Radical Islam: The Death of an Ideology?

Ray Takeyh & Nikolas K Gvosdev. Middle East Policy. Volume 11, Issue 4. Winter 2004.

Since the tragedies of September 11, 2001, the United States has invested its war on terrorism with the loftier vision of diminishing the zeal of radical Islam. President Bush and the architects of America’s policy insist that the best manner of combating terrorism and ensuring stable societies is to extinguish the fires of radical Islam. Indeed, Osama bin Laden and his cohort of militants are inspired by a distorted vision of Islam and sanctify their campaign of violence through a selective reading of Quranic phrases. However, beyond the narrow band of terrorists hiding in the mountains of Afghanistan and the occasional fulminations of radical clerics, the critical question remains, does Islamism pose an actual threat to the region’s political order? Is there any place in the Middle East where Islamist parties and forces are actually poised to assume political power? If viewed through such a prism, the inescapable conclusion is that while radical Islam may prove tantalizing to a disillusioned few, it is a fading ideology with a limited and diminishing constituency.

Although such a conclusion may seem bewildering to the Bush administration, it is not lost on those with a more incisive understanding of the region’s political alignments. In a typically perceptive analysis, the late Edward Said stipulated that “political Islam has generally not done well wherever it has tried through Islamist parties to take state power.” This assessment was also reached by a Sudanese Islamist scholar, Abdel Wahab al-Effendi. On December 29, 1999, he penned an editorial for the London-based newspaper Al-Quds al-Arabi, trying to analyze the failures of the Islamist movement. He concluded that Islamist movements had been most successful as opposition forces, where they could “bask in the glow of martyrdom,” but had egregiously failed, once in power, to provide a stable and workable form of government capable of addressing the challenges faced by ordinary Muslims. This explains, in part, the shift in tactics by the international Islamist movement away from challenging regimes in the Muslim world to trying to provoke the United States. Speaking of the 9/11 attacks, Michael Scott Doran concludes:

The attacks were a response to the failure of extremist movements in the Muslim world in recent years, which have generally proved incapable of taking power (Sudan and Afghanistan being the major exceptions). In the last two decades, several violent groups have challenged regimes such as those in Egypt, Syria and Algeria, but in every case the government has managed to crush, co-opt or marginalize the radicals.

In the past decade, all the manifestations of radical Islam, whether in the Middle East or Central Asia, have failed to offer a new template for governance. A sign of a vibrant ideology is not its capacity to produce terrorists and suicide bombers, but practical solutions that may prove attractive to a large spectrum of the population. Powerful coalitions spanning the socioeconomic landscape, popular politicians and organized political parties are all indications that an ideological platform has an appeal to the masses. Even a cursory survey of the region’s political topography would easily yield the conclusion that the faith of radical Islam may not prove all that dissimilar to its Utopian counterpart, Marxism.

Perhaps no other state typifies the struggles of Islamism more than the Islamic Republic of Iran. The changing fortunes of political Islam in Iran were bound to have wider regional reverberations and affect the vitality of this ideological movement throughout the Middle East. More than two decades after the Islamic Revolution, the Iranian attempt to reconcile Islamic imperatives with the exigencies of modern society has resulted in contradictions that Iran’s theocrats seem incapable of resolving. Frightened of the possibility that the free market will unleash forces beyond their control, the clerics refuse to loosen the reins of Iran’s command economy. Equally fearing the ramifications of a truly democratic political system, the regime controls both legislation and candidates for office. The mullahs now face a new generation that neither experienced the revolution nor has any evident commitment to its ideals. The demands of Iran’s youth for the elimination of suffocating cultural restrictions, as well as for fundamental economic reform and political freedom, threaten the very identity of the Islamic Republic. In fact, for Iran to avoid collapsing into civil strife, it must adopt some basic secular tenets. This task may be possible, as growing numbers within Iran’s elite seem to recognize Islam’s limited utility as a template for governance.

Nor was Iran the only example. Algeria was once viewed as the next candidate to assume an Islamist identity. After nearly a decade of civil war, the Algerian military has effectively defeated the Islamist insurgency, although not without great cost in lives. But the Islamist movement lost popular support well before its collapse. The Algerian state succeeded because its actions were supported by the citizenry. In successive presidential and parliamentary elections (albeit elections managed by the military), Algerians have been given an opportunity to cast their ballots for multiple parties and candidates, including those with Islamist agendas and platforms. The Algerian economy, through substantial international efforts and the revival of the oil market, has gradually recovered. In essence, the Algerian state rehabilitated itself by providing two things the Islamists could not: a coherent economic plan and a mechanism that increased popular participation in the political process.

