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Islamism refers to a set of political ideologies derived from various conservative religious views of Muslim fundamentalists, which hold that Islam is not only a religion, but also a political system that governs the legal, economic and social imperatives of the state. Islamist movements seek to re-shape the state by implementing a conservative formulation of Sharia. [1] Islamists regard themselves as Muslims rather than Islamists, while moderate Muslims reject this notion.

In the aftermath of the September 11, 2001 attacks, Islamist movements, along with other political movements inspired by Islam, gained increased attention in the Western media. Although the groups and individuals representing these are not mutually exclusive, within academia, each term does have a distinct definition. Some Islamist groups have been implicated in terrorism and have become targets in the War on Terrorism. However, it is important to keep in mind that this distinction or boundary between "Islam" and "Islamism" is not as sharp, clear or distinct for many followers of Islam as it has in recent years become for many English-speaking non-Muslims or western academics. For example, most followers of Islam would consider themselves "Fundamentalists", insofar as believing in Islam means believing in its Fundamentals. Similarly, traditional Islam also promotes a vision of society influenced by the tenets of the religion, in much the same way that Christianity, Buddhism and other religions advocate not just personal but also social changes.

Most Islamist literature deals not with other religions, but with political ideologies, since Islamists were reacting against competing movements such as communism. Widespread poverty and consequent class tensions led to widespread socialist movements all over the Muslim world during the 20th century. But the collapse of the Soviet Union ultimately reduced the influence of leftist ideologies. Islamism has emerged as the remaining revolutionary ideology in Muslim societies, gaining much support through rising anti-Western sentiment due to control of the West Bank and Gaza Strip by Israel.

Governments based on secular Arab nationalism have found themselves facing economic stagnation and disorder. Some Muslims place the blame for these flaws in Muslim societies on the influx of "foreign" ideas; a return to the principles of Islam is seen as the natural cure. A persistent Islamist theme is that Muslims are persecuted by the West and other foreigners. In this context, Islamist ideas developed in several different settings.


History of Islamism

Although Islamic states based on Shari'a law have existed since the earliest days of Islam, Islamism refers to modern movements that developed during the twentieth century in reaction to several forces. Following World War I, the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire, and the subsequent dissolution of the Caliphate by Mustafa Kemal Atatürk (founder of Turkey), some Muslims perceived that Islam was in retreat, and felt that Western ideas were spreading throughout Muslim society, along with the influence of Western nations. During the 1960s, the predominant ideology within the Arab world was pan-Arabism which deemphasized religion and emphasized the creation of a socialist, secular state based on Arab nationalism rather than Islam.

The Deobandi Movement

In India, the Deobandi movement developed as a reaction to British actions against Muslims and the influence of Sayed Ahmad Khan, who advocated the reform and modernization of Islam. Named after the town of Deoband, where it originated, the movement was built around Islamic schools (principally Darul Uloom) and taught an interpretation of Islam that encouraged the subservience of women, discouraged the use of many forms of technology and entertainment, and believed that only "revealed" or God-inspired knowledge (rather than human knowledge) should be followed.

Though the Deobandi philosophy is puritanical and wishes to remove non-Muslim (i.e., Hindu or Western) influence from Muslim societies, it was not especially violent or proselytising, confining its activity mostly to the establishment of madrassas, or Muslim religious schools. They are a major sector of Muslims in the region (the followers of Sayed Ahmad Khan being a significant minority). The Taliban movement in Afghanistan was a product of the Deobandi philosophy and the madarassas.

Sayyid Abul Ala Maududi

Sayyid Abul Ala Maududi was an important early twentieth-century figure in India, then, after independence from Britain, in Pakistan. Strongly influenced by Deobandi ideology, he advocated the creation of an Islamic state governed by sharia, Islamic law, as interpreted by Shura councils. Maududi founded the Jamaat-e-Islami in 1941 and remained at its head until 1972. His extremely influential book, "Towards Understanding Islam" (Risalah Diniyat in Arabic), placed Islam in modern context and enabled not only conservative ulema but liberal modernizers such as al-Faruqi, whose "Islamization of Knowledge" carried forward some of Maududi's key principles. Chief among these was the basic compatibility of Islam with an ethical scientific view. Quoting from Maududi's own work:

Everything in the universe is 'Muslim' for it obeys God by submission to His laws... For his entire life, from the embryonic stage to the body's dissolution into dust after death, every tissue of his muscles and every limb of his body follows the course prescribed by God's law. His very tongue which, on account of his ignorance advocates the denial of God or professes multiple deities, is in its very nature 'Muslim'... The man who denies God is called Kafir (concealer) because he conceals by his disbelief what is inherent in his nature and embalmed in his own soul. His whole body functions in obedience to that instinct… Reality becomes estranged from him and he gropes in the dark.

