Summer 2007 | Online Exclusives

Understanding the Many Faces of Islamism and Jihadism

A scholar of Islam shares insights to help journalists confront the challenges involved with reporting on the political Islamic movement.

By Fawaz A. Gerges

Since the September 11th terror attacks, Americans have come increasingly to believe that Islamism, not just jihadism, is a mortal threat to the West, an aggressive and totalitarian ideology dedicated to random destruction and global subjugation. Fueling American fears is the military debacle in Iraq and the ferocity of armed resistance and suicide attacks against U.S. troops and their Since the September 11th terror attacks, Americans have come increasingly to believe that Islamism, not just jihadism, is a mortal threat to the West, an aggressive and totalitarian ideology dedicated to random destruction and global subjugation.Iraqi allies. Ratcheting the rhetoric, President Bush gathers all mainstream and militant Islamists together under the phrase "Islamo-fascists" and calls on Americans to be prepared for a long struggle. Some U.S. political leaders and pundits have gone further and called for an all-out war against all manifestations of Islamism or political Islam.

Disentangling myth from reality about the political Islamic movement—whose goal is to establish governments based on shari'ah (Qur'anic law)—is a challenge fraught with difficulties. For journalists, this challenge involves a willingness to recognize the complexity and diversity within this movement, which encompasses a broad spectrum of mainstream and militant forces, as they try to place their coverage of news and events (often involving violence and threats of violence) within a broader, more meaningful and accurate context.

Mainstream Islamists—that is, Muslim Brothers and other independent activists—represent an overwhelming majority of religiously oriented groups (in the upper 90th percentile), whereas militants or jihadists are a tiny but critical minority. The mainstream Islamists accept the rules of the political game, claim to embrace democratic principles, and renounce violence.

From the 1940's through the early 1970's, the Muslim Brotherhood—the most powerfully organized of all Islamists, with local branches in the Arab Middle East and Central and South and Southeast Asia—flirted with violence. Since then, however, they have increasingly moved to the political mainstream and aim to Islamize state and society through peaceful means. Although Muslim Brothers are often targeted and excluded from politics by ruling autocrats, they no longer use force to attain their goals.

Mainstream and enlightened Islamists also play an active role in expanding political debate in Muslim societies. They have forced existing secular dictatorships, such as those in Egypt, Tunisia, Morocco, Algeria, Turkey, Jordan, Pakistan and even Saudi Arabia, to respond to their challenge to open up the closed political system and reform government institutions. Without such pressure, these authoritarian Muslim rulers would have no incentive to respond to demands for inclusion and transparency.

Despite their historic opposition to Western-style democracy, Islamists have become unwitting harbingers of democratic transformation. They have formed alliances with their former sworn political opponents, including secularists and Marxists, in calling upon governments to respect human rights and the rule of law. Mainstream or traditional Islamists are not born-again democrats and never will be. They are deeply patriarchal, seeing themselves as the guardians of faith, tradition and authenticity. In Kuwait and Saudi Arabia, Islamists vehemently oppose efforts to give women the right to vote or to drive cars. In Egypt, Morocco, Jordan, Tunisia, Algeria, Pakistan and other Muslim countries, they denounce any legislation that would enable women to divorce abusive husbands, travel without male permission, or achieve full representation in government.

Nevertheless, many Islamists are gradually becoming initiated into the culture of political realism and the art of the possible. They are learning to make compromises with secular groups and rethink some of their absolutist positions. Events have forced them to come to grips with the complexity and diversity of Muslim societies, though they still lack a well-delineated vision to solve their countries' socioeconomic challenges. More and more, they recognize the primacy of politics over religion and the difficulty, even futility, of establishing Islamic states.

The Jihadists

The jihadist represents a tiny fraction of the larger mainstream Islamist movement, which dominates the social space in most Muslim societies. Although jihadism is lethal, it does not possess a viable broad social base like the Muslim Brotherhood. From the late 1960's until the mid-1990's, militant Islamists or jihadists were preoccupied with the fight against Al-Adou al-Qareeb (the "near enemy") Muslim rulers. The primary goal of modern jihadism is and always has been the destruction of the atheist political and social order at home and its replacement with authentic Islamic states.

Until the second half of the 1990's, Al-Adou al-Baeed (the "far enemy") had not registered on jihadists' radar screen. It was then that a small fraction of jihadists—al-Qaeda and its affiliates—decided to target the United States and some of its Western allies and labeled them as the "far enemy." Osama bin Despite their historic opposition to Western-style democracy, Islamists have become unwitting harbingers of democratic transformation.Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri, his second in command, launched a campaign to hijack the jihadist movement. They changed its direction away from attacking the Muslim "apostates" and "renegades" and toward attacking Israel and the Western powers, particularly the United States. As a result, an intense internal struggle ensued between local jihadists and their international counterparts led by bin Laden and Zawahiri. Waged for the soul of the jihadist enterprise, the reverberations of this internal struggle have been felt far beyond the region's borders—in New York, Washington, Madrid, London and Paris.

