Thursday, January 7, 2010

Radical Islamism: An Introductory Primer

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The following is intended as a work in progress to provide a very brief discussion of issues involving radical Islamism. Naturally, it is too short to make all points, deal with all aspects, and cover all details. I plan to expand it in future to include possible solutions.

By Barry Rubin

A young American named Ramy Zamzam, arrested in Pakistan for trying to fight alongside the Taliban, responded in an interview with the Associated Press: "We are not terrorists. We are jihadists, and jihad is not terrorism."

What he says is well worth bearing in mind in order to understand the great conflict of our era. First and foremost, Jihadism or radical Islamism is far more than mere terrorism. It is a revolutionary movement in every sense of the word. It seeks to overthrow existing regimes and replace them with governments that will transform society into a nightmarishly repressive system.

And so one might put it this way: Revolutionary Islamism is the main strategic problem in the world today. Terrorism is the main tactical problem.

What is Islamism?

Radical Islamism is the doctrine that each Muslim majority country—politics, economy, society—should be ruled by a totalitarian dictatorship guided by the given movement’s definition of proper Islam. What Marxism was to Communism, and fascism to Nazism, Jihadism is to Islamism.

In some cases, Islamists have a wider ambition to transform the entire world, starting with Europe. While this may seem ridiculous to most Westerners, it does not seem so to the Islamists who hold that view.

Only a minority of Muslims is Islamist but that sector has grown sharply over the last twenty years and seems to be on the increase still. Muslims are also among the greatest opponents of political Islamism, and often its victims. Among those rejecting it are conservative traditionalist Muslims and Arab (or other types of) nationalists, along with a very small group which can be called liberal reformist.

Three places have been under radical Islamist rule so far: Iran and the Gaza Strip, as well as, temporarily, Afghanistan. An Islamist group using democratic tactics has gained control of the government in Turkey, where it is pursuing a step-by-step attempt to transform that country which may or may not succeed. Radical Islamist movements have been active in well over 60 countries ranging from Australia and Indonesia in the east to Morocco in the west, and even in Europe and North America.

The fact that radical Islamism relates to a religion, Islam, is very important (see below) but should not blind observers to the fact that this is basically a political movement and not—at least in the modern Western sense—a theological one.

Of course, Islamism is rooted in Islam but a strong opposition to Islamism—a standpoint shared by many Muslims who may motivated by a traditional view of Islam, ethnic or nation-state nationalism, or a different radical ideology (Arab nationalism most likely)—is in no way an expression of bigotry against a religion.
Similarly, the idea that opposition to Islamism is in some way “racist” is absurd since no “race” is involved. Just as opponents of Communism (capitalist, imperialist) and fascism (Jews, Bolsheviks) could be discredited by calling them names, the same is done with those who oppose Islamism.

Very roughly, Islamism is parallel to Communism and fascism as revolutionary mass movements. Analogies should not be carried too far but are useful in understanding certain basic points.

There are a wide variety of Islamist groups. A small but energetic international grouping of local organizations called al-Qaida; Muslim Brotherhood branches, Hamas, and Hizballah are the best known. In virtually every Muslim majority country and throughout Western Europe there are such organizations working very hard to gain state power.

What is the relationship of Islamism to Islam?

Islamism grows out of Islam and its advocates easily find widely accepted and very basic Islamic principles that justify their world view and behavior. But Islamism is an interpretation of Islam and not the only one possible. Indeed, for centuries there have been different interpretations.

To argue that Islamism is the inevitable or “correct” interpretation of Islam is as silly as it is to argue that it is some external, heretical ideology which has “hijacked” Islam. A rough parallel can be made with the relationship between Communism and either liberal or democratic socialism, and of fascism compared to conservatism or nationalism.

What Islam “means” can only be interpreted in practice by Muslims in a process of debate and struggle. We will see what happens in the decades to come. For outsiders to claim that Islam is “really” a religion of peace or “really” inevitably aggressive is meaningless. And, yes, no matter how powerful a religious text seems to be worded, followers of that religion can always find ways to ignore or reinterpret those texts.

Just as the Islamists can base their case on original Islamic texts, their Muslim opponents can argue from centuries of practice as well as their own interpretations. The reason that the Islamists (who were earlier called “fundamentalists” for precisely this reason) have to go back to the seventh century texts—though of course there are later ones they use that support their case—is that the intervening years did not follow their precepts. Indeed, that is precisely their complaint.

What eventually emerged is what I call conservative traditionalist Islam which subordinated itself to the rulers. It was no longer a revolutionary doctrine. A key point in this approach was the argument that as long as the ruler was a believing Muslim he should be obeyed. In addition, it was a powerfully held stance that no Muslim could judge and condemn as heretical the beliefs or behavior of other Muslims unless they were really obvious and extreme ones. Islamism had to combat these and other tenets of conservative traditionalist Islam.

To summarize in one sentence: we should be absolutely honest in showing how the most sacred texts of Islam appear to validate revolutionary Islamists but we should understand that a struggle is going on among Muslims in which different interpretations are contending. While Islamism is not the only possible interpretation of Islam, its approach is certainly shaped and justified by basic Islamic texts. Unless Muslims and especially qualified clerics reinterpret these tenets, Islamism will continue to have a strong advantage in competing with conservative traditional Islam while liberal reformism will remain a tiny, powerless viewpoint.

