Middle East Review of International Affairs
Vol. 2 No. 2/May 1998

Islamic Radicalism In The Middle East: A Survey & Balance Sheet

By Barry Rubin *

Almost 20 years after 1979 Iran's Islamic revolution, radical fundamentalist forces in the Middle East have achieved two great victories and suffered two major defeats. These four factors give a clear sense of these movements'—and thus also the region's— present and future situation.

The first great victory is that the Iranian regime has survived and continues to have a strong hold on the country and a reasonably high level of popular support. It has been joined by another Islamic government in Sudan.

The second big triumph has been that revolutionary Islamic doctrine and groups have become the principal opposition force throughout the region. In virtually every country, there are organized forces which draw on Iran's example and challenge the current rulers.

At the same time, however, these movements have suffered equally—or even more—impressive setbacks. First, there have been only two successful revolutions. The spread of upheaval has been far less than the Iranians hoped and their opponents feared. Radical Islamic groups did not find it easy to seize power and their prospects for doing so in other countries are not good.

The other problem is that popular support for these movements has been limited among Muslims and even among those who are pious. While both of these two problems can be attributed in part to the cleverness of the existing regimes—the fear and effectiveness of their repression, outside help given to these rulers, some countries' large oil income, and so on—the main reason is the nature of the revolutionary doctrine and groups themselves. This issue will be discussed below.


Defining Radical Fundamentalism

There is not space here to go into great detail about the definition of this movement. The word "fundamentalism" itself has been rightly controversial since, after all, it represents an attempt by the radicals to define themselves as the proper interpretation of Islam. This is an extraordinarily important point since it is precisely the refusal of most Muslims to accept this claim that lies at the root of the movement's failures to gain hegemony in the region.

A three-part definition of the movement's key premises is useful here:

1. Islam is the answer to the problems of their society, country, and region. Relative weakness compared to the West, slow or stagnant economic development, the failure to destroy Israel, domestic and inter-Arab disunity, inequality and injustice, and other such problems are due to the failure to implement Islam.

Many Muslims would agree with the first sentence but they would find other sources of doctrine or causes of the current situation equally or more acceptable. For example, very large numbers embrace Arab nationalism or other political ideologies. They can have a strong loyalty to the nation-state where they live. The failures of recent decades may be attributed by them to the need for gradual economic progress, pragmatic or more moderate policies, regional peace, better relations with the West, etc.

The virtual single-factor explanation of shortcomings, grievances and solutions mark the radical Islamic groups. A Western analogy might be that while there were many liberals and social democrats, intellectuals and workers, who accepted elements of Communist thinking (the need for social justice and change, the importance of economic power, etc.), far fewer were able to accept the narrow (deterministic, monistic) views of that doctrine.

2. Implementing Islam and resolving the huge problems of the people and states requires the seizure and holding of power by radical Islamic groups, and not by any other type of government or political group. Here is the intellectual revolution whose best- known—but hardly sole—proponent and architect was Iran's Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini.

The significance of the word "fundamentalism" is that the radicals interpret the need for Islam to be in political power is a core value of Islam. Any view of Islam that does not accept this tenet is not legitimate. In historical terms, the problem here is that Islam existed for many centuries with the domination of the completely opposite idea: A ruler should be properly pious but the state need not be itself ruled and shaped by Islam.

The radicals claim they are going back to the religion's origins in the seventh century (hence, returning to fundamentals), but in fact their's is a deviant—even heretical viewpoint. It is simply not accepted by the majority of Muslims, nor even by the majority of clerics. Even in Iran, there were and are many respected senior clerics who reject Khomeini's views. Indeed, those who reject "fundamentalism" are often more respected and have better scholarly credentials than those who embrace it.

This factor is an enormous problem for the radicals, who often face an uphill battle to gain or enlarge a base of popular support. A Western analogy here would be that while Communist movements claimed to speak on behalf of large social groups—workers, oppressed nations and groups, progressive thinkers—these people usually rejected that purported leadership.

3. The only proper interpretation of Islam is the one offered by a specific political group and its leaders. This premise also poses a serious problem. For if the majority does not accept the doctrine as a whole, even more people will not agree with the details of a given group's ideology, program, tactics and strategy. While some revolutionary groups draw on one or more respected Islamic clerics, they are often small and marginal groups. And of course one man's respected cleric may be another man's charlatan or heretic.

