2002 Report (Continued) Background Paper
The question of whether there is a model for the creation of the ideal Islamic society in the contemporary world remains largely unanswered. It also remains uncertain whether democracy on the Western model is a solution, or even a viable alternative in Muslim societies. These issues are the object of a serious and ongoing debate. At the heart of this debate is political Islam with its many manifestations, from fundamentalism to moderate reformism. The term "political Islam" has itself been subject to much controversy. Many now agree that political Islam, or "Islamism," represents a broad spectrum of political activity, ranging from social activism to violence, by which Muslims seek to redress the waywardness and injustices of their present societies.
The Islamist Ideal
From the outset the Islamist movement was two-pronged. According to French political sociologist Gilles Kepel, it first targeted the younger generation in the cities, a class created by the postwar demographic explosion in the Third World and the resultant mass exodus from the countryside.66 Though poverty-stricken, these young urbanites were literate and had access to some education. Second, the movement expanded to include the traditional God-fearing bourgeoisie--the descendants of mercantile families from the bazaars and souks of large Islamic cities from Cairo to Jakarta to Teheran to Tunis--who had been thrust aside during the process of decolonization. In addition to this devout middle class, there were also doctors, engineers, and businessmen who had gone away to work in the conservative oil-exporting nations and had rapidly acquired wealth, while still being kept outside political power. For the space of a generation, all these social groups, with their different ambitions and worldviews, found in the political ideals of Islamism an echo of their frustrations and a reflection of their hopes and dreams.67
The most enthusiastic propagandists of the Islamist ideal were young intellectuals, freshly graduated from technical and science departments, who had been inspired by the ideologues of the 1960s.68 The nature of the Islamist message, which leveled class differences and appealed to a spiritual solidarity, allowed the movement to spread rapidly in the early 1980s. Its religious cast, which made militants supposedly accountable to God alone, earned Islamism a grace period before it was required to show concrete political results. By promising to reestablish social justice on the model of the first state of Islam set up by the Prophet Muhammad in Medina, the Islamists offered a utopian vision. They also gave expression to the populace's visceral hostility toward regimes gnawed by corruption, bankruptcy (both economic and moral), and authoritarianism.
But contradictions at Islamism's core were also brought to light during this period. The question of who would control this potent new religious and political force was a matter of growing concern to the various powers in the region. Though some states tried to stifle the movement, while others encouraged it, all regional governments interfered with it in one way or another. The Iranian revolution provided much food for thought for other established regimes; it was only too clear that by alienating the mullahs, the Shah had isolated himself, losing support within Iranian society. By contrast, Khomeini triumphed because he united the support of the merchants, the poor, and even the secular middle classes, who believed that in the revolution's aftermath they would be able to control this charismatic but impotent old man.
The entire decade of the 1980s was overshadowed by a power struggle between the Saudi monarchy and Khomeini's Iran. Tehran sought to export its revolution, just as the Russians had once exported theirs. Riyadh aimed to contain this ambition, just as the Americans had contained the Soviets during the Cold War. Between these two ideological poles, countries such as Egypt, Pakistan, and Malaysia encouraged their local Islamist groups, whom they perceived as allies against the enduring threat of socialism. But, once released, the forces of social change were not always controllable, as was proven in 1981 when the al-Jihad group assassinated Egyptian president Anwar Sadat.
