The September 11, 2001 attacks inspired an unprecedented upsurge of interest in Middle East and Islamic studies within academic, policymaking and security circles in the United States. Now, more than ever, Americans are seeking to understand the circumstances that culminated in the worst terrorist attacks on American soil, especially the rise of radical Islam and political Islam as a whole. Despite this newfound curiosity, however, much of the commentary on Islamism is ill-informed by generalizations that fail to distinguish between moderate Islamists advocating political liberalization and democratization and their violent militant counterparts. Indeed, many observers continue to see political Islam through a Cold War lens: a monolithic movement akin to the Soviet Union that threatens the United States. Ironically, during the Cold War, the United States viewed Islamists of all stripes as allies against the spread of Soviet influence and Arab nationalism.
In reality, an overwhelming majority of Islamists, including influential groups such as Egypt’s al-Ikhwan al-Muslimeen (The Muslim Brotherhood)—the largest and most organized Islamist movement in the world—do not harbor violent agendas and are actually outspoken against terrorism. The Brotherhood in Egypt, for instance, renounced violence in the 1970s and has since demonstrated its pragmatism by participating in electoral politics and other formal institutional bodies, essentially abiding by the established rules of the game despite being banned by the authorities . In contrast, violent militants constitute only a tiny minority within the larger Islamist trend, a fact that is often overlooked. The implications for recognizing the nuances and complexities within political Islam—the dominant current shaping society and politics in the contemporary Middle East and Muslim world—are profound. This is especially true for those seeking to understand the trends and events in the Middle East that gave rise to al-Qaeda.
The Rise of Political Islam
In general terms, political Islam—or Islamism—is based on the premise that Quranic scripture, theology and inspiration should shape society and politics. Political Islam emerged as an influential force in the Middle East in the late 1960s and 1970s during a period when Muslims began to seek new solutions to the deep-seated social, political and economic problems affecting the region. The failure of Western ideologies (such as the secular socialist pan-Arab nationalism espoused by Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser) to address these concerns and to restore regional power and pride drove many to search for answers from within their own societies. Israel’s invasion of Egypt, Syria and Jordan in 1967 and eventual occupation of Arab land confirmed the failure of the status quo in Muslim eyes. The ouster of the U.S.-backed shah of Iran in 1979 by Shiite Islamists coupled with the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in the same year also helped galvanize a sense of transnational Muslim consciousness in the Middle East, lending further legitimacy to the idea that Islam was the solution .
This critical period also saw authoritarian regimes in the region suppress liberal and secular political dissent. Ruling autocrats determined to root out any perceived threats to their control used widespread repression, torture and other draconian measures, such as the assassination of outspoken Islamists and the outlawing of subversive political elements. Great efforts were also made to co-opt the opposition in order to fracture and weaken dissent. These tactics contributed to the radicalization of some Islamists and even former secular activists, driving some to take up arms against the state in the name of Islamic revolution. As a result, the regimes in places such as Egypt, Jordan and Saudi Arabia—all staunch U.S. allies—are widely viewed by their people as illegitimate, tyrannical, inept and agents of U.S. imperialism. It is also worth noting that many of al-Qaeda’s ranking members, including Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri, got their start in domestic opposition politics in their home countries of Saudi Arabia and Egypt, respectively, before shifting their ire towards the United States .
Political opposition was resilient in the face of sustained government pressure. The absence of free political space and public venues for association and debate drove the resistance underground, as activists sought alternative channels of dissent in order to circumvent government controls. As a result, mosques and religious associations emerged as vibrant hubs of social, political and economic protest, a trend that continues today. This was the case even in countries where the regimes appointed clerics and infiltrated religious congregations. The resurgence of Islam as a political force also gained a boost from the marked increase in outward religious observance in what would represent a collective assertion of identity. Some observers characterize this trend as a form of Islamic nationalism; by calling for the restoration of Muslim pride and glory, Islamists play a role analogous to that of traditional populists and nationalists in the West (The Future of Political Islam, pp. 20-23). The actions and discourse of Islamists resonate among the masses because Islam represents a tradition that is familiar and a product of local culture, as opposed to a foreign ideology inherited from the colonial period.
It is against this background that Islamists such as the Muslim Brotherhood emerged as the most organized form of political opposition in the Middle East. The failure of sitting governments in the region to meet the demands of their citizens elevated political Islam as a promising alternative. The popularity of Islamists cannot, however, be attributed to their religious credentials. The Brotherhood, for instance, is at the forefront of democratic opposition politics in Egypt. It is a vocal critic of the regime on tangible issues such as state repression, corruption, unemployment and foreign policy. It also provides vital social services such as health care and education where the regime is absent, bolstering its reputation as an agent of action . This refutes the argument that the Brotherhood’s political reform-minded agenda is merely a façade meant to conceal a radical agenda. Similarly, radical Islamists also back up their words with action of a different kind, using violence and terrorism to get their message across.