Even a superficial examination of the news reports from the early 1990s reveals an intense speculation regarding the imminent collapse of Husni Mubarak’s rule in Egypt. The adverse regional ramifications of the rise of an Islamic government in the pivotal Egyptian state were seen as an unavoidable calamity. However, once more the dire predictions did not come true. Although the brutal tactics employed by the Egyptian regime to combat Islamists did much to destroy their influence, the ranks of radicals were never replenished. The majority of Egyptians concluded that their problems would not be solved by the violent overthrow of the state. Support for militant Islam has gradually dwindled as the Islamists failed to provide a rationale for even the most disillusioned youth to battle Egypt’s security apparatus.

Beyond the Middle East, Islamism suffered a similar fate to that in the Arab realm. In the Balkans, Islamism had a certain appeal after the collapse of the communist system produced an ideological and spiritual void. Interest in the Islamist option also increased as a result of the civil wars in Bosnia and Kosovo, which also provided the opening for radical Islamists from the Middle East and southwest Asia to enter the region. Yet the absolute majority of the Muslim populations of the Balkans have their eyes on eventual integration into Europe, not association with the traditional Muslim world—validating the proverb often cited by Osama bin Laden that when a weak and a strong horse are seen side-by-side, a person chooses the strong. Europe represents peace and prosperity. Assuming that the project of European integration continues in the next two years to encompass Muslim majority areas (absorbing a reunified Cyprus and initiating accession talks with Turkey), the blandishments of the radicals will fall largely on deaf ears.

The Central Asian and Caucasus states of the former Soviet Union have paid careful attention to the examples provided by the authoritarian regimes of the Middle East in coping with Islamism-coopting certain items on the Islamist agenda while selectively engaging in repression of those elements that have tried to exist beyond the control and purview of the state. The failure of Islamists to construct stable or just orders in either Chechnya or Tajikistan also has had a certain chilling effect on both the elites and the mass populations of the region. The greatest danger is that the authoritarian regimes of Central Asia will not provide sufficient venues for constructive opposition and will thus drive people into the hands of the radicals.

Such a comprehensive failure of an ideological movement in diverse and differing regions requires a more systematic examination. Was it inevitable that radical Islam would suffer such a fate? What factors led to the collapse of a movement once touted as the future of the Islamic world?

The Causes Behind the Fall

First, radical Islamist movements are reactions to political and economic dislocations caused by modernization and liberalization, especially to perceived inequities in access to political power and economic opportunity. Linked to this is the perception that the traditional, orthodox Islamic establishment is unable or unwilling to address these concerns. Akbar Taradjonzoda, the former kazi of Tajikistan and a leader in the IRP, observed, “If our supporters grew militant, they did so in reaction to the government repression, discrimination, violence and doubletalk.” Islamist movements attract those who believe that the status quo in government and the economy precludes them from achieving their rightful potential. These movements draw power and legitimacy by framing these questions in terms of Islamic justice and morality. Islamists are dual revolutionaries: they oppose the existing socioeconomic structure and also criticize traditional Islam for its seeming inability to promote change. However, the Utopian vision of the Islamists—rooted in an ahistorical version of Islam—is also their Achilles’ heel.

Second, Islamist movements often gain momentum because the regime in power ignores the Islamists or tacitly renders support to them, usually in an effort to undercut secularists or progressive forces. In Iran, the shah’s American advisors focused on pro-Soviet leftists, not the clerics, as the primary threat to the regime. Indeed, throughout much of the Middle East, the United States viewed Islamists as potential allies against “godless” Soviet communism, an approach subsequently adopted in the decision to support Islamist guerrillas in Afghanistan against a Soviet-backed regime. In Algeria, Islamists were able to use the quasi-patronage of the state’s de facto chief Muslim cleric to install their preachers in mosques around the country and to use Muslim institutions as a way to organize at the grass-roots level. Egypt’s Anwar Sadat used the Islamists, particularly on university campuses, to combat leftist and progressive movements and a similar approach was taken in Sudan. In contrast, in Tunisia, strict state control and supervision over the staffing of mosques and over Islamic educational institutions have enabled the regime to marginalize radical elements and deny them the space in which to organize and thrive. This model has also been embraced by the governments in Central Asia, which have resisted efforts to loosen state control over Muslim religious activities.

