Differing Islamist Ideologies: Violence and Government

A short essay I wrote last year for an undergraduate history course on Islamist political movements:

Modern media has tended to portray Islamist movements as a single entity with a single goal in mind: the establishment of an Islamic state. While it is true that establishing an Islamic state is the end goal, this simple categorization denies the existence of a diversity of Islamist movements, each with different opinions of how a state should be formed and what institutions should be put in place to make it Islamic. Islamists do share a core set of beliefs: the need to establish an Islamic state, the reestablishment of Islamic law as the basis for regulating life, the belief that most or all of the problems in the Muslim world are a result of the failure of the development of ‘authentic’ Islamic institutions to manage political, economic and social life, and the belief that Islam is an all-inclusive social system that could and should regulate all aspects of life.[1]

Beyond these core beliefs, Islamist groups vary widely on essential topics like what form an Islamic government should take and how it should be established. For example, some Islamists believe that Islam is wholly compatible with democracy and others denounce democracy entirely. Part of the reason for the conflict over the admissibility of democracy is a common wholesale rejection of Western ideas due to the long history of colonial exploitation of Muslim lands, or a feeling that adoption of Western ideas is tantamount to admitting defeat, since Islam couldn’t provide a model of government on its own.[2]

In terms of what constitutes proper Islamic governance, the Quran and hadith do not contain much information regarding the establishment of ‘Islamic’ politics or political structures. What Islamic religious sources do say on the topic is vague, laying down general rules rather than specific instructions. An Islamic government should be a “median community” that establishes justice, “command[s] the good and proscribe[s] evil,” and considers the public good in its decision making process.[3] However, what isn’t stated is exactly what constitutes a median community, what justice necessarily is, what institutions should be established to command the good and proscribe evil, or how to include the community in the decision making process, or to what degree the community should be included at all.

The idea of the inclusion of the community in the decision making process, established by Islamic concepts like shura[4] and ijma[5], has been used to justify the idea of democracy being compatible with Islam. Yusuf al-Qaradawi, an Egyptian Islamist, wrote, “A call for democracy does not necessitate a rejection of God’s sovereignty over human beings.”[6] He also said that “Islam antedates democracy in establishing the basic principles on which the essence of democracy rests…” and “…we have the right to borrow from others whatever ideas, methods, and systems might be beneficial to us as long as they do not contradict the clear dictates of the foundational texts or established principles of the shari’a.”[7] He was clearly recalling the fact that much of Islamic philosophy, logic, mathematics, and systems of government were borrowed and adapted from civilizations as diverse as the Greeks, Byzantines, Persians, Indians (South Asian), and Chinese, refuting the idea that the importation of foreign systems and ideas is inherently wrong or contradictory to Islam by using the past as an example.

Additionally, he was arguing against the idea that placing legislative power in the hands of the people (democracy) is a violation of God’s sovereignty and therefore against Islam, an argument favored by Sayyid Qutb. Qutb would not have accepted earlier incorporations of foreign ideologies as a legitimate reason for the incorporation of democracy into Islam. Qutb argued that Muslim society had been degraded and contaminated by Western ideas that had accumulated over the centuries. He believed that these ideas, which he referred to as pathologies, led to the failures present in Egyptian society at the time he was writing.[8] He believed that through action Muslims could regain a dominant position in the world, specifically by re-embracing the ideals of the first generation of Muslims through dedication to the fundamentals of the Qur’an and by purging all vestiges of jahiliyya from their lives, including in the government.

