– Exaggerating “Ideology” in Islamist Movements.

(© Zubair Qamar 2013)

Exaggerating “Ideology”

The “ideological” dimension has been exaggerated by many so-called counter-terrorism experts. For example, Patrick Sookhdeo in Fighting the Ideological War says,

“Western discourse must discredit arguments that Islam is under attack from the West while delegitimizing Islamism by presenting it as a totalitarian political ideology detrimental to Muslims” (p.41).

Sookhdeo also says,

“As Arab countries throw off the yoke of authoritarian and dictatorial governments, so political Islam has begun to shape their societies with a new totalitarianism” (p.43).

Indeed, “experts” like Sookhdeo exaggerate the role of ideology in Islamist movements, just as a group of scholars exaggerate the role of ideology in the Cold War.

While ideology is undoubtedly important in the battle against Islamism, classifying the enemy as loyally and inflexibly ideological is not always realistic.

Stefan Durand says,

“Islamist movements make an instrument of religion and try to use it as an ideology, but they do not intend to create ‘a new man,’ as was the case in fascist Europe.”

He further says,

“They propound archaic religious and social precepts rather than an overall coherent ideology. The popular success of these movements is often due to factors unconnected with ideology”.[[1]]

Recent events have shown that the majority of Islamists today – those who wish to attain power through peaceful elections – are more flexible and pragmatic than Islamists of only a few decades ago. Time has demonstrated that inflexible adherence to ideology may be in retreat.

Olivier Roy, commenting on the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood when it came to power before being toppled, says,

“While the Muslim Brotherhood may finally have come to power, it is at the expense of its own ideology,”

and says,

“The ‘failure of political Islam’ is not the political failure of the Islamists; it is the collapse of Islamism as a political ideology.” [[2]]

Being overly focused on ideology may lead to neglecting other important characteristics of Islamist movements.

Of Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood, Brynjar Lia says,

“While not denying the importance of ideology, it seems appropriate to look for characteristics and qualities other than just ideological particularities when searching for…reasons behind the Society’s remarkable expansion in the 1930s” (p.14)[[3]]

Furthermore, Mark Fallon, head of the International Association of Police Chiefs, and former counterintelligence official, who “oversaw the prosecution of dozens of high-level terror suspects” and conducted a study of “hundreds of ex-terrorists,” says the most common matter in the study’s findings

“is that the trigger that turns someone to violence is a very personal one and is usually based on local conditions. The global environment is used to recruit these people, but it’s generally some local condition or individual event in that person’s life that turns them.”

He then says,

It wasn’t about ideology; it wasn’t about theology; it was about identity” (italics added).[[4]]

Post-Islamism Dilutes Ideology

Some scholars describe Islamists today, especially after the Arab Spring, as going through a post-Islamist phase. Post-Islamism,[[5]] originally coined and described by Asef Bayat in reference to reforms in Iran, and later applied to Islamists by European and other scholars,

“…represents an endeavour to fuse religiosity and rights, faith and freedom, Islam and liberty. It is an attempt to turn the underlying principles of Islamism on its head by emphasizing rights instead of duties, plurality in place of a singular authoritative voice, historicity rather than fixed scriptures, and the future instead of the past. It wants to marry Islam with individual choice and freedom, with democracy and modernity (something post-Islamists stress), to achieve what some have termed an ‘alternative modernity.’”

Bayat further says,

“Post-Islamism is expressed in terms of secular exigencies, in freedom from rigidity,”

and

“in breaking down the monopoly of religious truth.”

If Islamists are going through a post-Islamist transformation, then Islamists are being influenced and molded by exigencies of the secular world, and not vice-versa, as the authors seem to suggest. This ‘softens’ the “totalitarian” element in their character as they tailor their views to the wants of a rights-demanding society.

Ghaffar Hussain says,

“Post-Islamists are Islamists mugged by reality”

and the

“emergence of post-Islamism should be welcomed because it signals the failure of classical Islamism and teaches us that most people in the region are not motivated by ideology, instead preferring practical politics.”

He continues,

“In the long-term post-Islamism will also weaken the more extreme elements who are still dreaming of creating a totalitarian theocracy.”[[6]]

Responding to the Arab Spring, author Arshin Adib-Moghaddam says,

“What is slowly being engineered is an Islam that is geared to cultural emancipation, rather than ideological indoctrination.”[[7]]

Commenting on the lack of progress of the Islamist regimes since the Arab Spring began, former visiting Fellow at the Brookings Institute, Khalil al-Anani, says,

“…the most visible result of Islamists’ failure is the “desacralization” of their ideology,”

which means

“Islamism, as a religious and political ideology, is increasingly losing its credibility and symbolic power.”

