this order did not seek at first to eliminate religion from public life, only from international political life. They saw themselves as members of a universal community based on Christianity. See Osiander Andreas, The States System of Europe, 1640–1990 (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1994), pp. 27–8. Secularism came with further evolution of the Westphalian system, although for Hurd, secularism in its Judeo-Christian form cannot be separated from its theological roots. See Hurd, The Politics of Secularism in International Relations, pp. 37–44.

34 To avoid confusion, ‘empire’ must be distinguished from ‘hegemony’. According to John Ikenberry an empire operates unilaterally and outside the order, whereas in a hegemonic order, the lead entity establishes multilateral rules and institutions within which it operates. Thus ‘empire’ can serve as an organising principle, while hegemony represents one form of order within the Westphalian system. See Ikenberry John G., ‘Liberalism and Empire: Logics of Order in the American Unipolar Age’, Review of International Studies, 30:4 (2004), pp. 615–16.

35 Armstrong David, Revolution and World Order: The Revolutionary State in International Society (New York: Oxford University Press, 1993).

36 Spruyt Hendrik, The Sovereign State and Its Competitors: An Analysis of Systems Change (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1994), p. 12.

37 Ruggie John G., ‘Territoriality at Millennium's End’, Constructing the World Polity: Essays on International Institutionalization (London: Routledge, 1998).

38 Philpott, Revolutions in Sovereignty, p. 80.

39 Watson, The Evolution of International Society, p. 171.

40 Philpott, Revolutions in Sovereignty, pp. 98–101.

41 Ibid., p. 30.

42 Thomas, The Global Resurgence of Religion, pp. 24–6.

43 Ibid., p. 35.

44 Juergensmeyer, Global Rebellion, p. 27.

45 Miles Jack, ‘Religion and American Foreign Policy’, Survival, 46:1 (2004), pp. 2337.

46 Thomas, The Global Resurgence of Religion, pp. 10–11.

47 The limitations of this effort are evident in religions' continued influence on politics even in Europe. For example, see Byrnes Timothy A. and Katzenstein Peter J. (eds), Religion in an Expanding Europe (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006); Thomas, The Global Resurgence of Religion.

48 Juergensmeyer, Global Rebellion, p. 36.

49 Philpott, Revolutions in Sovereignty, pp. 67–8.

50 Ibid., pp. 67–70.

51 Sivan Emmanuel, The Crash within Islam (in Hebrew) (Tel Aviv: Am Oved Publishers, 2005).

52 Note that the world orders presented in the table are ideal types. The religious order reflects an interpretation of religion as constitutive of a political world order and as such is just one view of order in universalist religions. As most conceptions of religion and the bulk of people who identify themselves as religious accept the state based order the worldview presented in the table reflects the position of only a small minority.

53 For example, see Scheuer Michael, Through Our Enemies' Eyes: Osama bin Laden, Radical Islam, and the Future of America, rev. edn (Washington, DC: Potomac Books, 2006).

54 Note that an actor may violate occasionally and for a limited time some of the constitutive principles of international society, but as long as it does not challenge their general validity, it does not represent a systemic threat.

55 Ayman al-Zawahiri, ‘Knights under the Banner of the Prophet’, al-Sharq al-Awsat (December 2001).

56 Jackson Robert, The Global Covenant: Human Conduct in a World of States (New York: Oxford University Press, 2000).

57 Osama Bin Laden, ‘This War is Fundamentally Religious’, al Jazeera (3 November 2001).

58 Abu Yahya al-Libi, Moderation of Islam … Moderation of Defeat (22 May 2008).

59 Osama Bin Laden, ‘Islamic Website Posts Full Text of Bin Laden 4 January Audio Message’ (4 March 2004); al-Libi, Moderation of Islam.

60 al-Zawahiri Ayman, ‘Loyality and Separation’, in Kepel Gilles and Milelli Jean-Pierre (eds), Al Qaeda in Its Own Words (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 2008), pp. 206–9.

61 Cited in Amir Taheri, ‘Al Qaeda's Agenda for Iraq’, New York Post (4 September 2003).

62 For example, al-Libi, Moderation of Islam.

63 Ibid.

64 Ali al-Aliyani, cited in Cook David, Understanding Jihad (Berkeley: University of California Press 2005), pp. 184–5.

65 al-Libi, Moderation of Islam.

66 Mendelsohn Barak, Combating Jihadism: American Hegemony and Interstate Cooperation in the War on Terrorism (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2009), pp. 6388. For AQ's justifications for killing civilians in the 9/11 attacks, see al-Qaeda, ‘Permissibility of Killing Civilians: A Statement from Qaidat al-Jihad Regarding the Mandates of the Heroes and the Legality of the Operations in New York and Washington’, available at: {}.

67 al-Libi, Moderation of Islam.