Several additional consequences arise from this premise. Such movements are almost inherently intolerant since they claim to speak with the voice of God, while their opponents' views can only be explained as heretical or even satanic. But intolerance can inhibit growth. Moreover, since possessing the correct line is so important and powerful a factor, internal compromises are hard to make. There is rarely room in any organization for more than one charismatic leader. Factions and splits are inevitable, thus weakening the movement and sometimes leading to fighting among themselves.

The claims of the radical Islamic groups pose a huge problem also for Muslim citizens. If the revolutionaries' brand of Islam is valid, this means their own version is wrong, despite the fact that they and their ancestors have lived in that framework for their entire lives.


Additional Political Difficulties

As political actors, revolutionary Islamic groups face a series of difficult problems.

Since religious doctrine is at the core of their ideology, Sunni and Shia Muslim radicals find it difficult—though not always impossible—to cooperate. Iran's ethnically Persian and religiously Shia are a real barriers to its obtaining Arab and Sunni followers. The fact that Islamists deny these factors does not make them any the less real.

As was so long true in Arab nationalist groups, handling foreign sponsorship or interference can be a very difficult and divisive challenge for a revolutionary organization. To cite one example, there are about six different factions of (Palestinian) Islamic Jihad each with different sponsorship (Iranian, Syrian, and Libyan). Afghanistan offers similar examples. Groups become the surrogates or pawns of regimes, and those rulers need not be radical Islamists themselves in order to play this game. The ability of states to offer safe havens, finances, training, military equipment, diplomatic support, and other benefits makes seeking their sponsorship a very tempting proposition for relatively small revolutionary groups.

In a situation reminiscent of the Soviet Union's relationship to Communist movements, Iran is seeking to create its own empire, or at least a sphere of influence using these groups as Tehran's instruments. Putting its own national interest first, Iran may manipulate or sacrifice the interests of the revolutionaries. For example, at a time when Syria was killing and imprisoning Islamic oppositionists, Iranian interests have dictated a strong alliance with Damascus—including massive oil transfers—in order to isolate Iraq. During the 1990-1991 crisis resulting from Iraq's takeover of its neighbor, radical Islamists overwhelmingly supported Saddam Hussein, even though he murdered, tortured, and exiled many thousands of their colleagues.

While some radical Islamists decry the existence of separate nation-states, this political framework cannot be ignored. Indeed, Islamic groups often owe their growth and strength to the fact that they are representatives of ethnic or national groups. In Lebanon, Hezbollah is essentially a Shia communal party opposing Christian hegemony, a situation that guarantees opposition from the country's other communities. In Syria, the fundamentalists represent a Sunni majority, the country's traditional rulers, which opposes an essentially non-Muslim (Alawite) government. In Iraq, the movement represents the Shia community against a largely Sunni ruling elite.

With the partial exception of the Muslim Brotherhood network— (encouraging some cooperation between the Egyptian, Jordanian, Palestinian (Hamas), and Syrian Muslim Brotherhoods—each movement stands mostly on its own in battling a relatively well-financed and well-armed local government.

Similarly, each radical Islamic movement must develop a strategy and tactics appropriate for its individual country with extremely varied environments. Consequently, the groups grow in different directions, set disparate levels of escalation, and find dissimilar responses to their problems.

Finally, governments are often quite sophisticated in a wide variety of tactics to counter revolutionary fundamentalists. These measures include expropriating Islamic symbols, coopting large elements of Islamic institutions, and repressive means. To cite a few examples:


The Issue Of Violence

Aside from questions of ideology, the use of violence is an extremely controversial and sometimes divisive issue. While all radical Islamic movements want to gain power and never relinquish it, there are differences over how to obtain this goal, depending on the situation in specific countries and the views of the local leadership. It should be stressed that while small radical Islamic groups commit acts of terrorism in a number of Middle East states, only four substantial conflicts are taking place: revolutionary efforts in Algeria and Egypt; anti-Israel assaults among the Palestinians and in Lebanon.

Some radical Islamists argue that it is possible to obtain power by persuasion, using any pluralist openings offered by the system. In addition to elections and propaganda, groups have developed a large variety of grassroots social programs to build a mass base of support by showing their doctrine in action. These include the creation of school systems, youth clubs, and welfare activities that benefit poorer people. Professional associations and student groups can be taken over through elections, even in many countries where the general elections are tightly regulated by the regime. Control of individual mosques and the preaching of a political Islamic message is also an important technique.

There are, at times, an opportunistic element here since the incumbent governments will clearly not allow this opposition to win. Consequently, the movement is trading a freedom to operate (and to gain benefits for the leaders) in exchange for accepting certain limits.

