September 15, 2004 Special Reports No. 34

Reform vs. Islamism in the Arab World Today

September 15, 2004 | By Menahem Milson*
Special Reports No. 34

The events of September 11, 2001 stirred global interest in Islam: What is this religion, in whose name these terrorists claimed to be acting? The televised images of Muslim masses thronging streets across the Muslim world to celebrate the destruction of the World Trade Center have made this question all the more pressing.

This paper is designed to introduce the reader to the phenomenon of radical Islam, or Islamism, and to place it in its proper historical and religious context. Following a general introduction to the topic, the first half of the paper presents an outline of modern developments in Islamic thought and behavior in the context of historical developments in the Arab world, focusing on the Salafiyya in Egypt, the Wahhabiyya in Saudi Arabia, and their common progeny among the non-state terror organizations. The second half of the paper looks at the jihadist ideology of Islamism. It analyses the two fundamental concepts of jihad (holy war) and shahada (martyrdom), both in traditionally normative Islam and in the Islamist lexicon. Finally, the paper describes some of the Arab critics of Islamism, their ideas for reform, and their place in the general framework of modern Islamic thought.

Introduction: What is Islamism?

The terms "extremist Islam," "militant Islam," "radical Islam," and "Islamism" are synonymous. [1] None, however, are used by these Muslims to refer to themselves; they simply use the term "Muslims" or, in certain contexts, mujahidun, that is, "warriors of jihad." They call their movement "the Islamic Awakening" ( al-Sahwa al-Islamiyya ), "the Jihad Movement," or simply al-Da'wa, a term that can be translated as "the call [to Islam]" or "the propagation of Islam."

The subject of this paper is the Islamic extremism that is directed outward, against non-Muslims. To be sure, extremist Islam is not only directed outward against those whom they see as infidels, but is equally concerned with Muslim society itself, desiring the establishment of a "truly" Muslim society. And according to the Islamist doctrine, no society can be truly Muslim if it does not make jihad – war on the enemies of Islam – its first priority.

Those aspects of extremist Islam that are directed inward – however significant they may be in and of themselves – are beyond the scope of this paper. When we hear of Muslims' strict observance of the Ramadan fast, abstinence from wine and spirits, and imposition of the veil upon Muslim women – we may view this as religious fanaticism, but not as an issue of concern. Similarly, the harsh punishments meted out in accordance with Islamic law in Saudi Arabia – such as stoning convicted adulterers, flogging those who drink alcohol, amputating the hands of thieves – arouse revulsion and horror in Western countries and generate protests by human-rights organizations, but are not perceived to be a threat to world peace. But 9/11 is an entirely different matter. It is its hostility and belligerence towards non-Muslims that makes Islamism a global problem.

It should be noted that Muslims have not always treated non-Muslims in this manner. If we review Islam's 1400-year history we find ample examples of periods in which non-Muslims were treated with tolerance, as well as times of hatred and persecution. [2] In this paper, we will focus on the situation today.

A further restriction of the scope of this paper is warranted by the fact that Islam has by now spread all over the globe. While a generation ago the Islamic world was considered to stretch "from Indonesia in the East to Morocco in the West," nowadays there are 1,300,000,000 Muslims living in innumerable communities worldwide, with millions in Europe and North and South America. The paper will therefore focus on "the heartlands of Islam," that is, the Arab world. Muhammad, the prophet of Islam, was an Arab, and he revealed God's word – the Koran – in Arabic. The early conquests of Islam were carried out by Arab armies. The language of prayer of all Muslims throughout the world is Arabic. All these factors have forged an inseparable and multi-faceted bond between Islam and the Arabs. Although the Arabs constitute less than a quarter of the world's Muslims today, their role in Islam is crucial. Hence, an Islamic doctrine authored and disseminated in Arabic will ultimately affect all Muslims.

Bin Laden and the Poet of Jihad: Viewing Radical Islam in Context

All too often the debate on radical Islam and terrorism is hampered by a lack of familiarity with the relevant historical and religious context. The following example is a case in point.

On February 16, 2003, a sermon written and delivered by Osama bin Laden was posted on an Islamist website. The sermon, which generated much interest in the media, contained a few lines from a poem that were particularly curious and, perhaps, also rather alarming:

"O Lord, when death arrives, let it not be upon a bier covered with green shrouds

"Rather, let my grave be in the belly of an eagle, tranquil in the sky, among hovering eagles."

Various commentaries appeared in the media by experts in various fields – such as Middle East specialists, intelligence experts, experts on counter-terrorism, and so on – who proposed different interpretations. Some suggested that these words hinted at an imminent aerial attack, along the lines of 9/11, with the eagle symbolizing the hijacked airplane containing suicide terrorists. Others maintained that the eagle symbolized not the attack itself but the target of the attack – not the aircraft, but the United States. Some termed this sermon "Bin Laden's testament" based on an apparent reference to the expressed desire for burial in "the belly of an eagle."

