March 27, 2005

Not All Islamists Are The Same

Clarification: Much of this post had been lost when I 'published' it which I only found out a day later. It's now corrected and should make a little more sense.

The ICG has a helpful primer on different forms of Islamism (both Shi'a and Sunni variants). On the Sunni front, the report points to three main schools of thought:

1) 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.

2) 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.

3) 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 of these movements, to varying degrees, pose problems for U.S. policymakers as they wage a battle against radical Islam. But, as the ICG report points out, painting all these movements with a broad brush of 'jihadist', 'radical' or, even, 'terrorist' except for those 'moderates' we can 'do business with' is too simplistic. What we must focus on like a laser is a combination of better public diplomacy (this might also sometime involve actual shifts in policy where appropriate rather than merely be relegated to the realm of 'spin' and solely the manner by which we communicate with the Islamic world--though this last is important too) and systematically taking the wind out of the sails of the most radical Islamist movements through other varied mechanisms ranging from military action to exertion of 'soft' power.

Yes Iraq, on an initial level, probably attracted more Muslims to radicalism. But, over the middle to long term, if the country stabilizes as a unitary polity and American forces ultimately leave the country--Iraq could well have served to temper more radical tendencies in the Islamic world. Worth mentioning too, the brutish fascistic violence of Zarqawi has showcased to many Muslims that jihadist fanatics don't care a whit for the blood of their co-religionists--whom they slaughter like lemmings at every opportunity. This has not gone unnoticed in the Arab world.

But back to the three main schools in Islamist thought. On the political Islamist trend, don't miss this part of the ICG report:

As a result, these movements have increasingly explicitly broken with fundamentalist perspectives. Abandoning the revolutionary utopian project of dawla islamiyya has led them to emphasise other themes, most notably the demand for justice (al-adala) and freedom (al-hurriyya). In articulating these demands, these movements have insisted that the key to their realisation is the consecration by the state of Islamic law, the Shari'a. But this insistence on Shari'a, while remaining a central feature of Islamist political agendas and rhetoric, is itself now qualified by two key elements. First, recognition of the need for Muslims to "live in harmony with their time" rather than try to recreate the original Islamic community of seventh century Medina has led these movements to insist on the need for ijtihad, the intellectual effort of interpretation, in order to establish precisely how the principles embodied in the Shari'a may best be translated into actual legislation in contemporary Muslim countries. Secondly, recognition of the need for ijtihad has led quite naturally to recognition of the need for deliberation, and thus acceptance of the role of deliberative instances representative of the community, namely representative assemblies and parliaments, in the process of law-making. This evolution in political thinking has led Islamist political movements away from theocratic conceptions of the Muslim polity, in which sovereignty (al-hakimiyya) is conceived as belonging to God alone (al-hakimiyya li-Llah), to more or less democratic conceptions which recognise that sovereignty belongs to the people. [emphasis added]

These trends, needless to say, need to be subtlely encouraged by Washington. We might not be thrilled with Shari'a precepts generally, but modernizing them and marrying them to a greater emphasis on deliberative bodies hammering out interpretations of societal laws and mores rather than having societies solely bowing to fanatical interpretations of Allah's will would be a positive development indeed. It is an obvious point, but bears stressing: Islamic radicals spurn democracy not only because of its supposed corrupting Western influences, but also because the very notion of democracy, in its empowerment of individuals, runs contra their visions of a maximalist, utopic caliphate ruled solely by some reactionary, ominopotent deity (whose diktats, of course, would be interpreted by the Zarqawi's and UBL's of the world).

Regarding the missionary school, the going will be trickier. But here too there are opportunities for the U.S. to make inroads:

Finally, it should be noted that the hegemony of Wahhabism, which has determined the profile of the contemporary Salafiyya since the 1970s, is now itself in question as a consequence of divisions within Saudi religious circles which, gestating since the late 1970s, have come into the open since 1991. The disarray of the Saudi 'ulama has several causes. Triggered by the stationing of non-Muslim troops in the Kingdom in 1990-1991 and the subsequent maintenance of U.S. military bases and personnel, it was aggravated by the vacuum in religious leadership following the deaths of leading 'ulama. At the same time, a new generation of Saudi Islamic activists has emerged, giving rise to the so-called Islamic awakening (al-Sahwa al-Islamiyya).

