When Americans think of Islam as a political force, many think
first of Osama bin Laden and the al Qaida network, or of the Ayatollah
Khomeini, or of the suicide bombers of Islamic Jihad in Palestine.
The militant wing of the Islamic movement has received enormous
media attention since Sept. 11, and this attention is well-justified.
Yet an exclusive focus on militant Islamic groups yields a distorted
picture of the Islamic movement as a whole.
In most Arab states today, the largest, best-financed, best-organized
and most popular opposition groups are “Islamist” in
orientation. While the exact nature of their goals and strategies
differ, such groups share a conviction that the problems of corruption,
repression, poverty, inequality and unemployment that plague Muslim
societies are in large part a consequence of their departure from
the moral norms of Islam. Hence, they believe what is needed is
a thorough Islamic reform of society and state, informed by the
principles of Shari’a, or Islamic Law.
Such groups have cultivated a broad following among young, educated
professionals in the Arab world, many of whom are frustrated by
the lack of job opportunities, low pay for the jobs that are available,
a lack of affordable housing and other hardships. More broadly,
they are dissatisfied with the detached leadership of the region’s
authoritarian rulers who, as seen from the populist vantage point,
are chauffered around in air-conditioned Mercedes to big parties
and receptions with no concern whatsoever for the problems of ordinary
In Egypt, Tunisia, Algeria, Morocco and elsewhere, many of these
high school and college graduates with limited prospects see the
Islamic movement as the only genuine alternative to “politics
as usual.” And in the context of renewed tensions in the Arab-Israeli
conflict, such young people admire Islamic groups for their steadfast
defense of Palestinian rights at a time when they see their own
governments making concessions to the Israelis under American pressure.
In sum, the Islamists have emerged as the Arab world’s loudest
and most “authentic” advocates of political accountability,
social justice and the defense of Palestine (and Arab and Muslim
rights, more generally), at a time when socialism has been discredited
and liberal democracy retains the stigma of its close association
with the West.
These themes, it must be noted, are shared by Islamic reformists
and militants alike. Yet the reformists differ from the militants
in three important ways.
First, reformist groups seek to achieve Islamic reform gradually,
through legal channels. Such groups include the Muslim Brotherhood
in Egypt, the Islamic Action Front in Jordan, the Nahda party in
Tunisia, the Islamic Constitutional Movement in Kuwait, and the
Justice and Development Party in Turkey. These groups run in parliamentary
elections, and they compete for leadership positions in student
unions and professional associations, as well.
In addition, they or affiliated groups run health clinics and schools
in poor neighborhoods, publish books and newspapers, and offer religious
instruction in private mosques. In the slums of Algiers, Islamic
groups organized crews to clean up garbage in the streets and plant
trees. Hence it is by providing services and presenting themselves
as a model of “clean politics” that such groups have
generated support; they seek to achieve influence not through bombs
or bullets—but through the ballot box.
A second way they differ from militant Islamic groups like al Qaida
is in the kind of society they seek to create. Reformists and militants
share a commitment to Islamic reform, but they envision it in very
In brief, the militants adhere to an extremely puritannical version
of Islam, based on a strict and literalist reading of the Quran
as well as on the opinions of conservative Muslim jurists and religious
scholars, some of whom date back to medieval times. This strand
of Islam, which encompasses the Salafi and Wahhabi
currents, is particularly influential in Saudi Arabia and Pakistan,
but also has followings elsewhere.
For adherents to this version of Islam, the goal is to purify the
religion of all foreign elements and restore what they understand
to be the Islam contained in the Quran and the Sunna, or practice
of the Prophet Muhammad in seventh-century Arabia. From their vantage
point, such modern ideas as democracy and pluralism are kafir,
apostate concepts alien to—and unsuited for—the Muslim
world. Further, such adherents reject the doctrine of universal
human rights as a secular, Western construct, and instead are ready
to use force to promote full compliance with Islamic moral codes.
Many of them favor the compulsory veiling of all Muslim women, for
example, as well as their seclusion from public life.
Reformist Islamic groups also seek to establish a political system
based on Shari’a. But such groups advocate the reinterpretation
of Islamic texts, using ijtihad (independent reasoning) in order
to adapt Islamic principles to modern times. In their statements
and party platforms, the leaders of mainstream reformist Islamic
groups speak positively of democracy, human rights and the rule
of law. In addition, they define pluralism as one of the most important
principles of Arab-Islamic civilization and insist that they seek
to spread Islamic behavior not through coercion but persuasion.
Such groups promise that they will respect the outcome of democratic
elections, even if the result is that they are forced out of power.
And the most progressive of the Islamic groups (who call themselves
“moderate,” “enlightened” and “open-minded”)
state that women are equal to men in all civil and political rights
and responsibilities, including the right to run for the highest
positions in government.
The point here is that Islamist goals cover a broad ideological
spectrum. While even the most “moderate” Islamists are
not secular democrats, neither do they share the militant ideology
of Osama bin Laden and his associates.
The final way in which mainstream, nonviolent Islamist groups differ
from their militant counterparts is in the extent of their popular
support. Since Sept. 11, Osama bin Laden has become in the Muslim
world a popular symbol of resistance to Western economic, political
and cultural domination. Yet, in general, the number of recruits
into militant Islamic groups remains quite small compared to the
number of young people who support the more moderate Islamic parties.
In Egypt, the country I know best, the vast majority of the population
rejects violence as a political tool, and attacks on secular intellectuals
and foreign tourists by such groups as Jihad and al-Jama’a
al-Islamiyya have diminished their popularity rather than enhanced
While only a tiny percentage of Egyptians openly supports such militant
groups, the country’s leading reformist organization, the
Muslim Brotherhood, for years dominated the country’s student
unions and professional associations and is now the largest opposition
bloc in parliament—despite the fact that it technically remains
a banned organization.
The same could be said of support for Islamists in Turkey, Tunisia,
Jordan and Kuwait; it is the moderates, rather than the militants,
who have the broadest popular base.
Of course, the positions staked out by Islamist groups, and their
levels of support, are subject to change over time, and since the
outbreak of the al-Aqsa Palestinian uprising, even the so-called
“moderate” Islamists have adapted a militant position
in favor of confrontation with Israel.
Along the same lines, a massive American military operation in Iraq
would be sure to unite moderate and militant wings of the Islamic
movement in what would almost definitely be construed as an act
of aggression against the Arab nation (al-qawm) by the
world’s only superpower.
In sum, popular support for the Islamic movement shows no signs
of abating. But what the Islamic movement stands for, and how its
ascendance would affect the Arab world’s domestic political
systems, as well as its relations with Israel and the West, has
yet to be determined. In part, this will depend on trends in regional
and international politics—which can either strengthen the
incentives for mainstream Islamists to further moderate their agendas
or, alternatively, hasten their radicalization.