Report / Middle East & North Africa 3 minutes

Understanding Islamism

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Executive Summary

Reacting to the spectacular and violent events of 11 September 2001, many Western observers and policy-makers have tended to lump all forms of Islamism together, brand them as radical and treat them as hostile. That approach is fundamentally misconceived. Islamism -- or Islamic activism (we treat these terms as synonymous) -- has a number of very different streams, only a few of them violent and only a small minority justifying a confrontational response. The West needs a discriminating strategy that takes account of the diversity of outlooks within political Islamism; that accepts that even the most modernist of Islamists are deeply opposed to current U.S. policies and committed to renegotiating their relations with the West; and that understands that the festering Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the war occupation of Iraq, and the way in which the "war against terrorism" is being waged all significantly strengthen the appeal of the most virulent and dangerous jihadi tendencies.

In understanding the different streams of Islamic activism, the starting point is to distinguish between Shiite and Sunni Islamism. The concept of "political Islam" first appeared in the wake of the 1979 Iranian revolution, with Shiite activism then viewed as the most worrying threat. In fact, however, because Shiism is the minority variant of Islam (Sunnis constitute over 80 per cent of Muslims) and because Shiites typically are minorities in the states in which they find themselves, the most widespread and natural form of Shiite activism has been communal -- defending the interests of the Shiite community in relation to other populations and to the state itself. For this reason, and also because of the leading political role played by scholars and religious authorities, ('ulama] Shiite Islamism has remained unified to a remarkable degree and has not fragmented into conflicting forms of activism as has Sunni Islamism.

Sunni Islamism -- on which most Western emphasis is today placed, and about which most fears are held -- is widely viewed as uniformly fundamentalist, radical, and threatening to Western interests. Yet it is not at all monolithic. On the contrary, it has crystallised into three main distinctive types, each with its own worldview, modus operandi and characteristic actors:

  • Political: the Islamic political movements (al-harakât al-islamiyya al-siyassiyya), exemplified by the Society of the Muslim Brothers in Egypt and its offshoots elsewhere (including Algeria, Jordan, Kuwait, Palestine, Sudan and Syria) and by locally rooted movements such as the Justice and Development Party (Adalet ve Kalkinma Partisi, AKP) in Turkey, and the Party for Justice and Development (Parti pour la Justice et le Développement, PJD) in Morocco, whose purpose is to attain political power at the national level. These now generally accept the nation-state, operate within its constitutional framework, eschew violence (except under conditions of foreign occupation), articulate a reformist rather than revolutionary vision and invoke universal democratic norms. The characteristic actor is the party-political militant.
  • Missionary: the Islamic missions of conversion (al-da'wa), which exists in two main variants exemplified by the highly structured Tablighi movement on the one hand and the highly diffuse Salafiyya on the other. In both cases political power is not an objective; the overriding purpose is the preservation of the Muslim identity and the Islamic faith and moral order against the forces of unbelief, and the characteristic actors are missionaries (du'ah), and the 'ulama.
  • Jihadi: the Islamic armed struggle (al-jihad), which exists in three main variants: internal (combating nominally Muslim regimes considered impious); irredentist (fighting to redeem land ruled by non-Muslims or under occupation); and global (combating the West). The characteristic actor is, of course, the fighter (al-mujahid).

All these varieties of Sunni activism are attempts to reconcile tradition and modernity, to preserve those aspects of tradition considered to be essential by adapting in various ways to modern conditions; all select from tradition, borrow selectively from the West and adopt aspects of modernity. Where they differ is in how they conceive the principal problem facing the Muslim world, and what they believe is necessary, possible and advisable to do about it.

Political Islamists make an issue of Muslim misgovernment and social injustice and give priority to political reform to be achieved by political action (advocating new policies, contesting elections, etc.). Missionary Islamists make an issue of the corruption of Islamic values (al-qiyam al-islamiyya) and the weakening of faith (al-iman) and give priority to a form of moral and spiritual rearmament that champions individual virtue as the condition of good government as well as of collective salvation. Jihadi Islamists make an issue of the oppressive weight of non-Muslim political and military power in the Islamic world and give priority to armed resistance.

Which of these three main outlooks will prevail in the medium and longer term is of great importance to the Muslim world and to the West. While the West in general and the U.S. in particular ought to be modest about their ability to shape the debate among Islamists, they also should be aware of how their policies affect it. By adopting a sledge-hammer approach which refuses to differentiate between modernist and fundamentalist varieties of Islamism, American and European policy-makers risk provoking one of two equally undesirable outcomes: either inducing the different strands of Islamic activism to band together in reaction, attenuating differences that might otherwise be fruitfully developed, or causing the non-violent and modernist tendencies to be eclipsed by the jihadis.

Cairo/Brussels, 2 March 2005

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