WHILE Islamism is often seen as a form of traditional Islam, it is something profoundly different. Traditional Islam seeks to teach humans how to live in accord with God's will, whereas Islamism aspires to create a new order. The first is self-confident, the second deeply defensive. The one emphasizes individuals, the latter communities. The former is a personal credo, the latter a political ideology.
The distinction becomes sharpest when one compares the two sets of leaders. Traditionalists go through a static and lengthy course of learning in which they study a huge corpus of information and imbibe the Islamic verities much as their ancestors did centuries earlier. Their faith reflects more than a millennium of debate among scholars, jurists and theologians. Islamist leaders, by contrast, tend to be well educated in the sciences but not in Islam; in their early adulthood, they confront problems for which their modern learning has failed to prepare them, so they turn to Islam. In doing so they ignore nearly the entire corpus of Islamic learning and interpret the Koran as they see fit. As autodidacts, they dismiss the traditions and apply their own (modern) sensibilities to the ancient texts, leading to an oddly Protestant version of Islam.
The modern world frustrates and stymies traditional figures who, educated in old-fashioned subjects, have not studied European languages, spent time in the West, or mastered its secrets. For example, traditionalists rarely know how to exploit the radio, television and the Internet to spread their message. In contrast, Islamist leaders usually speak Western languages, often have lived abroad, and tend to be well versed in technology. The Internet has hundreds of Islamist sites. Francois Burgat and William Dowell note this contrast in their book, The Islamist Movement in North Africa (1993):
The village elder, who is close to the religious establishment and knows little of Western culture (from which he refuses technology a priori) cannot be confused with the young science student who is more than able to deliver a criticism of Western values, with which he is familiar and from which he is able to appropriate certain dimensions. The traditionalist will reject television, afraid of the devastating modernism that it will bring; the Islamist calls for increasing the number of sets ... once he has gained control of the broadcasts.
Most important from our perspective, traditionalists fear the West while Islamists are eager to challenge it. The late mufti of Saudi Arabia, 'Abd al-'Aziz Bin-Baz, exemplified the tremulous old guard. In the summer of 1995, he warned Saudi youth not to travel to the West for vacation because "there is a deadly poison in travelling to the land of the infidels and there are schemes by the enemies of Islam to lure Muslims away from their religion, to create doubts about their beliefs, and to spread sedition among them." He urged the young to spend their summers in the "safety" of the summer resorts in their own country.
Islamists are not completely impervious to the fear of these schemes and lures, but they have ambitions to tame the West, something they do not shy from announcing for the whole world to hear. The most crude simply want to kill Westerners. In a remarkable statement, a Tunisian convicted of setting off bombs in France in 1985-86, killing thirteen, told the judge handling his case, "I do not renounce my fight against the West which assassinated the Prophet Muhammad. We Muslims should kill every last one of you [Westerners]." Others plan to expand Islam to Europe and America, using violence if necessary. An Amsterdam-based imam declared on a Turkish television program, "You must kill those who oppose Islam, the order of Islam or Allah, and His Prophet; hang or slaughter them after tying their hands and feet crosswise... as prescribed by the Shari'a." An Algerian terrorist group, the GIA, issued a communique in 1995 that showed the Eiffel Tower exploding and bristled with threats:
We are continuing with all our strength our steps of jihad and military attacks, and this time in the heart of France and its largest cities.... It's a pledge that [the French] will have no more sleep and no more leisure and Islam will enter France whether they like it or not.
The more moderate Islamists plan to use non-violent means to transform their host countries into Islamic states. For them, conversion is the key. One leading American Muslim thinker, Isma'il R. AlFaruqi, put this sentiment rather poetically: "Nothing could be greater than this youthful, vigorous and rich continent [of North America] turning away from its past evil and marching forward under the banner of Allahu Akbar [God is great]."