These interpretations, however, are way off the mark. When we at MEMRI translated the sermon in full, it became apparent that bin Laden was referring neither to an American eagle nor to a hijacked airplane. The poet quoted by bin Laden yearns to die a hero's death as a shahid (martyr) on the battlefield and to be consumed by an eagle, which would then bear him up to heaven, where he would reach the throne of Allah. The eighth-century Arab who authored the poem was a member of a fanatical militant sect of Islam. [3]

Osama bin Laden's choice of this quotation for his sermon highlights an essential characteristic of extremist Islam: identification with the early generations of Islam. Contemporary Islamism cannot be understood without knowledge of its roots in early Islam. Modern-day Islamists regard the days of the Prophet Muhammad and of his immediate successors – the era of Islam's far-reaching conquests – to be the exemplary era in Islam and the source of their inspiration. Indeed, even in mainstream Islam all Muslims are required to follow the tradition of the Prophet and to seek guidance in the conduct of his companions and successors. The Islamists, however, focus on one particular aspect of that tradition – jihad, "fighting for the sake of Allah."

The Historical Development of Islamism

Islam and the West in the Modern Age: Political Crisis and Religious Reaction

Islamism, as we know it today, is a phenomenon of modern history. Paradoxically, both Islamism, the extremist brand of Islam, and its counterpart, the reformist trend, emerged in response to the challenge presented by Western culture and power to the Arabs and the other Muslim peoples.

This challenge was the product of the military and political superiority of Europe over the Muslim states, and especially the Ottoman Empire. Napoleon's 1798 invasion of Egypt reflected this superiority and heralded the process of Western conquest of and influence in the Arab and Muslim world.

In order to fully appreciate the significance of Western conquest and influence, as experienced by the Muslims, we must take into account the Muslim view of Islam and its place in the world. From its inception, Islam was not merely a religion, but also a political community, the nation of Islam ( ummat al-Islam). Muhammad was not merely a prophet communicating the word of God, but a political leader. Hence, any victory by the army of a Muslim state over non-Muslims is perceived as a victory for Islam itself.

According to Islam, Allah promised the Muslims victory and superiority over all other religions worldwide. Allah validated this message with the military victory of the Muslims, under Muhammad's command, at the battle of Badr, in Ramadan of 624 CE. At Badr (some 300 km north of Mecca), 300 Muslim warriors vanquished the 950-strong army of the Quraysh tribe, in a military feat which played a crucial role in shaping the Islamic consciousness.

This victory was not an isolated event. Rather, it was the harbinger of an impressive series of victories that led to the rise of the Muslim empire, stretching from India to the Atlantic Ocean. Thus, the notion of Islamic superiority became engrained in the Muslim religious consciousness. One could, of course, argue that this was an illusion; nonetheless, it was a belief that was to remain unshaken for many centuries.

This implicit notion of Muslim superiority was seriously shaken during the 19th century, when the Ottoman Empire suffered a series of defeats at the hands of the Russians, and when various Muslim-ruled lands fell under non-Mulim rule: Algeria and Tunisia were conquered by the French, Egypt and the Sudan by the British, and the majority of the Balkan countries achieved independence from the Ottomans. In World War I, the Ottoman Empire was totally defeated by Christian powers, and subsequently, in 1924, Turkey's reformist secular leader Kemal Ataturk abolished the caliphate. To Muslim eyes, it appeared that history had deviated from its predestined course. [4]

Consequently, Muslims in the modern world suffer from a pervasive malaise resulting from the contrast between the Islamic belief in their God-given supremacy and the state of backwardness, poverty and impotence of the Muslim countries.

It was the disturbing recognition that Muslim power was inferior to that of Europe, the West, or Christendom (however the "other side" is perceived) that shaped the outlook of modern Muslim intellectuals, whether extremist or moderate. The question that faced – and continues to face – Arab intellectuals and political leaders was how the Arab peoples could regain their rightful place in history.

Al-Afghani, Abduh, Reformism and Radicalism

During the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the most prominent intellectual leaders of Islamic reform were Jamal al-Din al-Afghani (1839–1897) and Muhammad 'Abduh (1849–1905), who jointly called for pan-Islamic unity against the colonialist European powers. They also called for internal reform in an effort to purge Islam of "harmful foreign accretions."

Afghani and 'Abduh formulated the maxim that has since been espoused by all Muslim apologists: "There is no fault in Islam; the flaw lies with the Muslims." According to them, when Muslims return to the original, pure Islam, all the ills of Muslim society will disappear. Afghani and 'Abduh directed much of their criticism against Sufism (Islamic mysticism), which they considered to be a deviation from orthodox Islam and a source of degeneration and backwardness.

The inherent rationale of their opposition to Sufism merits explanation. Whereas Sufism requires its adherents to adopt a position of complete reliance on Allah ( tawakkul ), the reformists considered the quietistic approach of Sufism to be a source of social decay and an obstacle to reform. [5] In their opposition to Sufism, the modern reformists, including Afghani and 'Abduh, drew upon the teachings of the great medieval Islamic scholar Ibn Taymiyya (1263–1328), who had denounced the Sufis as deviants from Islam. It should be noted that contemporary Islamists view Ibn Taymiyya as their mentor, and call him Sheikh al-Islam al-Akbar ("the great teacher of Islam").

It was Afghani and 'Abduh who bequeathed to 20th-century Islamic thought its characteristic features:

  • An attitude of ambivalence towards the West – hostility and admiration.
  • A tendency to apologetics – "There is no fault in Islam; the flaw lies with the Muslims." Furthermore, every worthwhile Western idea can be found in the Koran and the Hadith – if these are properly read and interpreted.
  • Muslim society will regain its original power and prosperity once Muslims return to the ways of the "the pious forefathers" ( al-salaf al-salih ) – the Prophet Muhammad and his companions.
  • Strong opposition to Sufism, as previously discussed.
  • Emphasis on the vital role of the Arabs in effecting Islamic reform.

