Militant Islam

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This page and Islam as a political movement were proposed (by whom?) as a replacement for Islamism which is disputed. This page was listed on Votes for deletion on September 18 2003 but not deleted. See Talk:Militant Islam/Delete for the discussion. This and Islamism has been protected, by those who advocate the POV of Islamism. See Talk:Militant Islam/Delete for discussion.

Militant Islam is a contentious term, often used by Western political commentators to describe the ideologies of groups viewed as participating in Islamic terrorism. In fact, these two terms share many of the same shortcomings. Muslims opposed to violent political agitation, and especially liberal movements within Islam, find their implicit association of Islam with militancy and aggression to be unacceptable. However, the term has been used so widely in the print and broadcast media that some elaboration of it is necessary.

Groups advocating Islam as a political movement are invariably responding to complex political and historical situations, usually with deep roots in the local environment. For example, the rise of the conservative Jamaat-e-Islami party in Bangladesh would not have been possible without widespread public reaction against the corruption of the secular Awami League government in that country. But this complex local political history is completely lost in the simplistic reductionism of terms like Muslim fundamentalism, which ultimately explains little by blaming a multitude of problems common to less developed countries (including violence and lack of democracy) on religion.

In fact, the application of the term Islamic militancy is so broad that it encompasses any kind of revolutionary movement in any Islamic country. Invariably, this means that it lumps together such a variety of nationalist, marxist and ethnic movements that it has no longer has any real ideological content. The only defining characteristic it has is that it is militarism in a Muslim context; the problem is that this explains very little.

The members of such groups are more likely to see themselves as freedom fighters rather than terrorists, as the political origins of such groups in Israel and Palestine, Soviet-occupied Afghanistan, Chechnya and most recently post-Saddam Iraq are often rooted in political demands for statehood and nationalist self-determination. In Muslim majority societies, these nationalist sentiments invariably are mixed with a feeling of Muslim identity, and this produces the ideology of pan-Islamism or Islamism. The most international of these groups, Al-Qaida also has its origins in a particular nationalist struggle; namely, rebellion against the royal family of Saudi Arabia. The Saudi regime is perceived as being too closely associated with American foreign policy, particularly through its support of the US liberation of Kuwait during the first Gulf War. Since Al-Qaida's ideology is one of pan-Islamic nationalism and solidarity, the Saudi regime was thereafter seen as insufficiently Islamic; although such a view is bewildering to Westerners, who cannot imagine anything more 'Islamic' than the country's Wahhabi brand of Islamic law. To Al-Qaida in particular, the world is viewed as a struggle as their Islamic ideology versus a secular Western ideology. This view of the world has ironically been strengthened by the War on Terror.


Militancy as the defining attribute

No one doctrine

As scholars of this movement have carefully outlined, in a very great variety of works up to and through the 1970s, there is little tactically in common in the various movements that seek to apply Islam as a solution, or use its terms to rationalize their solutions, to issues in the modern Islamic World. The only two objective things that can be said about all of militant Islam is: (a) they are militant and employ force or violence directly, either in offense or defense (b) they justify this using the rhetoric of Islam, e.g. that of jihad.

This is a common and frequent phenomena in the history of Islam. The tarika, in addition to spreading Islam to Africa and adapting it to local conditions (the al-urf or custom of each region), had a role to play in resisting colonialism - this is the origin of Islam as a militant and "underdog" faith to motivate resistance to some ruling authority which is not Muslim or adhering to Islam. The Ottoman Empire was marked by such conflicts, and the British Empire, as there were typically a number of Muslims in rebellion against either at any one time, using Islam to justify their actions.

Olivier Roy, a French policy advisor to President Jacques Chirac, characterizes the goal of modern militant Islam as to re-establish a Caliphate, or a single common government for Muslims all over the world. This might resemble world government or the Roman Catholic hierarchy in certain respects, but since most Muslims are Sunni and reject the role of a formal clergy (unlike the Shia who embrace it) this seems to be unlikely.

More than "fundamentalism"

Islamic fundamentalism is not, by definition, militant.

The use of the term fundamentalism to decry and disdain religion as a solution to problems of the modern secular world, and to describe an insensibly wide variety of movements which could be said easily to include Baptist, Mennonite, Quaker, Orthodox Jewish, Zionist, Wahabist, and many others, came into fashion in the 1980s. It had then, and still has, no integrity as an academic term, as the fundamentals in play in each such movement are different: all they have in common is resistance to a secular global political monoculture that seemed to be in ascendance at that time.

More than "radical"

The use of the term radical came into use likewise, earlier, in the 1960s, to characterize anyone whose opinion was not in line with those reported in mass media or held by major political party leaders. This too had little consistency and implied nothing about actions taken.