Third, Islamist movements often begin as broad-based coalitions dissatisfied with the status quo and desirous of creating a “just” Islamic order to replace failed policies linked with Westernization (economic modernization, socialism, nationalism and so on). When these movements exist in “pure” opposition, it is easy to find common ground among diverse groups in acceptance of abstract principles. As an Islamist movement draws closer to attaining power (or after a successful seizure of power), however, fissures inevitably open up between those who maintain that strict adherence to ideology will produce results and those who are more pragmatic or willing to make compromises. Thus, in Iran, the Islamists were able to organize a large anti-shah coalition. Only after Khomeini came to power were more moderate elements purged. In Algeria, a schism developed within the Islamic Salvation Front (FIS) between those prepared to accept the legitimacy of the electoral system and those who saw elections merely as a tool to seize control of the machinery of the state. Usually, radical elements come to the fore when a crisis discredits more moderate pragmatists. The cancellation of elections in Algeria, increased repression in Egypt, and the outbreak of civil and external war in Iran, Tajikistan and Bosnia all emboldened radicals who disdained any sort of compromise and helped to stoke the fervor of the true believers. Moderation can come to the fore in periods of relative peace or in the exhausted aftermath of bitter struggles. The moderation of the IRP in Tajikistan today, in contrast to its Utopian radicalism of a decade ago, is partly a reflection of the bloody civil war that country endured.

Fourth, even though Islamism appeals to those on the margins of power and wealth because of its stress upon “righteousness,” Islamist parties can easily lose legitimacy when they cannot produce the just moral order that they have promised. For example, Palestinian refugees in Jordan, living in conditions of squalor and political disenfranchisement, may find Islamism’s slogan that “Islam is the solution” to be seductive. The rhetoric of a new order for Sudan, based upon Islamic principles, gave way to a corrupt military dictatorship, leading many to question whether such a regime could in fact deliver the justice it promised. In Iran, the Islamists created a command economy that suffered from numerous irreparable defects and was plagued by corruption at every level. Indeed, Iran’s hard-line clerics are among the most corrupt actors on the Iranian political scene, actively creating institutions to maintain their privileges at the expense of the collective good. The soldiers of faith in Algeria and Egypt, proclaiming their “vision of probity and justice,” in practice behaved as a criminal gang, extorting funds from the local population to sustain their campaign of violence and terror. Disillusionment leads to the discrediting of Islamist claims that they alone can deliver a more perfect order—and can often lead to repression and violence, as Islamists seek to use force to retain power.

Moreover, the “descent into corruption” can have a profound demonstration effect. One reason that Iranian-inspired Islamist parties have found little support in Azerbaijan despite the corruption of the existing regime and a common Shiite interpretation of Islam has been the discrepancies between the official rhetoric of the Islamic Republic and the behavior of ordinary Iranians who cross the border into secular Azerbaijan. The growing perception that Islamist revolutionaries in Algeria and Egypt were not idealistic soldiers of the faith but murderous robbers helped to drive the pious middle and business classes back into the embrace of the existing regimes.

The fifth point is the connection between Islamism and violence. As a militant ideology, Islamism has often thrived in conditions of strife, whether internal civil conflict (as in Egypt, Sudan, Algeria, Bosnia or Tajikistan) or external war (as in Iran or Chechnya). In conditions of stress produced by conflict, lslamists try to rally support under the guise of shared struggle. With the coming of peace, however, the rhetoric of jihad and sacrifice loses its appeal.

Indeed, the need for violence and struggle is often transformed and directed by radical lslamists against their own domestic opponents. This tendency is amplified by the practice of many radical groups of attacking not only non-Muslims, but other Muslims who disagree with their interpretation or application of Islamic law or principles. Al-Effendi lamented in his editorial that lslamists failed to resolve conflicts peacefully and often abandoned the democratic principles that they claimed to cherish. In an ironic turn of events, the group that is most aggressively persecuted in the Islamic Republic is not ardent secularists but clerics who defy the regime’s religious postulates and have a more moderate vision of “religious democracy” than the revolutionary theocracy created by the mullahs. In a similar vein, in Algeria and Egypt, radical Islam saved its wrath for moderate religious figures who were best qualified to challenge its spurious claims. The lslamists’ practice of “kafirizing” their opponents (declaring them unbelievers or pagans) further widens the gap between the radicals and the mainstream, a process that is most visible on university campuses throughout the Muslim world.” Yet the logic of excommunication (takflr) led some lslamists, such as the Algerian amir Zouabri, to declare all Algerians outside the ranks of the Armed Islamic Group (GIA) to be impious and excommunicated from the community of “true” Muslims. Similarly, the radical group Us bat al-Ansar (which operates in Lebanon) has proclaimed that “all Arab and Muslim governments, without exception,” are guilty “of blasphemy.”