These are the traits of the Salafi movement, which calls for amending Islam in accordance with the example of the first Muslims, al-salaf al-salih.

Despite their cooperation of many years, Afghani and 'Abduh were quite different from each other in both personality and orientation. Afghani was a revolutionary and a political propagandist who stressed the need for pan-Islamic political unity in order to fight European colonialism, while 'Abduh preached pragmatic internal reform. Abduh's concern with internal reform became particularly marked after his appointment in 1899 to the highest clerical post in Egypt, that of state mufti.

Muhammad 'Abduh was an example of a moderate reformist. In his commentary on the Koran and in his book on theology, he attempted to interpret Islam in a way that suited the modern world. Inter alia, he called for banning polygamy in Islam, basing his arguments on his interpretation of the relevant verse in the Koran. [6] Unfortunately, 'Abduh's progressive interpretation met with limited success, and to this day polygamy is legal in all Arab countries except for Tunisia.

Equally unfortunately, 'Abduh's moderate enlightened approach has proved to be of less appeal to most of his followers and the Muslim masses than the defiant political activism of his erstwhile mentor and collaborator Afghani.

'Abduh's closest disciple in his later years, the Syrian cleric Rashid Ridha (1865-1935), continued to develop and promote Salafism, while steering it in a direction quite different from that of 'Abduh, whom he claimed to be following. Ridha emphasized political aims: anti-colonialism, Islamic solidarity and Arab unity, and, of course, opposition to the Jewish "invasion" of Palestine.

Notable among Rashid Ridha’s disciples were Hajj Amin al-Husseini, later to achieve notoriety as the Mufti of Jerusalem who collaborated with Nazi Germany, and 'Izz al-Din al-Qassam, a Syrian cleric who moved to Palestine in 1920 after fleeing from the French authorities in Syria. There he organized a group of Muslim fanatics who randomly assassinated Jewish and British "infidels," and he was ultimately killed in an encounter with British soldiers in 1935. His name has been adopted by the armed units of Hamas, the 'Izz al-Din al-Qassam Brigades, and has been given to the Qassam missiles, which are fired from the Gaza Strip at Israeli towns.

Another disciple of 'Abduh, Sheikh 'Ali 'Abd al-Raziq, who taught at Al-Azhar University during the 1920s, developed a very moderate stance, calling for fundamental and far-reaching reform and even broaching the crucial question of relations between religion and political power in Islam. In his book, Islam and the Foundations of Government (1925),'Abd al-Raziq argued that the link between religion and politics in Islam was not essential, but rather, was a phenomenon unique to the days of the Prophet Muhammad. The publication of his book sparked an uproar among Egypt's religious establishment; 'Abd al-Raziq was dismissed from al-Azhar University and banned from teaching anywhere, and his "heretical" book was removed from the shelves.

While 'Abd al-Raziq's path of moderate reform was, unfortunately, blocked and silenced, the extremist orientation of Salafism, as preached by Rashid Ridha, gained momentum. The Muslim Brotherhood movement, founded in Alexandria, Egypt in 1928, promoted the rejuvenation of Islam in the spirit of Salafism. The Muslim Brotherhood, under the motto "Islam is the solution" ( al-Islam huwa al-hall ), called for Islamic law to be adopted as the law of the land and for Egypt to be transformed into an Islamic state. It was vehemently hostile to the British, the Egyptian authorities, and the Jews.

Parenthetically, it should be noted that the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood has played a major role in disseminating Islamic extremism: the Palestinian Hamas movement, founded in Gaza, is one of its offshoots. Ayman al-Zawahiri, Osama bin Laden's deputy, was in his youth a member of the Muslim Brotherhood, before joining the Egyptian Islamic Jihad movement.

The Failure of Pan-Arabism and the Rise of Islamism

Under the influence of the West, the modern concept of nationalism took root in the Arab world, assuming two different forms: local nationalism, defined by country, and pan-Arab nationalism, based on the unity of language and culture throughout the Arab world. Pan-Arab nationalism thus transcends the boundaries of specific Arab countries, holding Arab unity as its ultimate goal. Due to the close connection between Arab identity and Islam, pan-Arab nationalism had a much stronger appeal than the rival ideology of local (e.g., Egyptian) nationalism.

Secular Arab intellectuals seeking to modernize their societies were drawn toward a form of collective identity based on nationalism, rather than on religion. The conservative masses could equally well identify with pan-Arab nationalism, as it retained much of the Islamic legacy. The term umma, traditionally used in reference to the Islamic nation ( ummat al-Islam ), was adopted by Arab nationalists to refer to the Arab nation ( al-umma al-'arabiyya ). Their calls for jihadagainst the enemies of the Arab nation evoked the familiar calls for jihad against the infidels, as these enemies – whether Jewish, English, French, or American – were indeed infidels. Thus, pan-Arab nationalism was a suitable vehicle for both the modernizing intellectuals and for the still-religious masses.

However, for the Muslim clerics who supported the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and Syria, pan-Arab nationalism was an adversary, and once Nasserism and the Ba'th Party had taken hold, it became an actual enemy.