This contrast not only implies that Islamism threatens the West in a way that the traditional faith does not, but it also suggests why traditional Muslims, who are often the first victims of Islamism, express contempt for the ideology. Thus, Naguib Mahfouz, Egypt's Nobel Prize winner for literature, commented after being stabbed in the neck by an Islamist: "I pray to God to make the police victorious over terrorism and to purify Egypt from this evil, in defense of people, freedom, and Islam." Tujan Faysal, a female member of the Jordanian parliament, calls Islamism "one of the greatest dangers facing our society" and compares it to "a cancer" that "has to be surgically removed." Cevik Bir, one of the key figures in dispatching Turkey's Islamist government in 1997, flatly states that in his country, "Muslim fundamentalism remains public enemy number one." If Muslims feel this way, so can non-Muslims; being anti- Islamism in no way implies being anti-Islam.
Islamism in Practice
LIKE OTHER radical ideologues, Islamists look to the state as the main vehicle for promoting their program. Indeed, given the impractical nature of their scheme, the levers of the state are critical to the realization of their aims. Toward this end, Islamists often lead political opposition parties (Egypt, Turkey, Saudi Arabia) or have gained significant power (Lebanon, Pakistan, Malaysia). Their tactics are often murderous. In Algeria, an Islamist insurgency has led to some 70,000 deaths since 1992.
And when Islamists do take power, as in Iran, Sudan and Afghanistan, the result is invariably a disaster. Economic decline begins immediately. Iran, where for two decades the standard of living has almost relentlessly declined, offers the most striking example of this. Personal rights are disregarded, as spectacularly shown by the re-establishment of chattel slavery in Sudan. Repression of women is an absolute requirement, a practice most dramatically on display in Afghanistan, where they have been excluded from schools and jobs.
An Islamist state is, almost by definition, a rogue state, not playing by any rules except those of expediency and power, a ruthless institution that causes misery at home and abroad. Islamists in power means that conflicts proliferate society is militarized, arsenals grow, and terrorism becomes an instrument of state. It is no accident that Iran was engaged in the longest conventional war of the twentieth century (1980-88, against Iraq) and that both Sudan and Afghanistan are in the throes of decades-long civil wars, with no end in sight. Islamists repress moderate Muslims and treat non-Muslims as inferior specimens. Its apologists like to see in Islamism a force for democracy, but this ignores the key pattern that, as Martin Kramer points out, "Islamists are more likely to reach less militant positions because of their exclusion from power.... Weakness moderates Islamists." Power has the opposite effect.
Islamism has now been on the ascendant for more than a quarter century. Its many successes should not be understood, however, as evidence that it has widespread support. A reasonable estimate might find 10 percent of Muslims following the Islamist approach. Instead, the power that Islamists wield reflects their status as a highly dedicated, capable and well-organized minority. A little bit like cadres of the Communist Party, they make up for numbers with activism and purpose.
Islamists espouse deep antagonism toward non-Muslims in general, and Jews and Christians in particular. They despise the West both because of its huge cultural influence and because it is a traditional opponent--the old rival, Christendom, in a new guise. Some of them have learned to moderate their views so as not to upset Western audiences, but the disguise is thin and should deceive no one.
Daniel Pipes is director of the Philadelphia-based Middle East Forum, and author of three books on Islam.
Graham Fuller, “The Future of Political Islam,” Lecture delivered at the Carnegie Council on 5/22/03.
It is easy to talk about Muslim grievances, many of which are not well known in the West. Many are very legitimate; others are partial truths about some things that happened; and there are yet other issues that concern Muslims that are often the product of conspiratorial thinking or anxieties that are perhaps rather distant from reality. These three elements are mixed together -- real realities, real grievances and concerns; partial stories; and fears and paranoia that amplify the rest.
As a result, political Islam today is the major political opposition movement across most of the Muslim world. We can say that it is partly good/partly bad.
