A Response to Western Views of Islamist Movements

A Response to Western Views of Islamist Movements

The events of Sept. 11, 2001, made Islam a domestic concern in the West. After having viewed it as only a foreign, religious source of agitation, the West now views Islam as a source of political and military threats. An opinion poll conducted by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press in July 2005 showed that a majority of Americans and Europeans are concerned about the global rise of Islamic extremism. The poll covered 17 countries, and showed that 75 percent of citizens in the United States and European countries such as Britain, France, Germany, Holland, Spain and Russia are worried about Islamic extremism around the world. Most of those polled in America, the European states, and India described Islam as the most violent religion out of a list that included Islam, Christianity, Judaism and Hinduism. A total of 87 percent of the French and 88 percent of the Dutch polled considered Islam the most violent of all religions.

A total of 22 percent of those polled in the United States indicated that they held a negative view of Islam, compared to 57 percent who expressed a positive view. In France, 34 percent of those polled said they had a negative perception of Islam, compared to 64 percent who expressed a positive view of it. A majority of those polled in European states said they sensed that Islamic identity is on the rise in their countries, a phenomenon they considered a negative development.1

Negative image of Islam

The image of Islam as reflected by this poll can be described as extremely negative. Perhaps this stems from political and historical causes reaching much further back than the events of Sept. 11. Yet the subsequent, more deeply entrenched negativity since then has likely produced policies that aim to respond to such negative perceptions, but indirectly reflect them. Take, for example, the manner in which the Danish government dealt with the Prophet Muhammad cartoon crisis, which was a natural reaction stemming from Western preconceptions about Islam.

The construction of such an image stems primarily from the arbitrary judgments issued by the Western media and the political, intellectual and cultural elite standing behind it. Malise Ruthven, a Scottish writer and historian on religion, fundamentalism, and especially Islamic affairs, for example, blames Islamic failures on ruptures within Islamic societies as embodied in the break between a traditional past and higher education with its Western, civil content. The shaken identity of these societies leads them to play a pivotal role in hosting various forms of clashes between Islam and the West.2

Another example is Fred Halliday, who holds that all fundamentalist movements, and not only Islamic ones, are inimical to both modernism and democracy because they reject the “other” on principle. They combine religious and ethnic identities matched by hatred for the “other” that brings them closer to espousing racism.3 He breaks with Ruthven in stressing that fundamentalist movements are not concerned with development or globalization, but rather they funnel their fury toward their rulers, toward moral corruption, and toward the West and Israel. Their vision of the West is based on their view of themselves and the world. More precisely, it stems from their view of their own identity, which has become solely religious.

Yet some go further in their analysis, reading into the social and political background that has allowed the rise of political Islam. This background is represented by the collapse of modernization plans led by the Arab regimes following independence in the 1950s, as well as their failure to liberate Palestine. This led to the Palestinian cause gaining greater importance in the Arab and Islamic consciousness. This was followed by the failure of socio-economic development, reflected significantly in the rise of poverty and the dwindling living standards of citizens in the Arab and Islamic worlds. This was accompanied by the further growth of various forms of absolute political domination that vary from one Arab state to the next, but that are similar in their failure to achieve any sort of democratic advancement. This deteriorating situation was also accompanied by Israel’s rise as a regional military, economic, and technological force and the failure of Arabs to respond to any of the criticisms leveled against Israel. All of this created an environment conducive to the growth of religiosity that permeated the rural poor and middle classes, in turn creating fertile ground for the growth of extremist currents within villages and impoverished neighborhoods.4 While Osama bin Laden offered an alternative through the rise of extremist Islam, his vision was limited to the elite and the vanguard. It was not entirely the case with regard to the public or its followers, most of whom were raised in slums with nothing – neither water, nor work opportunities, nor healthcare, nor anything else.