More consistently, movements cam come to be genuinely reformist, trying to act as pressure groups to move the society toward a more Islamic one (at least, in the eyes of the group) without being able to transform it altogether. This trend, most clearly true in Turkey and Jordan, could be a long-term propensity elsewhere, as happened in the socialist and Communist movements over several decades. But this pattern also brings splits as some militants believe that the parent movement has sold out and abandoned its original principles.

A violent revolutionary strategy can result when the government gives the Islamic opposition no alternative. Yet it would be wrong to consider this as merely a result of repression. There are, indeed, four types of situation in this regard:

An Islamic group can also be empowered by claiming the job of leading the community against foreign, non-Muslim forces. This was the case with those fighting the Soviets in Afghanistan as well as regarding Lebanese Hezbollah and also Palestinian Hamas and Islamic Jihad in fighting against Israel. In general, Islamic radicals reject Israel's existence and any peacemaking with that country on theological as well as political terms.

Yet in both cases—leading a community or directing the fight against infidels—the radical Islamic forces are not guaranteed a victory. There are always competing forces for ethnic loyalties that usually can muster more supporters. Even Hezbollah and Hamas, playing on highly popular anti-Israel themes, cannot gain hegemony, respectively. over Amal (the more nationalist-oriented Lebanese Shia group) or the Palestine Authority and the nationalist groups arising from the Palestine Liberation Organization.

In contrast to killing others, murdering fellow Muslims is more of both an ideological and practical problem. Although often contradicted by history—the Iran-Iraq war is a good contemporary example—Muslims are not supposed to wage war on fellow Muslims. The assassination of officials who are Muslims, much less innocent bystanders, often leads to criticism of the radicals as acting improperly in Islamic terms. Even the practice of suicide bombing has been criticized by some distinguished clerics as contrary to Islam.

The above analysis also indicates the importance and nature of radical Islamist terrorism. Terrorism is not just an insult hurled by the revolutionaries' opponents, it is also a key part of the strategy of some groups. Like those who used similar techniques in Europe a century ago, these radicals believe that bombings and assassinations will delegitimize the government and produce a mass uprising. Terrorism also arose from the frustration of groups unable to stage revolutions, and increasingly bitter at the masses' refusal to support their cause. The people thus become the enemy.

But there is another way in which terrorism is even more important. By arguing that non-Muslim adversaries have no rights and are enemies of God who should either be driven out or kept out, the radicals can justify killing any member of a target group—such as Israelis, other communities as in Lebanon, or Western tourists. Such attacks are also designed to raise the revolutionaries' popularity in their own constituency, revenge popular grievances, and show the progress and effectiveness of the organizations involved. In short, many—but by no means all—the radical groups consider terrorism as both justified and useful.

As has happened before in history, however, it is hard to manage such violence and such potent, passionate ideological arguments. Even if all the massive killings of Algerian peasants was not attributable to the Islamist groups, the revolutionaries' brutality was very much in evidence.


A Typology Of Radical Islamic Groups

Again, though, it is important to stress that radical Islamic groups have adapted to extremely varied conditions in different countries with distinctive sets of strategies and tactics.


Revolutionary groups are carrying out armed struggle in Algeria, Egypt, Syria, and Iraq to overturn existing governments. Aside from Algeria, these are all relatively small underground organizations though they have larger circles of supporters. The most repressive states—Syria and Iraq—have had the greatest success in suppressing such insurgencies, which embody grievances which are otherwise barred from expression, much less solution. It should again be noted that the Syrian and Iraqi movements are representatives of ethnic-national communities. This last point also holds for Saudi Arabia, where radical Shia groups (an ethnic minority of less than 10 percent) also stage sporadic attacks.

In Algeria, however, a full-scale revolt has resulted from the military 's refusal to let a broad-based, reformist Islamic group, the Islamic Salvation Front (FIS), attain an electoral victory. The FIS, then, is a reluctant revolutionary group and many FIS leaders would be happy to achieve a negotiated solution that gave them a share of power. More extreme groups, like the Armed Islamic Group (GIA), reject any compromise. Ironically, the regime's relative openness earlier may have created a situation in which more moderate Islamic forces were forced into extreme responses.

An interesting comparison here is with Egypt, where the Muslim Brotherhood is the equivalent of the FIS. The government lets the Brotherhood participate in electoral politics, hold parliamentary seats, and function as a movement. But the permissible lines are clearly set. Periodic repression and vote-rigging show the Brotherhood that it will not be permitted to gain power and will be crushed if it seems to pose a threat of seizing power.

