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The Islamists (militant Moslems) Have it Wrong

The new Arab "identity" really derives from the impact of the West in the last fifty years 

Islamism...a symptom of secularization and..
a reshaping of...religion into a modern, 
ideological totalitarianism
-- Sheikh Muhammad Tahir-ul-Qadri

Islamism is a late 20th century totalitarianism. 
It follows in the wake of fascism and communism
-- Khalid Duran

The Islamists Have it Wrong
by Sheikh Abdul Hadi Palazzi
June 02, 2002

Western observers, both among the general public and the media, commonly make the mistake of thinking that Islamism1 is the same as traditional Islam. 
Even Western researchers describe Islamism as a resurgence of traditional Islam. One researcher describes Islamists as people of the "anthropological tradition"2. In contrast, moderate Sunni Muslims are characterized as those whose faith is mitigated, influenced by syncretism or diluted by a certain amount of secularization and Westernization.3 Yet, this turns reality upside-down.

In fact, Islamists depart in important ways from the Islamic tradition. This is especially apparent in what concerns divine attributes, Islamic law and Sufism. Indeed, some outstanding traditional Muslim scholars, such as Sheikh Muhammad Tahir-ul-Qadri 4 and Sheikh Ahmad al-'Alawi,5 see Islamism as a symptom of secularization and as a reshaping of their religion into a modern, ideological totalitarianism.6 It is view that I myself share and shall present here. 


Khalid Duran notes the distinction between traditional Islam and its political counterfeit by underlining their different understandings of the relationship between religion and politics: "Whether Islamists like the term fundamentalist or not, their understanding of religion resembles that of fundamentalists in other religions. This is not to say that Islamists are more religious or more genuinely Islamic than other Muslims. Islamism is a late 20th century totalitarianism. It follows in the wake of fascism and communism, picking up from those and seeking to refine their methods of domination."

Few Muslims would deny that political commitment is part of Islamic ethics, but most disagree with the Islamist insistence that there exists a clearly defined "Islamic system," different from all other political systems.7 Islamists draw on modern European models that posit a scientific revolutionary movement, an elitist scheme of ruling society by means of secret cults that act behind the scenes and a manufacture of consensus by means of propaganda. They reject those aspects of the Islamic tradition that do not fit with this political outlook.

Theirs is, in fact, an extremist ideology; they consider their organizations and militants as custodians of the projects for Islamizing the world and whoever criticizes them (be he a Muslim or a non-Muslim) is immediately accused of being anti-Islamic, "Islamophobic" and so forth. Unwilling to be ruled by non-Islamist Muslims, Islamists adopt an approach characterized by political supremacism. Their pious rhetoric does not hide the fact that they exploit the religious feelings of their followers to acquire mundane power and enhance their finances. They claim to be vanguard Muslims, integrating faith and politics, but their cardinal concern is holding power themselves and excluding others. Thus, the goal of these radicals is not genuinely religious, but political and even totalitarian. Like other totalitarian ideologies, contemporary Islamism is blindly utopian. It implies a wholesale denial of history; the Islamists' model of an ideal society is inspired by the idealized image of seventh-century Arabia and an ahistorical view of religion and human development. It is based on anachronistic thinking that rejects modern concepts of pluralism and tolerance. It ignores a history of Islam that is rich in models of heterogeneous social organization and adaptation to the times.

For Islamists, building an Islamic state is the central achievement of the prophetic mission.8 Conflating the role of the Muslim scholar with that of a political leader, they hold that the spread of Islam cannot be separated from the creation of what they call the Islamic state. They argue that "Islam is both religion and government" (al-Islam din wa dawla );9 and this serves the basic description of their creed. They neglect to mention, however, that this expression is found in neither the Qur'an, the Hadith (sayings and doings of the Prophet Muhammad), or in any other of the authoritative Islamic sources. The slogan was in fact coined by Ibn Taymiya (1263-1328), an extremist scholar who became a staunch supporter of anthropomorphic theology and of extreme literalism in the understanding of the Qur'an, and was heartily criticized by most of the Sunni theologians and jurists of his time.10


The Islamist version of jihad includes and legitimizes terrorism against civil targets such as churches, synagogues, and cemeteries and even against old people, women, and babies. Notwithstanding the clear Islamic prohibition on suicide, it also includes suicide operations. A recent fatwa by Mufti Farit Salman, deputy president of the Council of Muftis of the European States of Russia, eloquently condemned such behavior in the aftermath of the sacking of Joseph's Tomb, a Jewish shrine in Nablus: 