The Muslim Brotherhood

Maududi's ideas were a strong influence on Sayyed Qutb in Egypt. Qutb was one of the key philosophers in the Muslim Brotherhood movement, which began in Egypt in 1928 and was banned (but still exists) following confrontations with Egyptian president Gamal Abdul Nasser, who jailed Qutb and many others. The Muslim Brotherhood (founded by Hasan al-Banna) advocated a return to sharia because of what they perceived as the inability of Western values to secure harmony and happiness for Muslims. Since only divine guidance could lead humans to be happy, it followed that Muslims should eschew democracy and live according to divinely-inspired sharia. The Brotherhood was one of the first groups to advocate jihad against all those who do not follow Islam. As al-Banna said:

[Muslim] lands have been trampled over, and their honor besmirched. Their adversaries are in charge of their affairs, and the rites of their religion have fallen into abeyance within their own domains, to say nothing of their impotence to broadcast the summons [to embrace Islam]. Hence it has become an individual obligation, which there is no evading, on every Muslim to prepare his equipment, to make up his mind to engage in jihad, and to get ready for it until the opportunity is ripe and God decrees a matter which is sure to be accomplished…

Islamic Jihad movements

This exhortation was followed by the Egyptian Islamic Jihad organisation, responsible for the assassination of Anwar Sadat, but with a twist: Egyptian Islamic Jihad focused its efforts on "apostate" leaders of Islamic states, those who were secular and introduced Western ideas and practice to Islamic societies. Their views were outlined in a pamphlet written by Muhammad Abd al-Salaam Farag, which said: "…there is no doubt that the first battlefield for jihad is the extermination of these infidel leaders and to replace them by a complete Islamic Order…"

Another Islamic Jihad group emerged in Palestine as an offshoot of the Egyptian group, and began militant activity against the state of Israel, and consistently opposed itself to the policies of the secular Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) and Yasser Arafat.


Another influential strain of Islamist thought came from the Wahhabi movement in Saudi Arabia. The Wahhabists, who emerged in the 18th century led by Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab, also believed that it was necessary to live according to the strict dictates of Islam, which they interpreted to mean living in the manner that the prophet Muhammad and his followers had lived in during the seventh century in Medina. Consequently they were opposed to many innovations developed since that time, including the minaret, marked graves, and later television and radios. The Wahhabis also considered those Muslims who violated their strict interpretation to be heretics, and thus used violence against other Muslims. When King Abdul Aziz al-Saud founded Saudi Arabia, he brought the Wahhabists into power with him. With Saud's rise to prominence, Wahhabism spread, especially following the 1973 oil embargo and the glut of oil wealth that resulted for Saudi Arabia. The Wahhabists were proselytizers, and made use of their wealth to spread their interpretation of Islam.

Recent history

Islamism went through its major political and philosophical developments in the early part of the twentieth century, but it was not until the 1980s that it became active in an international arena and rose to great prominence in the 1990s.

The reasons for the rise of Islamism during this period are still disputed. The ideologies that had dominated the Middle East since decolonization such as Ba'athism, Arab Socialism, and Arab Nationalism had, by 1980, failed to attain the economic and political goals expected of them. By the late 1980s the distinct Shi'ite version of political Islam had been drained of its vigour in the Iran-Iraq War. During the conflict against the Soviet Union in Afghanistan, many Islamists came together to fight what they saw as an atheist invading force and were heavily funded by the United States. In Pakistan, military dicators brought into power through coups (especially Zia-ul-Haq) exploited Islamist sentiments to consolidate their power, bringing Islamist political parties into prominence and all but destroying the traditional secularism that stemmed from the secular stance of the Muslim League and its leader Mohammad Ali Jinnah (founder of Pakistan).

