Thursday, 12 January 2012

Some notes on Islamism

See now also here.

In this post, I want to trace some aspects of the history and ideology of the Islamist movement. 


Islamism is a political movement whose ideology is based on the religion of Islam.  It is not synonymous with Islamic fundamentalism or with terrorism: there are plenty of fundamentalist Muslims who are not politically engaged, and only a minority of Islamists are aligned with the jihadi movement.

Islamism had its origins in the latter part of the 19th century, in the dying days of the Ottoman Empire, the world's last major Islamic power (albeit one that was already secularising).  Key early figures in the movement included Jamal-ad-Din al-Afghani (1838-1897), Muhammad Abduh (1849-1905) and Muhammad Rashid Rida (1865-1935).  These men disagreed amongst themselves in some respects (notably, Afghani and Abduh were more open to modernity than Rida), but their ideas bore the essential features of modern Islamism - a veneration for the early Muslim community and the Islamic civilisation of the past combined with a deep indebtedness to Western modernity, mixed in with ideas of anti-colonialism, pan-Islamic unity, Islamic statehood and opposition to contemporary Muslim governments.

Banna and the Muslim Brotherhood

The foregoing figures influenced Hasan al-Banna (1906-1949), a key figure in 20th century Islamism.  Banna was an Egyptian teacher, and in 1928 he founded the Society of the Muslim Brothers, otherwise known as the Muslim Brotherhood (al-Ikhwan al-Muslimun), the first major modern Islamist organisation and one which continues to be highly influential today.  Banna's organisation grew rapidly:
By the late 1940s, the Muslim Brothers had established some two thousand branches throughout the country, boasting about one million members and sympathizers.  To this must be added the society's branches in Syria, Jordan, Yemen, Sudan, and Mandatory Palestine....  (Efraim Karsh, Islamic Imperialism, p171)
The organisation had a somewhat sinister edge.  Banna was an open admirer of Hitler and Mussolini (see below), and his own words had a distinctly totalitarian patina:
It is the nature of Islam to dominate, not to be dominated, to impose its law in all nations and to extend its power to the entire planet.  (Quoted in Hoveryda Fereydoun, The Broken Crescent, p56)
The organisation ran into problems after Banna's death, but his fellow countryman Sayyid Qutb (1906-1966) subsequently emerged as its leading ideologue.  Qutb was another somewhat sinister character, who ended up being hanged in one of Nasser's jails.  He published a long list of writings, including a lengthy commentary on the Qur'an and a best-selling (and rather boring) Islamist tract entitled Milestones.  He condemned the entire modern world, including nominally Muslim countries, for having fallen back into the state of jahiliyya ("ignorance") which had afflicted mankind before the coming of the prophet Muhammad.  This practice of declaring other Muslims to be infidels (which is known as takfir) is particularly dangerous when combined with the classical Islamic doctrine that apostasy from the faith is to be punished with death.

Qutb has become fairly well known in the West since 9/11 as a leading ideologue of the Islamist movement.  He influenced everyone, from entry-level democratic Islamists up to and including al-Qa'eda.  He even made an impact on the Shi'as of Iran (as did Banna and the Indian activist Maududi, who we are about to meet).  He was mentioned approvingly by Ayman al-Zawahiri, the current leader and chief ideologue of al-Qa'eda, in his magnum opus Knights under the Prophet's Banner.

These days, the Muslim Brotherhood is a largely non-violent organisation.  Zawahiri himself wrote a book, The Bitter Harvest, dedicated to criticising it for going soft, and he complains that it "lures thousands of young Muslim men into lines for elections... instead of into the lines of jihad".  The Brotherhood's political vehicle in Egypt, the Freedom and Justice Party, is influenced by the Turkish AKP, a democratic Islamic party which accepts Turkey's secular constitution.  The Brothers are more likely to be found engaging in grassroots campaigning than flying aircraft into office blocks.  That said, the depth of the Brotherhood's commitment to democratic politics has been questioned, and claims of its non-violence need to be nuanced somewhat: most notably, the Palestinian terrorist group Hamas is a Brotherhood franchise.

