Political Islam: Revealing the Roots of Extremism


The spread of radical Islamic movements throughout the Middle East and beyond has not only caused major political upheaval in the countries directly affected, but has placed political Islam on the forefront of the West’s concerns.  This is particularly true when such movements have engaged in acts of terrorism against the interests of the United States and its allies.  One unfortunate aspect of this attention is that it has strengthened ugly stereotypes of Muslims already prevalent in the West, allowing the U.S. government to engage in questionable military campaigns against such movements with little public opposition.

This occurs despite the existence of moderate Islamic segments and secular movements that are at least as influential as radicals are in the political life of Islamic countries.  Even though the vast majority of the world’s Muslims oppose terrorism, religious intolerance, and the oppression of women, these remain the most prevalent images throughout the West.  Such popular misconceptions about Islam and Islamic movements-often exacerbated by the media, popular culture, and government officials-have made it particularly difficult to challenge U.S. policy.

To respond effectively to Islamic militancy, the United States must understand the reasons why a small, but dangerous minority of Muslims have embraced extremist ideologies and violent tactics.  These movements are often rooted in legitimate grievances voiced by under-represented and oppressed segments of the population, particularly the poor, and the United States is increasingly identified with the political, social, and economic forces responsible for their misery.  Many Muslims in the Middle East and elsewhere are exposed not to the positive aspects of U.S. society, such as individual liberty, the rule of law, and economic prosperity, but to the worst traits of American culture, including materialism, militarism, and racism.

When a people have lost their identity-whether it be due to foreign occupation, war-induced relocation, the collapse of traditional economies, or other reasons-there is a great pull to embrace something that can provide a structure, worldview, and purpose to rebuild their lives.  The mosque is one of the few constants in Muslim countries undergoing great social disruption.  Islam offers a clear sense of social justice, a feeling of empowerment, and an obligation to challenge those who cause the injustice, even when manipulated by radical elements.

The roots of Islamic radicalism stem from economic inequality, military occupation, and authoritarianism.  Given that U.S. policy in the Middle East and elsewhere has often perpetuated such injustices, responsibility for the rise of radical Islamic movements can often be traced to the United States itself.

The Economic Roots of Extremism:

Largely unregulated western economic penetration in Egypt and other countries has led to widespread social dislocation and gross inequalities that have spearheaded these countries’ Islamic extremist movements.  American encouragement of neo-liberal economic policies in Islamic countries has brought increased prosperity for some, but has worsened the plight of many of the poor, and increased economic inequality and injustice.  Meanwhile, popular understanding of capitalism is manifested by the most crass and vulgar examples of American-style consumerism and materialism enjoyed by a handful of the elite while most remain in poverty.  In this context, it is small wonder that the globalization pushed by the United States and allied international financial institutions has been a major factor in creating the anti-American backlash led by Islamic extremists.

Similarly, the ongoing purchase of U.S. arms by Middle East states-strongly encouraged by both private companies and the U.S. government-has diverted billions of dollars from potential development projects to the American arms industry.  This has increased both human suffering and popular resentment of the United States and its allied regimes.

The Political Roots of Extremism:

The Central Intelligence Agency’s (CIA) 1953 overthrow of the moderate constitutional Iranian government of Mohammed Mossadegh, followed by years of support for the brutal regime of the Shah, led directly to the rise of the Islamic revolution.  The Shah’s brutal secret police-organized, trained, and armed by the U.S. government-largely crushed any liberal, leftist, or other secular opposition to the monarchy, leaving only the mosques as a viable organizing point for resistance.  The result was a movement with a strong Islamic identity and a virulent antipathy for the United States and the West in general.

U.S. support for the regime of Jafaar Nimeiry during most of his repressive rule of Sudan from 1969-85 led to the destruction of much of Sudan’s civil society.  This made his successors’ efforts to build a viable democratic system, following Nimeiry’s overthrow in 1985, virtually impossible.  The result was a coup by right-wing Islamist military officers three years later.