It is not that Islam has been hijacked, rather different forces are fighting over control of the steering wheel.

State sponsorship and nation-state ambitions

It is also, even when not so visibly state-sponsored, often an instrument of specific states, most notably Iran and Syria. Trying to spread Islamist revolution has been a major goal since the takeover of Iran itself and fits closely with Iranian great power ambitions. Not all leaders have pursued this with equal vigor but it is a high priority of the current rulers. A wide variety of organizations from barely disguised front groups to powerful Islamist organizations in Iraq, Lebanon, and among the Palestinians are used for this purpose. Most recently this pattern has been extended to Yemen. Some are pure assets, others client groups with a measure of independence.

While itself not an Islamist regime, Syria has understandably calculated that the Islamist side serves its interests very well. Thus, idea that Syria can easily be pulled away from its alliance with Iran and backing for Islamist groups like Hamas and Hizballah is a fantasy.

It is quite true that al-Qaida has shown that Islamist groups don’t have to be state-backed but the fact is that many of them still are able to operate because there is a regime behind them.

Tactics and strategies

Like Communist movements in the past, Islamist movements use a wide variety of strategies and tactics. The use of a non-violent tactic—like participation in elections—does not indicate that the group has ceased to be revolutionary. Actually, it is tough pressure by the regime that might force the Islamist leadership to postpone revolutionary activity to the distant future (Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood), repress it altogether (Syria’s Muslim Brotherhood), or get it tied up in electoral knots (Jordan’s Muslim Brotherhood).

On the other hand, it is no accident that the most militant Islamist groups have flourished where government is weakest: Hizballah, Hamas, and the Iraqi insurgents.

As for terrorism, that is a strategy and tactic which appeals to these movements for very specific reasons. These include the following points. While the Islamists claim they are only conducting a “defensive jihad”—since there is no caliph, offensive jihad isn’t supposed to happen—they are actually conducting offensive revolution.

The ideas that America is being attacked because Jihadists dislike its freedom or that it is being targeted because of its policies are both partly true. But precisely the same point could be made about Communism, Nazism, and Japanese imperialism. The problem of American culture and freedom, however, does not relate to what goes on in the United States but the fear that this model will spread inevitably to their own societies.

The complaint about U.S. policy is related to the fact that America is seen as a protector of the regimes the Islamists want to overthrow. The motive here is not that these regimes are tyrannical but that they are not Islamist. Lebanon and Turkey, the most democratic states in the Muslim-majority Middle East, have especially strong Islamist movements.

Another reason for targeting the United States or others in the West is that killing infidels is popular among the Islamists’ constituency as a sign of power to defeat the stronger West. The alternative is to focus terrorist attacks on the local governments. But killing fellow Muslims is less popular and the governments strike back with ferocious repression, while they are more likely to tolerate movements that only attack non-Muslims at home or abroad.

Why is terrorism used?

--It expresses the total and dehumanizing hatred Islamists have toward their enemies.

--It shows their disinterest in any compromise since the use of terrorism will dissuade their enemies from making deals.

--They believe that intimidation works and the history of terrorism shows they are not wrong in doing so.

--Terror, at least against non-Muslims, generally pleases their constituency and thus strengthens their base of support.

--This tactic fits with certain Islamic beliefs and texts while well-known clerics do not condemn terrorism, at least against non-Muslims, strongly, explicitly, and consistently.

It is tempting to say that terrorism is a tactic of last resort when repressive regimes permit no other route. But in most—though not all—cases, terrorism is used against the less tyrannical societies for a simple reason: the really repressive ones quickly kill the terrorists.


Neither more democracy nor more prosperity provides simple solutions to this challenge by Islamism. Many Islamist leaders and cadre come from well-off families. They are driven by ideological, cultural, and religious factors just as left-wing students in the West seek utopian transformations of society. Equally, they are not driven by antagonism to tyranny since their goal is to establish a new, worse tyranny. Both the Nazis and Communists came to power by overthrowing democratic regimes, in part through elections. With Islamism’s strength, the problem is not the lack of democracy by the rulers but the lack of a strong democratic movement to compete with it.

The Islamist movements will only be defeated by the destruction of violent groups as well as a widespread perception among Muslims that they either cannot take power or are a disaster as rulers.

Better government and higher living standards in their own countries would help to some extent in some countries. Aside from not overestimating this factor, it should be added that the West has no way to make these things happen, by overthrowing and replacing regimes (as Iraq and Afghanistan show), by changing its own policies, or by pressuring the incumbent regimes to change.

Barry Rubin is director of the Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) Center and editor of the Middle East Review of International Affairs (MERIA) Journal. His latest books are The Israel-Arab Reader (seventh edition), The Long War for Freedom: The Arab Struggle for Democracy in the Middle East (Wiley), and The Truth About Syria (Palgrave-Macmillan). To read and subscribe to MERIA, GLORIA articles, or to order books. To see or subscribe to his blog, Rubin Reports.

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