The success and influence of pan-Arabism peaked in the 1950s and 1960s. In these years, Egyptian President Gamal 'Abd al-Nasser gave the Arabs the feeling that they had regained their rightful place in world history. Although Nasser in Egypt, as well as President Hafez al-Assad in Syria, repressed the Muslim Brotherhood, the two leaders took care to display respect for Islam in public. A well-known photograph showed Nasser in the pilgrim's white robe, performing the ritual of the hajj (the pilgrimage to Mecca), as befits a good Muslim.

The 1967 Six-Day War, bringing with it the collapse of the Nasserite vision, was a cataclysmic event for the Arabs: an utter defeat, which naturally had religious significance. As far as the Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamists were concerned, the collapse of the Arab armies, although distressing, was understandable and even justified. In their eyes, it was the Arabs' punishment for having abandoned Islam, and it offered an opportunity for repentance and rectification. For the Islamists, the 1967 military debacle has laid bare the worthlessness of secular Arab nationalism, Nasserist and Ba'athist alike. The maxim "Islam is the solution" was now being proclaimed with greater force. The ideas and writings of Sayyid Qutb, the Muslim Brotherhood leader, who was hanged at Nasser's order on August 29, 1966, were widely disseminated.

Sayyid Qutb, who had made some reputation for himself as a literary critic in Egypt in the 1940s, was an adherent of Egyptian, rather than pan-Arab, nationalism. His writings of that time showed no sign of predilection toward Islamic identity either. However, after two and a half years of study in the U.S. (from 1948 to 1950), Qutb radically changed his worldview and joined the Muslim Brotherhood. He spent nine years (1955-1964) in jail, on charges of subversive incitement, and after another imprisonment, he was tried for seditious conspiracy and executed.

Qutb wrote tirelessly from his prison cell; among his works was an extensive commentary on the Koran, entitled Fi Zilal al-Qur'an ("In the Shadow of the Koran"). He harbored an extreme hatred of Jews and missed no opportunity in his commentary to denounce their ubiquitous evil and corruption. He accused the Jews of plotting to take over the entire world, echoing the notorious Protocols of the Elders of Zion.

Qutb did not only call for instituting Islamic law, but also championed jihad. According to Qutb, jihad should be waged not only against Islam's external enemies, but against its internal enemies – that is, the seemingly Muslim rulers who are in fact anti-Islamic. Like Rashid Ridha before him, he drew extensively on the works of the 14th-century scholar Ibn Taymiyya. According to Ibn Taymiyya, a Muslim ruler who commits grave sins or applies alien laws (i.e., non-Islamic laws) is no better than an apostate ( murtadd ) and should be put to death. Hence, waging jihadagainst such rulers is a religious duty.

Qutb explains that Muslims in modern times find themselves, like the Prophet Muhammad and his early companions some 1400 years ago, in a hostile pagan environment – even though they live in an ostensibly Muslim country. The malignant influence of Western culture, with all its negative manifestations – materialism, sexual permissiveness, and economic exploitation – has generated a cultural and moral situation that he defined as a new Jahiliyya (that is, pagan barbarism), no different than the state of Jahiliyya that prevailed before the advent of Islam.

The Wahhabis

To complete our understanding of the roots of present-day Islamism, we must go back in history to the mid-18th century and turn our gaze eastward, to the Arabian Peninsula, where an earlier current of Islamic reform emerged some 150 years before the Salafi movement in Egypt. At the oasis of al-'Uyayna, in the heart of Arabia, a young Muslim scholar, Muhammad ibn 'Abd al-Wahhab (1703–1792), after studying in Iraq and Iran, reached the conclusion that Islam had become decayed and corrupt because of all kinds of forbidden innovations ( bida' ) and foreign accretions. Influenced by the works of his predecessor by four hundred years, Ibn Taymiyya, he believed that for Islam to regain its power, Muslims must adhere to its fundamental texts – Koran and Hadith – and follow the model of the "pious forefathers" ( al-Salaf al-Salih ). He formed an alliance with a minor local ruler, Muhammad ibn Saud, founder of the House of Saud; thus was born the union between the desert kingdom and the religious movement that sought to restore Islam to its original power.

It is no coincidence that both movements calling for Islamic revival – the 18th-century Wahhabis and the 20th-century Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood – are ultimately based on Ibn Taymiyya's al-Salaf al-Salih doctrine. It is also no coincidence that we find the progeny of both movements in the leadership of al-Qa'ida: the Saudi Osama bin Laden, a product of Wahhabi education, and his Egyptian deputy Ayman al-Zawahiri, who had absorbed the ideology of the Muslim Brotherhood before joining the Egyptian Islamic Jihad movement.

Extremist Islam Today

The takeover of the U.S. embassy and the taking of U.S. hostages by Iranian students on November 4th, 1979 was an event greeted throughout the Muslim world as a victory of Islam over the infidels. Iranian students managed to humiliate the great American superpower – a confirmation of the Islamist belief that by acting fearlessly in the name of Islam Muslims could defeat the infidels. The fact that this was a victory by Shiites, a minority group in the Islamic world, did not detract from the sense of achievement among Muslims in general. In the grand division of the world into two camps – believers and infidels – there was a near-universal Muslim solidarity with Khomeini's Iran.