Maududi and Jamaat-e-Islami

The grand old man of Islamism in the Indian subcontinent was the journalist and writer Abul A'la Maududi (1903-1979), who was active in political Islam from the 1920s onwards.  Maududi has been credited with giving Islamism its Qur'anic backbone, prefiguring the role subsequently taken up by Sayyid Qutb.  His forays into theology were not welcome to all Muslims.  Ed Husain has written in his acclaimed memoir The Islamist that Maududi "translated the Koran according to his own whims, without reference to or within the paradigm of classical Muslim scholarship".

Like Qutb after him, Maududi affirmed that the present-day Islamic world had degenerated into jahiliyya and was in need of revival.  In the political sphere, his ideas can be summarised as follows:
•  "Islam, speaking from the view-point of political philosophy, is the very antithesis of secular Western democracy".  This is because democracy vests legislative power in the people rather than in Allah.  The mass of the people "are incapable of perceiving their own true interests".  However, Allah has laid down certain rules for human behaviour, which are in man's best interests.

•  An Islamic state should be ruled on fixed Islamic principles, and the common people should not be oppressed by a governing class.  This would entail "a limited popular sovereignty under the suzerainty of God", which Mawdudi refers to as "theo-democracy".

•  The Islamic state's "sphere of activity is coextensive with the whole of human life.... In such a state no one can regard any field of his affairs as personal and private."  This did not mean that the Islamic state would be repressive and tyrannical: rather, it would be characterised by "balance and moderation".  (Source: Mawdudi, Islamic Law and Constitution (1960))
A critical commentator has noted:'s theocracy-cum-democracy is an ideological state in which legislators do not legislate, citizens only vote to reaffirm the permanent applicability of God's laws, women rarely venture outside their homes lest social discipline be disrupted, and non-Muslims are tolerated as foreign elements required to express their loyalty by means of paying a financial levy.  (Y.M.Choueiri, Islamic Fundamentalism, p144)
Branches of Maududi's political party, Jamaat-e-Islami, continue to operate in Pakistan, Bangladesh and India.  On an international level, they are aligned with the Muslim Brotherhood.  Maududi's ideas also form a significant current within the Bangladeshi disapora in Britain, and it has been claimed that he is a major influence on adherents of the East London Mosque and the Muslim Council of Britain.

Hizb ut-Tahrir

Hizb ut-Tahrir was founded in 1953 by Taqiuddin al-Nabhani, a Palestinian judge.  The party is sometimes seen as representing the next most exteme version of Islamism after the Muslim Brotherhood and Jamaat-e-Islami.  It operates in over 40 countries, although it is banned in various parts of the Middle East and central and south Asia.  The party's fundamental objective is to restore the mediaeval Islamic caliphate, in the form of a pan-Islamic state stretching from Andalusia to Java.  The restoration of the caliphate has been a preoccupation for different groups of Muslims since its abolition in 1924 following the fall of the Ottoman Empire.

No existing Muslim countries are Islamic enough for Hizb's tastes:
The party accepts no compromises with other forms of political structure or legal provision. Sharia must be applied completely and immediately for any state to call itself Islamic. Existing states that consider themselves Islamic are rejected as falling far short of the ideal. Iran is considered far too gradualist, with large elements of its political structures derived from European political systems (elections, a parliament, and so forth) and many policies, according to Hizb ut-Tahrir, not fully based on Islamic principles: its foreign policy, for example, is criticised as infected by Iranian nationalism and state interests. Similarly, Saudi Arabia, as a monarchy, does not meet Hizb ut-Tahrir’s exacting standards.  (International Crisis Group, Radical Islam in Central Asia: Responding to Hizb ut-Tahrir, p4)
Nabhani helpfully published a draft constitution for the caliphate in his 1953 book The Islamic State.  His system has a distinctly authoritarian, illiberal character.  Power would be concentrated in the hands of the caliph, who would be elected for life. Nabhani's state would not be a hospitable place for democrats, secularists, non-Muslims or women.