With the exception of Iran, all the regimes in power in Muslim countries during the 1980s then concentrated their efforts on strategically dividing the various components of the Islamist movement. Governments made guarantees to the devout middle class to alienate them from the poor. Political leaders feared that the constant but ineffectual rioting of the Muslim masses would eventually produce full-blown revolution, bringing more radical elements to power. By making concession after concession in the moral and cultural domains, governments gradually created a conservative climate of "Islamization." Regimes subjected secularist intellectuals, writers, and other Westernized elites to the scrutiny of often disapproving religious authorities, in the hope that the latter, in return, would endorse their own hold on the state. Saudi Arabia, in particular, shared power and fostered alliances to win over likely Islamists, and cultivated the loyalty of the devout middle class by giving it access to the financial benefits derived from oil wealth. 69
Still, the most influential and far-reaching conflict of the 1980s was, by far, the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. The Afghan jihad against the Soviets became the great cause with which, worldwide, moderate and radical Islamists alike identified. For many Muslims this jihad supplanted the Palestinian cause and symbolized the shift from nationalism to Islamism. In addition to the local mujahidin, or holy warriors, the international brigades in Afghanistan hailed from all over the Muslim world--from Egypt, Algeria, the Arabian peninsula, and Southeast Asia. They lived in closed communities, where they received intensive training in guerrilla warfare techniques and were indoctrinated with a variant of Islamist ideology based on armed struggle and extreme religious rigor. 70
The United States, assisted by its allies in the Gulf, financed the holy war in Afghanistan with one explicit goal: to create a Vietnam-like trap for the Soviet Union. Up until 1989, American intelligence agencies, along with those of Saudi Arabia and Pakistan, were convinced that the fighters battling the Soviet Union on the mountainous Afghan terrain were firmly under control and were demonstrating a pro-West Islamist alternative to the road taken by the Iranian revolution. In that year, Islamism appeared to reach its peak of intensity as a political force. During the Palestinian intifada, or uprising, the hegemony of the Palestine Liberation Organization came under threat from the Islamic Resistance Movement (Hamas). In Algeria, the Front Islamique du Salut won a decisive victory in the first free elections since independence. And in the Sudan, a military coup d'état placed Hassan al-Turabi in power. 71 When the Soviet army finally evacuated Afghanistan in 1989, the triumph of jihad and its Saudi sponsors was sealed.
Also in 1989, Khomeini, whose losses had forced him to sign an armistice with Iraq, made headlines by issuing a fatwa against Salman Rushdie, author of the controversial novel The Satanic Verses. With this gesture, the Iranian ayatollah symbolically expanded the ummah all the way into Europe and the West. In the same year, the wearing of the veil by Muslim schoolgirls in France sparked a nationwide debate that demonstrated the extent to which the Islamist movement had garnered the support of second-generation Muslim immigrants in Europe. And, contemporaneously, the seemingly sudden collapse of the Berlin Wall signaled an end to the Communist system and opened the way for the extension of Islam beyond the Iron Curtain and into the Muslim states of Central Asia. The evaporation of militant socialism created a vacuum that Islamism seemed ideally qualified to fill.
But the movement's apparent invincibility turned out to be an illusion. For one thing, Islamism's popular base was far from secure. The fragile alliance between the young urban poor and the devout middle class, held together by intellectuals preaching the doctrines of Islamism, was not strong enough to endure long-term confrontation with entrenched state authorities. With increasing success, governments and their intelligence services discovered ways to pit Islamism's two constituencies against each other, exposing the underlying conflict between their divergent social agendas and their shared, but vague, desire to set up an Islamic state and implement the shari'ah. 72
The Failure of Political Islam?
In the view of French analyst Oliver Roy, a showdown between Islam and the West is unlikely for the simple reason that Muslims (and Westerners) are far too diverse to act as distinct blocs. He points out that "the battle is among Muslims themselves, between the secular and the fundamentalist, modern and the conservative." 73 As a political movement, Islamism seeks to re-create a true Islamic society, not simply by imposing Islamic law, but by establishing a complete Islamic state system. For Islamists, Islam is not a religion, but a political ideology which should be integrated into all aspects of society, including politics, law, economy, foreign policy, and so on. The inspiration for the Islamist state is taken from the historic past of Islam. Notable among those who worked to establish one form of Islamic state or another are Hassan al-Banna (1906-49), Abul Ala Maududi (1902-79), and Ayatollah Khomeini (1902-89). 74