For the Saudi regime, however, the prestige earned by the Islamic Revolution in Iran posed a problem. After all, it was the House of Saud, the Defender of the Two Holy Places (i.e., Mecca and Medina), that should rightfully be the guardian of the true Islam – that is, Sunni Islam in accordance with the Wahhabi doctrine. In their view, it was they who deserved to lead the Islamic awakening – not the heretical Shiite Ayatollah Khomeini, whom they considered not much better than an infidel. The religious aura of the House of Saud was a political asset in the pan-Arab and international arena, and even more so within its own kingdom. In order to preserve their religious status, they had to win the struggle for primacy as the champions of Islam throughout the world. This was a struggle for the heart and soul of all Muslims.

Therefore, in response to the challenge posed by the Iranian Revolution, the Saudis took a dual course of action: they embarked upon jihad against the 1979 Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and they launched a far-reaching operation for the propagation of Islam. To this end, they invested billions of dollars through Islamic charities in order to build mosques and religious seminaries ( madrasa s)throughout the world. Obviously, these madrasa s and mosques were venues for Wahhabism, disseminating the doctrine of Ibn Taymiyya. The propagation of Wahhabi Islam worldwide served an internal purpose as well, countering charges of moral laxity directed against the Saudi regime.

It would not be an exaggeration to say that the past 25 years have witnessed a process of "Wahhabization" throughout the world. Although this process cannot be quantified, its effects are evident in far-flung Muslim communities, ranging from Manchester to San Diego, from Shanghai to Oslo.

The 1989 Soviet debacle in Afghanistan was a great victory for Islamism. A decade after Khomeini's Islamic revolution in Iran, Sunni Islam triumphed over the infidel Communist power. The U.S. believed at the time that they had effectively manipulated Islam to deal a blow to the Soviets, but for the Islamists this was only a single battle in the global drama that would unfold until the ultimate victory of Islam, which would include the trouncing of the U.S.

A series of terrorist operations, which took place in the course of the 1990s, pointed to the direction of Islamist activity. These attacks included:

  • February 26, 1993: The World Trade Center bombing, New York – six killed;
  • March 1993: The murder of U.S. diplomats in Pakistan;
  • November 1995: The attack on the Saudi army base in Riyadh – dozens killed;
  • · June 1996: The attack on Khobar Towers, a residential building for U.S. military personnel, in Dhahran, Saudi Arabia – dozens killed and hundreds wounded;
  • August 1998: The double attack on the U.S. embassy in Nairobi – 12 Americans and 280 Kenyans killed – and the U.S. embassy in Dar es- Salaam – one American and 10 Tanzanians killed;
  • October 2000: The attack on the USS Cole near Aden – 17 sailors killed and dozens wounded.

On February 23, 1998, Osama bin Laden and four of his aides, including Ayman al-Zawahiri, issued their "Declaration of Jihad against the Crusaders and the Jews," which was a declaration of all-out holy war against the U.S. and its allies. "Killing the Americans and their allies – both civilians and military personnel – is a religious duty for every individual Muslim who can do this, in any country in which he can do this." [7] The unique significance of this declaration lay in the fact that bin Laden and his associates had pronounced this jihad to be the personal obligation of each and every Muslim throughout the world. They based their decision on the teachings of medieval Muslim authorities, primarily Ibn Taymiyya, maintaining that the circumstances in which Muslims found themselves today warranted this unusual decision.

Islamist jihad has two goals, both global. One of these is the toppling of the evil regimes in the Muslim countries, because their leaders are only outwardly Muslim. It is thus a religious obligation to fight them, depose them, and establish a truly Islamic regime in their place. The other goal is to wage war against the main infidel power, the U.S., and all of its allies.

Israel and the Jews are singled out in bin Laden's jihaddeclaration. It presents the 1991 Gulf War as an operation by "the Crusader-Zionist alliance." It further states that one of the goals of the U.S. in its campaigns in the Middle East is "to help the tiny Jewish state and to distract attention from the fact that it is occupying Jerusalem and murdering Muslims."

Osama bin Laden's declaration of jihad is not an isolated document. Similar calls – and even stronger ones – are disseminated regularly through Friday sermons that are broadcast live on Arab television across the Arab and Muslim world, and even in the West. These sermons include exhortations to slaughter Jews and Americans, because "Allah has commanded the killing of the infidels." [8]

In sum, from the Islamist perspective, Muslims are in a no-holds-barred war ofjihad. We have seen how Islam's traumatic encounter with Western culture in the 19th and early 20th centuries led to the emergence of Salafism and, subsequently, to the formation of the Muslim Brotherhood movement and other similar groups. We have also seen how two Islamic movements which emerged two centuries apart – the Muslim Brotherhood and its offshoots, on the one hand, and Wahhabism, on the other – share a spiritual father in Ibn Taymiyya and have united in a common holy war, intended to change the face of the world.

The Jihadist Ideology of Islamism

Islam and Jihad

Islam declares itself to be the one and only true religion revealed by God through successive prophets, the most prominent of whom were: Abraham, Moses, Jesus, and finally Muhammad, the Seal of Prophets. Humanity is thus divided into two - believers, that is, the followers of Islam, and infidels, that is, all non-Muslims – and it is implicit that all humanity must ultimately accept the true faith of Allah and that it is the duty of the Islamic nation to propagate the faith and to fight for this goal. Among the infidels, Islam distinguishes between two main groups: idolaters or polytheists ( al-mushrikun ) and the "People of the Book" ( ahl al-kitab ), that is, Jews and Christians.