Hizb's world-view is strongly dualistic:
The whole world, whether it is the Islamic countries or the non-Islamic countries, are either Dar al-Islam or Dar al-Harb/Kufr and there is no third.  (Hizb ut-Tahrir, The Ummah’s Charter, p18)
In similar vein, one of Hizb's publications is entitled The Inevitability of the Clash of Civilisations.  Another tract opens with these words:
The fierce struggle between the Islamic thoughts and the Kufr thoughts, and between the Muslims and the Kuffar, has been intense ever since the dawn of Islam....  Kufr is an enemy of Islam, and this is why the Kuffar will be the enemies of the Muslims as long as there is Islam and Kufr in this world, Muslims and Kuffar, until all are resurrected.  This is a decisive and a constant fact.  (A.Q.Zallum, How the Khilafah was Destroyed, p1)
Hizb ut-Tahrir expressly rejects terrorism as a means of implementing its agenda.  However, it is claimed that Hizb has a more ambivalent relationship with political violence than it would sometimes care to admit.  It was allegedly involved in coup attempts in Jordan, Syria and Egypt in the 60s and 70s, and it has been accused more recently of infiltrating the Pakistani armed forces for the same purpose.

Hizb ut-Tahrir is active in the West and has had a presence in Britain since the 1980s.  Between 1986 and 1996, the Syrian activist Omar Bakri Muhammad grew the party into a thriving Islamist organisation before leaving to form Al-Muhajiroun.  This latter group, subsequently led by Anjem Choudary, was banned by the UK Government, and has since reappeared in various new incarnations, including "Islam4UK", "the Saviour Sect", "Al-Ghurabaa" and "Ahlus Sunnah wal Jamaah" (the last of which has the dubious distinction of having directly contributed to the formation of the EDL).  Since the 7 July bombings, Hizb in Britain has undergone something of a process of moderation.  It has complied with the Terrorism Act 2006 and has avoided being banned by successive Labour and Conservative governments.  It is also said to have experienced a decline in recent years.

The Islamic revival

Why is Islamism a problem today?  For several decades it looked as if Arab nationalism and socialism were the way of the future for the Muslim world.  This began to change with the Islamic revival of the 1970s.  The Arab armies had been defeated by Israel in the Six Day War, the Arab nationalist hero President Nasser was dead, and the influence of the Brotherhood was spreading.  The British journalist Martin Bright has written:
In December 1972, an obscure Foreign Office mandarin returned from a tour of the Middle East a very puzzled man. Like most officials and experts at the time, James Craig believed the main threat to British interests in the region came from Arab nationalists and Marxist revolutionaries. But like the good diplomat he was, Craig kept his ear to the ground and the word on the street was intriguing: in Jordan and Lebanon the 48-year-old Arabist heard rumours of an Islamic revival.
Craig wrote to Sir Richard Beaumont, British ambassador to Egypt, who had picked up rumours of a similar revival in Egypt and circulated it to embassy staff across the Middle East to alert them and ask for feedback. “One theory put to me in Beirut,” he wrote, “was that, since Arab nationalism had failed, people are turning to the alternative of Islamic nationalism. I argued that this, too, had failed – indeed, it failed long ago. The reply was that the very length of time which had passed since this failure made it possible to consider giving it a second trial run.”
The Islamists of the 70s and 80s were on the way up.  They were seen by Western governments as a bulwark against communism, and they drew for funding on Saudi oil money (the Saudis espouse a much older version of Islamic fundamentalism, the 18th century creed of Wahhabism).  Nasser's successor, Anwar Sadat, flirted with them in Egypt, in return for which they assassinated him in 1981.  In Pakistan, General Zia-ul-Haq seized power in 1977, bringing an "Islamization" programme in his wake.  The year 1979 saw the Islamic Revolution in Iran, the entry of Islamists into government in Sudan and the seizure of the Grand Mosque in Mecca, which acted as a catalyst for the increased Islamification of Saudi Arabia.

