“What is the Islamist Movement?”

“What is the Islamist Movement?” February 12, 2020


NASA does the Arabian Peninsula
NASA does the Arabian Peninsula
(A photograph in the public domain from the National Aeronautics and Space Administration)


Bill Hamblin and I published the column below back in the early 2000s.  To which particular “terrorist atrocity” was it referring?  I can no longer recall.  But since, alas, there are constantly new terrorist atrocities, it scarcely matters.


What is the Islamist Movement?

Following last week’s terrorist atrocity, many people have been wondering about Islamic fundamentalists, or, as they are more commonly (and less misleadingly) called today, Islamists.  What is the Islamist movement?  During the lifetime of Muhammad, the founder of Islam (570-632), he became not only a prophet but the ruler of a kingdom, which, in the last two years of his life, encompassed most of Arabia.  The Qur’an (Koran)—the collected revelations of God to Muhammad, revered as Islamic scripture—contains numerous, sometimes lengthy passages presenting the legal principles upon which an authentic Muslim society should be governed.  At its core, Islamic law (Arabic shari’ah) is Qur’anic law, a mixture of civil, criminal and religious regulations.

Following the death of Muhammad, the principles of law and government in the Qur’an were interpreted by generations of legal scholars.  When facing new legal and political questions not explicitly answered in the Qur’an, judges and rulers would try to formulate scholarly consensus on how to answer a question based on logical extrapolation and analogy.  The result was the development of a complex Islamic law code, which in many ways parallels the role of the Talmud in medieval Jewish life.  There were enough fundamental differences between differing models of interpretation that eventually five major different legal systems developed in the Islamic world, which agree in fundamentals but often differ on many particulars.  For over a thousand years, countries with Muslim majorities, including most of the Middle East, were governed by one of these five schools of Islamic law.  (It should be noted that Orthodox Judaism is also distinguished by its strict adherence to rabbinic Law as codified in the Talmud.  One of the goals of the Orthodox in Israel is to establish Talmud principles and rabbinic Law as the official legal and political system of Israel—which currently has a European-style, secular system.) 

In the nineteenth century, European imperialists managed either to conquer nearly all Middle Eastern countries or render them tributary.  In the process, the imperial powers brought European ideas about government and law to the region, promising liberty and equality.  In reality, however, for over a century Muslims were generally treated by European powers as second-class citizens in their own lands.  The usual Muslim experience was, therefore, that the European system of constitutionalism, parliamentary government, equality, and democracy was a cynical farce, intended only as a means to subdue conquered peoples.

When European colonial domination of the Middle East collapsed following World War II, newly independent Muslim states faced the enormous problems of creating new governments and legal systems from scratch.  For practical purposes, most states retained the legal systems of their European colonizers, which had been in force in much of the area for over half a century.  Many states retained monarchies—constitutional or otherwise.  Other states attempted to formulate some type of democracy.  Some flirted with Marxism or socialism.  Tragically, most ultimately devolved into military dictatorships.

The Islamists want to change this situation, seeking to restore what they feel is the authentic Muslim political and legal system that had been in force before the coming of the Europeans.  At the most basic level, Islamists believe that their societies should be based upon, organized, and run according to Islamic law as it is found in the Qur’an and its schools of orthodox interpretations.  Another general Islamist goal is that the moral decadence of the West—immodesty, sexual promiscuity, drinking, drug use, greed, secularism, vulgarity—should be minimized in their societies through strict moral and legal codes.  

Whereas all Islamists agree that majority Muslim countries should reestablish Islamic law as their foundational legal and political system, they often differ as to the best means to attain this goal.  The vast majority of Islamists opt for moderate and peaceful means of renovation, via religious revival, education, and legal transformation through legitimate political and legal channels.  Thus, many Muslim countries have Islamist political parties advocating peaceful change.  Unfortunately, many governments in the Near East—like Iran under the former shahs—are oppressive and tyrannical military dictatorships that brook no opposition (and that, like the shah, are often supported by Western powers, including the United States).  Thus, peaceful change is often impossible, leading to the radicalization of Islamist groups, who come to see violent revolution as the only means of obtaining their legitimate political aspirations, precisely as happened in the Islamic revolution in Iran.  The Hamas movement in Palestine is another example—an Islamist group which, after fifty years of failed negotiations, sees violent revolution as the only means to obtain independence for Arab Palestine. 

There are many facets and factions to Islamist movements today. A large minority of Muslims throughout the Near East are Islamists, and the vast majority of these advocate peaceful and moderate means to obtain their goals.  Unfortunately, however, a small but growing minority are increasingly turning to violence and terrorism.  Usama bin Ladin’s terrorist organization is one of these; in a future column we will explore why Usama and his supporters view the United States as their major enemy.



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