The events of 11 September changed the world’s perception of Islamist movements. The trauma that ensued, and its fuelling of pre-existing phobias, blurred the differences that exist between Islamist movements. Generalisations were made, and most were inaccurate. Now, perhaps, the time is ripe to take a closer look at the topography of these groups, their doctrinal differences, and their short- and long-term goals.
I will define Islamist movements as groups wishing to implement some version of puritan Islam through their political programmes. Almost all adopt a vocabulary borrowed from the past, particularly from the early years of Islam, when Muslims alternated between preaching and fighting in the quest to spread Islam in the Arab peninsula and beyond. But while all Islamist movements foreground theological issues, some groups do this to the exclusion of all pragmatic political considerations while others do not. We can, then, make a distinction between what I shall term Islamic religious movements, and their socio-political counterparts.
The first of these are based on a puritan reading of Islam and the Qur’an and they base their judgment of individuals and societies on this interpretation of Islam. Most look with suspicion upon their contemporaries (Muslim as well as non-Muslim) and view them as a threat to their version of pure Islam. Their interpretation of modern society tends to be based on the historical experiences of early Muslims.
In the early days of Islam there were two distinct phases of reaction to the community and neighbours. In Mecca, where the call for Islam (da’wah) started, Muslims were outnumbered and Islam was propagated through peaceful means. In Medina, the town to which the Prophet fled to escape the persecution of his own tribe, things changed. Muslims were in full control of Medina and, although they continued to preach Islam to neighbouring tribes, they were strong enough to take up arms against their adversaries.
These two phases are important, for they define the attitude of Islamic religious movements to contemporary society. Some groups believe that the situation of Muslims in contemporary society is closer to the situation of early Muslims in Mecca. Others believe that it is closer to the situation in Medina.
The Mecca-inspired groups believe in isolating themselves (or fleeing modern society) until they are strong enough to defend themselves. The Medina-inspired groups believe that the time for jihad is now. I will refer to the Mecca-inspired groups as peaceful extremist groups, and to the Medina-inspired groups as violent jihadi groups.
The groups coming under the first characterisation believe that contemporary society is the modern version of Mecca’s pagan community. The time is not yet right for true Muslims to engage in politics, build an Islamic state, or engage in jihad, because this is not what the Muslims did in Mecca when they were outnumbered. But what should true Muslims do? There are two answers.
Some groups advise their followers to live in complete isolation from modern society, either through establishing a separate life style within existing communities, or through the creation of separate communities in far off places. This latter an act of hijra recalls Prophet Mohamed’s departure from Mecca to Medina. One day, when the time is right, God will make Islam victorious and they will return to the places they have abandoned (as Prophet Mohamed returned in triumph to Mecca).
Other groups believe that their contemporaries are ignorant of the true faith (as the Meccans were in the early years of Islam) and deserve to be enlightened on the matter. These groups advise their followers to stay in touch with modern societies and preach their version of Islam to their contemporaries.
For those groups advocating violence the contemporary world resembles the one confronted by the Muslims in Medina. Then, the early Muslims were ready to fight their adversaries — i.e., the surrounding tribes that, aware of the message of Islam, remained hostile to Muslims. The adversaries, in the modern case, are the governments. These groups advise their followers to topple their governments and establish theological states. Sayyed Qutb, the true father of violent jihad movements, urged his followers to end “man’s enslavement of man,” and create an Islamic theocracy.
Jihad groups come in three versions: local, separatist, and international. Local groups believe that jihad should start with “near enemies” rather than “far enemies.” The nearest enemy are the governments in power in Islamic countries, for they have failed to govern in accordance with the strict tenets of Islam. Al-Gama’a Al-Islamiya and the Jihad group in Egypt, the Armed Islamic Group in Algeria and the Fighting Islamic Group in Libya are examples of this category.
Separatist groups exist in areas where Muslims are a minority living under a non-Muslim government (Kashmir, Chechnya). Here the concept of jihad overlaps with those of national liberation and self-determination. Their first goal, following secession or independence, would be to create an Islamic state.
International jihad movements give priority to “far enemies.” Their aim is to defend the land of Islam against outsiders who want to invade or control it. These groups have flourished over the past decade or two, having been particularly active in the conflicts in Afghanistan, Chechnya, and Bosnia. Bin Laden and his Al-Qaeda organisation are the most prominent example of this ideological trend. When he arrived in Afghanistan in 1979, Bin Laden was only 22. Before that date he had no history of activism. The 10 years of fighting against the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan (1979-1989) were the formative years of his life. Only two years after the Soviets pulled out of Afghanistan the Gulf war began, resulting in the deployment of US troops in Saudi Arabia. This, among other things, reinforced his belief in international jihad.
The socio-political movements with an Islamic agenda see Islam as a rallying point for their social and political agendas. Mostly, they refrain from challenging the faith of their contemporaries, and their social and political programmes, although inspired by Islamic jurisdiction, are mostly pragmatic. These groups normally refrain from violence unless faced with a foreign occupation.
They fall into two categories: socio-political groups seeking power through peaceful means act as political parties with an Islamic slant. They shift their alliances and adjust their politics in a pragmatic manner. The best known of these groups must count the Muslim Brotherhood of Egypt, Al-Nahdah of Tunisia, and the Islamic Salvation Front of Algeria.
But faced with foreign occupation socio-political Islamic groups are usually capable of putting up strong armed resistance. This was the case with Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood during the 1948 war in Palestine. The Muslim Brotherhood also fought against British forces deployed along the Suez Canal in 1951. Other examples of this category are Hamas and Jihad of Palestine and Hizbullah of Lebanon. These groups normally refrain from fighting their own governments or compatriots and confine their operations to attacks against foreign occupants.
The writer is an expert at the Al-Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies and managing editor of the annual State of Religion in Egypt Report.