Islamist Movements

Islamist Movements
Islamist Movements

Islamist movements flourished in many parts of the Muslim world in the late 20th century. These movements sought to revitalize Islam as a political force and to create Islamic governments that would rule under sharia (Islamic law). Islam is the world’s second-largest religion, with 1.3 billion adherents, compared to Christianity, with 2.2 billion.

It is the fastest-growing religion in Africa. The most predominantly Muslim states are in Africa and Asia, but substantial numbers of Muslims also live in the Western Hemisphere and Europe. With 57 member states, the Organization of Islamic Conference (OIC) was established in 1969 to represent Muslim interests.

Islamist movements were particularly attractive to the large population of young people in Muslim states who were disillusioned by the failures of their governments to provide jobs or to open up authoritarian regimes to meaningful political participation.

During the cold war authoritarian regimes in predominantly Muslim countries systematically crushed—often with tacit support of Western nations, especially the United States—all political opposition from the left.

They refused to open up their systems to legitimate change. For many young Muslims, both Western capitalism and the Soviet model of state capitalism seemed to have failed to reform and revitalize their countries.

Many also faced an identity crisis brought on by sweeping cultural changes and globalization that threatened old traditions and made the youth feel alienated from their own societies. Dynamic and forceful Islamic leaders stepped in to fill the void.

Most contemporary Islamist movements have been influenced by the Muslim Brotherhood, established in the 1920s in Egypt. The writings of the Egyptian Muslim activist Sayyid Qutb provided the philosophic underpinnings for many Islamist organizations.

Qutb was executed by the Egyptian government in the 1960s and became a martyr in the eyes of many Muslims. By the latter part of the century, many young people considered the brotherhood too moderate and looked to a new generation of more radical activists.

The 1979 Iranian revolution and the writings of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini also served as a model for future Islamic revolutions. The Iranian revolution also sparked a revival of Shi’i political and religious activism in nations with large Shi’i populations such as Lebanon and Iraq.

Radical Organizations

With its vast revenues from petroleum, Saudi Arabia financed madrasas (schools) teaching Wahhabism, their particular militant and puritanical brand of Islam, in Pakistan, Afghanistan, and other nations.

For many poor families these schools were the only way to provide any education for their children, who were then socialized in this narrow and inflexible interpretation of Islam. Many of the most radical Islamists were products of these schools. These schools also provided recruits for radical Islamist organizations such as the Taliban and al-Qaeda in Afghanistan.

Much like Christian televangelists in the West, fiery activist imams also used the modern media of television, radio, and cassette tapes to proselytize converts to the Islamist programs. Disaffected youth in Europe, especially France and Great Britain, were heavily influenced by these leaders.

Many Muslims were also angered by the failure to resolve the Arab-Israeli conflict and the perceived support of the United States and other Western nations for Israel over the rights of the Palestinians to self-determination.

Much opposition to the United States was based not so much on its values as on what it did in the Middle East. Following the killing of Muslims in Somalia, Bosnia, and Chechnya, many Muslims, whether correctly or not, concluded that the West valued its own victims more than it valued Muslim victims. Negative stereotyping of Muslims in much of the Western media also contributed to mounting hostility.

The war against the Soviets in Afghanistan in the 1980s was another factor in the rise of Islamist movements. Many Muslim nations, especially Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states, provided volunteers and financial support for the mujahideen (Muslim fighters), who fought a jihad (holy war) against the Soviet occupation.

In the midst of the cold war many mujahideen were supported, trained, and armed by the United States. After the defeat and withdrawal of the Soviet Union from Afghanistan in 1989, many of these volunteers returned to their own countries, such as Algeria, where they sought to establish Islamic regimes by force if necessary. In Islam jihad is a defensive struggle to protect the community of believers from outside attack, as well as an internal struggle for spiritual enlightenment.

The concept of jihad was sometimes used, or misused, by Islamists to justify violence and terrorism. These approaches were discredited and disavowed by some leading Muslim experts, who argued that the Qu’ran specifically forbids terrorism and suicide.


In Egypt following the death of Gamal Abdel Nasser in 1970, his successor Anwar al-Sadat attempted to undercut the power of liberal leftists in his government by releasing members of the Muslim Brotherhood from prison and allowing them access to the print and electronic media.

The brotherhood and more radical Islamists organizations such as the Islamic Liberation Organization and Holy Flight or Islamic Group soon turned against Sadat. They opposed the increasingly repressive regime as well as Sadat’s negotiations with Israel that resulted in the 1979 Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty.

They gained members from among disaffected youth throughout the countryside, especially in upper Egypt. In 1981 Khaled al-Islambuli and other Islamists, who had infiltrated the military, assassinated Sadat.

They anticipated that Sadat’s death would lead to a massive popular uprising to overthrow the regime. Although some riots broke out in upper Egypt, especially in the town of Asyut, a center of opposition, the regime under Hosni Mubarak maintained control, and the Islamist organizations were brutally repressed.

A long period of low-level warfare between government forces and Islamist rebels ensued. After Islamist rebels killed a number of tourists at Deir el-Bahari in upper Egypt in 1997, many Egyptians who were heavily dependent on tourist revenues spoke out against the radicals.

However, because the government failed to provide much-needed housing and economic reforms and refused to open up the system to meaningful democratic participation, the Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamist movements remained major political forces.

In Egypt the so-called new Islamists eschewed violence and argued that to combat extremism, social justice and educational reform were vital for the regeneration of Egyptian society. The new Islamists demonstrated remarkable political and social flexibility and supported reforms in education, gradualism, and peaceful dialogue.

They included Yusuf al-Qaradawy; Kamal Abul Magd, a lawyer and former government official; and others. New Islamists wanted Islamic states based on wassatteyya, or moderate Islamic tradition, without violence or terrorism.


In the Sudan Hasan al-Turabi led the Islamist movement and was a major political force until he was removed from office by the military in the 1990s. In Tunisia the Islamic Tendency Movement (ITM), led by Rashid al-Ghannouchi, who had been educated at the Sorbonne, actively opposed the well-entrenched regime of Habib Bourguiba in the 1980s.

In 1987 a number of ITM members were arrested and tried, but after Bourguiba was removed from office in a bloodless military coup led by General Zine al Abidine ben Ali, many of them were released or allowed to go into exile.

Although ben Ali’s regime was able to provide some economic stability, it too became increasingly authoritarian, and ben Ali tightened control over the Islamist parties in the 1990s. Ghannouchi went into exile to Europe and renounced violence.

Algeria and Lebanon

In Algeria the major Islamist party, the Islamic Salvation Front (FIS), was led by Abbas Madani, a professor of psychology; Sheikh Ben Azzouz; and Ali Belhadj, a charismatic and popular preacher. When the FIS won the first round of free and democratic elections in 1991, the military regime of the National Liberation Front (FLN) cancelled the elections, precipitating a civil war that resulted in tens of thousands of deaths.

Many FIS leaders were jailed until 2003. Madani then seemed to drop out of politics, but Belhadj remained unrepentant. As long as the Algerian government failed to solve the basic problems of jobs, housing, and education, Algerian youth—who made up a large percentage of the population—continued to be attracted to Islamist parties.

During the 1980s Hizbollah (Party of God), led by Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah, a leading Shi’i cleric, emerged as a major force among Shi’i Lebanese, the largest but most disaffected Lebanese sect. Hizbollah actively fought against the continued Israeli occupation of southern Lebanon, and when Israel finally withdrew from most of southern Lebanon in 2000, Hizbollah gained most of the credit.

Hizbollah then transformed itself into a major political force, and its members were elected to a number of seats in Parliament. It also continued to attack Israeli forces in the disputed Lebanese territory of Shaaba Farms, which Israel argued was Syrian territory. Hizbollah sometimes attacked within Israeli borders as well and was viewed by Israel and the United States as a terrorist organization.

In retaliation Israeli launched a major air, sea, and ground offensive into Lebanon in 2006. As in the 1982 Israeli war against the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) in Lebanon, the 2006 attack not only inflicted heavy losses on Hizbollah but it also devastated the Lebanese infrastructure and caused many civilian deaths.

Many Lebanese and even secular Arabs were impressed by Hizbollah’s determined military defense against the Israeli attack, and the war actually led to an increase of support and recruits among many Lebanese and Muslims.


Similarly Hamas, the major Palestinian Islamist organization, began in the late 1980s in the Gaza Strip as a reaction to the long Israeli occupation. Hamas was led by Sheikh Ahmad Yassin, who was blind and confined to a wheelchair, and Dr. Abdel Aziz al-Rantissi, both of whom were killed by Israel. Many Palestinians, who were overwhelmingly supportive of the secular PLO, hoped that the 1993 Oslo Accords would lead to a truly independent Palestinian state.

However, when the PLO-dominated Palestinian Authority (PA) came to be perceived as increasingly ineffective and corrupt and when the Israeli military occupation and continued takeover of Palestinian land for Jewish settlements continued, many young Palestinians turned to Hamas and other more radical Islamist organizations.

Some adopted the tactic of suicide missions directed not only against the Israeli military but against Israeli civilians inside Israel’s 1967 borders, or the so-called green line. Hamas won the fair and open elections in 2006, and Ismail Haniya, a popular Hamas leader from Gaza, became the prime minister over the PA. Increased Israeli repression and refusal to deal with Hamas contributed to further disillusionment and anger.

During the 1980s–1990s even secular Turkey saw an Islamic revival; Islamic parties became increasingly influential and won democratic elections in the 1990s. However, the Islamic movement in Turkey and in other Muslim states is not a coordinated monolith.

Islamist parties vary greatly both in their outlook regarding what sort of Islamic states they would like to see and their social and political programs. For example, in some, like the Taliban and al-Qaeda, women play no political role whatsoever.

The Taliban was opposed to education for women and banned music and the depiction of the human form in books, even medical textbooks. In contrast, women play an active role in both Hizbollah and Hamas.

As authoritarian regimes in Muslim nations as diverse as Egypt, Algeria, and Tunisia refused to liberalize the political system and failed to provide much-needed economic improvements, especially in housing and education, Islamic movements and parties remained popular and continued to attract large numbers of disaffected youth.