The term Islamist was at first used to describe those who took Islam to be, as it always was, a political philosophy - but was quickly co-opted by those who attached the above labels to invent the terms radical Islamist, fundamentalist Islam and Islamofascist, none of which have much merit other than making it clear that those who use it to defame the movement must dislike extreme solutions, reference to old books, or strong central government with religious leanings, respectively. In general these terms shed more heat than light.

20th century militant movements

Given the variety of the movements, and their varying goals, it is almost always advisable when referring to a specific political movement, to avoid generalizations and refer to it by its name.

In order to understand the origins of these movements, it is advisable to first consider the role of tarika in spreading Islam, and two movements, Deobandi and Wahabism, which are not considered militant, nor even necessarily radical, but which influenced the key figures in Modern Islamic philosophy and tactical events that created the rationale for modern militant Islam. For a broader treatment of these ideas in context, see modern Islamic philosophy. There is also a more general overview of Islam as a political movement that does not focus on militants or their specific ideals.

The Deobandi Movement

In India, the Deobandi movement developed as a reaction to British actions against Muslims and the influence of Sayed Ahmad Khan, who advocated the reform and modernization of Islam. Named after the town of Deoband, where it originated, the movement was built around Islamic schools (principally Darul Uloom) and taught an interpretation of Islam that encouraged the subsurvience of women, discouraged the use of many forms of technology and entertainment, and believed that only "revealed" or God-inspired knowledge (rather than human knowledge) should be followed.

Though the Deobandi philosophy is puritanical and wishes to remove non-Muslim (i.e., Hindu or Western) influence from Muslim societies, it was not especially violent or proselytising, confining its activity mostly to the establishment of madarassas, or Muslim religious schools.

These schools now number in the tens of thousands across Asia, mostly in Pakistan and India, and remain the core of the Deobandi movement. They are a major sector of Muslims in the region (the followers of Sayed Ahmad Khan being a significant minority). The Taliban movement in Afghanistan was a product of the Deobandi philosophy and the madarassas.

This term is misleading, as it can imply anything from an equivalent of an American Bible college to an outright terrorist training camp. The term taliban, meaning "student", is just as misleading.

Sayyid Abul Ala Maududi

Sayyid Abul Ala Maududi was an important early twentieth-century figure in India, then, after independence from Britain, in Pakistan. Strongly influenced by Deobandi ideology, he advocated the creation of an Islamic state governed by sharia, Islamic law, as interpreted by Shura councils. Maududi founded the Jamaat-e-Islami in 1941 and remained at its head until 1972. His extremely influential book, "Towards Understanding Islam" (Risalah Diniyat in Arabic), placed Islam in modern context as an extension of natural law.

This radical view enabled not only conservative ulema but liberal modernizers such as al-Faruqi, whose "Islamization of Knowledge" carried forward some of Maududi's key principles. Chief among these was the basic compatibility of Islam with an ethical and scientific view. Quoting from Maududi's own work:

Everything in the universe is 'Muslim' for it obeys God by submission to His laws... For his entire life, from the embryonic stage to the body's dissolution into dust after death, every tissue of his muscles and every limb of his body follows the course prescribed by God's law. His very tongue which, on account of his ignorance advocates the denial of God or professes multiple deities, is in its very nature 'Muslim'... The man who denies God is called Kafir (concealer) because he conceals by his disbelief what is inherent in his nature and embalmed in his own soul. His whole body functions in obedience to that instinct... Reality becomes estranged from him and he gropes in the dark.

Inherent in these views were an intolerance for rule over Muslims by non-Muslims, as the latter were, according to Maududi's interpretation, simply incapable of actually comprehending natural law - if they could, they'd be Muslims.

The Muslim Brotherhood

Maududi's ideas were a strong influence on Sayed Qutb in Egypt. Qutb was one of the key philosophers in the Muslim Brotherhood movement, which began in Egypt in 1928 and was banned (but still exists) following confrontations with Egyptian president Gamal Abdul Nasser, who jailed Qutb and many others. The Muslim Brotherhood (founded by Hassan al-Banna) advocated a return to sharia because of what they perceived as the inability of Western values to secure harmony and happiness for Muslims. Since only divine guidance could lead humans to be happy, it followed that Muslims should eschew democracy and live according to divine-inspired sharia. The Brotherhood was one of the first groups to advocate jihad against all those who do not follow Islam. As al-Banna said:

[Muslim] lands have been trampled over, and their honor besmirched. Their adversaries are in charge of their affairs, and the rites of their religion have fallen into abeyance within their own domains, to say nothing of their impotence to broadcast the summons [to embrace Islam]. Hence it has become an individual obligation, which there is no evading, on every Muslim to prepare his equipment, to make up his mind to engage in jihad, and to get ready for it until the opportunity is ripe and God decrees a matter which is sure to be accomplished...