This desire for separation is also reflected in the efforts of radical leaders to try to make their followers distinctive even among other Muslims by encouraging certain forms of the hijab for women, to the point of rejecting traditional modest dress as un-Islamic, as well as specific types of clothing and beard trimming for men. Indeed, radical Islamists have used dress and appearance as a way of demonstrating “adherence to their political movement.” The stress on separation is seen as necessary “because anything beyond the barest contact with the barbarousness of contemporary life threatened to corrupt these young, authentic Muslims.”

Separation from an unclean and sinful world reinforces the worldview of the radicals that they are fighting for a new Islamic order, but it raises a very real political problem. With such an attitude of derision for the realities of modern life as well as for the traditional forms of Islam, the Islamists are rarely ever in the majority. Even if they won initial support from the broad mainstream due to their critique of the status quo, the Manichaean division of society into “us versus them” (with the violence that often accompanies this approach) is profoundly alienating to the majority. To win and hold political power, therefore, they must secure the acquiescence of the populations over which they hope to govern.

For some Islamists, the solution is found in continued violence and mass terror—the use of the machinery of the state to suppress the “unrighteous” and stifle dissent. Sudan, Iran under Ayatollah Khomeini and Afghanistan under the Taliban are all examples of how Islamists created military dictatorships and recast civil or external wars as “jihads” between the “true” Muslims and non- or pseudo-Muslims as a way to legitimize authority and root out domestic opposition. An apt analogy can be drawn with the period of “war communism” in Russia during its civil war, when the exigencies of the military struggle fueled ideological purity and facilitated mass repression against opponents of the regime. One could also point to the fact that many of the more radical Islamist leaders who engaged in wholesale violence were young men, often with little higher education and scant economic prospects, who had few tangible assets to lose.

Certainly, the appeal to the cleansing violence of a jihad against the unrighteous will resonate with the disenfranchised and the poor. Yet no regime or political movement can maintain a state of perpetual war. It will either be overthrown eventually, or it must begin to explore reform as a way to meet popular aspirations. Utopian revolutionary movements, especially those that seize power, eventually reach the point of Thermidor, when radical forces are displaced by more moderate ones. Economic crisis or war fatigue are powerful inducements to moderation. This process is aided by the fact that one of the mainstays of Islamist movements—the devout middle class—is increasingly “looking for an acceptable form of access to the system” rather than the complete destruction of society. The question then becomes how to extinguish the remaining fires of radical Islam.

Democracy and Islamism

President Bush’s rhetoric is continually laced with the need to “drain the swamp” of radicalism in the Middle East. From the war on terrorism to the invasion of Iraq, a range of American policies has been sanctioned by the need to disarm lslamists who instigate violence against the United States. Unfortunately, many U.S. initiatives, including the military displacement of Saddam Hussein’s regime, have only helped to fill the reservoirs of Islamist radicalism and validate their spurious claims of Western hostility to the Islamic realm. Ultimately the most powerful antidote to radical Islam, beyond the immediate palliatives of state-sponsored controls, may be greater pluralism and competition of ideas.

In political systems that are competitive or semicompetitive in nature, lslamists are subject to the polls and must be prepared to either accept permanent minority status or try to broaden their appeal by forming coalitions with other groups. As John Esposito noted:

It must be recalled that the memberships of Islamic organizations generally constitute a numerical minority, not a majority of the population …. The realities of a more open marketplace and having to compete for votes (coming to power and having to rule amidst diverse interests) could force Islamic groups (as they often do secular political parties) to adapt or broaden their ideology and programs in response to domestic realities, diverse constituencies and interests.

In places like Jordan, Kuwait and Morocco, therefore, the existence of a parliamentary system has acted as a moderating force on Islamist movements, drawing them into dialogue with secular and nationalist parties.

Radical Islamism is an ideology of wrath directed against an existing order. So long as the political order remains closed, the radical guerrillas will have a place in society, as their defiance of the oppressive order and their criticism of the stagnant autocratic rule will have resonance with a segment of the populace. In an open arena of competition, radical Islam will find its ideas contested by a range of alternatives from secular liberalism to moderate Islam. It is unlikely that the radicals can sustain their base of support in light of such systematic dissection of their creed. Radical Islamists have found it exceedingly difficult to transform their slogans into a governing dogma. The intellectual poverty of this movement makes it a perfect ideology of opposition but an impossible alternative to mainstream realism. In the last several years, some Islamists have renounced their Utopian vision in favor of more moderate approaches. The attempts to form a moderate center party in Egypt in 1995 and the creation of the Islamic Action Front in Jordan are reflections of the fact that Muslim populations do not want Utopia but rather open political and economic systems.