It is imperative that we understand why and how this phenomenon comes about, why a great deal of Islamist thinking is not some exotic belief that could only come from a strange reason, but in many ways is reflective of the anxieties, concerns, and problems of the entire developing world. It perhaps has a different garb in the Middle East, some of it not fully familiar. But at a closer look, you can see elements that resemble Chinese angers and frustrations at their former eclipsed greatness; you can see it reflected in India or Latin American or Africa. It has local characteristics, but it also has some very broad, general characteristics.
When some people talk about political Islam or Islamism, they have bin Laden or the Taliban in mind. Both of those are part – but on the fringes – of what is a very broad movement of political Islam. They cannot be excluded, but they are simply violent and extremist parts of the spectrum. This spectrum is growing and diversifying all the time as events proceed in the Middle East.
I define political Islam as anyone who believes that the Qur’an and the Traditions of the Prophet -- what the Prophet said and did during his lifetime in an effort to apply his best understanding of the Qur’an -- have something important to say about the way politics and society should operate in the Middle East.
On this spectrum we have, on the one hand, violent radicals or non-violent radicals or moderates. We have rather totalitarian-minded individuals, but a much greater number of Islamists who increasingly see benefits of democratic process. We see traditionalists who believe that somehow the old, glorious days of the golden age of the Islamic world is the goal to return to. The greater majority would say, “No, we are moving on into a new world” and would be more modernist in their interpretation. So you can be traditionalist, you can be modernist, you can be anywhere along the spectrum which is broadening as any number of people consider themselves driven in one way or another by their concern with linking Islam and politics.
There are several reasons why political Islam today is very successful, particularly in opposition.
First, saying “in opposition” is an important statement in itself, because it is much easier to be in opposition than it is to be in power anywhere. We can criticize what is wrong with any number of governments and regimes, but to say what we would do if we were in power and had to assume those problems is rather different. So right away Muslim Islamists, like any other opposition group, have that advantage.
Secondly, most regimes in the area help the Islamists, wittingly or unwittingly, by eliminating most other political opposition. So you can take the socialist party and close it down, or the nationalist party, or the communist party, or the liberal party.
But with Islamists it is much harder, because they are operating out of mosques and neighborhoods. Islamist movements have deep grassroots, much more than any other movement. I regret to say that because my bias would be to see reforming liberal movements as dominant. But the reality is you can get a mass of crowds into Liberation Square in any Arab or Muslim city in the world and you could not fill up any square in any part of the Muslim world with liberal democrats. It is simply not a vibrant tradition, at least so far.
So with legal or illegal elimination of other rivals, Islamists win by default, or they gain by default, in this position, including both the extremists and the others.
Extreme conditions generally produce extremist results. Many of the situations now in so much of the Arab world are negative conditions: oppressive governments, incompetent governance; un-elected, and hence you might say illegitimate, governance in many cases; violent governance; brutal and destructive governance, of which the late and unlamented Saddam Hussein was the supreme example. These regimes produce the frustration and anger that ultimately pushes people towards political Islam.
There are many reasons why someone would join an Islamist party, or even want to turn to Islam even for political belief. For us in the West we wonder: Why would you go to the Qur’an? Why would you turn to a religion for political thought?
In the West our great documents, the sources of our philosophical and political ideas, are, say, the Magna Carta, the American Revolution, the Declaration of Independence, the French Revolution. These are some of the great documents and movements in the development of modern Western history.
But for the Muslim world those events are not part of their tradition, and if you are looking for a moral source to describe what kind of social and political morality you might have, you turn to the Qur’an. The Qur’an talks much more about the nature of a good society, and the nature of governance than either the Old or New Testaments, which are much older documents. Neither of those documents had much to do with building a modern state, whereas the Qur’an was in the full light of history and was involved in state-building from day one.
There are many general thoughts within the Qur’an about what is a moral and virtuous ruler, that the ruler should consult with the people. There is a key element, shura in Arabic, consultation or a council. Many Islamists or Muslims today will say, “Sure, in those days shura meant that the ruler consults with his people; today that means parliament, period, it’s that simple.”
