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
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
Islamism is the product of a developing movement in the
world. Its ideas are therefore not monolithic and their evolution is represented
in several different branches. Islamism developed originally in the context of
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
and to a society based on the principles of early
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
(1906-1949) who founded the Egyptian
Sayed Abul Ala Maududi
(1903-1979) founder of the Pakistani Jamaat-e-Islami and
(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
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:
is an all encompassing political and social program, not just a religion.
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.
have been subjugated by the West because they abandoned "true Islam" as
defined by Islamists.
All men who are not ruled by God, including
are in a state of Jahiliya (ignorance and darkness) that is similar to that
which prevailed before the rise of Islam in Arabia.
strives to bring about the rule of God everywhere in a single state, by
states that do not adhere to
and Western states.
Islamic rule must be established by violent
(holy war) that can include terror and terrorist acts. Every
must be prepared to sacrifice themselves in
Islamists have a great willingness to declare other Muslims and Muslim
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
Critics point out that the Islamist interpretations of the
are at variance with those of others, that the original society of
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
alongside its fundamentalist claims and thereby negates its own fundamentalist
character. It could also be argued that the aspiration to a
is incompatible with the pre-Caliphate society and norms.
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
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
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
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
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
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
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,
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
tradition, but they are not ideologically compatible. Once a
becomes a radical Islamist, they are no longer really
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"
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
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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
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.
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
Maududi, Abul ala