Modernization theory and the Islamic State

In the 1950s, the modernization theory emerged as an attempt to explain how societies in North America and Western Europe developed. This development was seen as depending “primarily on the importation of technology as well as a number of other political and social changes believed to come about as a result” [CROSSMAN, 2017]. According to social scientists of the mid-twentieth century, modernization is a process that involves industrialization, urbanization, rationalization, bureaucracy, mass consumption, and the adoption of democracy and from that it evolved to contemporary societies as of today. The process of modernization impacted society with the wider access of all sorts. This theory is, however, centralized in Western European ideas conceptualized with a capitalist economy point of view, which can be Eurocentric and do not consider the colonization era, slave labor, environmental sense and sustainability. When it comes to the modernization, the Islamic State is a an example of how modern communications enable spread of beliefs; how modernization enabled both state and religion to increase their sphere of influence and how modern religious organizations contribute to political activity.

Islamic State as a “modern movement”

Considering the modernization theory and how it was developed beginning with the importation of technology, the Islamic State can be considered a modern movement in three ways. First, in order to cause fear, terrorists use modern technology communications to maximize its exposure, while having a wider range of massive media to help spread the word. It also made it possible to connect strong views and beliefs from one side of the globe to another. Second, in a globalized world, state and religion became much more influential in the international system, due to the increase of importance of non-state actors. And, lastly, the relations between religion and politics have intertwined just like it happened during the medieval times with the need to influence people using other spheres.

Modern communications and the Islamic State

The internet is changing the lives of young Muslims and how religious system of communication is now taking place. There are, in other words, massive means of interpretation of the information and how it is spread. Even with “an inflation of sources of authority (…) almost any local teacher or mullah can issue a fatwa to guide a local community” [TURNER, 2012]. With globalization and the increasing access to technology, the mass media communication created a specific environment allowing communities, groups and individuals from different cultures, lands and social classes to reach broader information and be part of it. It was what happened during the attacks on the World Trade Center towers, in September 11, 2001, in the United States. Millions across the whole world watched this incident. Since then, with the platforms of social media, for the “first time in history, any terrorist can present his or her message to a large audience with relatively little efforts” as state William Dyson.

Modernization, the state and religion

After the World War II, the state was not seen as the only actor with a relevant importance in the international system. Non-state actors began being part of international relations as a whole and had impacts and were impacted by states’ politics and economy. Religion can be considered as one of these non-state actors. The range of influence, after Al-Qaeda and the Islamic State, for instance, has broadened and became, not only a political matter, but also a security issue. The first and most important event supporting religion and state as active actors in the international system was the 9/11. It was when the world realized how the effects of globalization and development of technology were an asset to this relation. Religion and state were not separated anymore, but entirely connected and a new problem for international politics and security.

Modern religious organization and politics

There are at least two ways which religion and politics can intersect, which are: establishment of a church or faith versus complete separation of church and state; and toleration versus coercion of religious belief, and current conflicts between religious practice and political authority. During the medieval era, in Europe, it was very common that religion and politics were dealt altogether. The church was the source of maximum power along with the king. After that, the separation of religion and states’ politics were propagated, shaping the modern world. This was, however, a Western European point of view of how political activity should perform. As a nonwestern European example, but still acting as the European medieval era in terms of religion and state, Islam has held all people to traditionally obey Allah’s will while commanding states’ politics, with this same religious approach, in most countries where Islamism is practiced as a majority, e.g. Saudi Arabia. The second way comes mainly through diplomatic relations regarding the possibility of conflicts which may happen because of religious and political oppositions; “thus, it is probably inevitable that religious commitments will sometimes come into conflict with the demands of politics” as states Christopher Callaway.


The Islamic State’s medieval religious approaches, regarding connections between state, communication, politics and religion, are also very connected to modern movements. The modernization of ISIS is very plausible if narrowed regarding many aspects of modern movement within the extremist group. Islamism is the dominant religion of the Islamic State and it is also the cause of many conflicts worldwide in the contemporary era. Politics, state and religion are interconnected and much stronger spread throughout the world due to the mass communication, which were only possible with modernization and development of technology.

About the author

Fernanda Sezar Pereira is about to start her senior year of her Bachelor degree in International Relations and European Studies in Masaryk University. Some of her interests include: gender equality, migration, human rights, environmental issues, international security, SDGs, international organizations actions and theories of International Relations. She advocates on mental health, intersectional feminism, migration, sustainability and all of its connections.


CALLAWAY, Christopher. Religion and Politics. . Last visited in 21.04.2018.

CROSSMAN, Ashley. Understanding Modernization Theory. 2017. . Last visited in 21.04.2018.

DYSON, William E. Terrorism: An Investigator's Handbook. Routledge; 4th edition: 2011.

TURNER, Bryan S. Religion and modern communication. 2012. . Last visited in 21.04.2018.

More information:

  1. RUSTAD, Siri Aas - The The Fall and rise of the Islamic State (IS) -
  2. MCCANTS, William Faizi. The ISIS apocalypse -
  3. GAUB, Florence - The Cult of ISIS -