During the 1970s and 1980s, the destruction of moderate Muslim-led factions in Lebanon by U.S.-backed invasions and occupations from Syria and Israel-and later military intervention by the United States itself-led to the rise of more sectarian groups such as Hezbollah.  For 22 years the United States refused to insist on Israeli withdrawal from southern Lebanon, as required by a series of United Nations (UN) Security Council resolutions, or to push for a withdrawal through the peace process.  Israel only withdrew in 2000 after Hezbollah’s successful guerrilla campaign forced them out, greatly enhancing their stature.

Similarly, U.S. support for Israel’s ongoing occupation of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip has led to the rise of Islamic extremists in Palestine.  With the United States blocking enforcement of UN Security Council resolutions, vetoing efforts to send peacekeeping forces, subsidizing the expansion of settlements, and refusing to insist Israel abide by disengagement agreements, increasing numbers of Palestinians no longer trust the Palestine Authority’s (PA) insistence on a negotiated settlement.  Citing Lebanon as a precedent, a growing number of Palestinians now believe that trusting the UN or a U.S.-led peace process is naéve, and their country can only be liberated through armed struggle by extremist Islamists.

U.S. Support for Extremist Regimes:

Though the U.S. government has used the threat of “Islamic fundamentalism” as a justification for keeping a high military profile in the Middle East for over 20 years, the United States has at times supported Muslim extremists when they were perceived to support U.S. interests.  For example, during the 1980s, the United States heavily armed a reactionary Islamist military government in Pakistan, and even clandestinely supplied weapons to the Khomeini regime in Iran.

Except for the Taliban’s five-year rule in Afghanistan, the most extremist Muslim state in modern history-in terms of strict interpretation of Islamic codes, repression of women, suppression of religious minorities, and reactionary political orientation-is Saudi Arabia.  However, the United States is a major trading partner with the family dictatorship and sells the Saudi monarchy billions of dollars in highly sophisticated U.S. military equipment annually, even as the Saudis finance schools throughout the Islamic world that contribute to the reactionary turn in Islamic theology in recent years.

Of the mujahedin groups resisting the Soviets and their puppet regime in Afghanistan during the 1980s, the United States gave most of its aid to the extremist Hekmatyar faction.  During the Taliban’s rise to power and soon after its 1996 takeover of most of the country, the United States quietly supported the extremist militia.  Indeed, the U.S. desire for stability was so strong that, until their connections with bin Laden and al-Qaeda became apparent, there was little opposition to the Taliban.  The theocratic fascism they imposed upon the Afghans caused no obvious consternation to the U.S. government.

In any case, it would be a mistake to assume that the United States is morally opposed to fundamentalist governments or extremist Islamic movements.  The degree of United States opposition or support for reactionary Islamists is related not to their level of violence and repression, but to their perceived willingness or unwillingness to cooperate with U.S. political and economic interests.

Political Repression and the Rise of Extremism:

In countries where Islamic parties have been allowed to compete in a relatively open political process, these movements have generally played a responsible, albeit conservative, role in the political system.  Islamic movements have become more extremist primarily in countries where they have been denied the right to participate in political discourse.  Allowed to function in an open democratic system instead of under siege, they would likely divide into competing political parties across the ideological spectrum.

The lack of viable legal and non-violent alternatives to challenge the status quo leads those seeking social change to embrace violent and extremist movements.  Just as U.S. support for right-wing dictatorships during the Cold War helped encourage the rise of Communist movements, U.S. support for Israeli occupation forces and autocratic governments has encouraged the rise of extremist Islamic movements.

Despite occasional emancipatory rhetoric, however, many Islamic-identified movements subscribe to a reactionary worldview that more closely resembles the European fascist movements of the 1930s than the Third World socialist movements of the 1970s.  Some, like the Taliban and the al-Qaeda network, subscribe to an apocalyptic vision and a commitment to seemingly genocidal methods.  However, if the U.S. response is primarily political repression and military force, a solution that does nothing to address the underlying injustices that fed these movements, American efforts to crush them will likely fail.

Stephen Zunes is an associate professor of Politics and chair of the Peace and Justice Studies Program at the University of San Francisco.