There is discussion of social justice, the good society, fair distribution of wealth. These are very general principles and nothing that we’re not familiar with in the West. But in Islam they are religiously derived.
So this brings you back to the Qur’an inevitably and why religion tends to be the source of much political thought.
Muslims, like everyone else, are human beings in the way they operate. Politics is very much a human art; it has human weaknesses. Many Islamists, practitioners of this, exploit this to their own ends. They use the Qur’an or quotations from the Qur’an highly selectively. They will choose certain passages that support their position, and not others, to make radical, even violent positions. Others will choose texts to justify other positions, much more moderate, democratic, that encourage coexistence, conciliation among peoples.
And it is like the Bible, Old or New Testament -- you can find whatever you want to justify almost anything. All of these documents have some horrendous, bloody-minded passages which talk about what you do to enemies of your faith and your religion. And in other parts we find ideas that are filled with wonder and delight and glory and compassion. The Qur’an is very much in that category, and it is both used and abused by Muslims.
Political Islam, in part, appeals to people who want to go back to their own traditions. Muslims have had a great tradition for upwards of a thousand years, surpassing anything the West had for a very long time, up until the fifteenth/sixteenth century.
But something happened. The West, which had been a rather crude and backward place, especially northern Europe, suddenly began to surpass Islam and become the great power of the world. Muslims anguish over: “What happened? What went wrong? Did God avert his face?” And here we see echoes of the Old Testament prophecies about why God seemingly averted his face from the people and how you have to get back to righteousness. There is a lot of similarity to this type of thinking.
Some Muslims say, “We must get back to the traditions. We don’t have a moral society anymore. Some of this immorality is homegrown, but some of it comes from the West, or the West took away our traditions in the imperial period or the colonial period.” There are some elements of truth to this. The French went into Algeria and banned the use of even Arabic for any official use, so you have entire generations growing up ignorant even of their own language and of their own traditions, and now you have this French-speaking elite, and then an Arabic-speaking class.
You cannot blame the West by any means for everything that has happened, but there are some legitimate grievances that go back to the Crusades or imperialism or Western intervention.
Political Islam is partly harkening back to those old days. But religions serve many functions. If you are an Islamist and you feel that your government is illegitimate, incompetent, or brutal, you will find the best justification for critique from the Qur’an or from the traditions of Muslim about political values. No Muslim leader wants to be criticized from the point of view of Islam because this would seemingly be the most devastating critique that could be set forward. This is precisely one of the reasons why Muslims, Islamists in particular, offer critiques of their regimes or others on the basis of Islam. It is a very convenient instrument against other states.
With new communications and media, the Muslim world is becoming ever more aware of itself as a totality: Indonesia to Morocco, Tatarstan in the former Soviet Union all the way down through multiple countries of Africa, and now large Muslim communities in Western Europe and indeed in this country. The Uma, the international community of Muslims, is becoming more self-aware.
Chechyans can say, “Aha! We see sufferings of Palestinians in Israel and therefore we see our Chechyans” -- and then Kashmiris pick up on this, and so you now have a whole litany of groups. And Muslims will tick this off and say, “Muslims are under oppression in Palestine and Bosnia and Kosovo and Kashmir and Chechnya and Xinjiang and the 8 million Turkish Weigers in western China and the Moros in the Philippines.”
The question is often asked: Why is it that there are many grievances in Latin America or Africa that we don’t hear about so much, or there isn’t necessarily the same degree of terrorism? What’s the matter with Muslims that if they have problems, it ends up being terrorism or a huge international movement?”
One reason is because you do have Muslims, from Indonesia to Morocco, and north and south in those areas, so there is almost an echo effect, especially today. You turn on any television in the Muslim world and they are talking about issues of other Muslims elsewhere.
This echo effect suddenly makes the Uma, the Muslim world, become a very powerful force attracting the equivalent of international adventurers or French Legionnaires, who are willing to go and fight in Chechnya, Bosnia, Palestine, Kashmir or Afghanistan.