Influenced by both Wahhabi and non-Wahhabi (especially Muslim Brotherhood) ideas, they are aware of the need for some kind of reform in the Kingdom, are turning out to be more political than their elders, less conservative in their outlook and less wedded to Wahhabi dogma, in that some of them notably accept the national idea now being promoted by the Saudi government, including its inclusive implications for the Shiite minority. The coherence that Wahhabism gave to the Salafiyya is becoming a thing of the past. Whether this will eventually advantage the more political and modernist currents of Sunni Islamism -- e.g. a renewal of a qualified "Islamic-modernism" within the Salafiyya -- or the jihadis remains to be seen and is one of the more significant issues at stake.

Dare I suggest that the war in Iraq, which of course allowed U.S. troops to leave Saudi Arabia, may well prove helpful on this score in the years ahead?

Finally, and quite obvious, the most problematic current is that of the jihadist school. But even here there are opportunities for the U.S. to make real inroads. The good folks at the ICG point to three main trends within the jihadist school:

The jihadi tendency in contemporary Sunni Islamic activism has come to prominence in three distinct contexts and has been guided by three distinct strategic visions:

1) internal: the jihad against nominally Muslim regimes which the jihadis hold to be "impious" and thus licit targets for subversion (Egypt, Algeria, etc.); this variant of jihad has a problematical relationship to Sunni political doctrine and has clearly proved a failure in Egypt and Algeria to date;

2) irredentist: the struggle to redeem land considered to be part of Dar al-Islam from non-Muslim rule or occupation (Afghanistan, Chechnya, Kashmir, Mindanao and above all Palestine). This type of struggle is sometimes the object of rivalry between nationalist forces, who may not conceive of it as a jihad at all (notably in the Palestinian case) and Islamist forces and, within the latter, between 'local' and 'international' elements, e.g. the distinction between the Afghan mujahidin and the "Arab" forces which flocked to their struggle in the 1980s; similar complexities have been discernible in other irredentist conflicts, notably Bosnia 1992-1996, Mindanao and now Iraq.

3) global: the new jihad against the West, or more specifically against the United States and its allies (first among the latter, Israel) pioneered since 1998 by al-Qaeda but now also conducted by autonomous networks benefiting from al-Qaeda's endorsement.

Regarding the internal jihadists, it is easier for young Egyptians to be radicalized about a supposed Western stooge like Mubarak given that he is an autocrat. As democractic 'breathing room' opens up in such regimes, however, isn't it quite probable to expect that painting governments as rank infidels, unpious and corrupt will be harder going given that, to a fashion, the will of the people will have played a greater role in putting them in power? I think so, and while this will be a complex dynamic indeed, I am cautiously optimistic. On the irrendentist jihadist front we can hope that, in time, outstanding territorial conflicts like Chechnya, the Occupied Territories, Kashmir etc will be sorted out in a manner that has moderates on both sides prevailing. No the much derided Middle East peace process is not some panacea for all that ails us. But to deny that it would take the winds out of the sails of much of the jihadist recruitment efforts is silly. It would be quite helpful indeed. Finally, we have the global jihadists, most dramatically of course, al-Qaeda. With them there can never be any quarter. They must be pursued with the utmost relentlessness and vigor. And the Bush administration is doing a pretty good job of it so far, imo.

P.S. Don't miss this distinction either:

The ideology of al-Qaeda is not a simple affair, and it is a serious mistake to reduce it to Wahhabism. To do so is to ignore the extent to which al-Qaeda broke with the traditional geo-political outlook of Wahhabism, which had never entered into politico-military opposition to the West and was indeed in alliance with the U.S. from 1945 onwards. Far from being a straightforward product of the Wahhabi tradition, al-Qaeda's jihad is in part rather the product of the crisis and fracturing of Wahhabism and of its relationships both to the Saudi royal family and to the U.S. since the early 1990s. To focus exclusively on the Wahhabi roots of al-Qaeda is also to ignore the crucial role of Egyptian radicalism, mediated by bin Laden's lieutenant, Ayman al-Zawahiri, the eventual leader of Tanzim al-Jihad, in determining the movement's vision and strategy.