The polytheists must be fought until they accept Islam or face death. This is enjoined in the Koran, in what has become known as "the verse of the sword." [9] As for the People of the Book, Islam recognizes that the Jews and Christians have received divine revelation and divine laws, but maintains that they distorted the word of God and the holy scriptures, and are thus infidels. However, because they have received divine revelation they are given an option unavailable to polytheists: to live as a subjugated community under the rule and protection of Islam ( ahl al-dhimma ). Muslims are ordered to fight them until they choose between accepting Islam or paying a poll tax ( jizya ), which is both a precondition of their becoming tolerated and protected dhimmis, and a sign of their humiliation. This is stipulated in the Koran in "the Jizya verse." [10]

The world itself is also divided into two – the abode of Islam ( dar al-Islam ), the region under Muslim rule, and the abode of war ( dar al-harb ), referring to all lands not yet conquered. It is a Muslim duty to wage jihad in order to bring these lands into the abode of Islam.

In order to establish the generally accepted meaning of the term jihad, it suffices to examine what is taught today about this concept in Arab schools. An 11th-grade textbook used in all high schools in Jordan and the Palestinian Authority reads as follows:

"Jihad is the Islamic term equivalent to the word 'war' among other nations. The difference is that 'jihad' is [war] for the sake of noble and exalted goals and for the sake of Allah… whereas other nations' wars are wars of evil for the sake of occupying territories and seizing natural resources and for other materialistic goals and base aspirations." [11]

Jihad, unlike the "five pillars of Islam" – the declaration of faith ( shahada ), prayer, fasting, pilgrimage, and paying the zakat (alms tax) – is not usually a personal obligation. Jihad is a collective obligation incumbent upon the entire Islamic nation, and it is only under specific conditions that jihad becomes the personal obligation of each and every Muslim. There are two such circumstances: when a Muslim ruler declares jihad, it become a personal obligation for those whom he orders to take part in the war.

It also becomes a personal obligation when non-Muslims attack Muslims or invade a Muslim country. Bin Laden and the adherents of extremist Islam claim that this is the situation today: Islam, is under attack, both physically and ideologically. The infidels – Christians and Jews – are invading the lands of Islam: Saudi Arabia, Palestine, and Chechnya. Therefore, they maintain that waging jihad has become a personal obligation incumbent upon all Muslims, wherever they may be.

Islam and Shahada (Martyrdom)

The idea of self-sacrifice in battle for the sake of Allah ( shahada ) [12] is closely linked to. Anyone who is killed in the course of war with non-Muslims is a shahid (martyr), whether engaged in active fighting or not. Every Muslim man, woman, or child whose death came about – directly or indirectly – through the actions of the enemies of Islam is a shahid. Actively seeking a martyr's death ( istishhad ) is especially laudable.

The Koran promises the shahid a reward in the world to come. This glorious reward is depicted in some detail in a number of verses, and is greatly elaborated on in the Islamic tradition. The shahid 's reward is not merely direct entry into Paradise, without the "torment of the grave" ( 'adhab al-qabr) and without waiting for the Day of Judgment, but also the privilege of bringing 70 of his or her relatives and friends into Paradise.

This aspect of the reward is clearly evident in the "last will and testament" of Hanadi Jaradat, who carried out the October 2003 suicide bombing at the Maxim restaurant in Haifa. This document, posted on the website of Palestinian Islamic Jihad, reads as follows:

"In the name of Allah the Merciful and Compassionate, prayer and peace be upon the master of mankind, our master Muhammad, may Allah pray for him and give him peace.

"The Exalted One said [in the Koran]: 'Do not consider those who died for the cause of Allah as dead, rather as alive, sustained at the presence of their Lord.' [Koran 3:169] Verily, Allah's words are true.

"Dear family, whom the Lord of the world will reward as He promised us all in His Holy Book [with the words], 'Give glad tidings to those who persevere.' [Koran 2:155] Indeed, Allah promised Paradise to those who persevere in all that He has brought upon them – and what a good dwelling Paradise is.

"Therefore, reckon my sacrifice in anticipation of the reward of Allah, praised and exalted be He, to you in the Hereafter. I should not be too valuable to sacrifice myself for the religion of Allah. I have always believed in what is said in the Holy Koran, and I have been yearning for the rivers of Paradise, and I have been yearning to see the glorious light of Allah's face. I have been yearning for all this ever since Allah bestowed guidance upon me…."

The expression "reckon my sacrifice in anticipation of the reward of Allah"
recurs four times in Jaradat's letter – addressing her family, her loved ones, her father, and her mother.

After the death of a shahid, there is a celebration instead of mourning. The mother utters cries of joy, as at a wedding, and sweets are distributed to visitors.

For Westerners, jihad and istishhad are shocking and utterly incomprehensible phenomena. In an attempt to somehow make them intelligible, many commentators resort to explanations in terms understandable to the modern Westerner, claiming that Islamic terror in Europe is the consequence of economic and social factors, such as the frustration, unemployment, and economic hardships suffered by second- and third-generation Muslim immigrants in Europe.

This explanation, based on concepts familiar to the secular Westerner, appears to make sense and is therefore readily accepted. However, it utterly misses the point. When we look at the profiles of Islamic terrorists in Europe, the US, and elsewhere, we see that they do not belong to the population portrayed in this explanation. Let us consider the perpetrators of the Madrid train bombing on March 11, 2004. The leader, who blew himself up, was a Tunisian immigrant who attended a Spanish university on a generous Spanish government scholarship and also owned a real-estate business. Another member of the group, a Moroccan immigrant, owned a cellular telephone business. A third member, also a Moroccan, held a degree in chemical engineering; a fourth was an architecture student from Bosnia, who was attending school on a Spanish government scholarship.

