It is certainly true that contemporary Muslim extremists tie their attacks explicitly to jihad and its basis in Islamic tradition. However, such ideas do not represent a continuous, dominant strain in Islamic or Arab thought over the past 1,400 years. While the idea of holy war clearly played a role in the initial Arab conquests of the early Middle Ages, in later medieval conflicts, and in some anticolonial movements of the late nineteenth century, it does not act as the dominant ideological justification for modern Arab unity or for political and military conflict in the period after World War II.
On the contrary, in the twentieth century Arab nationalism in the guise of Baathism or Nasserist Arab socialism served as the primary ideological basis for conflict in the Middle East. Arab political leaders of the mid-twentieth century did not employ the idea of jihad to a great extent, even in their opposition to Israel. The notion of holy war, as it is currently embraced by extremist groups, grew largely in response to a number of late twentieth-century factors: the failure of secular Arab political and military initiatives, the 1979 revolution in Iran, the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, the Israeli invasion of Lebanon, the end of Soviet support for Arab regimes in the Middle East, the Palestinian Intifada, and the Persian Gulf War.
Radical Islam is sometimes referred to as Islamic fundamentalism or Islamic extremism. Some Muslim writers refer to it as a variant of Islamic revivalism. Radical Islamic beliefs combine an anti-Western political agenda with a set of theological principles. In the mid-twentieth century, radical Islam grew in the Middle East in response to Western imperialism and the spread of Western values in the region. In 1929, Hassan al-Banna, an Egyptian opposed to the growing secularism in the Muslim world, founded the Ikhwan Islamiyya (Muslim Brotherhood). His goal was to transform Egypt into an Islamic state modeled after the ideal days of the Prophet Muhammad and the Companions. The organization began as an Islamic charity but evolved into a more radical group, and in the 1940s it assassinated several prominent Egyptian officials. However, in 1949 al-Banna was killed by one of the Egyptian intelligence services.
At the time of al-Banna's death another Egyptian, Sayyid Qutb, was working toward an education degree at the University of Northern Colorado. He had been sent to the United States in 1948 by the Egyptian government to study the U.S. educational system. However, the more he saw of Western society, the more alienated he became. He returned to Egypt in 1950 and joined the Muslim Brotherhood. Qutb wrote several influential works, including Social Justice in Islam, a lengthy commentary on the Koran, and a shorter book, Ma'alim fi-l-Tariq (Milestones, or Signposts on the Road). In these he argued that before the coming of the Prophet Muhammad, the world was in jahiliyah (spiritual darkness), a condition dominated by opposition to Allah. For a brief time the Prophet Muhammad and the Companions lived in a pure Islamic society ruled by submission (Islam) to the will of Allah.
According to Qutb, modernity was a time of great danger, as Islam faced a new kind of jahiliyah. The new jahili societies included the atheistic communists, the corrupted Christian and Jewish societies, Arab nationalist states, and Muslim states that cooperated with the West. All these opponents had to be defeated through jihad for Islam to prevail. Qutb was hanged by Gamal Abdel Nasser's government in 1966, and his fate illustrates the opposition of secular Arab authorities toward Islamic radicalism for much of the twentieth century.
The Muslim Brotherhood and the views of Qutb influenced many radical organizations: the Egyptian Islamic Liberation Movement, the Islamic Group Movement, and, ultimately, the Palestinian group Hamas. It is important to point out that Arab governments largely opposed the growth of Islamic radicalism during the period from World War II to the 1980s. Arab regimes in the mid-twentieth century based their identity and their warfare with Israel primarily in terms of Arab nationalism rather than Islamic unity. Indeed, such regimes, supported by the Soviet Union, often viewed activist Islam as a threat. Even the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) framed its foundational documents in terms of nationalism, Arab socialism, and anti-Zionism. However, this pattern changed in the closing decades of the twentieth century.
In 1979, a theocratic Shiite regime headed by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini took power in Iran and confronted the United States by seizing the U.S. embassy in Tehran and holding its staff hostage. That same year, the Soviet Union invaded the nation of Afghanistan and installed a puppet regime there. Both events would fuel the growth of radical Islamic political activity. The Iranian regime sponsored Islamic fundamentalist political and paramilitary activity against Israel and the West, most particularly the Shiite group Hezbollah, active in Lebanon and Israel.
In Afghanistan, Soviet occupation produced native opposition, creating a generation of mujahideen motivated primarily by radical Islamic ideas and encouraged and supplied by the United States as a counter to Soviet influence. While the Afghani resistance resulted in the withdrawal of the Soviets from the country after nine years of warfare, it also resulted in the establishment of Afghanistan as a haven for radical Islamic activity. Indeed, during the 1980s, thousands of recruits from Arab nations went to Afghanistan to fight the Soviets. Already immersed in Wahhabism, the strict version of Islam prominent in Saudi Arabia, they developed an anti-Western agenda based on the writings of Qutb, among others. One of the Saudi Arabian citizens fighting in Afghanistan, Osama bin Laden, who ultimately went on to found the al-Qaeda organization in 1989.
In the closing decades of the twentieth century, as conventional warfare against Israel fueled by Arab nationalism failed, as receding Soviet power freed former Middle Eastern client states of communist influence and deprived them of military and financial aid, and as the Iranian and Afghani crises produced a generation of anti-Western fighters motivated largely by radical Islam, anti-Israeli and anti-Western activity in the Muslim world adopted a religious character. Such feeling inspired the first Palestinian uprising against Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza, the Intifada, in 1987. Groups such as Hamas played a leading role in the Intifada, as radical Islam came to rival Arab nationalism as the defining ideology behind the struggle against Israel. Such ideas appealed particularly to the powerless and the disenfranchised in Palestinian society. The rhetoric of the PLO is indicative of this change. Whereas once its agenda centered on secular Arab socialism and nationalism, the PLO adopted language of martyrdom and holy war and gave rise to its own radical group, the al-Aqsa Martyr's Brigade. Fundamentalist Islam has remained a potent force in Middle Eastern politics to the present day.
Andrew Jackson Waskey and Robert S. Kiely
Mitchell, Richard P. The Society of the Muslim Brotherhood. New York: Oxford University Press, 1993.; Nasr, Seyyed Vali Reza. Mawdudi & the Making of Islamic Revivalism. New York: Oxford University Press, 1996.; Sivan, Emmanuel. Radical Islam: Medieval Theology and Modern Politics. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1985.