During the 1980s, jihadis in Afghanistan waged war against the Soviet-backed regime before finally taking power in 1992.  The mujahidin were a mixture of Islamists and more conservative traditional Muslims.  It was from the Afghan jihadi movement that al-Qa'eda emerged at the end of the 1980s.  Key figures in this connection were the Saudi militant Osama bin Laden and his mentor Abdullah Azzam (1941-1989), a Palestinian who had been involved in the Muslim Brotherhood and its Hamas offshoot.  Bin Laden too was allied with the Brotherhood until the mid-1980s, and he was reportedly influenced both by Sayyid Qutb and by his brother Muhammad Qutb, whose lectures he is said to have attended as a student in Jeddah.

The Islamist cause was given a boost in the 1990s by the Gulf War and the conflicts in Bosnia, Chechnya and Kashmir.  Islamists came to power in Sudan in 1989, and they would have done likewise in Algeria in 1991 had not the army stopped them, thereby triggering a bloody civil war.  The Taliban came to power in Afghanistan in 1996, while in Turkey the country's first Islamist government was elected, only for the army to depose it the following year.  By this time, Osama bin Laden had declared war on the United States and started the campaign that would culminate in the 9/11 attacks.

The jihadi extreme

A convenient guide to the mindset behind al-Qa'eda is provided by Osama bin Laden's "Letter to America", which was published in 2002.  Bin Laden frames the jihad in which he is engaged as essentially defensive.  He accuses the Americans of getting involved in wars against Muslims in Palestine, Afghanistan, Somalia, Chechnya, Kashmir and elsewhere (perhaps surprisingly, he also denounces the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki).  He repeatedly has a go at "the Jews", and he complains that the West isn't paying enough for Arab oil.  As to the moral opprobrium of killing civilians, he retorts that it is American civilians who vote for pro-Israeli politicians, enlist in the US military and pay for the defence budget.

Some leftists in the West would agree with some of bin Laden's critique of American foreign policy, but it is important to understand that bin Laden is attacking America from the right.  That is, from the theocratic far right - the right of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, Joseph de Maistre, the Tsars and General Franco.  Bin Laden complains that pro-Western governments in the Islamic world are repressive, but he wants to replace them not with liberal constitutional republics but with an Islamist caliphate ruled according to a fundamentalist interpretation of the Shari'ah.  The very idea of democracy appears to scandalise him:
You are the nation who, rather than ruling by the Shariah of Allah in its Constitution and Laws, choose to invent your own laws as you will and desire. You separate religion from your policies, contradicting the pure nature which affirms Absolute Authority to the Lord and your Creator.
In the moral sphere, he calls on America to embrace Islam and to "reject the immoral acts of fornication, homosexuality, intoxicants, gamblings, and trading with interest".  He was particularly scandalised that Bill Clinton got off so lightly for his shenanigans with Monica Lewinski "in the official Oval Office".  George W. Bush was criticised for artlessly saying of al-Qa'eda that "they hate our freedoms", but he may not have been far wrong.

It is worth noting that one significant influence on al-Qa'eda is said to be the mediaeval scholar Taqi ad-Din Ahmad ibn Taymiyyah, who also influenced Sayyid Qutb, the Wahhabis and others:
An essential component in the recruitment and training of members of Al-Qaeda and new arrivals in Afghanistan has been ‘Ilm al-Sharia’ (Knowledge of Islamic Law). Recruits had to attend lectures given by Osama Bin Laden and Ayyman al-Zawahri.... One of the main textual sources used was the work of a twelfth-century Muslim scholar, Ibn Taymiyya, who wrote at the time of the Mogul occupation and who professed the necessity for Muslims to oppose tyrannical rule by force. Ibn Taymiyya has long been a favourite with many in the Islamist movement, especially in Egypt, partly because they find in his writings a response to what they see as closer parallels to the modern political situation in the Muslim countries, and partly because, unlike many of the theological works favoured by the mainstream, those of Ibn Taymiyya seem to encourage direct action.
In fact, it might be conceding too much to define jihadism as having any real ideology beyond an intense but one-dimensional attachment to a hardline interpretation of Islam and a violent hatred of the West.  As Lawrence Wright wrote à propos of a 1997 interview with CNN in which bin Laden proved surprisingly vague about his specific policy positions:
What is notable about this response, filled as usual with ritualistic locutions, is the complete absence of any real political plan, beyond imposing Sharia....  The radical Islamist movement has never had a clear idea of governing, or even much interest in it, as the Taliban would conclusively demonstrate.  Purification was the goal; and whenever purity is paramount, terror is close at hand.  (Lawrence Wright, The Looming Tower, p246)


