The Birth of Islamism and Jihadism

The overall failure of Islamism to either seize political power or fundamentally change society gave rise to the ideology of jihadism, for radicals to argue that Islamism’s emphasis on political work had failed and would never lead to the construction of an Islamic state in Egypt or anywhere else.

Excerpts from the book, Global Jihad: A Brief History written by Glenn E. Robinson published by Stanford University Press

by Glenn E. Robinson

For a word that generates a great deal of popular media attention and usually terrifies the imaginations of the ill-informed, the word jihad is remarkably poorly understood in the West. The word comes from the common Arabic root j-h-d (most Arabic and Hebrew words have a three-letter root from which related words are constructed), with the verb form meaning “to make an effort” or “to struggle.” It is not exclusively or even mostly a religious word. Indeed, forms of the word are used commonly in nonreligious phrasing, typically around the notion of trying really hard to do something.

In religious terms, jihad has two meanings popularly accepted today, both of which have generally positive connotations to Muslims. First, it can mean “jihad of the sword” ( jihad al-sayf ), religiously sanctioned armed violence carried out in defense of Islam, Muslim territory, or Muslim lives—all of which are seen to be beneficial attributes. Religious jihad has a second popular meaning: to struggle against forbidden temptations. It is a personal struggle to lead a more upright, pious life ( jihad al-nafs). This latter definition is often referred to by Muslims as the “greater jihad” ( jihad akbar) in reference to a (contested) hadith, or saying, of the prophet Muhammad. In this book the word jihad is used overwhelmingly in the context of jihad al-sayf, jihad of the sword, where ideologues call for armed violence to advance a political agenda under the banner of Islam. Such violence is rarely sanctioned by proper religious authority.

Thus, according to Islamic jurisprudence, the calls for violence described in this book are almost always illicit.

Global jihad is a new phenomenon, dating back only to the 1980s, although its intellectual origins can be traced to a century ago. The early part of the twentieth century was a time when the Muslim world was riven by conflict and competing intellectual currents. The rise of European industrial and military power in the nineteenth century had by this point in history overwhelmed the Muslim world, establishing colonies, protectorates, mandates, spheres of influence, and other forms of imperial domination from Morocco to Indonesia. Western dominion throughout Asia and Africa in many ways was like every other conquering army over the course of history, where sheer power and force of arms were sufficient to conquer and mostly pacify vast stretches of land and peoples. And, like in previous cases of conquest, there were many examples of local populations both fighting European conquerors as well as working with them. The difference in this case was that the British, French, and other European powers brought with them in conquest not just raw military strength but institutions of government, education, law, and society that produced extraordinary wealth, efficiency, and opportunity that appealed to many in the subject populations.

Exporting the seeds of Western modernity around the globe was no humanitarian mission or “white man’s burden.” It was, first and foremost, a means to make colonial domination sustainable. Educating a class of indigenous civil servants in modern, scientific methods could provide the kind of rational bureaucracy that would make a colony run efficiently for generations to come. Building a railroad infrastructure was typically about getting local raw materials to European markets for processing into finished goods for resale. Having a functioning legal system protected private property and the underpinnings of this new system. European domination was less about the rule of law than it was about rule through law. Liberal governmental structures at home in Europe were rarely for purposeful export to colonies. Still, those democratic institutions and their philosophical foundations could not help but seep into local systems and consciousness in a beguiling way.

In other words, European domination of the Muslim world was a complicated affair, marked by brutality and supremacy but also containing within it the seeds of powerful and appealing new forms of society and economy.

European modernity, exported through the barrel of a gun, was both ruthless and enticing at the same time. Not surprisingly, there was a vast spectrum of response by Muslims (and other subject populations) to this new form of domination. While some Muslims saw the promise of European modernity and sought to embrace it fully, many more sought instead some hybrid form of synergy between a revered religious heritage and culture as well as the appeal of selective European legal and economic institutions and practices. Still others saw no good coming from such new and foreign practices, and sought to reject them root and branch. It was an intellectually turbulent time.