I hope to turn to the Shi'a schools of Islamist thought soon. Happy Easter to all, in the meantime.

UPDATE: My apologies, I'm just now seeing that a large part of this post never got effectively posted and was lost. I'll try to reconstitute what I had originally written which was significantly more extensive. [OK, I found the rest of the text and inserted it. Guess the wifi on Harbour Island wasn't that great after all....]

Posted by Gregory at March 27, 2005 05:14 PM | TrackBack (4)


Thanks for a great post and a very useful link to the ICG report.

Posted by: John Burgess at March 27, 2005 11:47 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink


A semantic point: how useful is it to refer to Zarqawi or his tactics as "fascistic?" The use of fascist as a perjorative has obvious attractions in our political discourse, but I don't know that Zarqawi has done anything yet that lacks precedent in Arab political life or that bears a more than coincidental relationship to anything real European fascists did. One might of course say the same about al Qaeda.

Posted by: Zathras at March 28, 2005 03:52 AM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

But the quoran is the same for all muslims, as are the hadiths.
Both are so hate filled, together with specific instructions, that 'reform' is not possible.
The 'messenger' of islam is the 'perfect' person in islam, and the center of their story, as Christ is for Christianity. The 'messengers' thoughts, acts and instructions are, to a considerable degree, simply unacceptable in a moral sense.
You cannot 'reform' the 'messenger' out of islam, you cannot change what he said and did.
This is a world problem, not a moslem one; a major religion, or deistic ideology, that is, at its core, unworthy.

Posted by: scarf at March 28, 2005 08:17 AM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

"The 'messengers' thoughts, acts and instructions are, to a considerable degree, simply unacceptable in a moral sense.
You cannot 'reform' the 'messenger' out of islam, you cannot change what he said and did.
This is a world problem, not a moslem one; a major religion, or deistic ideology, that is, at its core, unworthy."

No more so than the biblical old testament, which is, of course, still the official religion of the Jews.

At any rate, exactly what aspect of "the messenger" are you refering to?

Posted by: avedis at March 28, 2005 08:42 AM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

"No more so than the biblical old testament, which is, of course, still the official religion of the Jews."

So as not to leave such a claim unchallenged, it must be pointed out that this claim, no matter how appealing it might be to certain elements, is wrong on several counts.

Posted by: Barry Meislin at March 29, 2005 07:04 AM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

Sure Barry, you really are one of God's choosen people so when He tells you to put he non-believers to deaths - sparing none- its ok because it's real and it's ok.

Posted by: avedis at March 29, 2005 11:34 AM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

The report mixes the relatively moderate Turkish party with the Egyptian muslim brotherhood (ikwanis) and its offshoots - Im not sure this is accurate. The former group may well have accepted the nation state, modereated substantially any claims to a Sharia state, etc. Im NOT convinced the Ikwanis have come that far.

Im also a tad confused at the distinction between the ikwanis and the wahabis - my understanding is that the Ikwanis are heavily influenced by salafi thought - certainly theyre not particularly tolerant of Sufism and other traditional local forms of Islam? This also is tied in with the issues of missionaries, pushing a Salafist form of Islam against local traditions.

Posted by: liberalhawk at March 29, 2005 03:35 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

Avedis - while I dont agree with Meislins charecterization of Islam, I must clarify some things about Judaism. There is NO commandment to put "nonbeleivers" as such to death - there is a commandment to put all Amalekites to death - a specific group reviled for their attacks on innocent Israelites at a vulnerable time of the exodus. No amalekites have been seen for a couple of thousand years - and there is a ruling in Jewish law that maintains specifically that there are no more Amalekites, and so this commandment is effectively inoperative.

Posted by: liberalhawk at March 29, 2005 03:40 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

Sure there is, LH. The god of Abraham and Isaac frequently gives the order to put non-Jews to death.

The residents of Jerico would agree with me, as would philistines, Amalekites...........

And the bible is the word of god and The book to Live By according to believers.

Posted by: avedis at March 30, 2005 10:22 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink
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