Commenting on the Islamist experiment of governance, he says,

“After two years in power, such a state has proven to be nothing but a mere “mirage”

and

“…while Islamist parties are ascending, their ideology, ‘Islamism,’ is surprisingly descending.”

He concludes by saying,

“If the Arab Spring would tell us something after two years of torturous transition, it is that Islamism is yet another ‘illusive’ ideology that can’t preserve its credibility and salvation power without fulfilling peoples’ aspirations which may put Islamists’ future at stake.”[[8]]

Of the Tunisian and Egyptian revolutions of the Arab Spring, Islam scholar Olivier Roy says the demonstrators,

“…are operating in a secular political space, and they do not see in Islam an ideology capable of creating a better world.”[[9]]

Marc Sageman, former CIA psychologist and terrorism scholar who conducted studies on terrorists, concluded,

“[T]errorists in Western Europe and North America were not intellectuals or ideologues, much less religious scholars. It is not about how they think, but how they feel.”[[10]]

As stated, the protestors are largely non-ideological as well. Author and expert Fawaz Gerges says,

“On the whole, the revolts are peaceful, non-ideological, post-Islamist, and led by the embattled middle class, including a coalition of men and women of all ages and political colors: liberal-leaning centrists, democrats, leftists, nationalists, and Islamists.”

In addition,

“Clerics and mullahs are not key drivers; there is no Ayatollah Khomeini waiting in the wings to hijack the revolution and to seize power.”[[11]]

He also says that

“the revolutions have reinforced what many of us have already known: al-Qaeda’s core ideology is incompatible with the universal aspirations of the Arabs.”[[12]]

Recently in May 2013, Emad Abdel Ghafour, a Salafi adviser to former Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi, said he “had no problem” with Egypt’s peace with Israel.[[13]]

Even Salafis are being molded by the new social-political realities of the day.

Al-Qa’eda Beyond Ideology

Author and former FBI agent, Ali Soufan, who investigated the 1998 bombings of the U.S. embassies in East Africa and the 2000 attack on the USS Cole, said,

“…al-Qaeda’s rhetoric is not an ideology; it’s anti-American narrative” (italics added).[[14]]

In other examples, ideology does not always appear to be the motivator of actions of certain well-known militants.

Fawaz Gerges who had interviewed some of Zawahiri’s former cohorts in Egypt, Yemen, and other places in the late 1990s, says,

“The consensus was that pressing financial and operational circumstances forced his” – Zawahiri’s – “hand and caused him to join bin Laden’s front, a tactical move to rescue his sinking ship.”[[15]]

Some cohorts said,

“Zawahiri had no genuine interest in transnational jihad” and used the World Islamic Front to fight the “near enemy.’”[[16]]

Moreover,

“at the end of the Afghan war in 1989, none of the leading figures – neither Azzam, Fadl, Zawahiri, nor bin Laden – called for targeting the United States,”

and,

“at this stage, none of the important voices advocated an armed confrontation with the West.”[[17]]

Gerges further notes,

“Although there is no single explanation for bin Laden’s antipathy to America, the Gulf War and its aftermath, particularly the stationing of troops in Saudi Arabia, were primary.”[[18]]

Had ideology been the primary cause of their animosity towards the United States and its allies, why did they not express their ideological opposition towards the “infidels” earlier?

Terrorism expert, Jessica Stern, says,

“Terrorist movements often arise in reaction to a perceived injustice, as a means to right some terrible wrong, real or imagined. Yet ideology is not the only, or even the most important, factor in an individual’s decision to join a terrorist group.”

Stern continues,

“In interviewing terrorists, I have found that operatives are often more interested in the expression of a collective identity than they are in the group’s stated goals.”

She concludes,

This understanding – that ideology is not the only, or even the principal, reason that individuals are drawn to terrorist groups – needs to be incorporated into our counter-terrorism efforts, especially when we consider counter-radicalization” (italics added). [[19]]

The exaggeration of the role of ideology in Islamist movements has resulted in a myopic view of the terrorist threat by Islamophobes who appear to see most issues through a religion-ideology lens. This distorted view has caused them to create an unrealistic narrative that amalgamates everything “Islamic,” historically and contemporarily, as a single, fixed, and unchanging entity.

