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The term Islamism refers to a group of usually extremist political ideologies based on the Muslim religion, and claiming that Islam must be the basis of political life as well as a religion. For the most part it is the creation of Sunni Muslim ideologues or religious leaders. Islamists believe that Islamic law (Sharia) must be the basis for all statutory laws, that Muslims must return to the original teachings and the early models of Islam; and that western military, economic, political, social, or cultural influence in the Muslim world is un-Islamic. Radical Islamists wish to restore and expand the Muslim Caliphate.

Islamism is the product of a developing movement in the Muslim world. Its ideas are therefore not monolithic and their evolution is represented in several different branches. Islamism developed originally in the context of the Ottoman Empire, the British Raj in India and British and Turkish rule in Egypt, and was therefore in part a reaction to colonialism.

Islamism is nominally "fundamentalist" in the sense that it claims to aspire to return to a literal and "true" interpretation of the Quran and to a society based on the principles of early Islam.

Founders of Islamism

Several names are associated with the ideology of Islamism. Jamal al-Din al-Afghani (1839-1897), his student Muhammad Abduh (1849-1905), and Abduh's student, Muhammad Rashid Rida (1865-1935) form a direct "succession" in a sense, but Afghani and Adbuh's ideas were totally at variance with radical Islamism in many respects. Afghani was not a religious fanatic.  The more modern and more radical formulations were those of Hassan al-Banna (1906-1949) who founded the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, Sayed Abul Ala Maududi (1903-1979) founder of the Pakistani Jamaat-e-Islami and Sayyid Qutb (1906-1966) who led the Muslim Brotherhood Egypt. Ayman Zawahari, a student of Qutb, was a founder of the Egyptian Islamic Jihad (about 1980) and later became the ideological mentor of Al-Qaeda leader Osama Bin Laden. A separate Shia branch that is essentially Islamist in character and goals is represented in the ideology of the Ayatollah Rohollah Khomeini and is realized in the Islamic Republic of Iran.

Ideas and objectives of Islamism

The basic ideas and objectives of radical Islamists may be summarized as follows:

Islam is an all encompassing political and social program, not just a religion.

Islam is based on rule of God rather than rule by man, and is therefore incompatible with western democracy.

Rule of man is inherently oppressive and therefore must be replaced everywhere by Islamic rule of God.

Muslims deserve to dominate because their way of life is superior.

Muslims have been subjugated by the West because they abandoned "true Islam" as defined by Islamists.

All men who are not ruled by God, including Muslims are in a state of Jahiliya (ignorance and darkness) that is similar to that which prevailed before the rise of Islam in Arabia.

Islam strives to bring about the rule of God everywhere in a single state, by overthrowing both Muslim states that do not adhere to Islam and Western states.

Islamic rule must be established by violent Jihad (holy war) that can include terror and terrorist acts. Every Muslim must be prepared to sacrifice themselves in Jihad.

Islamists have a great willingness to declare other Muslims and Muslim regimes as Takfir (heretical) legitimizing Jihad against them.

Jews are agents of subversive western ideas such as sociology and social equality and are therefore objects of hate.

Critiques of Islamism

Those labeled Islamists often, if not always, oppose use of the term, maintaining they are just Muslims, and that their beliefs are a straightforward expression of Islam as a way of life. Some Western anti-Muslim analysts agree with them. Those views are controversial, inasmuch as they are seen to demonize all Muslims and delegitimize the Muslim beliefs.

Critics point out that the Islamist interpretations of the Quran are at variance with those of others, that the original society of Islam did not resemble the sort of society that Islamists wish to institute and that many of its policies and decisions were shaped by local exigencies rather than inherent principles. They also note that Islamism unabashedly adopts innovation (Ijtihad) alongside its fundamentalist claims and thereby negates its own fundamentalist character. It could also be argued that the aspiration to a Caliphate is incompatible with the pre-Caliphate society and norms. 

Other Muslims, including conservative Salafi as well as democratic reformers,  insist that Islamist ideologies are a perversion of Islam. Some object to the idea that Islam is a political ideology, while others object specifically to social and economic programs. Pan-Arab ("Nasserite") parties object to the sidelining of Arab nationalism, and all nationalists object to the pan-Islamic state envisioned by radical Islamism.

Prevalence of Islamism

Experts estimate that only about 15% of Muslims are radical Islamists or Jihadists. It is not clear on what data this estimate might be based. In Egypt, the Muslim brotherhood enjoys the electoral support of about 20% of the population, though it is officially banned. In Lebanon, a very large minority or even a majority support the Shia Hezbollah. In other countries, support varies and is more difficult to determine. Non-Islamists may support an Islamist party because they agree with some of its goals, or because they do not see an alternative, or they may demonstrate for an anti-hero like Osama Bin Laden even if they do not really want to have a Sharia government in their own country. Opponents of Islamism are not always more "moderate."

