• Reports
  • October 7, 2005
  • 23 minutes read

Islamic Movements at the End of the 20th Century

Islamic Movements at the End of the 20th Century: Where Now?

By Michael Collins Dunn

Senior analyst of the International Estimate, Inc. and editor of its bi-weekly newsletter, The Estimate.


It is possible to discern certain trends and characteristics in the evolution of Islamic movements from which we can extrapolate a few inferences about future developments. First, though, some definitions are in order.

I have taken “Islamic movements” here to mean those with a political agenda, those movements sometimes called “Islamist” or “political Islam” and, by their enemies, “fundamentalist.” As a matter of convenient shorthand, I will be referring to those Islamic movements with a political agenda as “Islamist.”

This is not a particularly satisfactory term, but it is far better than “fundamentalist,” a word borrowed from the Christian vocabulary.

Where Now? 

Differing Relations with the State 

The Future 

Groups that are in power 

Islamist Groups Excluded from the System   

Where Now?


It is possible to discern certain trends and characteristics in the evolution of Islamic movements from which we can extrapolate a few inferences about future developments. First, though, some definitions are in order.

I have taken “Islamic movements” here to mean those with a political agenda, those movements sometimes called “Islamist” or “political Islam” and, by their enemies, “fundamentalist.” As a matter of convenient shorthand, I will be referring to those Islamic movements with a political agenda as “Islamist.” This is not a particularly satisfactory term, but it is far better than “fundamentalist,” a word borrowed from the Christian vocabulary.

There is an irony in attempting to discuss the future of Islamist movements. I, like many other observers of these movements, have tried for years to convince policy makers and the media in the West that we must not stereotype these movements as a global, monolithic structure. Just as the countries in which they have emerged are quite different from each other, and the societies differ profoundly at times, so too these movements differ from one another in precise goals and in their view of their role in the existing system. The responses of the existing regimes also differ enormously, from accommodation to outright hostility.

To ignore these distinctions is to encourage the Western tendency to see “Islamic fundamentalism” as a monolithic, united phenomenon which is often perceived as a threat to the West. Each of these movements is different, and its prospects for success differ according to the nature of the state and society in which it exists. Its goals – and its implications for the West – may differ enormously from another such movement in a very different society.

Having said and written many times that we must not characterize these movements as a monolithic phenomenon, I am now asked to venture into discussing the future of Islamist movements as a whole. Therein lies the irony, for a short presentation such as this one leaves little time for the distinctions required by the diversity of these movements.

It is important to recognize that, throughout Islamic history, there have been frequent movements to reform, renew, and purify both religious practice and society, including the political sphere. These groups have sometimes effected enormous political consequences: the muwahhidun or Almohads of North Africa and Spain were such a movement, as were the original Wahhabis.

These Islamic reform movements were not, of course, identical to the groups with which we are familiar today; but they had much in common: a belief that existing political regimes lacked Islamic legitimacy, that Islam itself had become stale and weak through inadequate observance or outright apostasy, and a desire to revitalize both the faith and society.

Twentieth century Islamist movements draw from these same feelings and also from some changed circumstances. Initially, modern Islamist groups, particularly the two pioneers, the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and the Jama’at-I-Islami in India/Pakistan, also grew up in response to the presence of European colonialism.

With the end of the colonial era, they have continued to offer alternatives to the pervasive social mores of the West. That does not necessarily mean they are opposed to the West politically or economically. (Westerners who denounce Islamic revival as “medievalist” often are puzzled by the importance of modern technology in the spreading of its ideas: from audio cassettes in the Iranian revolution to computer diskettes today. To most Islamists, however, it is not the West’s technology that is deplorable, only its social mores).

Although the Brotherhood and the Jama’at grew up in the 1930s and the 1940s, they had to compete with other ideologies, particularly the new nationalisms, in their countries of origin. Islamist groups and political parties have been in existence for decades, as other ideologies – socialism, various types of nationalism, including “Arab nationalism” – have faded or failed.

For Westerners, and particularly Americans, political Islam did not really demand a place in their consciousness until the Iranian Revolution of 1979. Though Ruhollah Khomeini’s ideological and religious beliefs had much in common with other Islamist movements, the distinctively Shi’ite elements of Khomeini’s thought mean that the Iranian experience will never translate precisely in a Sunni context despite a Western tendency to see every Islamist movement as seeking to create “another Iran.” In the Sunni world, Mawdudi, Hasan al-Banna and Sayyid Qutb have far more influence than Khomeini.

There is also a clear distinction to be made between Islamist groups seeking to engage and reform the secular state and those who consider the secular state unredeemable. This is sometimes linked with the doctrine, attributed usually to Sayyid Qutb’s later years, of seeing the secular state as jahili and thus non-Muslim and the proper target for jihad. The movements embracing this idea of the secular state as deserving destruction and secularists as not fellow Muslims tend to be much more violent and unwilling to compromise than those who seek state and societal transformation through political participation.