Like Hasan al-Banna, Sayyid Qutb advocated the establishment of the Islamic state through violent jihad. Sayyid Qutb was known as the “Philosopher of Islamic Terror” and his ideology inspired the violent jihad of later Islamists.[9] This was true of Muhammad ‘Abd al-Salam Faraj, another Egyptian Islamist who was involved in the assassination of Egyptian President Anwar Sadat in 1981. Faraj wrote, “Jihad for God’s cause, in spite of its extreme importance and its great significance for the future of this religion, has been neglected by the ‘ulama of this age. … There is no doubt that the idols of this world can be made to disappear only through the power of the sword.”[10] Hamas too believed that violent jihad was the answer, stating in its charter that “Jihad is [the movement’s] methodology, and / Death for the sake of Allah is its most coveted desire.”[11] What these Islamists all had in common was their focus on the near enemy. Al-Banna, Qutb and Faraj were all focused on establishing an Islamic state by defeating the secular Egyptian government. Hamas was focused on defeating the Israeli state. However, not all Islamist groups focus their energies on just the near enemey. Other groups, most notably al-Qaeda, globalized the concept of jihad by placing an emphasis on defeating the far enemy, primarily the United States and Britain. The most memorable of their global strikes was the attack on the World Trade Center in New York City in September 11, 2001.

Osama bin Laden, the founder of al-Qaeda, led the fight against the United States because of what he saw as continued American (and general Western) intervention and interference in the affairs of Muslims. He was incensed by the fact that the Saudi government had invited American forces into the country to defend the Kingdom rather than relying on Muslims, especially when the American forces remained in the country after hostilities with Iraq ended. He accused the Saudi monarchy of being illegitimate for acting in contradiction to Islamic law, saying, “this situation is a curse Allah has laid upon them for failing to object to the oppressive and illegitimate conduct and measures of the ruling regime, chief of which are: its disregard of Islamic law, its denial of the people’s legitimate rights, the permission given to Americans to occupy the Land of the Two Holy Places, and the unjust imprisonment of righteous ‘ulema.”[12]

Bin Laden believed the American presence in Saudi Arabia was one step in a bigger plan by America and Israel to subjugate the Muslim countries. Like Faraj, he advocated violent jihad as an individual duty that should be fulfilled at any cost, but unlike Faraj, he advocated targeting the West globally, rather than striking locally, because he saw the West as the source of continued unrest in Muslim countries. This shift in the focus of violent retaliation from local to global initiated a new type of jihad which is best described as a decentralized franchise where local groups may be independent or in contact with other groups and are willing to choose targets world-wide.

The belief that all Islamist groups are the same is an oversimplified interpretation of what is really a much more complex group of beliefs and ideologies. Violent Islamists are not even able to coordinate their misappropriation of jihad into a coherent strategy, with some groups focusing on local targets and others focusing on global targets. There are uniting factors, the strongest of which is the end goal of establishing a state based on Islamic law and Islamic values, but even that goal is a point of contention among Islamists, since they are not able to come to a consensus on what type of government is appropriate. Should there be an Islamic democracy? If not, then what? Who should participate? These are just some of the questions from a specific set of issues, violence and the form of government desired, that separate Islamist ideologies, and they are by no means the only questions or the only differences. Islamists may at some point in the future agree on a unified plan to reach a unified goal, but that time is not now.


Euben, Roxanne L., and Muhammad Qasim Zaman. Princeton Readings in Islamist Thought: Texts and Contexts from al-Banna to Bin Laden. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2009.

Management Systems International (MSI). “Exploring the Thinking of Islamists: Islamist Views Toward Government, the Economy, and Pluralism.” USAID. November 2002. http://pdf.usaid.gov/pdf_docs/PNACW875.pdf (accessed December 13, 2012).

[1] Management Systems International, “Exploring The Thinking of Islamists: Islamist Views Toward Government, the Economy, and Pluralism,” USAID, November 2002, http://pdf.usaid.gov/pdf_docs/PNACW875.pdf (accessed 13 December 2012).

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

[4] An Arabic word meaning consultation, or a consultative council or assembly.

[5] An Arabic word referring to the consensus or agreement of the Muslim community on the rightness of a belief or practice.

[6] Roxanne Euben and Muhammad Zaman, Princeton Readings in Islamist Thought: Texts and Contexts from al-Banna to Bin Laden (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2009), 238.

[7] Ibid., 236-237.

[8] Ibid., 131.

