[Book Review] Political Islam, Justice and Governance by Mbaye Lo | Reviewed by Driss Bouyahya

Mbaye Lo, Political Islam, Justice and Governance. (Palgrave Macmillan, 2019). Paperback. 386 pages. ISBN # 978-3-319-96328-0. | Reviewed by Driss Bouyahya.

Political Islam, Justice and Governance is a book whose publication commenced as a learning journey and morphed into a project where Mbaye Lo, who teaches at Duke University, has excelled in providing a critical reading and shrewd analysis of political Islam. His arguments in the book are built upon a strong theoretical framework and supported through a set of case studies. One of the main arguments is that political Islam has failed to govern effectively or successfully because of its inability to conciliate its discursive comprehension of Islam-centered liberal justice vs the prevailing neo-liberal value of freedom.


The book vividly scrutinizes the ideas and ideals of literal justice in Islam, and how it manifests itself in the implementation of governance and the localized discourse of political ideologies. Of the nine chapters, the first four are theoretical as they discuss philosophical matters related to the discourse of neo-liberal freedom and Islamist justice. The remaining five chapters act as a practical analysis of the political history, philosophy, and maneuvering of Islamist polities. Chapter One, entitled Justice Versus Freedom: The Dilemma of Political Islam, provides a nuanced perspective on the nature of conflicts between the U.S. and its allies on the one hand and militant Islamists on the other. In fact, they are two distinct outlooks of political culture. In other words, the divergence between these two factions reflects divergences in political paradigm and ideological jargon. Additionally, the chapter sheds light on both the research methodology and the rationale behind opting for Sudan´s Islamists as a case study.

Chapter Two, under the title From Liberal freedom to Neo-Liberal Inequality: The History of the Freedom Agenda, outlines both the historical and the political processes which have engendered and informed the centrality of freedom in Western liberal philosophy. The chapter analyzes the freedom argument, its roots, rationale, and manifestation in modern liberal practices. In addition, it contends that Political Islam idealizes literal conceptions of justice and equality, whereas neo-liberalism endorses individual freedom, even in its extreme manifestations of inequality and a self-centered quest for happiness. Lo also examines the notions of freedom and justice in Islamic political thought; the chapter contends that political Islam is practically defied by the liberal democracy´s emphasis on individual conscience and untrammeled freedom. Furthermore, the author poses very pertinent questions on violence as a means to establish justice in Political Islam.

Chapter Four investigates the centrality of “justice” in Islamist intellectual paradigms and the marginal presence of political “freedom” in its political debates. It also addresses how the original sources of the Muslim Brotherhood´s readings molded the growth of militant Islam from the 1970s to the set up of al Qaeda in 1998. In addition, the chapter scrutinizes how both moderate and militant Islamist groups express their opposition to the West´s liberal freedom agenda while projecting a strong loyalty to liberal justice and emphasizing the legality of redressing protests through jihad. The following chapter offers a case study to reassesses the trajectory of the 2011 Egyptian revolution as a skirmish between two opposing sets of values: liberal freedom and Islamist justice. The chapter also draws on both Egyptian liberals and non-Islamist activists’ revolutionary slogans, banners, and graffiti to support the argument that they wanted a free society that limited, but did not eschew, the role of Islam in the state. On the other hand, this chapter explores the Islamists´ revolutionary mottos, banners, and graffiti that support their ideological and political agenda. Nonetheless, the chapter surveys a central question on whether this divergence can be reduced to a confrontation between freedom and literal justice, which is the focal piece of political Islam´s ideological targets.

The Islamic State: The Rise of Vigilante Justice investigates the Islamic State as an instance of militant Islam´s vigilante justice, which is an outgrowth of Islamism. In the same vein, this chapter explores the ultimate target and the articulation of several features of the organization´s vision of vigilante justice, mainly vengeance, horrid violence, and the flagrant dismissal of political freedom. Moving from this example, Lo examines Sudanese political Islam under the guidance of Hassan Turabi. The latter´s project often utilized the rhetoric of freedom in promoting the Islamist project, whereas his governance tactics were based mainly on implementing the politics of literal justice through “tamkeen.” Over more than two decades of absolute rule of the country, the Sudanese Islamist model of governance has been broadly promulgated as evidence of political Islam´s inability to sustain a modern democratic state. On the other hand, this chapter surveys how the Islamist elites were unable to reconcile their justice project with the Sudanese populace´s desire for freedom within the global framework of liberal democracy.

Chapter Eight focuses on Egypt as the locality of Islamist activism during President Muhammad Morsi´s incumbency. His affiliation with the Muslim Brotherhood is deemed as the most crucial political advance in the Islamist quest for power in recent years. The central argument of this chapter is that Morsi failed to unite the liberals and the Islamists because his legitimacy was basically rooted in Islamist political imagination, rather than the concreate reality of post-upheaval Egypt. Finally, Chapter Nine, which is the conclusion, recapitulates the dire need to move the debate over political Islam and violence from theoretical postulation to assessing empirical proof on the nature of Islamist polities. In this chapter, Lo calls for readers to go beyond the binary discussion of freedom and justice, to analyze the values of a pluralistic society with a focus on ethics. More than that, he offers a way forward based on a set of factors that have lasting effects and strategic understanding of the Islamists´ inspirations.

In this book, Lo has embarked on a thorny issue: the dynamic between justice and freedom in Political Islam. This latter concept is hard to define – indeed power and politics in Political Islam are so drastically evolving that scholars can barely define them (Bouyahya 2015). This work is a substantial contribution to understanding Political Islam because it shows the failure of the existing literature to systematically investigate Political Islam´s inability to reconcile its understanding of literal justice and freedom. Moreover, the arguments of the work are supported by abundant references, quotes, interviews, and discussions that took place in several Arab countries during the Arab revolution and the so-called Arab Spring. Although the scope of these case studies is restricted to Arab countries, the book places heavy emphasis on the contemporary Islamist experience in governance.

Lo has been very insightful in his analysis and arguments, avoiding any polemics by framing the dynamic as one concerning Islamism and the Western liberal tradition -not Islam and the West. Also, the book provides a thought-provoking portrayal of the main reasons for the political failure of the Islamist actors in the Arab world today. Lo clarifies that the contents of the book are his personal impressions and observation, yet the work is well-written, documented, and argued which reflects a scholarly endeavor.

Dr. Driss Bouyahya is an Associate Professor at School of Arts & Humanities in Moulay Ismail University, Meknes Morocco. He holds a PhD degree in Political Islam and Political Communication. His fields of interest are Religious Studies, Sociology of Religion, Intercultural Communication, Cultural studies, Political Islam and Post-Colonial Studies. He has several publications, such as Islam-Oriented Parties’ ideologies and Political Communication in Quest for Power in Morocco (Cambridge Scholars Publishing), Sufism & Religious Tourism, Islamist Movements in Morocco & their Typology, and Is Islam as an Ideology? How & Why.