As Islamist movements have evolved, their goals, tactics and roles have changed. The role of the underground organization and the use of violence is one area where varied approaches have evolved in response to specific events. Sometimes, when efforts to work within the system are thwarted by the incumbent regime, more radical responses result. The apparent shift of influence from Algeria’s Islamic Salvation Front (FIS) to the more radical and extreme Islamic Armed Group (GIA) is a case in point.

There is also a diversity of leadership in Islamist movements, ranging from traditional ’ulama to educated persons with religious training but without traditional credentials as religious scholars (Hasan al-Banna was a schoolteacher) to young revolutionaries with little formal religious training. This too makes a difference in the tactics applied and the willingness, or lack thereof, to work within the system.

The nature of the supporters also matters. In Egypt, for example, the Muslim Brotherhood still draws much support from the professional classes, educated middle-class people, and has much influence in the doctors’, lawyers’, engineers’ and journalists’ syndicates, though that is being eroded by government action. On the other hand, the radical, violent al-Gama’a al-Islamiyya and Jihad groups draw their support from more socially dispossessed groups.

Differing Relations with the State


Varied responses by existing regimes have created very different approaches by the movements. In addition to certain countries where Islamist movements are in control of the government – Iran, Sudan and (arguably) Afghanistan – there are other nations where they participate along with secular parties. The role of the Yemeni Reform Rally in the Yemeni government is an example; and that party itself is an alliance between traditional tribal groupings and urban Islamists.

The role of the Islamic Action Front in Jordan is another case in point: in the past it has held cabinet posts, though today it leads the opposition. Islamists make up one of the major blocs in Kuwait’s parliament. Even in Egypt, where the state is engaged in open war with radical Islamists and is increasingly pressuring the Muslim Brotherhood, the Brotherhood still has its role in civil society:

in the newspaper al-Sha’ab, its alliance with the Labor Party, and in most of the professional syndicates. Until it boycotted the last elections, it was the largest opposition force in Parliament.

Then there are a number of countries where the major Islamist groups have always been illegal or, as in the case of Tunisia, have been made so in response to challenges to the state. The Tunisian case is particularly interesting. The al-Nahda party did participate (though not as a party) in the 1989 elections and out-polled all the secular opposition parties. But Sheikh Rashid Ghannouchi left the country soon after and in the months that followed al-Nahda and the government became more and more polarized.

The government accused al-Nahda of maintaining a parallel secret organization (like that of the original Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood’s al-jihaz al-sirri) and crushed its internal leadership. Some violent incidents did occur and one of al-Nahda’s leaders, ’Abdelfattah Mourou, quit the party.

The government cracked down hard, and today, though al-Nahda is visible and vocal abroad, it has been suppressed rather effectively inside Tunisia. We seem to have here a case of a movement which, though it did better in the elections than other opposition groups, decided that it would seek to use other tactics and moved prematurely.

Of course, the model of a democratization process that failed is Algeria. The Algerian tragedy is still unfolding; but with tens of thousands dead already and the country in a virtual civil war. Had the elections not been voided, there is no doubt that FIS would have controlled the new government.

Unlike other countries where Islamist groups have not had a chance to prove their strength, in Algeria the strength was demonstrated at the polls. It was an invitation to disaster, and disaster ensued. Even today efforts continue to find a formula for restoring some kind of democratic structure, including FIS; but hard-line resistance within the government (and radical resistance on the part of GIA to any FIS deals with the secularists) have frustrated any breakthroughs. There are many different ways in which states can deal with Islamist groups, but one thing is unarguable:

the Algerian approach was a disastrous failure. Some secularists argue that the mistake lay in allowing FIS to run candidates in the first place, while Islamists obviously argue that the mistake was in voiding the elections.

The Future


Having briefly looked at some of the models which exist of relations between Islamist groups and the state, where do we go from here? Obviously the future of Islamist groups will differ enormously according to each individual case. It is not going to evolve in the same way in Yemen or Jordan, where these groups work within the existing system, as in Egypt or Tunisia, where they are excluded, or in the large number of states where there is no open political system in which to participate.

I. Groups that are in power

Revolutions do not end when the palace falls, but often revolutionaries are not certain what to do once they achieve power. Running a state – paying payrolls, picking up the trash, making the trains run on time – requires a different set of talents from organizing an underground movement. Islamist groups which have succeeded in taking control of a state apparatus have, at best, a mixed performance so far. On the other hand, at least in the Middle East, no Islamist group has taken over full control of a state through an electoral process.

The Iranian regime was the result of a revolution, the Sudanese was produced by a military coup against an elected regime. In both cases there have been clearly visible divisions within the leadership over how to proceed. In Afghanistan, though the various factions have proclaimed an Islamic state, the state itself has essentially come apart.