This brings us to the divisions of political Islam and the serious challenges posed by the standards or methods on which these divisions are based. Differences are found in intellectual and ideological orientations, as well as those stemming from various geographic areas and others related to political positions and views. Yet most of the sanctioned divisions and standards by which researchers sort Islamist movements rest upon their position towards violence or extremism. This standard focuses on the political effect of these movements and either their ability to change through peaceful means or their adoption of various forms of violence, the latest manifestation of which has been intercontinental violence as represented by the attacks of Sept. 11. Searching for either deep-rooted or superficial differences between Islamist movements surely springs from a political sentiment stipulating separate dealings with each movement on the basis of its popularity, effectiveness and influence on the street. These factors might make overlooking them, or even choosing to ignore or condone them, foolhardy because it would not treat the root causes for their growth or their rising popularity that is “real,” as opposed to the forms of popular mobilization some Arab regimes impose upon their societies. Such popularity is fraudulent and used to ensure society’s submission, compelling it to validate “truths” presented by the regime.

In general, most of the studies that classify Islamist movements focus on the fact that there is a mainstream version that is characterized by tolerance and moderation. This is what traditional Islamic scholarship calls “Islam of the majority,” from which examples are drawn in many of the scholarly works on Islamic law when reference is made to the Muslim masses. Sunni, or Orthodox Islam, is thus the middle way. The others are splinter groups the extent of whose Islamism can be measured by their proximity to the Islam of the majority in the way of beliefs and practices.5

And thus we find many Western politicians, including U.S. President George W. Bush and British Prime Minister Tony Blair, describing al-Qaida as an organization that has hijacked Islam from its primary adherents, having diverged from the general guidelines of Islam that mandate moderation, tolerance, and the disavowal of violence.

As for the West in general, with the exception of some right-wing parties and personalities, it does not have a problem with Islam as a religion or the people who profess it. Yet it has suffered, particularly following the bombings that took place in London and Madrid, from those who hold a special understanding of Islam they believe allows adherents to kill their enemies due to differences over political, intellectual, religious and ideological views. The coverage these individuals received in the media – especially considering that they were raised among Western, liberal values in the major Western cities of London, Paris and Madrid – has caused a setback by unleashing a fear of Islam and its followers.

This scenario has varied depending on the degree to which the people of a given country have experience with pluralism and concepts of cultural difference. It also depends on the country’s understanding of itself. For instance, there is a significant difference between the Muslims of Britain and those of France and their role and influence in their respective societies.

Searching for mainstream Islam

During the last three decades, the West’s focus has been on Shiite Islam, which has generally been considered more of a threat than other brands of Islam. Now, however, the Western focus is directed at Sunni activity, and most Western fear stems from the perception of Sunni Islam as strict and fundamentalist.6 The International Crisis Group’s (ICG) report “Understanding Islamism” affirms that the term “political Islam” is of American origin and came into use following the Iranian Revolution, although this supposes that there was an apolitical Islam until Khomeini surfaced and turned everything upside down, after which Islam became a force in the political life of the Middle East.7

The ICG report attempts to categorize the main currents in Sunni Islamist activity in a manner that goes beyond a simplified and discriminatory classification of “extremist” and “moderate.” Instead, it distinguishes between movements on the basis of the beliefs held by their followers. These beliefs include different characterizations of the problems faced by Islamic societies and different views on Islamic law, as well as different conceptions of political, religious and military issues that require action. The report also defines the type of activity movements consider legitimate or appropriate. In other words, it relies on criteria that can form a source of difference and over which goals are in many cases contradictory. This approach is fundamentally different from the traditional distinction between Sunni and Shiite; it is a distinction between the forms of contemporary Islam more than that between historical Islamic traditions. The presence of such a distinction within the ranks of Sunni Islam in particular is a relatively new development that is not yet complete. It appears to be an ongoing process, as noted in the report.8 The report splits Sunni Islamist currents into three primary orientations. The first is termed political Islamism, in that these movements prioritize political activity over religious proselytism. They seek to gain power through political means and not violence, in particular through organizing themselves as political parties.