Varieties of Islamism

Though the roots of the major Islamist ideologies are in Sunni Islam, the Shia regime in Iran is a close ideological implementation of Islamism, including a theocratic Islamic state and a foreign and domestic policy ostensibly governed by constraints of Islamist belief. Islamists are often called "Jihadists" as well, being those who believe in the duty of Jihad in the sense of a holy war against non-Muslim enemies.

There are also a number of Islamic political movements and parties, such as the Turkish AKP, which are apparently not violent and may be compatible with democratic government. These are sometimes called "Islamist" but should be carefully distinguished from the violent forms of Islamism. The Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood claims it has moved in that direction as well.

Controversies and Misunderstandings regarding Islamism

Islamism developed in isolation in east Asia and the Middle East. Most of its text were in Urdu and Arabic, and were not translated, or were translated selectively into English and were read only by a handful of experts. Even when translated, these texts are difficult reading. They often make reference to Arabic words and Muslim concepts that are unfamiliar to Westerners, such as Dawa (Muslim proselytization), Fiqh, Madh'hab, Tawhid (approximately, Monotheism), etc.

These texts are often contradictory and represent different facets of the ideology as it evolved at different times, and sometimes they are deliberately deceptive for political reasons or distort the ideology to suit momentary political goals. Not surprisingly, Islamism is poorly understood in the west. This obscurity is aided by the natural tendency to reinterpret alien concepts in a familiar framework, or to use them to further domestic political needs of one or another kind, and by the lack of hard data on the extent to which the Muslim world in general may sympathize either with some of the ideological tenets of Islamism or may support specific goals of Islamist political parties such as elimination of Israel, removal of unjust regimes in Muslim states or programs of social equality. Some popular beliefs and claims that are probably erroneous or misleading are:

Islamism is fundamentalism similar to Christian Fundamentalism - Insofar as it is safe to transfer concepts between east and west, Salafi Islam is akin to Christian fundamentalist movements. Islamism is radical rather and revisionist rather than fundamentalist, whatever it claims. Islamism often appeals to those who have been poorly educated in the Salafi tradition, but they are not ideologically compatible. Once a Salafi becomes a radical Islamist, they are no longer really Salafi. The phrase "Salafi-Jihadist" or "Salafi-Islamist" is somewhat of a contradiction in terms.

Islamism and Islam are identical in their goals - Rightist groups and advocates such as Geert Wilders often try to confute Islamism with all of Islam. Most Muslims are opposed to parts or all of the Islamist program, though opponents of Islamism are not necessarily moderate.

Radical Islamism can evolve to western democracy - Radical Islamism is opposed to western democracy in principle. The "democracy" advocated in some Islamist  texts presupposes that only Muslims can participate in it, and/or that it is guided by theologians who have the final say on whether a law conforms with Sharia. Some Islamist parties have turned to democratic participation either as a means to attain power or out of genuine conviction. In the latter case, they are no longer Islamist, and almost immediately spawn radical splinter groups. In the former case, they will use democracy as a means to an end and then discard it once they attain power. Disagreements about democracy in groups like Hezbollah or the Muslim Brotherhood may be disagreement about tactics rather than principles. 

Radical Islamism is due to misunderstandings that can be resolved by dialogue between Islamists and the west - Radical Islamism postulates that Islam has been corrupted by the west, which is inherently evil. Dialogue and contacts with the west over ideological issues are considered pointless or dangerous. 

Radical Islamism is a movement against colonialist or capitalist oppression - It is easy to make this mistake.  The "oppression" that Sayyid Qutb and others cite is not specifically related to any particular policy, but rather to their idea that rule of man is inherently oppressive. The only way to "free" man is to subject humankind to an Islamist totalitarian state in their view. 

Radical Islamism can be assuaged by granting specific political goals - Solution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict or correction of social injustices may reduce the following of radical Islamism, but these issues are only tangentially related to the goals of Islamism, which are to supplant all of modern civilization with an Islamic state.

Background and History of Islamism

The ideological father of Islamism was probably Sayed Abul Ala Maududi    (or Mawdoodi), who lived in what is now Pakistan, and who was influenced by Deobandi ideology. He called for an Islamic state governed by Sha'ria (Islamic law) and tried to reconcile Islam with modern science. Mawdudi founded the Jamaat-e-Islami in 1941 and headed the movement until 1972. His key works include "Towards Understanding Islam" (Risalah Diniyat) and Jihad in Islam (Jihad fil Islam) and a reinterpretation/retranslation of the Qur'an, which was his theological masterpiece.