One of these many and varied responses by Muslims in this stormy period was to construct a new discourse and social movement that today we call Islamism. Islamism arose from the educated urban middle classes and sought to construct a form of modernity that was strongly anticolonial, that rejected much of European sensibilities, and that promoted the ascendancy of Islam in the public square. Islamist arguments centered mostly on the nature of the state, of what a modern nation-state should look like that was focused on Islam (or at least their interpretation of Islam). It is important to remember that Islamist debates on the proper nature of political power in the modern era did not represent traditional, time-honored deliberations in Islam. The very idea of nation-states and the institutions of the modern state—not of empires, which had dominated the Muslim world—were mostly new concepts throughout the Muslim world, brought via European colonialism. Indeed, those ideas were relatively new to Europe as well, where they had grown organically out of European realities and battles in the previous two centuries. Marrying new concepts of a modern state to a belief that Islam must dominate the public square in any proper Muslim country was an intellectual challenge for Islamists in the twentieth century that had not been germane to previous generations of Muslims.

The premier organizational response coming out of Islamist circles from these debates was the founding of the Muslim Brotherhood by Hasan al-Banna in Egypt in 1928 (on which more below). While Islamism represented the first intellectual precursor for the later emergence of global jihad, with its strident politicization of the religion of Islam, it failed to fundamentally change the nature of politics in the Middle East during the four decades following the founding of the Muslim Brotherhood in 1928. Most Muslims in most parts of the Muslim world simply did not accept the kind of arguments about politics and religion that Islamists were putting forward, least of all the political elites who mostly followed a type of secular politics. The Muslim Brotherhood and similar organizations were somewhat influential but were hardly momentous and consequential groups throughout much of the twentieth century.

Frustration by some Islamists at the failure of political Islamism to foundationally change the nature of politics in the Muslim world and to push forward an agenda of creating Islamic states led to the emergence in the 1960s of a second intellectual precursor to global jihad: arguments for the use of violence under the banner of jihad to overthrow local regimes, capture states by force, and implement some version of an Islamic state (there is no consensus over what such a state should look like). But that effort largely failed as well, despite the occasionally dramatic event, such as the assassination of President Anwar Sadat of Egypt in 1981. The group that pulled off the assassination was crushed, its leaders executed, and its lesser members imprisoned. It would take years to rebuild. The inability of local jihadism to capture state power anywhere in the Sunni Muslim world represented a starting point for much of the intellectual effort concerning the idea of global jihad in the waning years of the twentieth century and the early years of the twenty-first century. They asked themselves: What is preventing local jihadis from capturing power and advancing their various political causes in Egypt and elsewhere in the Muslim world? Global jihadis believed that there was a systemic problem at the global level that had to be addressed, through violence under the banner of Islam, before their success could be assured. Neither the political work of Islamists nor the violent actions of local jihadis represented sufficient leverage to change the system and achieve their broader aspirations.

Of course, broader debates about the relationship between religion and politics go back to the beginning of Islam. Muslims have debated how best to form and manage a proper political community ever since. As with similar debates within Christendom, opinions have ranged far and wide as to the proper relationship between faith and polity, and to the nature of the polity itself. While secularism has many supporters in the contemporary Muslim world, there is a broad tradition within Islam that rejects a wall separating mosque and state. The idea of secularism in the Muslim world has walked a tightrope for centuries between its pragmatic partial adoption by various rulers and the “dogmatic no” of orthodoxy. The point here is that debates over the proper relationship between religion and political power—between din wa dawla—has a long history in Islam, as it does in other religious traditions.

But Islamism was a new phenomenon in multiple ways, including in the kinds of demands it made on the political system and on society as well as in the sociological community from which it arose: an urban, educated middle class, which itself was a new phenomenon with shallow historical roots. Islamists, like everyone else, were trying to make sense of the organizational and institutional political arrangements embodied in the modern state, while at the same time trying to rid their lands of foreign occupiers (a much more old-fashioned kind of goal) and preserve their own cultural and ideological traditions. The Islamist movement, born a century ago, has proved to be exceptionally durable as it captures the political sentiments of several hundred million Muslims around the world. Put another way, gauging by various elections and public opinion surveys, there are about as many adult Islamists in the world as there are people living in the United States.

