The Origins of Violent Islamism. Can the “political Islam” be seen as a cause for violent religious extremism in the Middle East?

Term Paper, 2015

12 Pages, Grade: 1,0




1 What is political Islam
1.1 Where did political Islam come from
1.2 The main ideological characteristics of political Isla

2 Islamist terrorism: a characterization on the example of ISI
2.1 Where and how did ISIS emerge
2.2 How does ISIS recruit its members?.
2.3 The ideology and goals of ISIS and other violent Islamist groups

3 What's the link between violent Islamism and the political Islam?
3.1 Ideological links and transitions between the political Islam and violent Islamism
3.2 The transition of political Islam into violent Islamism





Violent religious extremism is to be found nearly everywhere in human history. Yet, it seems today, as if the Arab world – and most lately Syria – would be the 'hub' of religiously motivated terrorist activities. But where do these movements come from? What are their roots?

The key assumption of this paper is, that the origin of religious extremism (but not necessarily religious extremism itself) is to seek in the rise of political Islam in the middle of the 20th century. Therefore, the central question to answering the questions above is: How could a constructive force, like the political Islam, lay the foundations for such a destructive force as is Islamist terrorism? As this question is very complex and difficult to answer in a paper as short as this is, we will subdivide our look upon the development of violent radical Islamism into three parts: (A) A characterization of political Islam, (B) The characterization of the Islamist terrorist organizations and their objectives on the example of ISIS, and (C) How the development of violent religious extremism links to the political Islam.

1 What is political Islam?

1.1 Where did political Islam come from?

The Arab novelist and sociologist Halim Barakat[1] gives in his sociological analysis of the Arab world "The Arab World: Society, Culture, and State"an excellent overview over the early development of religious influences in the Arab political thought in – what he calls – the "Independence and Postindependence"[2] period after World War II. He characterizes this period as the time when Arabs desperately searched for explanations and solutions to their ongoing defeats (Israel in1953/54 and 1967; the Gulf war in 1991, etc.) and the state of enduring crisis: "Arab aspirations for national unity, social justice, democracy, comprehensive development, and genuine independence have been shattered."[3] The political Islam claimed that the solution would lay in the Arabs' return to their traditions and the sociological teachings of the Qur'an. This was the intellectual climate in which the political influence of Islam resurrected from the state of irrelevance it had been in since the collapse of the Ottoman Empire. As one of three big ideological trends of this era (furthermore there were liberalism, and progressivism[4] ), that tried to find solutions to the decline of the Arab culture, the "religious trend"[5] really began to spread beyond the heads of its leaders after the Iranian Revolution 1979[6]. This religious uprising proved the feasibility of a religiously organized state in the 20th century and gave inspiration to many and manifold versions of the "religious trend". In that particular fact lies also the difficulty of analyzing the impacts of political Islam: the movements that promote the ideology of political Islam are very different, they "are typified by the Muslim Brotherhood, Hamas, Hizbullah, and Turkey's ruling [...] Party. They, in turn are joined by an infinite variety of Islamic parties and movements that are now reshaping the electoral map of the Islamic world."[7]

1.2 The main ideological characteristics of political Islam

So far we only saw that the main goal of the political Islam is to lead the Arabs back to what they believe are their roots. But what exactly can we imagine by that? Again, Halim Barakat is of great help here: In mentioning the "Islamic left"[8] around Hassan Hanafi, who called for social justice and the improvement of the conditions of the poor and had a very practical understanding of how the Islam should help improve the lives of all, Barakat shows us that not all affiliates of the political Islam were blind fundamentalists. Also Robin Wright pointed out that the political Islam can not be painted with one brush:

Yet democratic politics and piety are not necessarily contradictions. Many Islamists have evolved significantly from their early days. In the 1970s and 1980s, the code word to describe them all was fundamentalist. [...] But Islamism is not always extremism.[9]

So, one really can not generalize. But let us focus on the relevant question here: are there any really radical parts of political Islam that could create ideological fundaments for Jihadists? Bassam Tibi[10] argues that it is the strive for implementing Islam as a political order that makes Islamism what it is. Here we find the gray zone between the political Islam, that wants to renew society according to the democratic and social principles of Islam, and pure Islamism, that simply wants to establish Islam as a state order: "I have found that most analysts do not understand this dimension. Instead they reduce Islamism to the notion of 'radical Islam' and overlook its quest for an Islamic order."[11] As John Esposito[12] explains, "Islamic law, not the religious commitment or moral character of the ruler [...] was the criterion for the legitimacy of an Islamic state."[13] So, we identified one symbolic key target that indicates the success or failure of the establishment of Islam in politics to Islamists and outsiders alike: the implementation of Shari'ah law. Monte Palmer does make a quite simple distinction here between those who want to establish an Islamic government peacefully and those "wedded to the use of violence"[14]. But as we are, once again, interested in the gray zones in between, the question arises: What makes peaceful Islamists turn into violent Islamists?

2 Islamist terrorism: a characterization on the example of ISIS

2.1 Where and how did ISIS emerge?

The dramatic growth of the latest incarnation of international Islamist terror – ISIS – makes the last question evermore urgent, while at the same time providing some explanations. As Joby Warrick describes in "Black Flags"[15], the rise of ISIS – as it is known today – began as early as in the Iraq war. A Jordanian radical named Abu Musab al-Zarqawi (1960-2006) used the U.S. Invasion of Iraq to start a jihad against the west and the Shiites that he hated above all: up until his death in a U.S. Air strike in 2006, he committed countless terrorist attacks in Iraq under the name "Al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI)" or later "Islamic state in Iraq (ISI)".


1 Barakat, Halim. The Arab World: Society, Culture, and State. Berkeley, Los Angeles and London: University of California Press, 1993.

2 Ibid., p. 256.

3 Ibid.

4 Ibid., p. 257-265.

5 Ibid., p. 258.

6 Ibid.

7 Palmer, Monte. Islamic extremism: Causes, diversity, and challenges. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc, 2008, p. 37.

8 Barakat, The Arab world, p. 259.

9 Wright, Robin B. The Islamists are coming: Who they really are. Washington, DC: Woodrow Wilson Center Press: United States Institute of Peace Press, 2012, p. 2.

10 Tibi, Bassam. Islamism and Islam. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2012.

11 Ibid., p. 31.

12 Esposito, John L. Islam and politics. Syracuse, N.Y.: Syracuse University Press, 1998.

13 Ibid., p. 31.

14 Palmer, Islamic Extremism, p. 37.

15 Warrick, Joby. Black Flags: The Rise of ISIS. New York City: Doubleday, 2015.

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The Origins of Violent Islamism. Can the “political Islam” be seen as a cause for violent religious extremism in the Middle East?
University of Windsor  (Faculty of History)
Introduction to the Arab culture
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ISBN (Book)
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origins, violent, islamism, islam”, middle-east
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Ulrich Roschitsch (Author), 2015, The Origins of Violent Islamism. Can the “political Islam” be seen as a cause for violent religious extremism in the Middle East?, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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