The Arab and Muslim world has suffered several frustrating disappointments. National ambitions were partially frustrated by the Western take over of the Middle East after World War I, which, in the Arab view, prevented the realization of the aims of Arab nationalism that had begun to crystallize during the last years of the Ottoman Empire, and humiliated the Muslim Umma. In particular, the rise of Israel is a sore point and a focus for anti-Western resentment. The Israeli victory in the Six Day War caused widespread disillusion with the pan-Arab movement and contributed to the rise in support for extreme Islamist ideologies.  Much of the Arab and Muslim world, burdened by high population growth and lack of a middle class, has failed to industrialize and lags far behind the west in standard of living, quality of life and democratic institutions. Literacy rates are low and infant mortality is high relative to the West. The introduction of modern medicine has produced a population explosion that hampers economic growth. Muslims blame oil-greedy western countries for repressive regimes that they claim have stifled growth, even in the oil rich Arabian peninsula and Persian Gulf area. Islamists have leveraged on this discontent and frustration to build populist movements that often have an extremely destructive and reactionary philosophy.

The appeal of Islamism to Muslims is expressed, without apparently any reservations, by a moderate Muslim, Bassam Tibi, in a statement that is remarkable for its naivete, candor and racism, and frighteningly reminiscent of the Fascist race supremacy ideologies of the 1930s:

Like peoples in non-Western civilizations, Muslims suffer the concrete effects of disruption and dislocation, but unlike the others they have a worldview that entitles them to dominate. But to to the contrary, they are dominated by others, to whom they feel -- thanks to their divine revelation -- superior. If this point is missed, Western observers will fail to grasp how Muslims feel about the current world order. (Tibi, Bassam, The Challenge of Fundamentalism, University of California, Berkeley and Los Angeles, 2002, p 61).

Islamist doctrine is not a passive philosophy, but a program for action. Both Hassan al-Banna  and  Sayyid Qutb preached violent Jihad, One of their favorite "military" tools is the suicide attack on civilians. Persons who die carrying out such attacks are considered to be holy martyrs (Shahid). Islamists were responsible for suicide attacks on the US forces in Lebanon in the '80s. They have been involved in plots to assassinate Arab leaders in different countries, and they instigated and carried out the attack on the United States on September 11, 2001. Shi'a Islamists came to power in Iran in 1979 and formed an Islamic Republic.

Islamists, like all religious extremists, make clever use of culturally accepted symbols such as the Quran, interpreted according to their own ideas, in order to advance their own program.

The Muslim Brotherhood - The Muslim Brotherhood (Ikhwan) in Egypt has been a longstanding threat to the regime. Their slogan is self explanatory:  "God is our purpose, the Prophet our leader, the Qur'an our constitution, Jihad our way and dying for God's cause our supreme objective." Founded in 1928 by Hassan El-Banna, their popularity grew rapidly in the 30s and 40s despite vigorous repression. They combined strict Islamic practice, Fascist ideology and pro-Axis politics. In 1948, following their efforts in mobilizing volunteers to fight in the war against "the Zionists" in Palestine to prevent establishment of a Jewish state, they were ready to launch a coup against the Egyptian monarchy. However, On December 8, 1948, Prime Minister Nuqrashi Pasha disbanded the Ikwhan in Egypt. Less than three weeks later, the Ikhwan assassinated Nuqrashi Pasha; Hassan El-Banna was assassinated by government agents on February 12, 1949. The Ikhwan had organized extensively in Gaza, and remnants of the Ikhwan eventually founded Palestinian groups including the Hamas. In Egypt, leadership of the movement was taken over by Sayyid Qutb.

Sayyid Qutb had been sent to study abroad (or perhaps exiled) to the USA in 1948 and studied there. He returned with a profound hatred for the United States and the West, including Western materialism and sexual permissiveness, which he viewed as depravity. He wrote extensively against democracy and characterized western society as "Jahil" - that is, benighted in the same way as the pre-Islamic Jahiliyah period in Arabia. He called for Jihad against these infidels, but he went one step further. Not only Western society was Jahil, but all current societies. Moreover, he would not specify what specific regime was to replace it, except that it must free man from the rule of man and place him directly under the rule of Allah as revealed by Sharia:

People who demand from Islam that it provide theories, and that it provide a completed constitution for its system, and that it provide laws, while they observe that there is not a single society on earth which has rejected man-made systems and agreed to enforce the Shari'ah, in addition to having political power for such enforcement, show that they are ignorant of the character of this religion and the way it operates in life. They are also ignorant of the purpose for which God revealed His religion. Ref  

It should be clear from the above that the war of Islamists is not a "war of civilizations" between the current Muslim countries and the West, but rather a war between the Islamists and the entire world. The problem for Islamists is not this or that Western allied Muslim country, but rather all countries, inasmuch as they all have man made laws rather than Sharia law as interpreted by Islamists. The only correct society is the society that existed in the time of Muhammad and immediately thereafter in the initial stages of Islam according to Qutb. It follows that Westerners who believe that Islamism can be satisfied by economic concessions or that the issues are primarily economic are mistaken. Indeed, the leaders of the Islamist movement tend to be comfortable or at least well-to-do, and not the unhappy victims of social inequality.

Gamal Abdel Nasser banned the Muslim Brotherhood after they were involved in plots to assassinate him, and Qutb was executed in 1965. Eventually, the Egyptian Islamic Jihad, related to the Muslim Brothers, did assassinate Anwar Sadat after he signed a peace treaty with Israel. Recently (2004), the Muslim Brothers in Egypt announced that they were modifying their philosophy to a more moderate stance which abjured violence and supported democracy, at least within Egypt.

A Muslim Brotherhood revolt that planned to overthrow the Syrian government and assassinate Syrian president Hafez el-Assad was suppressed by gassing tens of thousands of people in El-Hama in 1982. In Iran, Shi'a Islamists led by Ayatollah Khomeini came to power in 1979. The Iranians support the Hezbollah guerilla group in Lebanon and the Islamic Jihad Palestinian terrorist group. The initially ferocious Iranian regime has mellowed with time, and some democratic reforms have been established. Likewise the Hizbollah in Lebanon claim that they want to come to power democratically. However, it is now clear that the conservative clerics in Iran who hold the the real power will not give it up in favor of the democratically elected president and his reform-minded supporters. A recent election in Iran was rigged by eliminating candidates who were judged to be insufficiently "Islamic."

Osama Bin-Laden gained power by organizing Islamic resistance to the Soviet-supported regime in Afghanistan, with the aid of the United States. Following the partial eclipse of Saddam Hussein after operation Desert Storm, Bin Laden and his Al-Qaeda  Mujaheddin may have assumed increased importance as the symbols of successful resistance to the West and the infidels.

On September 11, 2001, Osama Bin Laden's Al-Qaeda movement carried out suicide attacks against the World Trade Center in New York and the Pentagon in Washington DC. According to Bin Laden, the attacks were aimed at punishing the United States for the presence of its soldiers in Saudi Arabia, which is supposed to be off limits to non-Muslims, and for its support of Israel. Bin-Laden and Al-Qaeda may actually be aiming at the much more limited goal of taking power in oil-rich Saudi Arabia. Despite the removal of the Taliban regime from Afghanistan by allied military intervention, forcing Osama Bin Laden into hiding, Al-Qaeda has since been responsible for terror attacks aimed at moderate regimes throughout the Muslim world, especially in Saudi Arabia and Turkey. In November of 2008, members of the Lashkar -e-Taiba radical Islamist movement, associated with Al-Qaeda landed on the beach in Mumbai India and terrorized, tortured and murdered about 200 persons, including Indians, American and British tourists in hotels, and Jews who were in the Mumbai Chabad center. The choice of targets suited both the Pakistani nationalist aspirations of Lashkar - e - Taibe, and the aversion to Westerners and Jews of its Islamist ideology.

Ami Isseroff

Revised December 20, 2008

Synonyms and alternate spellings: Jihadism, Muslim extremism

Further Information:    Qutb, Sayyid  History of Islam and the Arabs Jihad  Al-Banna, Hassan Salafi Maududi, Abul ala

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Encyclopedia of the Middle East

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Pronunciation - Arabic and Hebrew vowels are pronounced differently than in English. "o" is very short. The "a" is usually pronounced like the "a" in market, sometimes as the "a" in "Arafat."  The " 'A " is guttural.  " 'H "- the 'het ('Hirbeh, 'Hebron, 'Hisbollah') designates a sound somewhat similar to the ch in "loch" in Scots pronunciation, but made by touching the back of your tongue to the roof of your mouth. The CH should be pronounced like Loch, a more assertive consonant than 'het.

The "Gh" combination, and sometimes the "G," designate a deep guttural sound that Westerners may hear approximately as "r." The "r" sound is always formed with the back of the tongue, and is not like the English "r."

More information: Hebrew, Arabic

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