Political Islamist movement is down - but far from out

The Argument

Violent Muslim extremism has not developed broad support, but anger against the U.S. fuels it

November 16, 2003|By Frank Langfitt | Frank Langfitt,SUN STAFF

Reviled as the world's most devastating terrorist attack, Sept. 11 has been a political failure so far. And the ideology that fueled it, Political Islam, has fared little better. Political Islam may seem like the new threat to most Americans, but it has been on a losing streak for the past decade - humiliated in Afghanistan, bloodied in Algeria, chastened in Turkey and besieged in Iran.

Instead of a major blow in a long war by militant Islamists, Sept. 11 may be seen one day as an act of frustration driven by a fading ideology. History will take time to render a verdict, but it's worth examining Political Islam's performance to better assess the dangers.

Political Islam refers to a variety of political movements in which sharia, or Islamic law, is central, writes the University of Maryland's Jillian Schwedler in "Islamic Identity: Myth, Menace, or Mobilizer" (SAIS Review, summer-fall 2001). Some Islamists, as adherents are called, say they want to create a transnational Islamic state based on sharia through peaceful means. Militants, like Osama bin Laden, are willing to kill thousands or more to do so.

Political Islam has failed to take hold as a broad international movement for a variety of reasons. Chief among them is the challenge of unifying the world's 1.2 billion Muslims, who constitute a majority of the population in 56 nations stretching from Morocco to Indonesia. In fact, most Muslims are not Islamists and most Islamists are not terrorists, notes Princeton University's Bernard Lewis in The Crisis of Islam: Holy War and Unholy Terror (Modern Library, 184 pages, $19.95). At the national level, Islamists haven't been able to pull together core constituencies, such as the middle class and poor urban youth, who have different agendas.

The most articulate voice on Political Islam's failure is Gilles Kepel, a professor of Middle East studies at the Institute for Political Studies in Paris. He argues that the ideology peaked as a political force around 1989. That was the year that the mujahedeen, holy warriors, ran the Soviets out of Afghanistan, the Front Islamique du Salut won decisively in Algerian elections and Ayatollah Khomeini issued his death sentence on Salman Rushdie.

"For all of its political successes in the 1970s and 1980s, by the end of the twentieth century the Islamist movement had signally failed to retain political power in the Muslim world," Kepel writes in Jihad: The Trail of Political Islam (Belknap, 454 pages, $15.95). "September 11 was an attempt to reverse a process in decline, with a paroxysm of destructive violence."

Bin Laden launched the attacks of Sept. 11 to provoke a massive retaliation that he hoped would incite frustrated Muslims to rise up against U.S.-backed Arab regimes. Most Muslims, though, were horrified by 9/11. Instead of toppling Arab dictators, the terrorist attacks led to the Taliban's collapse. Fellow Afghans quickly abandoned a regime they detested for its radical implementation of sharia.

Political Islam has become a vehicle for various agendas in the Muslim world, writes former CIA analyst Graham Fuller in "The Future of Political Islam" (Foreign Affairs, March/April 2002). It feeds off frustration from the social immobility, political corruption and authoritarian rule of Arab states. It is also driven by a sense of humiliation felt by Muslims, who once oversaw a great civilization that now lags far behind the West.

Much of that collective anger finds a focus in the United States, which some Muslims see as foisting an anti-Islamic pop culture on their world. Many Muslims think Washington plays political favorites, tilting toward Israel while doing too little to protect their brethren in the West Bank and Kashmir. They also see the United States' employing a double standard, publicly supporting democracy elsewhere, but not in the Arab world.

"The `devil-you-know' principle seems to underlie the foreign policies of many Western governments toward peoples of the Islamic world," Lewis writes. "As many Middle Easterners see it, the European and American governments' basic position is: `We don't care what you do to your own people at home, so long as you are cooperative in meeting our needs and protecting our interests.' "

Political Islam has several ideological fathers, but the bloody brand that inspired bin Laden is the brainchild of Sayyid Qutb, a member of the Muslim Brothers who was executed in Egypt in 1966. Qutb saw the world mired in what Arabic-speakers call jahiliyya, a word describing the barbarism which existed before Islam emerged in the early 7th century. He blamed the collapse of the Ottoman Empire on its failure to adhere to "true" Islam.

Qutb believed the Muslim world could only reverse its decline by returning to a tradition in which Islam defined political, cultural and social life. Qutb used jihad, variously interpreted as moral striving or armed struggle, to justify the violent overthrow of authoritarian regimes that stood in his way.

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