The primary example of this current is the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and its various branches, particularly those in Jordan and Algeria. The second current includes both revivalist and fundamentalist missionary activism. Movements in this category avoid direct political activity and neither seek power nor classify themselves as political parties. Rather, they focus on missionary activity such as preaching to reinforce or revive belief. Examples include the Salafi movement9 that is widespread in the Arab world and the Tabligh movement,10 which was founded in 1926 in India and has since spread throughout the world. The third current is that of the jihadists, activists committed to violence because they are concerned with what they consider the defense of Islam, and in some cases the expansion of its dominion. This current comprises two primary groups. The first is the jihadist salafis, comprising people with a fundamentalist outlook who have been mobilized as extremists and who eschew non-violent activity related to preaching in order to join the ranks of armed jihad. The other group is the Qutbists, activists influenced by the radical thought of Sayyid Qutb, an Egyptian thinker and writer who is often credited with providing an ideological basis for violence in the name of religion, though this contention can be debated. In the beginning they were prepared to wage jihad against the “near enemy,” the local regimes they described as infidels, particularly in Egypt. This was before redirecting their jihad to the outside world, against the “distant enemy,” in particular Israel and the West, led by the United States.11

The report issued by the U.S.-based Rand Corporation in 2003 titled “Civil Democratic Islam: Partners, Resources and Strategies” classifies contemporary Islamic currents into four groups: secularists, fundamentalists, traditionalists and modernists. It defines the positions of these currents towards a number of primary issues, including democracy and human rights, polygamy, penal measures and Islamic justice, minorities and the status of women. It concludes with an attempt to form a recommended strategy for the United States based on identifying partners in the development of democratic Islam, which it views as accepting American values and particularly those of democracy.12

The Carnegie Endowment for International Peace report entitled “Islamist Movements and the Democratic Process in the Arab World: Exploring Gray Zones,” differentiates between Islamist movements based on whether or not they employ violence. It holds that the moderate Islamist movements, and not the radical ones, will have the greatest influence on future political developments in the Middle East. It defines these moderate movements as those that have eschewed violence and formally renounced it, and which seek to reach their goals through peaceful political activity. The most important of these movements are the Muslim Brotherhood and its various derivatives, the Moroccan Justice and Development Party, the Islamic Action Front in Jordan, and the Reform Party in Yemen, among others.13 The report admits the limitations of this differentiation, and stresses that it does not assume that these movements are fully committed to democracy, that they have relinquished their goal of making Islamic law a basis for all legislation, or that they accept full equality for women. What the report refers to as “grey zones” in the thought of Islamic movements are the results of the contradiction found in the moderate Islamist movements’ purposeful refusal to openly declare their positions on thorny Islamic issues. This is done so as not to aggravate the West or lose their reputations as moderate movements. Yet the report also recognizes a qualitative development within these movements’ thought and in their political strategies.14

The United States Institute of Peace has issued several reports on ijtihad, the effort to exercise reason in interpreting Islamic law in a contemporary context, and on dealings with Islamists. It considers one of the primary reasons for the failure of Muslims to reconcile Islam and modernism as the fact that ijtihad, within the circles of Sunni Islam, has been halted for centuries. Despite this, however, there have been attempts to interpret Islam’s divinely revealed texts in light of modern facts and knowledge. In order for ijtihad to succeed in any society, democracy and the freedom of opinion must prevail.15 As such, a separate report authored by the Rand Corporation directs U.S. foreign policy to support “Islamic renewal,” or those initiatives characterized by Islamic moderation and that adopt programs based upon religious reform and renewal within the Islamic arena.16 The Rand Corporation report also suggests that U.S. foreign policy should generally encourage diplomacy towards the Islamic world.