Islamists believe that the Islamic state should unite the Muslim ummah across geographic boundaries. Such a state would supposedly re-create the golden age of the first decades of Islam, superseding tribal, ethnic divisions, and national divisions. Islamist movements do not necessarily employ violence as a means of advancing their aims. For example, the Jama'at Islami movement in Pakistan and the Refah (Welfare) Party in Turkey have worked within the existing legal system to attempt to produce change. 75 This is also true of much of the Muslim Brotherhood, which has by and large remained inside the legal framework of Egypt, the principal state in which it operates. 76
Despite claiming to be focused on the ummah, however, most Islamist groups are themselves the products of a given political culture and society, shaped by national histories. As a result, Islamists have often become embroiled in the practicalities of state administration and have gradually grown more nationalistic than Islamic in their outlook and policy. The Iranian revolution, for example, turned into a defense of the nation and, in the end, even Khomeini affirmed state interests above Islamic ones. 77 Turkey's Refah Party was more of a Turkish nationalist party with an Islamic domestic agenda, rather than a revolutionary party.78 During the Gulf War of 1991, each nation's branch of the Muslim Brothers' organization took a stand in accordance with the perceived interests of its own country. For example, the Kuwait branch approved U.S. military intervention, while the Jordanian branch vehemently opposed it.79 Roy calls this the "paradox of the Islamists"--they have been shaped by the states they want to conquer, instead of the other way around. 80 In the name of establishing a transnational Islamic state and community, the Islamists have reverted to nationalism in most cases. So far, they have been unable to bypass the nation. 81
In the 1970s and 1980s, as we have seen, many Muslim states began a program of Islamization in order to undercut their Islamist critics and regain some religious legitimacy. This was a deliberate state policy as well as a social phenomenon. Confronted with the Islamist opposition during the 1980s, many Muslim states, even when officially secular, endeavored to promote a brand of conservatism and to organize an "official Islam." While the initial stages of institution and organization building were successful, state control over religion was never fully realized.
Finally, this state strategy produced a new brand of opposition that was ideologically conservative, but at times politically radical. The objective shifted away from defining what a true Islamic state should be and focused instead on implementing Islamic law. Though the movement is basically a sociocultural phenomenon, it has also produced an extremist expression that is found in loose peripheral networks, such as Al-Qaeda. 82
It is important to note that Islamic opposition movements have often brought previously excluded social groups into the political process of the countries in which they operate. These marginalized groups include the urban mostazafin ("dispossessed") in Iran, the Shi'ah in Lebanon, recent city-dwellers and Kurds in Turkey, urban youth in Algeria, and northern tribes in Yemen. In involving these populations, Islamists have evinced a political inclusiveness that might lead to political stability. But what happened in Iran is also relevant: once the revolution had a stable domestic constituency, it lost its appeal outside the country. This was also the case with the Refah Party (later Fazilet, later still AK), which has no influence abroad except in the Turkish migrant community in Western Europe.
Some intellectuals, such as Roy, distinguish between Islamism and neofundamentalism, the former as being interested in the drive for political power and the latter seeking to create an Islamic society through the implementation of shari'ah law.83 Instead of taking over the state, neofundamentalists try to create microcosms of a just society. In this context, Iran falls in the Islamist camp, while Saudi authorities would be seen as sponsoring neofundamentalism. Neofundamentalists are strongly opposed to music, the arts, and entertainment. Contrary to the Islamists, they do not have an economic or social agenda. They are the heirs to the fundamentalist, conservative Sunni tradition, obsessed by the danger of a loss of Islamic purity through the contaminating influence of other religions. The neofundament-alists stress the implementation of shari'ah as the sole criterion for an Islamic state and society. But they have also at times confronted Christian groups and actively spread the belief that the United States. and the West are united to destroy "true Islam."