Thus, the "frustrated second generation" theory cannot account for this attack or, for that matter, for any other terror attack. How could it serve to explain the April 2002 attack in Jerba, Tunisia, the May 2003 attack in Casablanca, the attacks in Riyadh, or even 9/11? Of the nineteen 9/11 terrorists, not one was a frustrated immigrant or second-generation immigrant; all were Arab students or professionals (15 Saudi, three Egyptian and one Lebanese).

In other words, without recognizing that the Islamist belief system lies at the root of all these terrorist acts, we cannot possibly understand the nature of these acts or the motives of their perpetrators.

Islamist terrorism has won sympathy in the Muslim world, but the Islamist call for universal jihad has had only limited success. The extremist Islamic organizations are all clandestine, and the Arab regimes, in the interest of self-preservation, fight them in various ways – including some attempts to delegitimize them from the Islamic religious point of view. Such delegitimization, however, is no simple matter, because admiration for Islam's first generation – al-salaf al-salih – is shared by all Muslims, making the ideological struggle against the Islamists, who evoke the authority of "the pious forefathers," all the more difficult. Arab regimes face an inherent ideological contradiction: on the one hand, their security forces battle the jihadist organizations, while on the other hand, state-funded schools and mosques continue to disseminate the idea of jihad for the sake of Allah.

Moderate Islam: Courageous Beginnings

Moderate Islam is not the exact opposite of extremist Islam: moderate Islam has no systematic doctrine and no organizations acting in its name. It has meager financial support and no governmental backing.

While there are many moderate Muslim Arab voices today, it is still difficult to delineate the ideological structure of what could be called "the doctrine of moderate Islam." Very few of those who speak on behalf of reform are Muslim clerics; the majority are journalists or academics. Thus, it is more accurate to refer to moderate Muslims than to moderate Islam. The reformists find themselves in a conflict on two fronts. They are threatened and occasionally even physically attacked by the Islamists, and they are at times harassed or even persecuted by the Arab regimes because of their criticism of autocracy.

What views are expressed by these Arab reformists? They call for democracy, women's rights, and freedom of speech. Some criticize the tendency to construct conspiracy theories and to blame external forces (such as colonialism or Zionism) for all the ills of Arab Muslim society, a tendency very common in the Arab media and Arab political thought.

The Muslim critics of extremist Islam usually focus on its violent actions – actions that disgrace Islam – but for the most part do not address its ideological underpinnings and certainly do not question the dogma of the exemplary nature of "the pious forefathers" ( al-salaf al-salih ). There are, however, a growing number of Arab reformist thinkers who do not hesitate to deal with the crisis of Islam in the modern world at its most fundamental level. The views of four of the most courageous and outspoken reformists are outlined below: [13]

One anti-Islamist cleric is Sheikh Dr. 'Abd al-Hamid al-Ansari, former dean of the Faculty of Shari'a at the University of Qatar. Not only does he condemn the crimes of the Taliban, al-Qa'ida, and their ilk, but he also takes his fellow clerics and preachers to task over their nearly unanimous support of the powers of tyranny and evil within Islam and for their calling upon young people to volunteer in waging jihadfor the Taliban and for Saddam Hussein.

Gamal al-Bana (born 1920), the younger brother of Muslim Brotherhood founder Hasan al-Bana, was once a member of the Muslim Brotherhood himself, then later became a labor leader with socialist views. Today, he fearlessly speaks out on religious reform, maintaining that Muslims today are entitled – even obligated – to reformulate Islamic law by referring directly to the two fundamental sources of Islam, the Koran and the Hadith, while totally disregarding the whole tradition of Islamic exegesis and jurisprudence. Instead of drawing upon this tradition, he claims, they should interpret these fundamental sources in accordance with the dictates of modern life and common sense. According to al-Bana, reliance on the 1400-year-old Muslim legal tradition is a hindrance to progress and could even be said to run counter to the original intention of the Koran.

Another Muslim moderate is the Saudi Mansur al-Nuqeidan (born 1970), who was educated at a religious seminary in Saudi Arabia and served as the imam of a Riyadh mosque. As a member of an Islamist group, he was involved in violent activities; he stood trial for his role in the arson of a video store and was imprisoned for several years. During his years in prison, he underwent a profound ideological transformation and today is one of the most courageous critics of extremist Islam. Al-Nuqeidan accuses the Saudi educational system of cultivating the very same terrorism that the Saudi regime is fighting. He emphasizes the need for separation of religion and state as a precondition for true reform in the Arab world. In an interview with the Financial Times, he said: "We need an Ataturk." [14]

Shaker al-Nabulsi, perhaps the most comprehensive and systematic in his reformist approach, summed up the main principles of his position in a recent article. [15] He claims that 9/11 marks a watershed in the history of Islamic and Arab thought and that the emergence of new liberal Arabic thought is a response to this critical challenge. Speaking, as it were, for the New Arab Liberals, al-Nabulsi traces their ideological roots to the prominent reformists Afghani and 'Abduh and other later Arab liberal thinkers.