The violent revolutionaries are much smaller groups who split off from the Brotherhood because they thought it too timid or who came up through campus or neighborhood groups. While Egyptian radicals have killed many people, they have a far smaller base than their Algerian counterparts and are badly divided among themselves.

National Liberationists

Palestinian and Lebanese groups (and those in Afghanistan as well) have had a dual purpose. While they wish to spark an Islamic state among their own people, their first priority has been fighting others. Hamas and Islamic Jihad have launched terrorist attacks on Israel while competing for popular support with the PLO- ruled Palestinian Authority (PA). The PA arrests their activists and refuses to let them seize power, but there is also a strong measure of mutual tolerance to prevent a civil war.

Within Lebanon, Hezbollah attacks Israel and its allies in southern Lebanon. At the same time, Hezbollah tries to seize power within the Shia community and in the country as a whole. The non- Shia communities, the Lebanese government, and Lebanon's Syrian masters totally oppose Hezbollah's program for Lebanon but tolerate or help its attacks against Israel. The big question for Hizbollah is whether it will really revise its goal to be ensuring Israeli withdrawal from southern Lebanon (which means it must give up attacks against Israel), or refuse to revise its aspirations (and thus ensure that Israeli forces remain in southern Lebanon). The extent of future Iranian support will be an important factor in this process.

Thus, while the Islamic groups flourish and are allowed to service their constituencies with various institutions, they are also kept from progressing toward national rule. As long as Islamists accept these limits, the situation can continue but a serious effort to alter the power balance would lead to civil wars more closely resembling those in the first group discussed above.


In Jordan, Morocco, Kuwait, Turkey, Pakistan, and Israel, Islamic parties have largely eschewed violence and act as social and parliamentary movements. Acting within the legal system allows them to have influence and bring about some changes. But ultimately they will have to decide whether to limit themselves to this rule.

The movements, of course, argue that these techniques win followers and provide a springboard for seizing power in the future. It is also possible that they themselves will be transformed into interest groups which ultimately reinforce rather than subvert the status quo.


Future Developments

The American and French revolutions encouraged a wave of democratic revolutions throughout Europe and elsewhere. The Russian revolution inspired the formation of Communist parties which struggled to imitate it for many decades. The Chinese and Cuban revolutions launched many movements that imitated their strategies in the belief that these victories could be duplicated.

Iran's revolution should be seen in a similar historic perspective. Islamic movements respond to the failures of nationalism and other world views, the strains of development, the pressures of Westernization, and social problems. They will continue to develop and evolve for some decades to come.

Their future orientations could be in a more militant or more moderate direction, with different movements taking each of these directions:

On one hand, the seizure of power anywhere by an Islamic movement—Algeria is the most obvious place but neither the only possible one nor the scene of an inevitable Islamist victory—would greatly encourage and probably radicalize others. Such a revolution would make others more militant as they tried to duplicate that success. A demographic wave of young people, along with the incumbent regimes' failures and growing socio-economic pressures may allow radical Islamic groups to grow in size and their ability to challenge the current rulers.

On the other hand, there might be a long-run trend toward moderation, producing some Islamic parties with a reformist orientation as happened over time with European Socialist and even nor Communist parties. There are even signs of such developments in Iran, as moderates and radicals struggle under the umbrella of the Islamic revolution. In Turkey's case, that has already happened since the Welfare party (under its various names), despite containing extremist elements, is clearly a part of the political order despite being declared illegal in its current form.

Islamists could become the equivalent of Christian Democratic parties of Europe or Latin America, or the religious parties in Israel. In other words, the party would focus on pushing certain specific issues and protecting the interests of its supporters, rather than seeking to transform the society as a whole. One question would be whether an Islamist party which did gain power peacefully would also give it up under democratic conditions.

Under present circumstances, however, the hope of success in gaining and holding power keeps the bulk of the movement rather militant in both ends and often regarding means as well. The momentum of Iran's revolution and other regional events is by no means exhausted. Yet it is also far from the triumphal march into power hoped for by the Islamists themselves.

*: Barry Rubin is Senior Resident Scholar at the BESA Center for Strategic Studies and Editor of the Middle East Review of International Affairs. His books include Islamic Fundamentalists in Egyptian Politics, Paved with Good Intentions: The American Experience and Iran; Modern Dictators: Third World Strongmen, Coupmakers, and Popular Tyrants; Revolution Until Victory?: The Politics and History of the PLO, and Essays on a New Middle East Era. Back.