Another discernible feature of the modern Muslim landscape are the links across borders among Muslims worldwide. In a sense, Islam has always been transnational, constituting one fideistic community (as we have seen) but also encouraging pilgrimage and the formation of expansive Sufi or mystical orders. Today this transnationalism has taken on new dimensions. First, migrants have moved in search of economic and political security not only from one Muslim society to another but from the Muslim world to Europe, America, and Australia. This has undermined the medieval juridical bifurcation of the world into dar al-islam (the realm of Islam) and dar al-harb (the realm of non-Islam or "war"). In most nations of the world, Muslims have a defined political and social presence and many maintain ties--whether through family, economics, or politics--with the Muslim home country. Second, ideas now move back and forth across borders faster and more easily than ever before, and today's Muslims, particularly the educated young, readily cite newer Muslim writers as well as the older generation, such as Maududi or Qutb.84 In the process, although there are certainly disagreements over specifics, a broadly transsectarian and transnational consensus has emerged, insisting that Muslims rely on indigenous notions like da'wah ("call" to Islam) and jihad, in its various meanings, to confront the ills of modern society. Third, new networks of terrorists have emerged, building in part on an ideology of political activism, but also exploiting grievances over unpopular Western policies to justify jihad as the sixth pillar of the faith and to rationalize attacks on civilian populations. 85
The influence of Al-Qaeda, in particular, has reached beyond the Middle East; it now has allies in Africa and associated groups in Southeast Asia--e.g., Jemaah Islamiah in Indonesia and Singapore, and the Moro Islamic Liberation Organization in the Philippines.86 Although their common goals may be stated as the reestablishment of the caliphate, and to foster the development of a pan-Islamic state or a regional, pan-Islamic organization, they have been and continue to be challenged by the government apparatus of existing Muslim nation-states. That task is substantial, and the job of governments that seek to contain radical networks is all the greater because these networks exploit Islam's natural cosmopolitanism.
According to an alternative view, while Islamists work within the structures of the nation-state, neofundamentalists embody the crisis of the nation-state, squeezed between infrastate solidarities and globalization. The state level is bypassed and ignored. In fact, this new brand of supranational neofundamentalism is more a product of modernization and globalization than of the Islamic past. 87 Neofundamentalists use different languages and modern communications technology; they work across continents and consider themselves "Muslims" as opposed to citizens of one specific country.
In the final analysis of Roy and others, Islamism has failed and the initially weaker cause of neofundamentalism has flourished. The revolution is past and the watered-down version that remains poses little challenge to the West. Even if an Islamist political party were to take over a Muslim country, it would neither unify the Muslim world nor change the balance of power in the Middle East; it would only produce superficial changes in customs and laws. 88
Implications for Policy
The current United States campaign in Afghanistan, like the war on global terrorism, is fraught with opportunity and danger.89 The dilemma we face there is the same one we have confronted elsewhere: how to encourage the development of moderate groups and contain radical Islamist groups without providing fuel for resentment of the West.
Even the most cursory history of political Islam since the 1970s demonstrates that it is far from a monolithic movement. Although particular groups share broadly similar ideas, they owe their trajectories to the particularities of their national cultures and social circumstances. This specificity requires nuanced policy responses that accurately and realistically assess the challenges that various proponents of political Islam may pose. It is clear that policy makers will especially need to understand and address the roots of the anger, and even rage, that parts of the Muslim world feel toward the West. And it is simple to blame despotic figures, such as Saddam Hussein and Osama Bin Laden, but it is equally important to understand why their audiences seem so receptive to the hate propaganda that they disseminate. In other words, it is vital for policy makers to look carefully at the deeply rooted vulnerabilities and fears that many Muslims experience. These sentiments, directed toward the West and the United States, in particular, clearly complicate relations with the Islamic world. 90
Given that Islamic extremism responds to a variety of causes, including grievances against American foreign policies, successful Western opposition is bound to be multipronged. Strategies must reflect how economic considerations (entrenched poverty and an inequitable distribution of wealth) combine with social factors (inadequate education and housing) to compound political problems (the inability of opposition to express itself). Looming over all these concerns is the radicalization of thought that follows from narrow educational systems with counterproductive pedagogy, outdated curricula, and inflexible religious authorities who resent criticism of their traditional prerogatives.
The future of political Islam depends largely on who exactly speaks for Islam and which message appeals to the majority of politically active Muslims--moderation and tolerance, or extremism and intolerance? But in the end it may be that there is little that governments, especially Western governments, can do to influence the debate directly, inhibited as they are by the well-grounded fear that such intervention will backfire. Perhaps the most difficult challenge will be how to deal with oppressive, corrupt regimes that are already aligned with the United States or else supply needed resources. It is likely that if the United States and the West continue to support Middle Eastern regimes, especially so-called "Islamic" ones that suppress dissent, Americans will be the target of increasing anger and hopelessness, which in turn will feed extremism and terrorism.Back to the top.