[9] Ibid., 129.

[10] Ibid., 327.

[11] Ibid., 369.

[12] Ibid., 439.

Islamism and “The Yacoubian Building”

The Yacoubian Building Book Cover

The Yacoubian Building Book Cover

The following is a short essay I wrote about The Yacoubian Building for an undergraduate history course.

In Alaa al Aswany’s book, The Yacoubian Building, Islamism and Islamists are primarily presented through the point of view of the character Taha El Shazli, the son of a doorman who lives on the roof of the Yacoubian building.  As the story progresses, the rise of Islamism in Egypt is presented as being directly related to socioeconomic background, the lack of adequate economic opportunities and corruption present in government and society.

Taha’s family was of very modest means.  Despite this, Taha was very intelligent and was able to excel at his studies because of his desire to become a police officer, which he believed would allow him to advance in life and gain the respect and dignity that he lacked while growing up in the Yacoubian building.  As the son of a doorman, he was often ridiculed and looked down on by the other residents, which he was forced to put up with because he had no other option.  Taha was sure that he would be able to succeed in his endeavor because he believed firmly in God, prayed regularly and avoided major sins (Aswany, 20).

Taha almost reached his goal, but his socioeconomic status caused his application to be rejected.  Before attending the character interview, he had spoken to officers in his district who told him that because he had no rich and influential family members he would have to pay a bribe of 20,000-pounds to guarantee his acceptance into the police academy.  Taha wasn’t financially capable of paying a bribe of that amount and given his religious devotion, he probably wouldn’t have done it anyway.  Instead, he believed firmly in his abilities and hoped that his devotion to God would enable him to overcome that obstacle.

Unfortunately, the board wasn’t interviewing for ability or the marks of a good police officer.  They were only interested in the corrupt practices of giving out government positions to family members or people with the right amount of money.  Even though they were impressed by Taha’s answers, when it was discovered that his father was a “property guard,” he was dismissed.  This was Taha’s first taste of corruption, another in a long line of blows to his dignity, and a serious threat to his chances of ever having a respectable life.

Taha’s next attempt to push past the boundaries set by his socioeconomic background was his enrollment in the Faculty of Economics at Cairo University.  In his new surroundings, however, he still felt the sting of class divisions and was drawn towards other people who, like himself, came from humble backgrounds.  These people were more religiously observant and Taha finally felt like he’d met people that would allow him the respect and dignity he was seeking.  The level of respect and the sense of belonging he finally felt with this new group of people, student Islamists, made him far more open to radicalization.  He felt that he was valued.  He was brought into an inner circle and introduced to an influential and charismatic leader, Sheikh Shakir, which validated his need for respect and purpose.

The event that crystallized Taha’s emergence as not just an Islmaist, but a jihadi Islamist, was the trauma he experienced when arrested after a demonstration protesting Egypt’s involvement in the Gulf War.  Already having spent most of his life being bullied and pushed around because of circumstances out of his control, he was bullied, tortured and raped by the very government entity that he had at one time hoped to work for.  The corruption that prevented him from serving his country as a police officer now served to facilitate his torture and radicalization.  When Taha was finally released from prison, his dignity as a man and a human being was shattered.  His faith was shaken.  Through coaxing from his Islamist mentors, however, he was convinced that he could best recover through renewed devotion and military-style training, which Taha readily agreed to out of an intense need for both healing and revenge.

In the end, Taha became a “martyr,” dying in the process of taking revenge on the man who ordered his rape.  Because of Taha’s socioeconomic background, he had limited options to start with.  Because of the corruption in the police department (and the government office that denied his claim of unfairness) he was pushed down a path that led him to associate with Islamist oriented people of a similar background.  Further government corruption in the form of sanctioned torture and degradation in prison caused Taha to pass the tipping point.  While not all Egyptians may follow the same path to Islamism, Aswany’s message is clear:  the lack of opportunities open to people of all classes and the government’s enabling of and participation in corruption helped to create violent Islamists.