In 2005, "Islamofascism" and similar formulations started to be used by the Bush White House in relation to militant Islamism.  The term was criticised by some, but the comparison between extremist Islamism and European fascism has been made by several other commentators, including some, like Manfred Halpern and Maxime Rodinson, who had personal experience of historical fascist regimes.

Historically, Islamists have not been shy of absorbing influences from the European far right.  Banna led the way here in the early days of the Muslim Brotherhood.  In the early 1940s,
Anwar Sadat was told of the intention to establish paramilitary "shock battalions"....
The parallel with the Nazi SS was not accidental.  Banna was an unabashed admirer of Hitler and Mussolini, who "guided their peoples to unity, order, regeneration, power, and glory."  Authoritarian to the core, Banna demanded absolute loyalty from his subordinates....
Sadat gained an insight into this phenomenon as he listened to Banna praising Mussolini's defiance of the international community through his invasion of Ethiopia and Hitler's use of radio broadcasts to enlighten the German people.  (Efraim Karsh, Islamic Imperialism, p171)
In similar vein, Nabhani was an associate of the notorious pro-Nazi cleric Hajj Amin al-Husayni, while Qutb is said to have been influenced by the French fascist sympathiser Alexis Carrel.  Maududi readily acknowledged that the totalistic, all-embracing nature of Islamism resembled fascism and communism, although he firmly denied that it shared their tyrannical characteristics.

Having said all this, Islamism is arguably not so much a form of fascism as it is a manifestation of the broader Counter-Enlightenment tradition.  Adherents of this tradition, whether they are Islamists, fundamentalist Christians or reactionary atheists, are profoundly hostile to the comfortable secular world of the post-Enlightenment capitalist West.  In Islamist discourse, this takes the form of
a chain of hostility – hostility to the City, with its image of rootless, arrogant, greedy, decadent, frivolous cosmopolitanism; to the mind of the West, manifested in science and reason; to the settled bourgeois, whose existence is the antithesis of the self-sacrificing hero; and to the infidel, who must be crushed to make way for a world of pure faith.  (I.Buruma and A.Margalit, Occidentalism, p11)
As a final point, the deeply sinister slogan "we love death", or "we love death as you love life", is a recurring feature of Islamist rhetoric.  It has variously been found on the lips of Osama bin Laden, his associate Maulana Inyadullah, the 7/7 London bomber Shehzad Tanweer, the instigators of the 11/3 Madrid bombings, the former Grand Mufti of Jerusalem Ekrima Sa'id Sabri, the Hezbollah leader Hasan Nasrallah, the Fort Hood murderer Nidal Hasan, the hardline British Palestinian activist Azzam Tamimi and the commander of the Chechen gang which seized the Dubrovka Theatre in Moscow in 2002.  It can apparently be traced back to the Muslim commander Khaled ibn al-Walid at the battle of Al-Qadisiya in 637 AD.  (See further Natan Sharansky, Defending Identity, p233-234 and these reports from MEMRI, the Associated Press, the Washington Post, the National Review and the Telegraph.)  The phrase recalls the infamous Falangist cry "¡Viva la Muerte!" reportedly used by Franco's ally José Millán-Astray during the Spanish Civil War.