In his book Jihad: The Trail of Political Islam Gilles Kepel argues that the central importance of Islamism in the 1990s was a product of the Gulf War. Prior to 1990 organized political Islam had been mostly associated with Saudi Arabia, a nation founded on Wahhabism and an ally of Islamist groups in Egypt and in Afghanistan. Saudi Arabia, as a close ally of the West and with a strong interest in regional stability, played an important restraining role on Islamist groups.

The Shi'ite clerics in Iran had long argued that Saudi Arabia was an apostate state, a puppet of the West that espoused a corrupted Islam. During the 1980s these accusations had little effect, largely because of their Shi'ite origin. However, Kepel argues that when Saddam Hussein turned on his former allies, he embraced this rhetoric, arguing that Saudi Arabia had betrayed its duty to protect the holiest sites of Islam. Kepel states that Saddam Hussein embraced Islamic rhetoric and trappings and tried to draw leading scholars and activists to his camp. Some of the main Islamist groups remained loyal to Saudi Arabia, but a number such as parts of the Muslim Brotherhood and Afghani mujahideen aligned themselves with Saddam. Far more groups declared themselves neutral in the struggle.

According to Kepel the rapid defeat of Saddam did not end this rift. As Saddam had likely predicted Saudi Arabia had found itself in a severe dilemma, the only way to counter the Iraqi threat was to seek help from the west, which would immediately confirm the Iraqi allegations of Saudi Arabia being a friend to the west. To ensure the regime's survival Saudi Arabia accepted a massive western presence in the country and de facto cooperation with Israel causing great offence to many in Islamist circles.

After the war Saudi Arabia launched a two pronged strategy to restore its security and leadership in Islamist circles. Those Islamist groups who refused to return under the Saudi umbrella were persecuted and any Islamists who had criticized Saudi regime were arrested or forced into exile, with most going to London. At the same time Saudi oil money began to flow freely to those Islamist groups who continued to work with the kingdom. Islamist madrassas around the world saw their funding greatly increased. More covertly Saudi money began to fund more violent Islamist groups in areas such as Bosnia and the former Soviet Union. Saudi Arabia's western allies mostly looked the other way seeing the survival of their crucial ally as more important than the problem of more money and resources flowing to Islamist groups.

In the 1990s Islamist conflicts erupted around the world in areas such as Algeria, the Palestinian territories, Sudan, and Nigeria. In 1995 a series of terrorist attacks were launched against France. The most important development was the rise to power of the Deobandi Taliban in Afghanistan in 1996. In the Taliban-ruled Afghanistan a number of anti-Saudi and anti-Western Islamist groups found refuge. Significantly, Osama bin Laden, a wealthy Saudi influenced by Wahhabism and the writings of Sayed Qutb, joined forces with the Egyptian Islamic Jihad under Ayman al-Zawahiri to form what is now called al-Qaeda.

A considerable effort has been made to fight Western targets, especially the United States. The United States in particular was made a subject of Islamist ire because of its support for Israel, its presence on Saudi Arabian soil, what Islamists regard as its aggression against Muslims in Iraq, and its support of the regimes Islamists oppose. In addition some Islamists have concentrated their activity against Israel, and nearly all Islamists view Israel with hostility. Osama bin Laden, at least, believes that this is of necessity due to historical conflict between Muslims and Jews, and considers there to be a Jewish/American alliance against Islam.

There is some debate as to how influential Islamist movements remain. Some scholars assert that Islamism is a fringe movement that is dying, following the clear failures of Islamist regimes like the regime in Sudan, the Wahhabist Saudi regime and the Deobandi Taliban to improve the lot of Muslims. However, others (e.g. Ahmed Rashid) feel that the Islamists still command considerable support and cite the fact that Islamists in Pakistan and Egypt regularly poll 10 to 30 percent in electoral polls which many believe are rigged against them.