Islamic Jihad movements

This exhortation was followed by the Egyptian Islamic Jihad organisation, responsible for the assassination of Anwar Sadat, but with a twist: Islamic Jihad focused its efforts on "apostate" leaders of Islamic states, those who were secular and introduced Western ideas and practice to Islamic societies. Their views were outlined in a pamphlet written by Muhammad Abd al-Salaam Farag, which said: "...there is no doubt that the first battlefield for jihad is the extermination of these infidel leaders and to replace them by a complete Islamic Order..."

Another Islamic Jihad group emerged in Palestine as an offshoot of the Egyptian group, and began militant activity against the state of Israel, and consistently opposed itself to the policies of the secular Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) and Yasser Arafat.


Perhaps the most influential strain of thought, however, came from the Wahhabi movement in Saudi Arabia. The Wahhabists, who emerged in the 18th century led by Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab, also believed that it was necessary to live according to the strict dictates of Islam, which they interpreted to mean living in the manner that the prophet Muhammad and his followers had lived in during the seventh century in Medina. Consequently they were opposed to many innovations developed since that time, including the minaret, marked graves, and later television and radios. The Wahhabis also considered those Muslims who violated their strict interpretation to be heretics, and thus used violence against other Muslims. When King Abdul Aziz al-Saud founded Saudi Arabia, he brought the Wahhabists into power with him. With Saud's rise to prominence, Wahhabism spread, especially following the 1973 oil embargo and the glut of oil wealth that resulted for Saudi Arabia. The Wahhabists were proseltyizers, and made use of their wealth to spread their interpretation of Islam far and wide.

Current movements

Modern Islam went through major political and philosophical developments in the early part of the twentieth century, but it was not until the 1980s that it became powerfully militant in an international arena. The Khomenist revolution in Iran, though Shia in character, provided an inspiration to many radicals and served as an example that an Islamic state could be established, using violent and militant means.

During the conflict against the Soviet Union in Afghanistan, many militant Islamists came together to fight what they saw as an atheist invading force. This confluence resulted in many alliances being made between groups with similar ideologies, but also many alliances of convenience. Significantly, Osama bin Laden, a Saudi influenced by Wahhabism and the writings of Sayed Qutb, joined forces with the Egyptian Islamic Jihad under Ayman al-Zawahiri to form what is now called al-Qaida. The aftermath of the Soviet invasion eventually led to chaos, and then the rise of the deobandi Taliban, a movement which bin Laden helped influence in more radical directions following his arrival in Afghanistan in 1996.

Militant Islamic political groups are also active in Algeria, the West Bank and Gaza Strip, Sudan and Nigeria.

Much militant activity since has been directed against governments in Muslim societies, which those professing Islam as an exclusive political movement oppose because they are governments according to human law, not divine law.

However, among most militants, a considerable effort has been made to fight Western targets, especially the United States. The United States arouses anger because of its support of the state of Israel, its presence on sacred Saudi soil, what some militants regard as its aggression against Muslims in the 2003 invasion of Iraq, what others regard as its neglect of Shia resistance in the wake of the UN-Iraq war (which got many Shia killed) and its support of dictatorial and corrupt regimes that they oppose. Israel is viewed with hostility throughout the Islamic World but especially in the Arab World, so it is relatively easy to find help for any activity undertaken against it.

Osama bin Laden, at least, believes that this is of necessity due to historical conflict between Muslims and Jews, and considers there to be a Jewish/American alliance against Islam. Interestingly, this rhetoric has echoes of that of American Survivalist concern with a Zionist Occupation Government controlling the federal government of the USA.

A cover story?

Some of these movements do not practice much of Islam, a few do. Hamas, for instance, has both a social organization in the Gaza Strip, and a militant wing that has been responsible for a great many suicide bombings in Israel.

There is some debate as to how influential the more militant movements remain. Some scholars assert that, as an intellectual movement, the simplistic interpretation of Islam as a non-democratic movement is a fringe that is dying, following the clear failures of nominally Islamic regimes like the regime in Sudan, the Wahhabist Saudi regime and the Deobandi Taliban to improve the lot of Muslims.

However, others (e.g. Ahmed Rashid) feel that the stricter and more democratic Islamic parties still command considerable support, in part due to their honesty, and cite the fact that Islamists in Pakistan and Egypt regularly poll 10 to 30 percent in electoral polls which many believe are rigged against them.

Certain of these movements are often accused of being primarily motivated by terrorism as a tactic. For discussion of this accusation see the article on the term Islamism which is employed by the accusers who reject the rationale of Islam itself. No neutral list can be compiled, so we do not attempt it here.

See also


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