Political Islam takes centre stage since 9-11

In the five years since the September 11 attacks, U.S. intervention abroad has fed the extremism it seeks to destroy and cemented the rise of political Islam as the ideology of choice for millions in the Middle East, experts say.

Today, political Islam — a diverse movement with moderate as well as hard-line elements — has been widely embraced in the Arab world, where many feel alienated by corrupt rule and foreign policies seen as serving the interests of the United States and its ally Israel.

“Since September 11, I have worked on massive public opinion polls in the Muslim and Arab world. You can see the animosity between September 11 and now. It’s growing and it is worrying,” said Jihad Fakhreddine, a Lebanese analyst based in Dubai.

“The line between religiosity and extremism has become thinner. In the time of colonialism, the antagonism was not perceived in terms of the West and Islam. Independence movements in the Arab world were driven by nationalist feelings.”

Radicals hitching themselves to the al Qaeda banner are now fighting U.S.-allied governments in Iraq and Saudi Arabia, and have staged attacks in Morocco, Egypt, Yemen and Jordan.

Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood, a moderate Islamist group which espouses non-violence, made a strong showing in elections last year, while Palestinian Islamist group Hamas, born in 1988 during the first Intifada against Israeli occupation, won polls in January.

Islamist discourse dominates in the pan-Arab media, where both nationalists and Islamists revere Osama bin Laden, the al Qaeda leader seen as the mastermind of the 9-11 attacks, as “Sheikh Osama.”

Nationalist politicians, who on the face of it have no reason to support Islamist movements, cheer their ability to challenge the West on popular channels like Al Jazeera.


The U.S. response to 9-11, when 19 Arabs struck a deadly blow to the heart of the world’s only superpower, has driven more people towards Islamist politics, analysts say.

“American actions against political Islam after September 11 have ironically contributed to its further rise and emergence, even in its most fanatical, extremist forms,” said Lebanese-born academic As’ad AbuKhalil, who teaches in California.

The United States has invaded Iraq and backed Israel in its conflict with the Palestinians, presenting both policies as part of a plan to spread democracy in a dysfunctional Arab world.

Public opinion in the region has traditionally seen a resolution of the Arab-Israeli conflict as the key to solving the region’s problems of democracy and religious extremism.

“Moderate Muslims are having a difficult time. They are not at peace with the radicals, but they cannot somehow make their point heard convincingly in the West,” said Jawad al-Anani, a former Jordanian government minister of Palestinian origin.

President George W. Bush’s recent comment that the United States is battling “Islamic fascists” has crystallised a widespread sense that the “war on terror” is a war on Islam, Anani said.

“The Islamists have some … valid arguments. They say ’we are fighting your enemies, who don’t do anything to solve your problems, who take Israel’s side blindly, who don’t show any sympathy for Muslims being killed in Palestine or Iraq’.”


Political Islam began its ascent long before 9-11.

Analysts say its roots largely lie in the failure of secular Arab nationalism to challenge Western hegemony and return land to dispossessed Palestinians.

Over 700,000 Palestinian Arabs fled or were driven from their homes when Israel was created in 1948. Israel won control of the remaining 22 percent of historical Palestine in 1967, though its native Palestinians remained in place.

“The rise of political Islam in the Middle East, to which the United States and Western governments contributed, only became noticed after September 11 with those attacks,” AbuKhalil said.

“The underlying causes for the rise of Islamist movements are non-religious in nature. It’s about foreign policy and the stand against corruption and tyranny,” he said.

Fred Halliday, a professor of international relations at the London School of Economics, also pointed to nationalism and the discrediting of past ideologies that have failed in the domestic and foreign arena.

“9-11 was a very important event, but I don’t actually think in terms of Islamism in the Middle East it is the main event,” he said.

“Political Islam uses a lot of nationalist ideas and themes. Bin Laden says countries are occupied by foreigners and have the right to fight. With him, Hamas or Hizbollah, 80 percent of the rhetoric is secular nationalism reconfigured,” Halliday said, adding that Shi’ite Hizbollah also borrows from communism.

Islamist movements today offer empowerment in the face of U.S.-allied governments who argue that fighting the America-imposed order is futile and that Palestinians should make do with what they c

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