An alternative direction has been taken by many Islamists in Turkey, where the Islamist movement split into reformist and traditionalist wings in 2001. The reformists formed the moderate Islamist Justice and Development Party (Ak Party), which gained an overall majority in the Turkish parliament in 2002, and has sought to balance Islamic values with the requirements of a secular and democratic political system. Some in the Justice and Development Party see the Christian Democrat parties of Western Europe as a model, which has led some to question whether it is a genuinely Islamist movement.

Islamism and modern political theory

The foundation of modern Islamist thought is the many centuries of Islamic theology and political science, but the development of modern Islamism was also both a reaction to and influenced by the other ideologies of the modern world. Modern Islamism began in the colonial period, and it was overtly anti-imperialist. It was also opposed to the local elites who wanted independence, but who also supported adopting western liberal ideals. Writers like the Egyptian Sayyid Qutb and the Pakistani Sayyid Abul Ala Maududi saw western style individualism as counter to centuries of tradition, and also as inevitably leading to a debauched and licentious society.

In the years after independence the most important ideological current in the Muslim world was socialism and communism. This influenced Islamism in two ways. Much Islamist thought and writing during this era was directly addressed to countering Marxism. For instance Muhammad Baqir al-Sadr's main works are detailed critiques of Marxism, paying much less attention to capitalism and liberalism. Another option was to try and integrate socialism and Islamism. This was most notably done by Ali Shariati. At several points Islamist and leftist groups found common cause, such as during the early stages of the Iranian Revolution, and several organizations, such as the Islamic Socialist Front in Syria, were both overtly Marxist and overtly Islamist. While most Islamists reject Marxism, the influence of socialist ideologies during the formative period of modern Islamism means that Islamist works continue to be infused with Marxist language and concepts. For instance Qutb's view of an elite vanguard to lead an Islamic revolution is borrowed directly from Lenin's Vanguard of the Proletariat.

During the 1930s a number of fascistic groups arose in the Middle East. Some such as the SSNP and the Kataeb Party were mostly supported by Christians and other minority groups others like the Egyptian Misr al-Fatat were mainly Sunni Arab. The fascist method of seizing power did inspire Islamist Hassan al-Banna, who founded organizations directly based on the Brownshirts and Blackshirts to try and seize power. This method proved ineffective, and since then most Islamists have used the cell based structure commonly used by leftist groups. Ideologically there is little evidence that fascism had much influence on the development of Islamism. The far-right French doctor Alexis Carrel had an important influence on Qutb's thought, and the well-read Qutb also seems to have had a passing knowledge of Mein Kampf. Several Islamist groups have embraced Nazi like anti-Semitism, as an outgrowth of Islamist anti-Zionism.

Several authors, among which Daniel Pipes [2] and Michael Ledeen [3] have prominently equated Islamism to fascism and coined the word Islamofascism. Cavelos and Laidi state in [ISBN 0415167175] A World without Meaning that Islamism shares more characteristics with fascism than with communism, in that it does not have a definite progress belief, which communism has, and that three characteristics are shared by Islamism, communism and fascism: a totalitarian political claim, a global discourse about society in which the theme of exclusion is central and a political and social apparatus which respond to the demands of disadvantageous groups. The most direct western parallel to Islamism is, however, not fascism, but Dominionism (put in place in the past such as during The Protectorate of Oliver Cromwell).

Islamist movements

See also

External links

Further reading

  • Onward Muslim Soldiers: How Jihad Still Threatens America and the West, Robert Spencer, Regnery Publishing, 2003
  • Children of Abraham: An Introduction to Islam for Jews, Khalid Duran with Abdelwahab Hechiche, The American Jewish Committee and Ktav, 2001
  • Islamic Fundamentalism., Youssef M. Choueiri. Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1990.
  • The Islamism Debate, Martin Kramer, University Press, 1997
  • Liberal Islam: A Sourcebook, Charles Kurzman, Oxford University Press, 1998
  • The Vanguard of the Islamic Revolution: The Jama'at-i Islami of Pakistan, Vali Nasr, Univ. of California Press, 1994
  • The Failure of Political Islam, Olivier Roy, Harvard Univ. Press, 1994
  • The Challenge of Fundamentalism: Political Islam and the New World Disorder, Bassam Tibi, Univ. of California Press, 1998
  • Pioneers of Islamic Revival. ed. Ali Rahnema. London: Zed Books, 1994.
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