I want to emphasize greatly the multiple functions that Islam or political Islam performs in this world. We can’t simply look at it as an ideology, but need to recognize the functions that it serves. If there were no problems, there might not be much of a political Islamic movement. Political Islam may ultimately inevitably, decline. It is not about to right now. On the contrary, it is growing, and since 9/11, the war against terrorism and the war in Iraq, I am afraid that the intensity, if anything, is rising. But the story is obviously unfolding even as we speak.
Political Islam will begin to decrease under one of two or three circumstances.
The first would be that it does gain power in one or another places and fails fairly palpably. We can point to Iran. If we were talking seven or eight years ago, I would probably say virtually a total story of failure. But in the last five or six years we begin to see very interesting politics emerging in Iran, perhaps more political progress in Iran towards opening up of the system and transparency than we see anywhere in the Arab world in that same period.
The Islamists in Iran have made a lot of mistakes. They have partly learned from this, as have others. But Iranians today are not terribly open to the idea that we should have more Islam in politics. They want less Islam, want to fine-tune this, and there is great discussion about what is the proper role. They don’t say “no Islam”; they say, “What is the proper role?”
So Islam coming to power and failing is certainly not a good advertising for elements of the ideology.
Secondly, political Islam talks about problems that have nothing to do with religion. If you look at the agendas of these movements, they talk about corruption in the country, bad leadership, police brutality, police state, unemployment, lack of social services, imperialism, weak rulers who kowtow to the United States because they want protection from their own people more than they want to bring good governance.
But you don’t have to be an Islamist to talk about these things. You can be a socialist or a nationalist or a communist.
The minute that these societies start to open up and you do have socialists, nationalists, liberals or others who are talking about these same problems, the Islamists will lose the monopoly over the critique of societies as they exist.
In some way or other a new ideology will come along. We wouldn’t have been sitting in this room some twenty-five years ago talking about Islam except as some exotic academic exercise, talking about a religion. In those days Arab nationalism was the great bugaboo. It was Abdul Nassar in Egypt, it was the great “put the fear of God into the West about the force of Arab nationalism, rallying mobs and masses.” That is gone for multiple reasons, and today it is political Islam.
Political Islam will never go away altogether. In Turkey we have a very interesting new movement in power. For the first time in the history of Islam, we have a political party that has come to power through free elections and is doing what it can do -- making mistakes, doing some good things. This is normalcy.
Since these movements are not going to go away and cannot be defeated by the sword, I would hope that gradually, by allowing more moderate elements among these Islamists into the system, into parliament, they will learn the rules of the game, of compromise. Then through that process, we may begin to tame what is otherwise a powerful movement that can be both very dangerous and can possibly bring change to the region in the garb of a nativist ideology rather than something imported from abroad.
THE DEMOCRACY GAME.(West Bank).
The New Yorker 82.1 (Feb 27, 2006): p58.
Every Friday, just before midday prayers, thousands of men and women in the West Bank town of Dura stop to gossip and shop in the market stalls that lead to the steps of the Grand Mosque. I visited Dura on the first Friday after Hamas had swept the Palestinian elections. And yet that morning all the talk was of cartoons: a dozen caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad had been published in the Danish daily JyllandsPosten, igniting a worldwide paroxysm of apocalyptic hysteria that brought into use, once more, that "Star Wars"-like phrase "a clash of civilizations." The imam at the Dura Grand Mosque is a man in his late forties named Nayef Rajoub. Although Sheikh Nayef is a leader of Hamas and the top votegetter in the entire West Bank, his supporters told me that he, too, was focussed on the cartoons. He would be speaking that day on the Danish caricatures as a "weapon of the Western Crusaders."