Indeed, one of the most interesting cases of Islamist evolution has been in Turkey, where the remnants of banned Islamist parties came together to form the Justice and Development party (AKP), which won a plurality of the votes in the 2002 parliamentary elections. While claiming that the party is rooted in Islamic values, its leader, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, insists that the party is not a radical movement but a conservative, “pro-values” group similar to European Christian Democrats. Erdogan believes that the AKP can successfully integrate Muslim ethics with liberal democracy and has committed his party to undertake the reforms necessary to bring Turkey into full membership in the European Union. In fact, Erdogan and other Islamist leaders like Abdullah GuI, who initially espoused very radical sentiments, now have “advocated a much more moderate approach. Thus, some radicals were willing to work within the system to achieve systemic change in society and politics …”

Gul has been a leading figure among the “Young Ones” within the ranks of Turkish Islamism, seeking to move the party away from an “Islam-referenced” party to what he has termed a “new politics” based on a “more universally understood democracy.” When the Virtue party, a predecessor to the AKP, was banned in June 2001, GuI and Erdogan parted company with more conservative elements. The moderates created the AKP while the conservative Islamists formed the Felicity (Saadet) party. The Turkish election results demonstrated that fusing Islamic values with liberal principles is more likely to attract support than espousing a spartan Utopian vision of a lost “Golden Age.”

Given that “Islamist participation in electoral politics does not mean necessarily that they would win an absolute majority of votes” (polls and surveys throughout the Islamic world indicate that Islamist-based parties would poll 15-35 percent), Islamists would most likely emerge as an opposition force or one partner among several in a coalition. While having “a strong influence” on public life, Islamist parties committed to the democratic process would have little opportunity to fully implement their programs.

This, in turn, may lead to a synthesis between Islamism and liberalism of the type being charted by thinkers such as Abdolkarim Soroush in Iran or Hassan Hanafi in Egypt. Such a synthesis would not automatically embrace all the concepts of the Enlightenment; rather, it would seek to balance reverence for Islamic values with the individual’s desire for self-expression. It would embrace limits on personal freedom consistent with the notion of preserving community stability. However,

Even though an Islamic democracy will resist certain elements of post-Enlightenment liberalism, it will still be a system that features regular elections, accepts dissent and opposition parties, and condones a free press and division of power between branches of the state.

The problem is how to bring about this process of the evolution of radical Utopian movements into moderate political parties. All the countries in this study were (or still are) autocratic at the time Islamist forces began to organize. Only in Bosnia (and to a lesser extent in Iran) have Islamists had ongoing experience with regular, competitive elections. Yet even in the current autocratic political societies of the Middle East, political parties and civic and professional associations (teachers’ unions, lawyers’ guilds and so on), while they may have little impact on the direction of state policy, do perform the traditional function of mediating between the rulers and the masses. Most of these organizations are run on democratic and competitive lines, where the rank and file membership chooses the leaders in competitive elections, while their platforms are subject to member participation and consensus. As such, despite their relative political impotence, Arab civic organizations, especially those that exist in places like Egypt and Jordan, have proven to be an important moderating force, tempering the pronouncements of the radicals and allowing more moderate elements to rise to the top. The close of the twentieth and the beginning of the twenty-first century have also seen the transfer of power in much of the Muslim world to younger, better educated, more technocratic leaders—Mohammed VI of Morocco, Abdullah of Jordan, the rulers of the Gulf states and so on—who are actively seeking to create new forms of governance that can reconcile Islamic values and traditions while embracing political and economic modernity. All of this is having its impact. As Mumtaz Ahmad has pointed out:

They [Islamists] have also incorporated democratic practices and institutions in their policies, demands and praxis. The Pakistani, Bangladeshi, Turkish, Malaysian, Egyptian, Jordanian, Algerian, Tunisian and Moroccan Islamists have already accepted the Islamic legitimacy of popular elections, the electoral process, the multiplicity of political parties and even the authority of the popularly elected parliament to legislate not only on socio-economic matters but also on Islamic doctrinal issues … Even on the issue of a woman holding political office in an Islamic government, Islamists seem to have revised their earlier position.

In the end, the best solution to containing the forces of radical Islam may be the democratic system firmly anchored in a respect for pluralism and the rule of law.