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Militant Islam: Understanding the Ideology and the Challenge to America

FEBRUARY 2011 

  • Islamic fundamentalism remains a dominant intellectual force in Arab lands and had been gaining ground, at least until the coming of the Great Arab Revolt, everywhere in the Muslim world—with the exception of Iran, where theocracy has produced a massive backlash against the union of mosque and state.
  • It is unclear whether the intellectual cracks in the façade of the Islamic Republic’s theocracy has had a significant impact on Arab fundamentalists, although it is clear that the tumult that followed Iran’s fraudulent June 2009 elections had an impact upon Arab youth who have in great part fueled the Arab revolt. The Islamic revolution supercharged Sunni Islamic fundamentalism.  In an attempt to counter the rise of Shi’ite orthodoxy, Saudi Arabia funded a massive project to the proselytize Sunni Islamism in the 1980s.  This ensured that the virulently anti-Western Wahhabi creed gained adherents throughout the region.
  • Fueled in part by Wahhabism, anti-Semitism has become an elemental part of modern Islamic fundamentalism. This is married to widespread anti-Semitism in secular Muslim circles (the state-supported Egyptian lay intellectual elite have been easily the slickest, and perhaps most influential, conveyors of anti-Semitism in the Arab world).  Irrespective of what happens between the Israelis and Palestinians, this sentiment will likely remain at the forefront of a faithful Muslim identity.
  • The Muslim-against-Muslim savagery of al-Qa’ida has also damaged the appeal of jihadism among Arabs, but it has not yet damaged the appeal of fundamentalism.  
  • The Muslim-against-Muslim savagery of Islamic militancy in Pakistan has begun a debate about jihad in the subcontinent.   It’s by no means clear yet where this is going, but the thousands dead in Pakistan, like the thousands dead in Iraq, may take the oxygen away from Islamic militancy as a mass movement.
  • Islamic militancy thrives under dictatorship.  We are unlikely to see any significant diminution of fundamentalism’s appeal until democracy grows in the region.  The greatest immediate problem for fundamentalism will be the democratic challenge, especially among the Facebook generation who appear relatively free of the pan-Arab, Arab nationalist, and Islamist utopianism of their fathers and grandfathers.
  • Islamic militancy is growing in the large Muslim communities in the West.  Extremist organizations in Europe (1960s and 1970s) and America (1980s) are beginning to bear fruit.  We will likely see more—not fewer—Islamic radical cells allied to the cause of al-Qa’ida in both Western Europe and the United States.   The wild card here is the effect of the Great Arab Revolt upon the Muslim expatriate and native-born communities in the West.   Historically, there has been fairly tight intellectual movements in the Middle East and the Muslim communities in the West. 
  • The Turkish Justice and Development Party (better known by the initials AKP) is an Islamist party in Turkey that will likely expand its power after the June 2011 elections in Turkey and become an increasingly dominant player in the Muslim-identity contest in the Middle East.  The AKP ideologically is very anti-Israeli (and increasingly anti-Semitic). The AKP will likely use its anti-Israeli position as a means to increase its “market share” among Arabs.  The AKP is also likely to continue to define its Muslim identity in a variety of increasingly anti-American ways.
  • Egypt is likely to be pivotal in Islamic fundamentalism’s future.   The last five years have seen considerable change within the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, the mother ship of Sunni fundamentalism.  The chief point of friction: What does the Brotherhood’s guiding historic theme—“Islam has all the answers”—mean in a democracy? If Egypt goes democratic, the Muslim Brotherhood may do well at the ballot box, but it remains unclear how the challenge of democracy will affect the organization, especially its younger members, who were far more engaged in the rebellion against Mubarak than were the Brotherhood’s elders and have been more eager to see the Brotherhood tested at the urns.
  • President Obama’s Muslim outreach is unlikely to have any lasting effect on the appeal of Islamic fundamentalism and its elemental anti-American nature.