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Why The Sudden Rise of Political Islam?

Clearly it was the rapid spread of ISIS in Iraq and the capture of Mosul in June last year which made us all sit up and take notice. But we might not have been so surprised if we had known or remembered the history of the last 150 years and the last 40 years in particular, in which there have been so many different expressions of political Islam.

Have we forgotten the 58 tourists who were gunned down at Luxor in Upper Egypt in 1997, and how in Algeria in 1989 the army seized power after FIS, the Islamist party, had won a democratic election? We’ve had Muhammad Mursi attempting to impose a Muslim Brotherhood agenda on Egypt while he was in power from 2012 to 2013. We’ve had Ayatollah Khomeini creating the Islamic Republic of Iran in 1979. Tayyip Erdogan and his Islamist AKP have turned the tide after decades of secularism imposed by Ataturk and brought Islam back into public life. Hizbullah was created in 1986 as a resistance movement against Israel’s occupation of South Lebanon. Similarly Hamas came into existence in 1986 as a response to 40 years of Israel’s occupation of Gaza and the West Bank. If we go back further to the creation of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt in 1928, we find that Hassan al-Banna was driven by two clear goals – the revival of Islam and the ending of the British occupation of Egypt. And if we go back further still we find that in India Muslims played a significant role in the 19th Century in opposing the British Raj.

Are there any common factors in all these different expressions of political Islam? In every one there are two main drives – the desire to see the public sphere ordered by Islamic principles and the refusal to be ruled by foreigners. As we shall see shortly, context is all-important. In every case there has been something specific in the context – a perceived injustice – which has driven Muslim to take action and often to resort to violence.

So we could argue, for example, that if Israel in 1967 had complied with UN Security Resolution 242 and withdrawn from the territories it had occupied in the Six Day War, Hamas might never have come into existence. If Israel had not invaded Lebanon in 1982 and stayed on as a occupying power in the south for 28 years, there might have been no Hizbullah. And if the US and its allies had not invaded Iraq in 2003, there probably would be no ISIS.

In all these expressions of political Islam there is a real zeal for God, a passion to ‘strive in the way of God’ – to use a common Qur’anic expression. And of course the basic meaning of the word jihad is ‘to strive’, and has little to do with the idea of ‘holy war’. But it’s not just a passion to fight injustice and to create a just society that has motivated Muslims. I am tempted to relate all this to Kenneth Cragg’s simple sentence ‘Islam must rule’, since this is exactly how Sayyid Qutb, one of the most influential Islamist ideologues who was imprisoned and tortured by Nasser’s government, summed up this Islamist conviction in the sentence la budda li-‘l-islam an yahkum (‘Inevitably Islam shall rule’).

In the light of the example of the Prophet and in the context of 1400 years of Islamic history, it probably seemed very natural for Muslims to be ruling over non-Muslims – and especially over Christians and Jews who were treated as dhimmis, protected communities living under Islamic rule. But it’s not so natural and acceptable for Muslims to be ruled by non-Muslims. I suspect therefore that there is something uniquely Islamic about this, because I doubt if Hindus, Buddhists or Confucianists can find in their scriptures and history the same kind of clear, strong motivation to engage in political activity.

Once again, however, I would point out the danger of generalisation. The vast majority of Muslims in Britain and Europe would probably be shocked if you said to them, ‘We know that in your heart of hearts you Muslims want to rule the world.’ Islam is a missionary religion just as much as Christianity is, and for some Muslims jihad is the sixth pillar of Islam. But it simply isn’t true that all Muslims all over the world have clear political agenda and want the world to come under Islamic rule.

So why has political Islam become so significant in recent years? It’s partly because Muslims have faced so many situations of what they perceive to be injustice and oppression, and so many situations in which they feel that their own Muslim rulers are not running their countries in accordance with Islamic principles.

Patrick Cockburn of The Independent has been the best British journalist at explaining the origins of ISIS. And in March of this year Der Spiegel published some highly significant documents that had been captured from ISIS. Writers like these have shown that the 2003 war in Iraq and the civil war in Syria, which began in 2011, together created the vacuum in which ISIS came into existence. After bringing down Saddam Hussein’s Ba‘ath regime, the Americans disbanded the whole army, leaving 350,000 angry men without work or pay. Many of these soldiers together with officials from the government and the secret services who had been running Hussein’s police state joined forces with al-Qa‘ida in Iraq and brought with them many skills (including skills in running a state, finance and digital media) that were then used in creating the new Islamic state. So there was a kind of unholy alliance between Islamists and Ba‘athists.

The other important factor is that the Sunnis in Iraq, who are about 20% of the population, were always resentful of the way they had been excluded from power by Hussein, and then marginalised after 2003 in the new government by the Shi‘ites who numbered around 60%. The fear and hatred of the Sunnis towards the Shi‘ites is so strong that many Iraqi Sunnis would rather be ruled by ISIS than by the Shi‘ites.

This then was the political context in which al-Qa‘ida in Iraq developed into IS or ISIS. If Iraqi and other Arab Sunnis provided the main leadership and the tactical skills, it was the Wahhabi beliefs of al-Qa‘ida that provided the ideological basis for ISIS, which included four important strands:

  1. a desire to copy the beliefs and practices of the salaf, the first generation of Muslims, sitting lightly to the teaching of the four main schools of Islamic law;
  2. a close alliance between Islam and the state so that the state must be Islamic and uphold Islamic law;
  3. a strong antipathy towards Shi‘ites as heretical Muslims (this would include the Alawite regime of the Assads, the Iraqi Shi‘ites and Iran) and towards non-Muslims (which would include the West);
  4. a strong rejection of un-Islamic practices or beliefs.

The context and the ideology are therefore equally important for understanding the origins of ISIS. ‘ISIS is the child of war.’ Says Patrick Cockburn. ‘Its members seek to reshape the world around them by acts of violence. The movement’s toxic mix of extreme religious beliefs and military skill is the outcome of the war in Iraq since the US 2003 invasion and the war in Syria since 2011 … It was the US, Europe, and their regional allies in Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Kuwait, and the United Arab Emirates that created the conditions for the rise of ISIS.’

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