Al-Nabulsi presents his "manifesto of New Arab Liberals," enumerating their guiding principles. Among their fundamental demands regarding religion are the calls to reform religious education "in light of the domination of religious terror"; to fight "all types of armed and bloody religious and political Pan-Arab terrorism"; and to "subject the prevailing sacred values, traditions, legislations, and moral values to in-depth scrutiny." He rejects hostility towards non-Muslims as "emanating from specific political and social circumstances that existed 1500 years ago." He regards the Shari'a laws as "having been legislated for their specific time and place, and not as laws that cut through history as the clerics claim." He asserts that the obstacle to free thought and scientific thought today is not the religion as given by the Prophet himself, but Islamic thought as formulated by Muslim theologians and jurists.

He opposes the tendency to worship the past, calling upon the Arabs to liberate themselves from their illusory ideal picture of the past and for a critical examination of Islamic history "in order to understand the present." The new reformists, al-Nabulsi says, should raise all the questions avoided by their late 19th- and early 20th-century predecessors.

As for the controversial question of whether external help should be sought in order to effect change, al-Nabulsi's position is clear: "there is no harm in asking for assistance from outside forces to defeat the fierce tyranny, to completely eradicate the virus of despotism, and implement Arab democracy in light of the inability of the domestic elite and the fragile political parties to defeat this dictatorship and implement such democracy." As a precedent, he cites U.S. aid to Europe in battling Nazism and Japanese military fascism in World War II.

On the issue of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, al-Nabulsi supports a peaceful solution through negotiations, advocating complete normalization with Israel, for the benefit of both sides.

As for women's rights, al-Nabulsi advocates complete equality, and calls for "the adoption of the 1957 Tunisian Personal Status Code, which is considered the ideal Arab model of the emancipation of Arab women…"


To sum up, extremist Islam, or Islamism, is an organized force with a comprehensive doctrine and with no shortage of funding. Its adherents are consumed by a raging hatred of Western culture, a fanatical belief in their mission, and the unshakeable conviction that they will ultimately triumph. This is a force that must be combated.

In contrast, the Arab reformists do not constitute an organized force. These are individuals, often isolated, often with divergent liberal views. Many are persecuted in their countries. They lack political and financial support. In order for reform to take root in Arab society, the West must listen to them, encourage them and support them.

In short, extremist Islam is a threat and a danger; Arab reform offers opportunity and hope.

*Menahem Milson is professor emeritus of Arabic Literature at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and MEMRI's academic advisor. This article is based on a May 31, 2004 lecture at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

[1] The French term Islam intégriste is equivalent to "Islamism," which has become the accepted English term for denoting extremist Islam.

[2] The Abassid Caliph Al-Mutawakkil, in the mid-9th century, for example, ordered all the Christians and Jews, who had the status of dhimmis, to wear distinctive items of clothing in order to humiliate them and discriminate against them, and imposed additional restrictions upon them. The 11th-century Murabitun (Almoravids) and the 12th-century Muwahiddun (Almohads) in North Africa and Spain persecuted the Christians and the Jews. Conversely, under Ottoman rule, Jews and Christians enjoyed relative security and tolerance, unlike minorities in Europe at that time.

[3] See Bin Laden's Sermon for the Feast of the Sacrifice, March 5, 2003, ' Bin Laden's Sermon for the Feast of the Sacrifice.' The poet quoted is al-Tirimmah ibn al-Hakim al-Ta'i (660–743 CE).

[4] Admittedly, as early as the beginning of the 18th century, as a result of the 1699 Karlovitz agreement, the Ottomans could not avoid the realization that the balance of power between the Muslims and the Christian world had shifted against them and that a reform in the system was therefore necessary. Consequently, they attempted to adopt European military techniques. However, the sense of crisis did not become widespread among the Muslim elites until the turn of the 19th century.

[5] Curiously, it is precisely Sufism that has aroused the interest and admiration of Westerners, both academic scholars of Islam and among those searching for spiritual meaning in their lives.

[6] Koran, 4:3.

[7] See

Editor of Egyptian Weekly Criticizes Arab Embrace of European Antisemitism, January 27, 2004, 'Contemporary Islamist Ideology Authorizing Genocidal Murder.'Contemporary Islamist Ideology Authorizing Genocidal Murder

[9] "Then, when the sacred months have passed, slay the idolaters wherever ye find them, and take them captive, and besiege them, and prepare for them every ambush. But if they repent and establish worship and pay the zakat, then leave their way free. Lo! Allah is forgiving and merciful [Koran 9:5]."

[10] " Fight those who believe not in Allah nor the Last Day, nor hold that forbidden which hath been forbidden by Allah and His Messenger, nor acknowledge the religion of Truth, of the People of the Book, until they pay the Jizya out of hand, in a state of submission [Koran 9:29]."

[11] Al-Thaqafa al-Islamiyya (Islamic Education), The Ministry of Education, PA, Ramallah, 2003, p. 208.

[12] Shahada, lit. "testimony" or "bearing witness," has two meanings: a) the Islamic pronouncement of faith; b) the "greater shahada, " self-sacrifice in battle for the sake of Allah, that is, martyrdom.

[13] For hundreds of documents on reform and reformers in the Arab and Muslim world, see MEMRI's Reform in the Muslim World project, at

[14] Financial Times, Weekend Magazine, July 19, 2003, p. 22.

[15] It was posted on the liberal Internet site Elaph and was published in Al-Siyassa (Kuwait), Al-Mada (Iraq), and Al-Ahdath Al-Maghribiya (Morocco) on June 22, 2004.

Share this Report: