In the early centuries of the Muslim era, the Islamic community was one state under one ruler. Even after that community split up into many states, the ideal of a single Islamic polity (with shifting frontiers) persisted. Until the modern period when European discourse became dominant, Islamic commentators almost always referred to their opponents as infidels or kafir rather than in ethnic or territorial terms. In other words, they identified themselves as Muslims. Under the medieval caliphate, and again under the Persian and Turkish dynasties, the empire of Islam was the richest, most powerful, most creative, most enlightened region in the world.
Of course, times have changed and, according to the World Bank, in the year 2000 the average income in the Muslim countries from Morocco to Bangladesh was only half the world average. In view of this, it isn’t surprising that many Muslims speak of the failure of modernization. The rejection of modernity in favor of a return to the sacred past has given rise to a number of movements. The most important of these is Wahhabism.
The founder of Wahhabism, Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab (1703-1787) was a theologian from the Najd area of Arabia. In 1744, he launched a campaign of purification and renewal. His purpose was to return the Muslim world to the pure and authentic Islam of the Prophet.
The Wahhabi cause was embraced by the Saudi rulers of Najd, who promoted it by force until they were rebuffed, at the end of the 18th century, by the Ottoman sultan.
The second alliance of the Wahhabi doctrine and Saudi force began in the last years of the Ottoman empire and continued after the collapse. The Saudi conquest of the Hejaz, including the holy cities of Mecca and Medina, increased the prestige of the House of Saud and gave new scope to the Wahhabi doctrine, which spread, in a variety of forms, throughout the Islamic world. Like-minded groups include the Muslim Brothers in Egypt and the Taliban in Afghanistan. It has now become normal to call these movements “fundamentalist.”
The use of the term fundamentalist can be misleading. Broadly speaking, Islamic fundamentalists are those who feel that the troubles of the Muslim world at the present time are the result not of insufficient modernization but of excessive modernization. Their primary struggle is against their Westernizing enemies at home, who have imported and imposed infidel ways on Muslim peoples.
The task of the Muslims is to depose and remove these infidel rulers, and to abrogate and destroy the laws, institutions, and social customs that they have introduced. They aim to return to a purely Islamic way of life, in accordance with the principles of Islam and the rules of the Holy Law.
More than 30 years after the success of the Islamic revolution in Iran, Islamic radicalism is taking a different course. The mainstream Islamist movements have shifted from the struggle for a supranational Muslim community into a kind of Islamo-nationalism. They want to be fully recognized as legitimate actors on the domestic political scene.
The al Qaeda organization grew out of the Islamic religious movement called the Salafiyya — a name derived from al-Salaf al-Salih, “the venerable forefathers” which refers to the generation of the Prophet Mohammad and his companions.
Salifis regard the Islam that most Muslims practice today as polluted by idolatry. They seek to reform the religion by emulating the first generation of Muslims, whose pristine society they consider to have best reflected God’s wishes for humans.
The Salifiyya is not a unified movement, and it expresses itself in many forms, most of which do not approach the extremism of Osama bin Laden or the Taliban.
The Wahhabi ideology of the Saudi state, for example, and the religious doctrines of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, and a host of voluntary religious organizations around the Islamic world are all Salafi. These diverse movements share the belief that Muslims have deviated from God’s plan and that matters can be returned to their proper state by emulating the Prophet.
“Islamism” is the brand of modern political Islamic fundamentalism which claims to recreate a true Islamic society, not simply by imposing the shariat (Islamic law), but by first establishing an Islamic state through political action.
Islamists see Islam not as a mere religion, but as a political ideology which should be integrated into all aspects of society. To Islamists, the Islamic state should unite the ummah as much as possible. Such a state attempts to recreate the golden age of the first decades of Islam and supersede tribal, ethnic, and national divides. For instance., most of the Muslim Brothers groups have remained within a legal framework, except where they were prevented from taking political action, as was the case in Syria.
Most of the Islamist movements have been shaped by national particularities. They tend to express national interests, even if under the pretext of Islamist ideology.On the domestic scene, these groups have been able to bring previously excluded social strata into the political process. In doing so, they have helped to create a domestic political scene which can serve as a real basis for a future process of democratization.
However, while the mainstream Islamist movements are consolidating a stable constituency within their own country, they are losing their appeal beyond their borders. This has opened the way for more radical movements which discard modern nation-states and want to recreate the ummah, the community of all Muslims in the world.
Three elements characterize these neo-fundamentalist groups. (The Taliban/al Qaeda coalition is a good example.)
1) They combine political and militant jihad against the West with a very conservative definition of Islam. They are closer to the tenets of Wahhabism than to the official ideology of th e Islamic Republic of Iran. Neo-fundamentalists want to ban any female presence in public life, and they are strongly opposed to music, the arts, and entertainment. In contrast to the Islamists, they have no economic or social agenda. They are obsessed by the danger of a loss of purity within Islam through the influence of other religions. They stress the implementation of the Shari’a as the sole critierion for an Islamic state and society. As strict adherents to Sunnism, they are very anti-Shi’a, and they believe that Israel, the US, and Iran are united to destroy “true” Islam.
2) These movements are supranational. They are mainly uprooted, Western educated, and separated from their families as well as from their country of origin. They live in a global world. The state level is bypassed and ignored.
3) This new brand of supranational neo-fundamentalism is more a product of globalization than of the Islamic past. They think of themselves as “Muslims” and not as citizens of a specific country.