Many Islamist groups working against secularist regimes have used the old Muslim Brotherhood solution al-Islam huwa al-Hal, “Islam is the Solution.” It is a powerful and, to the believer, true maxim; but it is not in itself a blueprint for running a state apparatus.

The Islamic experience is too varied, and the original Muslim Ummah too remote in time, to provide obvious answers to running a modern nation-state. This is not to say there cannot be a genuinely Islamic state today, merely that even the most sincere Islamists may differ about how to bring it about.

In the Algerian case, it is worth remembering that FIS had controlled almost all of the municipalities for about a year before the cancellation of the parliamentary elections. During that time, the results appear to have been mixed. In some municipalities FIS was able to rally broad popular support, even bringing people into the streets to help collect garbage, while in others local councils spent more time putting up slogans and taking down symbols of the FLN than they did running the town.

This sort of mixed result is natural, and perhaps better than the old regime could have accomplished; but it is a reminder that once in power, the challenges are different.

And here we come to a crucial question, one which secularists invariably raise against the idea of an Islamist party in power. If an Islamist party comes to power through democratic elections, as FIS nearly did, will it in turn yield power if it does not deliver what the people expect and they vote it out of office? Since, in the Middle East, Islamist parties have not taken control of any central government through elections, there is insufficient evidence. (Examples such as Malaysian state governments are too far afield culturally and in other ways to depend upon). Western democracies have long relied on the old axiom vox populi, vox die – the voice of the people is the voice of God. But some Islamists have openly said that Western democracy is not Islamic, and that while the Islamic concept of Shura guarantees the people a voice in affairs, ultimately they cannot overrule the laws of God. Does this mean that an Islamist government, once in power, would refuse to accept a vote to oust it? No, it does not. Certainly many Islamist leaders are sincere when they say they will play by the rules of democracy. But the uncertainties are sufficient to make many secularists believe that for many Islamists the slogan is “one man, one vote, one time,” and that the Islamist party would never yield power, on the grounds that it is implementing God’s law.

II. Parties Working Within Existing Parliamentary Systems

Islamist parties already working within existing systems must convince their secular partners that they will play by the rules if they win power, and yield it if they lose the next elections. In Jordan, the Islamic Action Front has moved fairly smoothly from being a member of the government in 1991 to being the leading opposition bloc.

Its opposition to the peace treaty with Israel has created new frictions with the King, but so far it seems to still be playing a functional role within the system. The role of the Yemeni Reform Grouping in Yemen has been enhanced by the victory of the ruling coalition against the southern secessionists last year, a civil war in which the Yemen Socialist Party (the southerners) tried to brand the northern government as “Islamic fundamentalists” in order to win Western support, without success. In Egypt, the Muslim Brotherhood’s role as the main opposition grouping is being rapidly chipped away by government arrests of Brotherhood leaders and pressure on Brotherhood organs of opinion. In Kuwait, the Islamists play a prominent, though not dominant, role in the Parliament.

For all of these groups, the challenge for the future will be to maintain their position and, if possible, enhance it. Any attempt to consolidate power without going through proper electoral channels would alienate the secularists and, possibly, lead to a Tunisian-style decision to stop tolerating Islamist participation. On the other hand, so long as these groups can continue to function within existing systems, and demonstrate that Islamist parties can be part of a democratization process (in Yemen and Jordan; the Egyptian and Kuwaiti models are at best pseudo-democratic), they may provide a model for persuading other regimes to tolerate a growing role for Islamist participation in the system.

Islamist Groups Excluded from the System


It is actually harder for an outsider to judge the future of Islamist groups that are excluded from, and working against, the existing regimes. The committed and convinced will, of course, believe that their victory is inevitable. But in fact few things are inevitable. Other groups that tend to see the march of Islamist politics as inexorable are those who strongly oppose political Islam:

Israel, some of its friends, and the allies of some secular regimes are the most likely to subscribe to a “domino” theory of Islamism, i.e., a success in one country will lead to the “fall” of others.

On the other hand, the basic elements which have led to the rise of Islamist movements will not go away. While improved economic conditions may strengthen the existing regimes, as the Tunisian economic boom has helped reinforce the government’s successful crackdown on al-Nahda, economic problems generally fuel social discontent. The broader demographic problems, including rapid population increases in Egypt, Iran, and North Africa, add to social dislocation and discontent with existing regimes. These elements are likely to get worse in the new century. An Islamic state may not bring genuine social justice, but, to many, Islam’s traditional emphasis on justice offers a promise of hope.

Democratization has made some inroads in the Middle East. If it moves apace in other countries of the region, the role of Islamist parties will be increasingly debated. Where fairly genuine democratic experiments have been tried, as in Jordan and Yemen, they have given influence to Islamist blocs, but not control. The one case where an Islamist party was poised to win outright control, Algeria, led of course to a military move to abort not only the elections but the entire democratic process. Any assessment of the future of those movements which have been excluded by the state therefore must begin with Algeria.