The vast majority of militant Islamists, whom I call local jihadists, did not join al-Qaeda jihadists or global jihadists. In fact, September 11th showed how deep the fissures within the jihadists were, and this internal struggle has escalated now into an open civil war. Many former jihadists, whom I interviewed in the late 1990's and after 9/11, said that while delighted at America's humiliation, they also feared that bin Laden and Zawahiri recklessly endangered survival of the Islamist movement. Instead of a river of recruits flowing to Afghanistan, only a trickle of volunteers signed up to defend the Taliban and al-Qaeda after the September 11th attacks.

Western Views of Islam

It is a pity that some Western commentators still perpetuate the myth that the September 11th attacks were widely embraced by all mainstream and militant Islamists and even the ummah (the worldwide Muslim community). Far from condoning the September 11th attacks, mainstream Islamists might serve as a counterweight to ultramilitants like al-Qaeda. Immediately after September 11th, leading mainstream Islamists—such as Hassan al-Turabi, formerly head of the National Islamic Front and now of People's Congress in Sudan who, in the early 1990's, hosted Osama bin Laden and Sayyid Mohammed Hussein Fadlallah (spiritual founding father of Lebanon's Hizbullah)—condemned al-Qaeda's September 11th attacks on the United States as harmful to Islam and Muslims, not just to Americans.

Yusuf al-Qaradawi, an Egyptian-born conservative Islamic cleric based in Qatar, issued a fatwa denouncing al-Qaeda's "illegal jihad" and expressed sorrow and empathy with the American victims: "Our hearts bleed because of the attacks that have targeted the World Trade Center, as well as other institutions in the United States," wrote Qaradawi, who is widely listened to and read by a huge Muslim audience. He went on to write that the murders in New York could not be justified on any ground, including "the American biased policy toward Israel on the military, political and economic fronts." (It is little wonder why al-Qaeda's leaders, including bin Laden, Zawahiri, and the late Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, often attack mainstream Islamists and accuse them of treachery.)

Since September 11th, some critical questions have not been fully addressed in the United States. They include:

  • Why did bin Laden and his associates suddenly turn their guns on the "far enemy" after having been in the "far enemy" trenches with other Islamists during the 1980's and 1990's?

  • Are Islamists and jihadists united over attacking the far enemy, or are they splintered and divided over tactics and strategy?

  • What is the relative weight and influence of al-Qaeda jihadists within the Islamist movement and the jihadist at this time?

  • Would it be more effective to try to internally encircle al-Qaeda instead of expanding the so-called "war on terror" and declaring an all-out war against real and imagined enemies?

Rarely, it seems, do journalists approach their coverage of the so-called "war on terror" with any of these questions in mind. It is certainly possible that a political approach would have been more effective in combating extremism, and terrorism could have been reduced to an inconsequential phenomenon.

What has happened instead is that militarism has radicalized mainstream Muslim public opinion and provided ideological ammunition to militants. In particular, the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq and subsequent violations of human rights have created a new generation of radicals who search for ways to join the jihad caravan. By exacerbating regional fault lines already shaking with tension, the militaristic responses may have caused irreparable damage, not just to U.S. global strategy, but also to international peace and security.

Reverberations of the Iraq War are heard and felt on European streets, and they could soon reach American shores if Iraq fractures and sinks into full-scale civil war. At the same time, a consensus is emerging within the Instead of taking the easier, more simplistic approach of lumping all Islamists and jihadists together, journalists ought to adopt a more nuanced and constructive approach—one that draws distinctions among the many faces of political Islam.European and U.S. intelligence communities that the Iraq War is strengthening global jihadists. Tragically, the Iraq War has given rise to a new generation of militants who use terrorism as a rule, not an exception. More youngsters are deeply affected by what they see as external aggression perpetrated against their community and religion. In my travels in the Arab world, I've met young Muslim teens, with no prior Islamist or jihadist background, desperately trying to raise a meager sum of money to take a bus ride or an airline flight to the Syrian-Iraqi border and join the fight.

Instead of taking the easier, more simplistic approach of lumping all Islamists and jihadists together, journalists ought to adopt a more nuanced and constructive approach—one that draws distinctions among the many faces of political Islam. Acknowledging these complexities as a routine part of news coverage not only fulfills a professional responsibility but it also contributes to national security and a civil dialogue.

Fawaz A. Gerges, who holds the Christian Johnson Chair in Middle East and International Affairs at Sarah Lawrence College, is a Carnegie Scholar and visiting professor at the American University in Cairo. His most recent books are "Journey of the Jihadist: Inside Muslim Militancy" (Harcourt Press in 2006), and "The Far Enemy: Why Jihad Went Global" (Cambridge University Press, 2005).

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