More than 40 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 their 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,” referring 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, the religious doctrines of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, and a host of voluntary religious organizations around the Islamic world are all Salifi. 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 to supersede tribal, ethnic, and national divides. For instance, most of the Muslim Brotherhood groups have remained within a legal framework, except where they were prevented from taking political action, as was the case in Syria.
A majority 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.