It is clear that there will be no peace in Algeria without Islamist participation in government. But the situation has grown so bad, that a collapse of civil society and a fragmentation of the country could occur as easily as an Islamist success. Signs of struggle between FIS and GIA are not good news as the result could be an Afghan situation, with local areas controlled by their own warlords. The polarization in Algeria today between the secularists and the Islamists is probably greater than in any other country. Whatever happens in Algeria will be used by secularists, Islamists, and others elsewhere as an object lesson for why one should, or should not, pursue particular policies.

The Egyptian situation is more complex.

The present government is seen as corrupt and unpopular, but so have most Egyptian governments. Secularist Egyptian society has a breadth and depth which differs from the Algerian case both in its strength and in its Egyptianness: the Algerian elite model themselves on France, while Egypt’s secularists are clearly Egyptian. The security services have effectively ended serious Islamist attacks in Cairo and most of the Delta, while the ongoing violence in Upper Egypt appears to have turned into a regionally limited exchange of vendettas. The Egyptian regime seems secure for now, though the lack of a successor to Mubarak could be an Achilles’ heel.

Tunisia does not now have any visible internal Islamist resistance to the state and is enjoying one of the highest economic growth rates in the Arab world. It’s 1990-91 crackdown appears to have succeeded in eliminating al-Nahda as a serious challenge for now. There are certainly plenty of Islamists in the country, but they are not an organized threat. An economic downturn or other significant change could, of course, revive the Islamist appeal.

The Gulf states are harder to judge because of the lack of political representation or an open press, with the limited exception of Kuwait, where Islamists work within the system and do not generally constitute a major threat to the present social structure.

The recent troubles in Bahrain have a sectarian element which makes them a poor model for comparison. There is certainly a growing Islamist critique of the state in Saudi Arabia, but it is hard to be sure that its echoes in the country are as loud as its noise making abroad. Islamist movements in Syria and Libya, long suppressed by the regimes, are hard to detect or describe. In Morocco, both the Islamists and other potential opposition groups appear to be biding their time, emphasizing social and labor issues rather than political ones, recognizing that change is unlikely while King Hasan reigns, but may be inevitable after him.

For Islamist groups challenging these regimes there are many tactical issues to be addressed. Do they seek allies from secular or other groups which are similarly excluded from power? After all, the Iranian revolution succeeded because the Shah managed to alienate a broad range of critics, from the left to the right, from the clergy to the Communists, and including the Bazaar. Or do Islamist groups seek to maintain their doctrinal purity by refusing to compromise in order to forge alliances against existing regimes? Do they demand the right to participate in the political system, or do they seek to overthrow and dismantle the political system in order to establish one they consider more Islamic? As with every other issue I have raised here, responses will vary. Each movement must debate these questions and others.

I have not addressed the question of how these movements relate to the West in any detail, because it is only rarely a major issue with them, something the West often ignores. While opposing Western sexual and other moral lassitude, they are only occasionally extremely hostile to the West politically, and then when the West is perceived as being hostile to Islam or to their own movement. When movements achieve power, however, they must make choices about their international relationships.

Political Islam is neither monolithic in organization nor of one mind about what it seeks to achieve. Perhaps all believe al-Islam huwa al-Hal, but how Islam brings the solution about is seen differently from case to case. As these movements differ from each other, and the regimes they challenge also differ, so the future will see both success and failure for various movements. Islamists may take over by revolutionary effort, negotiation, or through elections. Some movements will fail because they do not provide the answers sought by their own specific society, or because they employed radical rhetoric, tactics, or violence which alienates many who might otherwise support them.

It has sometimes been said that if the Islamic revival could produce a single charismatic leader, with both the religious reputation and the public persona to lead – a sort of Lenin of the Islamic Revolution – then it might become a genuine international movement. But no such figure has emerged. Khomeini was too Shi’ite, and too Iranian. Hasan al-Turabi is clearly a brilliant man and someone who can eloquently state his case in English and French as well as in good classical Arabic; but Sudan is on the periphery of the Middle East, and while he has influence elsewhere he has not been able to forge a genuine international following. One cannot predict the emergence of charismatic leadership, but experience so far suggests that no such leader is likely to emerge, except perhaps in local areas.

Islamist politics – or political Islam – will be a major feature in the Islamic world for years to come, and it will continue to help force the debate about democratization, legitimacy of existing regimes, and the future of Islamic societies. That debate will proceed whether individual movements succeed, fail, or forge alliances with secular groups to win power. Future patterns are likely to parallel the past in one sense: the results will be as varied as the nations and societies involved, and as different as the Islamist groups themselves.