It is time to focus on other factors of extremist movements other than ideology to truly understand and win the war against extremists of all stripes.


[[1]] Stefan Durand, “The lie that is ‘islamofascism,’” Le Monde Diplomatique, November 2006, accessed May 20, 2013, http://mondediplo.com/2006/11/05islamofascism

[[2]] Olivier Roy, “Debate: There Will Be No Islamist Revolution,” Journal of Democracy 24:1 (Jan.2013): 14-19, accessed May 23, 2013, http://www.journalofdemocracy.org/sites/default/files/Roy-24-1.pdf

[[3]] Brynjar Lia. The Society of the Muslim Brothers in Egypt: The Rise of an Islamic Mass Movement, 1928-1942. Reading, England: Ithaca Press, 1998. p.2.

[[4]] Doug Saunders. The Myth of the Muslim Tide: Do Immigrants Threaten the West?. New York: Vintage Books, 2012. p.104. Saunders cited from Interview from Council on Foreign Relations: Masters, Jonathan. Interview with Mark Fallon. Radicalization and U.S. Muslims, March 11, 2011, accessed June 2, 2013, http://www.cfr.org/counterradicalization/radicalization-us-muslims/p24354

[[5]] Asef Bayat says, “The categories “Islamism” and “post-Islamism” serve primarily as theoretical constructs to signify change, difference, and the root of change. In practice, however, Muslims may adhere simultaneously to aspects of both discourses. The advent of post-Islamism does not necessarily mean the historical end of Islamism. What it means is the birth, out of the Islamist experience, of a qualitatively different discourse and politics. In reality we may witness for some time the simultaneous processes of both Islamization and post-Islamization.” (Asef Bayat, “What is Post-Islamism?” ISIM Review 16 (Autumn 2005): 518–542, accessed May 22, 2013, doi: 10.1080/09546550802257226, https://openaccess.leidenuniv.nl/bitstream/handle/1887/17030/ISIM_16_What_is_Post-Islamism.pdf?sequence=1)

[[6]] Ghaffar, Hussain, “Post-Islamists in the Arab World (or, Islamists Mugged by Reality),” The Guardian, November 12, 2011, accessed May 24, 2013, http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2011/nov/12/post-islamism-middle-east-democracy

[[7]] Arshin Adib-Moghaddam, “Do Tunisian Elections Mark Shift to ‘Post-Modernised Islam?’” CNN Opinion, October 28, 2011, accessed May 25, 2013, http://www.cnn.com/2011/10/28/opinion/adib-moghaddam-tunisia-islam-shift

[[8]] Khalil, al-Anani, “Desacrilization of Islamism,” Foreign Policy, February 11, 2013, accessed May 23, 2013,http://mideast.foreignpolicy.com/posts/2013/02/11/desacralization_of_islamism

[[9]] Olivier, Roy, “This is Not an Islamic Revolution,” New Statesman, February 15, 2011, accessed May 26, 2013, http://www.newstatesman.com/religion/2011/02/egypt-arab-tunisia-islamic

[[10]] Marc Sageman. Leaderless Jihad: Terror Networks in the Twenty-first Century. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2008. pp. 156-57

[[11]] Fawaz A. Gerges. The Rise and Fall of Al-Qaeda. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011. pp.17-18.

[[12]] Ibid., p.5.

[[13]] Elhanan, Miller, “Morsi’s Salafist Adviser: ‘We Have No Problem With the Peace with Israel,’” The Times of Israel, May 26, 2013, accessed June 5, 2013, http://www.timesofisrael.com/morsis-salafist-adviser-we-have-no-problem-with-the-peace-with-israel/

[[14]] Interview from Council on Foreign Relations: Masters, Jonathan. Interview with Ali Soufan. Islamist Extremism After the Arab Spring, September 14, 2012, accessed June 1, 2013, http://www.cfr.org/middle-east/islamist-extremism-after-arab-spring/p29053

[[15]] F. Gerges, op. cit.,p.36.

[[16]] Ibid., p.37.

[[17]] Ibid., p.46.

[[18]] Ibid., p.49.

[[19]] Jessica, Stern, “What Motivates Terrorists?” January 21, 2011, accessed May 21, 2013,
http://www.hoover.org/publications/defining-ideas/article/58841

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