Since the term Islamism is often thrown around without much precision, let us define exactly what we mean by the word. The term encompasses a broad array of people and groups over the past century, so generalizations have many historical exceptions. That said, Islamism may be defined as a sociopolitical movement seeking to create a modern version of an Islamic state, typically through political (nonviolent) means. There is a lot to unpack in that definition, so allow me to focus on the four principal components of the definition. First, Islamism is a sociopolitical movement, particularly in recent decades. In its first years of existence, Islamism was confined to a relatively small segment of society, but since the 1970s, it has typically represented around 25 percent of the adult population of Muslim-majority countries and has been well institutionalized. Often, Islamism has been the single largest sociopolitical movement in Muslim-majority countries. Second, Islamists seek to create a modern state and society. This is how Islamists are different from traditional Salafis, the “ultra-orthodox” within Islam. Salafis seek to recreate an imagined Islamic polity from the seventh century. Indeed, historically, the ultrafundamentalist Salafi Muslims are apolitical, wishing to focus on piety, not politics.5 Islamists, by contrast, seek to merge political modernity with Islam, to create an ideal state that reflects a modern interpretation of Islam. Third, that state is to be Islamic in some essential sense, although frankly there is no consensus on what a modern Islamic state is supposed to look like precisely.

Finally, Islamists have focused on using political, nonviolent means to achieve their goals. This is the fundamental difference that sets Islamists apart from jihadis: Islamists believe in grassroots, bottom-up, political work, while jihadis—both local and global—believe in the necessity of violence, of top-down direct action against the state. I do not mean to imply that Islamists have never resorted to violence; they have. But Islamists do not view violence as a central, necessary component to achieve their political ends, while jihadis do. Jihadis believe that political means have been blocked, typically by a corrupt and apostate system, while Islamists are typically willing to “get their hands dirty” working nonviolently within the political system if allowed to do so. The centrality of violence to their program is what sets all types of jihadis apart from Islamists.

The quintessential organizational expression of Islamism has been the Muslim Brotherhood. But even after its founding in Egypt in 1928, the Muslim Brotherhood and Islamism more broadly remained relatively marginal to the broader strokes of Muslim history. I do not mean to suggest that the Brotherhood was wholly unimportant during its first four decades of existence, but rather that there were more important intellectual and political currents. For example, nationalism was far more important and consequential in the Middle East and the broader Muslim world than Islamism was during much of the twentieth century, especially before the 1970s. This was a time and a political culture when it was possible to mock the Muslim Brotherhood and its leader, as, for example, Gamal ‘Abd al-Nasser in Egypt would do, without fear of serious political consequences. It was only in the 1970s that Islamism truly found its voice and became a major political force in the Muslim world.

The overall failure of Islamism to either seize political power or fundamentally change society gave rise to the ideology of jihadism, for radicals to argue that Islamism’s emphasis on political work had failed and would never lead to the construction of an Islamic state in Egypt or anywhere else. Indeed, the argument about the failure of political work to advance an Islamic state, and thus the need for armed action under the banner of Islam, began to arise at the same time in the 1960s in both the Sunni world (especially Egypt) and the Shia world (especially Iran). In both places, the intellectual foundations to justify armed jihad against the state were being built by ideologues who would later become synonymous with modern jihadism. For example, contemporary Sunni jihadism was founded in 1964 when an Egyptian by the name of Sayyid Qutb published a slim volume that radically reinterpreted an old Muslim concept that referred to the moral darkness in Arabia immediately prior to the coming of Islam. For Qutb, that old depraved period of jahiliyya was being recreated by current Muslim regimes and broader societies. Only a generational struggle based primarily on armed jihad could save Islam and Muslim society from steep moral decay. While Shia ideologues, including Ayatullah Khomeini, did not rely on the concept of jahiliyya, they too constructed ideologies calling for the use of radical action to overthrow the monarchy in Iran and advance Shia interests elsewhere.

The rise of violent jihadi movements in the 1970s to implement the visions of Qutb, Khomeini, and others focused overwhelmingly on removing what were seen to be corrupt, repressive, and apostate secular regimes throughout the Muslim world. Jihadi groups to this day remain mostly focused on these local issues. But these local jihadi groups also largely failed to bring substantial changes to the political order. They would assassinate a president or prime minister from time to time, slaughter some hapless tourists perhaps, but their violence did not meaningfully change the apostate nature of local regimes or cure other evils in the eyes of radical jihadis. Out of this failure was born global jihad—that is, ideologues and groups dedicated to using violence to address global, systemic causes of the major problems facing the entire Muslim world, at least in the eyes of this new generation of jihadis…

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Glenn E. Robinson is on the faculty at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, California, and is affiliated with the Center for Middle Eastern Studies at the University of California, Berkeley. He has served as an expert advisor to USAID and the US Department of Defense.