Like other political movements, the Brotherhood’s membership in Egypt is diverse and includes followers who hold diverse and often conflicting views on any number of topics. What members do agree on, however, is the group’s opposition to violence. Although members of the organization have been implicated in violence in the past, it renounced the use of force in the early 1970s. As a result, the Brotherhood resents comparisons to al-Qaeda and other violent militants . The same holds for local branches of the group elsewhere in the region, who should be considered independent actors with unique and local interests as opposed to being formally part of a larger movement.
Radicals vs. Moderates
Radical Islamist organizations such as al-Qaeda despise their moderate counterparts, including the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, a reality that is often ignored in studies of Islamism. Al-Qaeda views them as traitors who have abandoned their revolutionary calling by participating in inherently flawed elections and other aspects of social and political life in countries where they face severe repression. In contrast, the Brotherhood regularly condemns al-Qaeda, devoting a section on the English-language version of its website to the topic . Despite their often common origins and shared opposition to U.S. foreign policy and incumbent authoritarian regimes in the Middle East, the goals of moderate groups such as the Muslim Brotherhood share little in common with their extremist counterparts.
Nevertheless, Arab regimes in the Middle East frequently label moderate Islamists as affiliates of al-Qaeda in an effort to justify systematic crackdowns against dissent. For example, Egypt has stepped up its attacks against the Brotherhood in recent months in response to the group’s increasingly vocal opposition to what appears to be President Hosni Mubarak’s goal to have his son Gamal succeed him as leader. This strategy is also meant to counter international pressure to implement political reform and improve domestic human rights conditions (Foreign Affairs, March/April). The regimes in question often argue that political liberalization and democratization will allow radicals to gain power through legal means, before reneging on their commitment to uphold democratic principles once elected to office .
Despite their non-violent platform, moderate Islamists pose a threat to radicals. Although much of al-Qaeda’s discourse resonates strongly with Arabs and Muslims—principally its vocal opposition to U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East—the group does not enjoy popular support among Muslims. In contrast, groups such as the Muslim Brotherhood can count on a wide base of support in critical countries such as Egypt, especially among youth and student activists (Middle East Report, Winter). Policymakers should pay close attention to this reality, especially while moderates continue to face harassment by the state. Moreover, undermining the efforts of moderate Islamists emboldens the position of radicals with violent agendas. Despite their opposition to many aspects of U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East, moderate Islamists have demonstrated that they are prepared to seek pragmatic dialogue with the West and constructive engagement with the United States, an opportunity that should not be missed.
Political Islam, in all of its manifestations, will remain a dominant force in the Middle East in the foreseeable future. It has been over six years since the September 11 attacks, and it is critical that observers of the region finally take the time to acknowledge the profound differences between Islamist groups, especially the differences between the various moderate and radical currents. A genuine understanding of the nature of political Islam is crucial for informing an effective foreign policy, as well as distinguishing between potential threats and prospective partners.
1. Despite being officially banned in Egypt, the Muslim Brotherhood enjoys a sizeable representation in the Egyptian parliament. Affiliates of the group have participated in elections as independents since the 1980s, thus circumventing official government controls.
2. The slogan Islam huwa al-hal (Islam is the solution) is often used by the Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamists to characterize their perspective on key issues affecting society and politics.
3. Prior to the emergence of al-Qaeda, radical Islamists focused their attention on attacking incumbent regimes in the Arab and Muslim world. In this regard, al-Qaeda’s decision to target the United States directly represented a revolutionary shift among radical Islamists. For an analysis of the reasons behind al-Qaeda’s decision to strike the United States, see Fawaz A. Gerges, The Far Enemy: Why Jihad Went Global (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2005).
4. In an example of its public outreach and organizational capacity, the Muslim Brotherhood launched its own campaign to help contain the spread of bird flu in Egypt and to assist farmers and businessmen affected by the ban on the sale of poultry. The Brotherhood was strongly critical of the government’s handling of the crisis.
5. One member of the Brotherhood compared the decision by the group and that of other moderate Islamists in the region to abandon violence to the U.S. decision to abolish slavery, racial segregation and other historic injustices, in that the same U.S. institutions that upheld these policies in the past have since overturned them and have remained staunchly opposed to their reinstatement ever since. In this regard, the Brotherhood resents the fact that the image of moderate Islamists continues to be judged by incidents that occurred decades ago, as well as the failure of many Western observers to distinguish between moderate and radical Islamists. Based on author’s interview with a member of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, Cairo, March 2006.
6. The English-language version of the Muslim Brotherhood website is: https://www.ikhwanweb.com/.
7. This same concern is shared by many in U.S. foreign policy circles. See Chris Zambelis, “The Strategic Implications of Political Liberalization and Democratization in the Middle East,” Parameters, 35(3), Autumn 2005, pp. 87-102.