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Guest Lecture:Are there True Moderates among Political Islam: The Iran post-sanction developments, the Arab revolutions, and the stakes of the West in the Middle East

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  • Guest Lecturer:  Hartmut Elsenhans, a German Professor at Area Study Centre, Quaid-i-Azam University, Islamabad
  • Date and venue:  April 15, 2014, IPRI Conference Hall


Extremist political movements including Islamic political movements are irreversible and not a new phenomenon. It dates back to early 19th century when trends were open to fascism and to Christian democracy. Similarly, the rise of new cultural identitarian movements is not cultural in some regions of the former Third World. However, main question arises that how these extremist political and identitarian movements can be made part of international system. The BJP, Algerian nationalist movements, movements of Arab Spring are based on the concepts of moral economy and identity. Moral economy is a vague concept but is a precise system. In the same context, concept of mass development is vague when the masses are poor. West’s orientation of the third world is not accurate as it is highly dependent for information on the NGO sector. NGO sector has not been able to have deeper understanding and feel of civil society and middle class of the developing countries. Similarly, the West was unable to use its great advantage of having been able to pursue decolonisation with highly westernised secular nationalists after World War II. Embeddedness of Islamic political movements in the international system should be given importance as these movements are irreversible and based on identity issues of a society.    

The Islamic Political Movements

  • The Islamic political movements correspond to long term changes in the respective societies. They reflect identities shaped in structural crises.
  • The rise of politicised Islam is irreversible. New cultural identitarian movements correspond to major social changes, they may be majoritarian or minoritarian: in both cases they decisively influence their societies, even movements which are opposed to them.
  • They may be more moderate or more radical, this partially depends on their ideological heritage.
  • They will not disappear.
  • The issue is therefore: how to deal with them in order to reasonably integrate them into the functioning international system.
  • The Iranian revolution and the Turkish Islamists are politically the most advanced of these movements in the Islamic world. They both have come under the direction of relatively moderate elements. These moderate elements will lose their influence if they cannot achieve fair compromises with the external world.

Cultural Identitarian Movements

  • The rise of new cultural identitarian movements is not cultural in some regions of the former Third World. Similar processes occurred in 19th century Europe. They are at the basis of the rise of fascism but also of the rise of Christian democracy in 19th century.
  • New cultural identitarian movements attract traditional and newly emerging middle classes. For all these movements development becomes a central issue. They base their strategies on pragmatism and moral economy.
  • All ideologies are instruments for alliance building and to some extent do not directly reflect economic interests. In those countries, where secular nationalists have failed, they turn to identity.

Moral Economy

  • Moral economy allows pragmatic strategies without theoretical purity with respect to issues like market or state. This corresponds to the requirements of overcoming underdevelopment by means of creating the structures for capitalist development, ultimately by an intelligent use of rents and not profitable investments.
  • Moral economy allows political alliance building and the discipline of the market for the use of financial resources.
  • For economic transformation moral economy is required because it implies state intervention and break with the idea that mass consumption is an obstacle to growth and profit.
  • The moral economy is superior to the international economic system.
  • Success of East-Asian economics is based on the availability of cheap labour.  

Question and Answer Session

Following points were covered by German scholar during the question-and-answer session.

  • The main problem of Pakistan was that there was no clear support for secular nationalist movements and Islamic political movements.
  • Islamist ideology was based on the concept that Islamic rules and code of conduct should be applied on societal level and society should be organized in accordance to those rules. Moral view of public space was more important for an Islamist.
  • Anti-colonial liberation wars played important role for Islamic movements particularly in case of Nigeria.
  • For identitarian organisations cultural values were more important which were not universal.
  • Ethnic identities had stronghold in Asia and had the capacity to dissolve the state.
  • International system was all about elites who were interested in maintaining power.
  • Discussing the movements in Kashmir, the scholar said that the issue of Kashmir could not be solved through dialogue and war. Large majority in Kashmir should decide about its fate. West did not want to disturb the status quo in Kashmir because the cost was too high.
  • Iran, Pakistan, India and China had important role in Afghanistan in post-2014 scenario. 


The German scholar was of the view that the only solution was, therefore, to engage Islamist organisations in dialogue. West failed to introduce the secular nationalist trend in the developing countries. Islamist organizations and other political movements focused on moral economy which addressed the financial needs of the larger part of the society especially middle class. Local culture was very important for such extremist political movements. Cultural identities had been given priority in order to strengthen their hold in the power system of a society. Iranian revolution, Turkish movements, Nigerian movements and Arab Spring movements were examples of such extremist political movements.

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IPRI is one of the oldest non-partisan think-tanks on all facets of National Security including international relations & law, strategic studies, governance & public policy and economic security in Pakistan. Established in 1999, IPRI is affiliated with the National Security Division (NSD), Government of Pakistan.


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