68 Osama Bin Laden, A Message to Our People in Iraq (23 October 2007); Ayman al-Zawahiri, Open Interview (2 April 2008); Ayman al-Zawahiri, Open Interview, Part 2 (22 April 2008).

69 Osama Bin Laden, May Our Brother Become Bereaved If We Do Not Support Our Prophet, Peace be Upon Him (20 March 2008).

70 al-Libi, Moderation of Islam.

71 Note that the AQ worldview inherently conflicts with institutions of the international society such as the Great Powers and the Balance of Power, as they presuppose states are the primary actors in world politics.

72 Osama bin Laden, Declaration of War (12 October 1996).

73 Bin Laden, Declaration of War; Osama Bin Laden, ‘This War is Fundamentally Religious’, Washington Post (7 November 2001); al-Zawahiri, Open Interview.

74 Osama Bin Laden, Interview with ABCNEWS (December 1998).

75 al-Zawahiri, ‘Loyality and Separation’, p. 226; Ayman al-Zawahiri, Realities of the Conflict between Islam and Unbelief (29 December 2006).

76 Osama Bin Laden, ‘Letter to America’, The Observer (24 November 2002); al-Zawahiri, Open Interview.

77 Ayman al-Zawahiri, Realities of the Conflict between Islam and Unbelief (29 December 2006).

78 Salam Zahid-Ivan, Jihad and the Foreign Policy of the Khilafah State (London: Khilafah Publications, 2001), pp. 767; Mahan Abedin, ‘Inside Hizb ut-Tahrir: An Interview with Jalaluddin Patel, Leader of Hizb ut-Tahrir in the UK’, Terrorism Monitor, 3:8 (2004), p. 10.

79 Salam, Jihad and the Foreign Policy of the Khilafah State, p. 7.

80 ut-Tahrir Hizb, The Inevitability of the Clash of Civilisation (London: Khilafah Publications, 2002), pp. 5762.

81 Salam, Jihad and the Foreign Policy of the Khilafah State, pp. 58–9.

82 Nabhani Taqi al-Din, A Warm Call from Hizb ut-Tahrir to the Muslims (London: Khilafah Publications, 1962), p. 93.

83 For example, see Khilafah Magazine (August 2005).

84 Zallum Abd al-Qadim, Democracy is a System of Kufr: It Is Forbidden to Adopt, Implement, or Call For It (London: Khilafah Publications, 1995), pp. 34–5.

85 Nabhani, A Warm Call from Hizb ut-Tahrir to the Muslims, p. 102.

86 Article 186, HT, Draft Constitution by Hizb ut-Tahrir, available at: {}.

87 Baran Zeyno, ‘Fighting the War of Ideas’, Foreign Affairs, 84:6 (2005), pp. 6878.

88 Haqqani Hussein, ‘Understanding HT Ideology’, in Baran Zeyno (ed.), The Challenge of Hizb ut-Tahrir: Deciphering and Combating Radical Islamist Ideology (Washington, DC: The Nixon Center, 2004), p. 35.

89 Habeck Mary, Knowing the Enemy: Jihadist Ideology and the War on Terror (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2006), pp. 156–7.

90 Mili Hayder, ‘IMU Leader Yuldashev Issues Warning to Central Asian Governments’, Terrorism Focus, 3:37 (26 September 2006).

91 Paz Reuven, ‘Salafi-Jihadi Responses to Hamas' Electoral Victory’, Current Trends in Islamist Ideology, 4 (Washington DC: Hudson Institute, 2006), p. 48.

92 Rohan Gunaratna, ‘Links with Islamic Groups: Ideology and Operations’, in Baran (ed.) The Challenge of Hizb ut-Tahrir, p. 124.

93 Hizb ut-Tahrir, The Inevitability of the Clash of Civilisation, p. 47.

94 For example, while Lahoud sees only jihadis as incompatible with the Westphalian order, Tibi maintains that all Islamist groups seek to remake world order. see Lahoud , The Jihadis Path to Self-Destruction (New York: Columbia University Press, 2010); Tibi, Political Islam, World Politics and Europe; and Tibi Bassam, ‘Political Islam as a Forum of Religious fundamentalism and the Religionisation of Politics: Islamism and the Quest for a Remaking of the World’, Totalitarian Movements and Political Religions 10:2 (June 2009), pp. 97120.

95 Tibi, Political Islam, World Politics and Europe, p. 113.

96 Spruyt, The Sovereign State and Its Competitors, pp. 3–21.

97 Armstrong, Revolution and World Order.

98 Mendelsohn, Combating Jihadism.

* The author would like to thank Christina Beltran, Craig Borowiak, Matthew Budman, Allen Carlson, Azar Gat, Michael Horowitz, Amal Jamal, Peter Katzeinstein, Aharon Kleiman, Clark R. McCauley, Jeni Mitchell, Yoav Peled, Andrew Phillips, Mark Ross, Alberto Spektorowski, and the anonymous reviewers for their insightful comments on earlier drafts.

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