Political Islam takes center stage since 9-11
By Andrew Hammond Tue Sep 5, 10:30 AM ET
RIYADH (Reuters) - In the five years since the
September 11 attacks, U.S. intervention abroad has fed
the extremism it seeks to destroy and cemented the
rise of political Islam as the ideology of choice for
millions in the Middle East, experts say.
Today, political Islam -- a diverse movement with
moderate as well as hard-line elements -- has been
widely embraced in the Arab world, where many feel
alienated by corrupt rule and foreign policies seen as
serving the interests of the United States and its
"Since September 11, I have worked on massive public
opinion polls in the Muslim and Arab world. You can
see the animosity between September 11 and now. It's
growing and it is worrying," said Jihad Fakhreddine, a
Lebanese analyst based in Dubai.
"The line between religiosity and extremism has become
thinner. In the time of colonialism, the antagonism
was not perceived in terms of the West and Islam.
Independence movements in the Arab world were driven
by nationalist feelings."
Radicals hitching themselves to the al Qaeda banner
are now fighting U.S.-allied governments in
Iraq and Saudi Arabia, and have staged attacks in
Morocco, Egypt, Yemen and Jordan.
Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood, a moderate Islamist group
which espouses non-violence, made a strong showing in
elections last year, while Palestinian Islamist group
Hamas, born in 1988 during the first Intifada against
Israeli occupation, won polls in January.
Islamist discourse dominates in the pan-Arab media,
where both nationalists and Islamists revere
Osama bin Laden, the al Qaeda leader seen as the
mastermind of the 9-11 attacks, as "Sheikh Osama."
Nationalist politicians, who on the face of it have no
reason to support Islamist movements, cheer their
ability to challenge the West on popular channels like
WAR ON ISLAM?
The U.S. response to 9-11, when 19 Arabs struck a
deadly blow to the heart of the world's only
superpower, has driven more people toward Islamist
politics, analysts say.
"American actions against political Islam after
September 11 have ironically contributed to its
further rise and emergence, even in its most
fanatical, extremist forms," said Lebanese-born
academic As'ad AbuKhalil, who teaches in California.
The United States has invaded Iraq and backed Israel
in its conflict with the Palestinians, presenting both
policies as part of a plan to spread democracy in a
dysfunctional Arab world.
Public opinion in the region has traditionally seen a
resolution of the Arab-Israeli conflict as the key to
solving the region's problems of democracy and
"Moderate Muslims are having a difficult time. They
are not at peace with the radicals, but they cannot
somehow make their point heard convincingly in the
West," said Jawad al-Anani, a former Jordanian
government minister of Palestinian origin.
President George W. Bush's recent comment that the
United States is battling "Islamic fascists" has
crystallized a widespread sense that the "war on
terror" is a war on Islam, Anani said.
"The Islamists have some ... valid arguments. They say
'we are fighting your enemies, who don't do anything
to solve your problems, who take Israel's side
blindly, who don't show any sympathy for Muslims being
killed in Palestine or Iraq'."
ARAB NATIONALISM REDUX?
Political Islam began its ascent long before 9-11.
Analysts say its roots largely lie in the failure of
secular Arab nationalism to challenge Western hegemony
and return land to dispossessed Palestinians.
Over 700,000 Palestinian Arabs fled or were driven
from their homes when Israel was created in 1948.
Israel won control of the remaining 22 percent of
historical Palestine in 1967, though its native
Palestinians remained in place.
"The rise of political Islam in the Middle East, to
which the United States and Western governments
contributed, only became noticed after September 11
with those attacks," AbuKhalil said.
"The underlying causes for the rise of Islamist
movements are non-religious in nature. It's about
foreign policy and the stand against corruption and
tyranny," he said.
Fred Halliday, a professor of international relations
at the London School of Economics, also pointed to
nationalism and the discrediting of past ideologies
that have failed in the domestic and foreign arena.
"9-11 was a very important event, but I don't actually
think in terms of Islamism in the Middle East it is
the main event," he said.
"Political Islam uses a lot of nationalist ideas and
themes. Bin Laden says countries are occupied by
foreigners and have the right to fight. With him,
Hamas or Hizbollah, 80 percent of the rhetoric is
secular nationalism reconfigured," Halliday said,
adding that Shi'ite Hizbollah also borrows from
Islamist movements today offer empowerment in the face
of U.S.-allied governments who argue that fighting the
America-imposed order is futile and that Palestinians
should make do with what they can get through talks
Islamists, with their slogan "Islam is the solution,"
say it doesn't have to be that way.
Saudi cleric Saleh bin Humaid captured the zeitgeist
during Friday prayers in Mecca this month.
"We are now, with God's will, witnessing a new dawn
that implants self-confidence in the (Muslim) nation
... so that it relies on its unity, its people and
wise policies rather than on international
organizations and resolutions," he said.