More than twenty years after the success of the Islamic revolution in Iran, the wave of Islamic radicalism that has engulfed the Middle East since the late 1970s is taking a different course. The mainstream Islamist movements have shifted from the struggle for a supranational Muslim community into a kind of Islamo-nationalism: they want to be fully recognized as legitimate actors on the domestic political scene, and have largely given up the supranational agenda that was part of their ideology. On the other hand, the policy of conservative re-Islamization implemented by many states, even secular ones, in order to undercut the Islamist opposition and to regain some religious legitimacy has backfired. It has produced a new brand of Islamic fundamentalism, ideologically conservative but at times politically radical. This neo-fundamentalism is largely de-linked from states’ policy and strategy. At first glance, it is less politically minded than the Islamist movements less concerned with defining what a true Islamic State should be than with the implementation of shariat (Islamic law). Though the movement is basically a sociocultural phenomenon, it has also produced an extremist expression which is embodied in loose peripheral networks, such as the organization Al Qaida, headed by Osama bin Laden, responsible for the destruction of the World Trade Center on 11 September 2001. Consequently, international Islamic terrorism has shifted from state-sponsored actions or actions against domestic targets toward a de-territorialized, supranational, and largely uprooted activism. Nevertheless, the strategic impact of these new movements is limited by the very fact that they have such scarce roots in the states’ domestic politics. However, this is not the case in Pakistan and Afghanistan, which are now the hotbed of contemporary Islamic fundamentalism.
“Islamism” is the brand of modern political Islamic fundamentalism which claims to recreate a true Islamic society, not simply by imposing the shariat, but by establishing first an Islamic state through political action. Islamists see Islam not as a mere religion, but as a political ideology which should be integrated into all aspects of society (politics, law, economy, social justice, foreign policy, etc.). The traditional idea of Islam as an all-encompassing religion is extended to the complexity of modern society. In fact, they acknowledge the modernity of the society in terms of education, technology, changes in family structure, and so forth. The movement’s founding fathers are Hassan Al Banna (1906-1949), Abul Ala Maududi, and, among the Shi’as, Baqer al Sadr, Ali Shariati, and Ruhollah Khomeyni. They had a great impact among educated youth with a secular background, including women. They had less success among traditional ulamas. To Islamists, the Islamic State should unite the ummah as much as possible, not being restricted to a specific nation. Such a state attempts to recreate the golden age of the first decades of Islam and supersede tribal, ethnic, and national divides, whose resilience is attributed to the believers’ abandonment of the true tenets of Islam or to colonial policy. These movements are not necessarily violent, even if, by definition, they are not democratic: the Pakistani Jama’at Islami and the Turkish Refah Party as well as most of the Muslim Brothers groups have remained inside a legal framework, except where they were prevented from taking political action, as was the case in Syria, for instance.
The state the Islamist parties are challenging is not an abstract state, but rather one that is more or less rooted in history and is part of a strategic landscape. The Islamist parties themselves are the product of a given political culture and society. Despite their claim of being supranational, most of the Islamist movements have been shaped by national particularities. Soon or later they tend to express national interests, even under the pretext of Islamist ideology. A survey of the mainstream Islamist movements in the 1990s showed that they have failed in producing anything resembling an “Islamist International,” even if their ideological references remain similar.
This “nationalization” of Islamism is apparent in most countries of the Middle East. Hamas challenges Arafat’s PLO not on points relating to Islam, but for “betraying” the national interests of the Palestinian people. Turabi uses Islam as a tool for unifying Sudan, by Islamizing the Southern Christians and pagans. The Yemenite “Islah” movement has been active in the re-unification of Yemen, against the wishes of its Saudi Godfather. The Lebanese Hezbullah is now stressing the defense of the “Lebanese nation” and has established a working relationship with many Christian circles. It has, incidentally, given up the idea of an Islamic State in Lebanon, due to consideration of the role of the Christians in defining the nation. The Turkish Refah Party, by stressing its Ottoman heritage, is trying to affirm a kind of neo-Ottoman Turkish model in the Middle East. By the same token, the Shi’i radical parties of Iraq, such as Dawa’, are stressing the need for national unity and are closely working with non-Islamic national parties. The Algerian FIS claims to be the heir of the NLF of the anti-French war, and did not find roots in Morocco or Tunisia. During the Gulf War of 1991, each branch of the Muslim Brothers’ organization took a stand in accordance with the perceived national interests of its own country (e.g., the Kuwait branch approved U.S. military intervention, while the Jordanian branch vehemently opposed it).
On the domestic scene, these parties brought previously excluded social strata into the political process: the mostazafin in Iran (the marginalized segments of the urban population); the Shi’as in Lebanon; recent city-dwellers and Kurds for the Refah; urban youth in Algeria, shocked by the bloody repression of October 1988; Northern tribes in Yemen, etc. In doing so they have helped to root nation-states and to create a domestic political scene, which is the only real basis for a future process of democratization. In this sense, the Islamist parties, while they are not democratic, foster the necessary conditions for an endogenous democracy, as is clearly the case in Iran. Khatami’s election expressed a call for democracy which is possible only because the whole population has been brought into a common political scene by a popular and deep-rooted revolution.