Outside the mosque, I met a group of people standing around a fruit-andvegetable store run by a man called Eichmann Abu Atwan. I thought I'd misheard his name, but he smiled, showed his identity card, and said, "Eichmann. Like the Nazi." His father had named him during the trial of Adolf Eichmann, in Jerusalem in 1961. "He was an early fighter, killing Israelis in the seventies," Eichmann said proudly. "And my brother was such a fierce fighter that a Syrian paper compared him to Abdel-Aziz al-Rantisi"--one of the founders of Hamas. Eichmann was a supporter of Fatah, the Palestinian nationalist group that Yasir Arafat founded some fifty years ago, and, like everyone else I'd been talking to in the occupied territories, he said that Hamas had won for a variety of reasons: the financial corruption of Fatah and its leadership; the utter failure of the Oslo process; a marked increase in Islamic practice throughout Gaza and the West Bank; Hamas's dual mastery in providing social services for Palestinians and launching armed assaults on the Israelis. "Time has run out for Fatah," Eichmann said.
As the muezzin summoned the people of Dura to the mosque, Nayef's fraternal twin, Yasir, stopped by the store. "Are you all coming to hear the Sheikh?" he said. Like Nayef, Yasir had been affiliated with Hamas from the start, but their older brother, Jibril Rajoub, was one of Arafat's most powerful aides and a Fatah lord. Jibril had run the Preventive Security Service in the West Bank, and he was one of the losers in the elections.
Prayers began at eleven-thirty, and we filed into the mosque and knelt down. The walls were whitewashed. A dozen fluorescent tubes dangled low from the ceiling, giving off a vague yellow light. The room was filled entirely with men, but I was hardly inconspicuous. My translator, an aspiring young journalist from the West Bank named Khaldoun, quickly came to realize that his principal task, after rendering the Sheikh's sermon into English, was to explain to all who inquired (and many did) that the foreign visitor was "not Danish." Al Jazeera and the other Arab-language television stations had broadcast fiery protests throughout Europe, Asia, and the Middle East.
"Danish?" a man asked me.
Khaldoun responded with a prolonged explanation featuring the word "Am-rika," which has not been something to brag about in recent years, but this time it did the trick.
Sheikh Nayef has a graying beard, close-cropped hair, and a tranquil, strangely distant gaze. His posture was as straight as the microphone stand before him. I was told that outside the mosque his personality was shy, even remote--a marked contrast to his worldly and fierce-looking brother Jibril--but he soon rose to a register of high dudgeon in his sermon. The Danish cartoons, the Sheikh said, were reminiscent of the calumnies hurled at the Prophet fourteen hundred years ago. Muhammad "was accused of being a magician, of being insane. The same thing is happening now in Denmark, in France, although many mosques in Europe are spreading his message. . . . What happened in Denmark is an offense against Muhammad and his followers. It is an act of aggression against us and against our feelings."
The Sheikh was not about to get into the origins of the demonstrations, how they had been fanned not only by an imam in Copenhagen and various jihadi groups but also by regimes, like the Saudis', that make a show of their piety in order to placate their Islamist subjects. "That's not my topic today," he said. His theme was power and humiliation, Western offense and Islamic will. The cartoon affair, he said, was yet another episode in the Crusaders' assault on the faith, and the reason for "the Prophet's humiliation is the weakness of our nation." The demonstrations proved that Hamas and the Islamic movement around the world were unimpressed by such "excuses" as freedom of speech, and were absolutely determined to reject the pieties of "the heathen."
The Sheikh continued, "The people who bow down to the White House and to the Western way of life must all wake up and realize that this life is not suitable for us. Today we are told to accept our enemies, to give up our principles, to give up resistance, and do the same as the previous government"--the Palestinian Authority under Fatah. "But that is not our model. Our model is the Prophet Muhammad. What did the previous government get from compromise? It got failure, the denial of our rights, a blockade--Arafat was caught in a blockade. We have no partner in Israel. A people with principles will not repeat this failure. If our people repeat this, the next thing will be the Israelis telling us to stop praying, to stop fasting, to change our names, to take off the hijab. We will not repeat these mistakes.