This latter recommendation was adopted in the most recent publication of the Defense Science Board of the U.S. Defense Department. It warned that any plan for open relations must be built on a strategic basis and attempt to explain its diplomacy to the Islamic world by stressing that their embracing of moderation does not mean submitting to the American way. It also called for distinguishing the majority of Muslims who do not practice violence from those extremist Muslims who embrace the idea of jihad.17 This has materialized in U.S. support for the spread of democracy in the Middle East despite the fact that Islamists recently swept the elections in Egypt, Iraq and Palestine – a development that led Ayman al-Zawahiri, a leader in the al-Qaida organization, to condemn the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt for its participation in the elections. The United States attempted to take advantage of this apparent rupture and employ it to deepen the differences between moderate movements on the one hand and the al-Qaida organization and the extremist movements that support it on the other, so as to benefit and legitimize the “war on terrorism.”18 The democratic victory recently gained by Islamist movements has driven the United States to form a “strategic vision” based on the encouragement of political reform in the Arab region despite the likelihood that such reform could strengthen the influence of forces inimical to America and the West. U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice stressed that this fact reflects a necessary transition period prior to the realization of political regimes that are more stable and open to the West. Regimes allowing for some reform would reap benefits that could include the ability to offer better choices to their peoples and the opportunity to establish more constructive relations with the rest of the world.19

And thus, Bush vowed to continue supporting political reform in the Middle East, even if its results run counter to the wishes of Washington. He stated, “The only way to defeat the terrorists is to defeat their dark vision of hatred and fear by offering the hopeful alternative of political freedom and peaceful change.” Yet he also admitted that the choices decided by the region’s people would not always conform with American views, for “democracies in the Middle East will not look like our own, because they will reflect the traditions of their own citizens.”20 This is the position the European Union also formed following major resistance.

It now holds that one must enter into dialogue with Islamist opposition organizations in the Middle East to encourage a transformation towards democracy. This was stressed in a report issued by the foreign ministers of the European Union in Luxembourg, which opened by noting that the EU had in the past preferred to deal with the secular intelligentsia of Arab civil society at the expense of the more representative Islam-inspired organizations. It thus convinced the EU of the necessity of opening a dialogue with “Islamic ‘faith-based’ civil society” in Arab states.21 Overall, this European-American congruence on the inevitability of dealing with Islamist movements can be considered a strategic move, especially if one considers the disparities that have in the past characterized American and European views on their dealings with Islamism.


1 See Al-Safir, Beirut, July 15, 2005.
2 Malise Ruthven, A Fury for God: The Islamist Attack on America. (London: Granta Books, 2002).
3 Fred Halliday, Two Hours that Shook the World. (London: Saqi Books, 2002).
4 Francois Burgat, Face to Face with Political Islam. (London: I.B. Taurus, 2003).
5 Radwan Al-Sayyid, “Contemporary Islam: Its intellectual and political currents and cultural transformations around the world,” London, April 9, 2005.
6 International Crisis Group, “Understanding Islamism,” Middle East/North Africa Report, no. 37, March
2, 2005.
7 Ibid.
8 Ibid.
9 The term “salafi movement” generally refers to those movements committed to a fundamentalist interpretation of the Quran and the sayings of the Prophet Muhammad.
10 The Tabligh movement is generally considered to be an apolitical social movement that seeks to bring
about a spiritual revival among Muslims.
11 Ibid.
12 Al-Sayyid Yassin, “The American Roots to a Theory of a Liberal Islam,” in Al-Nahhar, Beirut, July 25,
13 Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, “Islamist Movements and the Democratic Process in the
Arab World: Exploring Gray Zones,” Carnegie Paper No. 67, March 2006.
14 Ibid.
15 The United States Institute of Peace, “Ijtihad: Reinterpreting Islamic Principles for the Twenty-first Century,”
Special Report No. 125, 7, August 2004.
16 Abdeslam M. Maghraoui, “American Foreign Policy and Islamic Renewal,” United States Institute of
Peace Special Report No. 164, June 2006.
17 Al-Mustaqbal, Beirut, Nov. 26, 2004.
18 See the speech of U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice at the United States Institute of Peace, in which she described the situation between America and the Islamic world as being a relationship in which the
United States has gone to war five times since the end of the Cold War to help Muslims. “Without exception,
these were wars of liberation and of freedom.” Quoted in Al-Safir, Beirut, Aug. 20, 2004.
19 George W. Bush, State of the Union Address by the President, United States Capitol, Washington, D.C.,
Jan. 31, 2006, http://www.whitehouse.gov/stateoftheunion/2006/.
20 Ibid.

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