Once this process is achieved, however, the mainstream Islamist movements, while consolidating a stable constituency inside their own country, are losing their appeal beyond their borders. The Refah (now Fazilet) has no influence abroad except in the Turkish migrant community in Western Europe, nor has the Islamic regime of Iran. This move let the road open for more radical movements which discard modern Nation-States and want to recreate the ummah, or the community of all Muslims in the world. Parallel to the growing Islamist political contest of the seventies and eighties, a process of conservative Islamization has been pervasive among the Muslim societies, which means, among other things, more veiled women in the streets and more shariat in state law. This Islamization is a consequence of deliberate state policy as well as a social phenomenon. Confronted with the Islamist opposition during the eighties, many Muslim states, even when officially secular, endeavored to promote a brand of conservative Islam and to organize an “official Islam.” The first part of the program was quite a success, but state control has never been effective. In all these countries the impact of the development of a network of religious schools was the same: graduates holding a degree in religious sciences are now entering the labor market and tend, of course, to advocate the Islamization of education and law in order to get better job opportunities.
Three elements characterize these groups (well embodied by the Taliban/Osama bin Laden coalition). First, they combine political and militant jihad against the West with a very conservative definition of Islam, closer to the tenets of Saudi Wahhabism than to the official ideology of the Islamic Republic of Iran. Nowhere is their conservatism more obvious than in their attitude toward women. While the Islamists strongly advocated women’s education and political participation (with the condition of wearing a veil and attending single-sex schools), the neofundamentalists want to ban any female presence in public life. They are also strongly opposed to music, the arts, and entertainment. Contrary to the Islamists, they do not have an economic or social agenda. They are the heirs to the conservative Sunni tradition of fundamentalism, obsessed by the danger of a loss of purity within Islam through the influence of other religions. They stress the implementation of shariat as the sole criterion for an Islamic State and society. This strict Sunnism also turned very anti-Shi’a. This anti-Shi’a bias was revived at the end of the eighties as a consequence of the growing influence of Saudi Wahhabism and gave way to a low-intensity civil war between Shi’as and Sunnis in Pakistan, reflected in Afghanistan by the mass killing of Shi’as after the take-over of Mazar-i Sharif by the Taliban in August 1998. But they also are becoming strongly anti-Christian and anti-Jewish. In fact, they believe that Israel, the U.S., and Iran are united to destroy “true Islam.”
While anti-imperialist slogans were common among Islamist movements from the fifties on, and political anti-Zionism turned into anti-Semitism some time ago among many Muslim intellectual circles (and not necessarily religious), the anti-Christian propaganda among the new Sunni movements is rather new. The Islamists were not anti-Christians as such; in Iran during the revolution there has never been any attack on churches. The Egyptian Muslim Brothers never crack down on the Copts. The idea was that there is some common ground between true believers. Now, however, the term “religious war” really makes sense.
The second point is that these movements are supranational. A quick look at the bulk of bin Laden’s militants killed or arrested between 1993 and 2001 show that they are mainly uprooted, western educated, having broken with their family as well as country of origin. They live in a global world. Of course, the supranational links are sometimes made possible by infranational ones, like the common ethnic Pashtun background of the Taliban, the leader of the Pakistani Jama’at Islami (Qazi Husseyn), the head of one branch of the Jami’at Ulama (Senator Sami ul Haqq, from Akora Khattak), and many officers of the ISI (colonel Imad, adviser to the Taliban).
While Islamists do adapt to the nation-state, neo-fundamentalists embody the crisis of the nation-state, squeezed between infrastate solidarities and globalization. The state level is bypassed and ignored. The Taliban do not care about the state—they even downgraded Afghanistan by changing the official denomination from an “Islamic State” to an “Emirate.” Mollah Omar does not care to attend the council of ministers, nor to go to the Capital.
In fact, this new brand of supranational neo-fundamentalism is more a product of contemporary globalization than of the Islamic past. Using two international languages (English and Arabic), traveling easily by air, studying, training, and working in many different countries, communicating through the Internet and cellular phones, they think of themselves as “Muslims” and not as citizens of a specific country. They are often uprooted, more or less voluntarily (many are Palestinian refugees from 1948, and not from Gaza or the West Bank; bin Laden was stripped of his Saudi citizenship; many others belong to migrant families who move from one country to the next to find jobs or education). It is probably a paradox of globalization to gear together modern supranational networks and traditional, even archaic, infrastate forms of relationships (tribalism, for instance, or religious schools’ networks). Even the very sectarian form of their religious beliefs and attitudes make the neo-fundamentalists look like other sects spreading all over the planet.
Olivier Roy is the author of The Failure of Political Islam, Harvard University Press (1994), and The New Central Asia, the Creation of Nations, Tauris, Londres, 2000.