"There are many fanatics in the Holy Land who with their intelligence swayed by Satan wrecked the tomb of the Man of Allah, Joseph, peace be upon him; wrecked the tomb of the man whom the Messenger of Allah, Muhammad (blessings and peace upon him), met and conversed with in his ascension to the throne of Allah; wrecked the tomb of one of the dear prophets whom the Holy Qur'an disclosed as a model of physical and spiritual splendor and of humility . . . and this occurred during the [Islamic] holy month of Rajab! How could Muslims do such a thing? No! Those who gave hand to destroy a sanctuary of ours are not of us! . . . Woe unto those who desecrate the name of names, who demolish tombs of the prophets, synagogues, churches, mosques! Political actions cannot be painted over by religious motives."11

These problems are not limited to the Muslim world but are now also found in the West. Local branches of the radical organizations that promote terrorism in the Middle East are taking root in Western countries. They represent not more that 10 percent of the total Muslim population in those countries, but they control the main Muslim organizations and most of the mosques in western Europe and North America. They are a world-wide, organized network, using acronyms, but always ensuring that the Muslim Brethren is the inner circle behind the scenes. They claim to represent all Muslims and get a respectful reception from non-Muslims, who know no better.

This situation has many causes, but the principal one is that while traditional Islam is multifaceted and spontaneous, Islamism is forwarded by a worldwide network of activists funded by the Saudi and some other Gulf governments. Those looking for ways to prevent Muslim minorities in Europe and North America from turning to Islamism find that the Gulf countries represent the main obstacles. Ironically, then, the structure of the Muslim Brethren is supported, in other words, mainly by those countries that are regarded as friends of the West. Muslim Brethren are often appointed as imams of important mosques, especially in democratic countries where there is no ministry of religious affairs to check their orientation and where imams with the expected "permission to teach" (ijaza shar'i) are the exception.

The West is both loved and feared by Islamists. They cannot hope to defeat it militarily, so instead they aim to influence it from within. In part, this means that Islamists divide their work between militants and more moderate-sounding types. Militants execrate the U.S. government and call for its destruction, while the more moderate Islamists are honored guests at the White House. With the Soviet bloc history, they dream of making Saudi Arabia prevail over Israel in U.S. foreign policy. This will be achieved by increasing the Saudi lobby activity to convince the American establishment that Saudi Arabia serves not just as a source of key hydrocarbons, but also a gate to the Arab market; in contrast, Israel is presented as a strategic and economic liability.


The best means to limit the influence of Islamist factions is by supporting the teachings of traditional, moderate Islam. In the Middle East, unfortunately, this role of countering Wahhabism (the Saudi Arabia-based puritanical heresy at the base of Islamism) has not been assumed by moderate, Sufi-oriented Sunnis, so it was appropriated by the non-Muslim 'Alawis of Syria, headed by the Asad family. This circumstance has further discouraged the emergence of organized moderate Sunnis. In the former Soviet republics, in contrast, the muftis are starting to understand that Wahhabi infiltration threatens to change the face of their society; they seem to be willing to join forces in a common project of prevention. The president of Uzbekistan, Islam Karimov, has recently founded a new Islamic University in Tashkent12, which has among its main goals the education of moderate imams specially trained to refute Wahhabism and to promote dialogue between Muslims and other monotheists. In September 2000, the mufti of Russia, Sheikh Ravil Gainutdin, in cooperation with the muftis of Chechnya, Daghestan, Ingushetia, Bashkiria and Siberia, established in Kazan the first Islamic university in Russia. The goal of this university is also to fight extremist influences coming from abroad.13 This can be understood as a sign that the diffusion of Wahhabism is no longer understood by Sunnis as ineluctable and that the followers of traditional Islam are starting to realize how such a global menace necessarily calls for a coordinated self-defense.

Non-Muslims also have a role to play. They must overcome their tendency to assume that real Islam is the one propagandized by the Wahhabis and their Islamist network.14 They need to understand that Islamism is a menace not just for Muslims but for all humans. Once they realize these two points, they should increase their dialogue and work with those traditional Muslims who join them in seeing radicalism as a disease, and who have ideas for an appropriate therapy to heal those afflicted by it.


Sheikh Abdul Hadi Palazzi is secretary-general of the Italian Muslim Association (AMI) and director of the Cultural Institute of the Italian Islamic Community. He lectures in Muslim history at the Research Institute for Anthropological Sciences (IFOSCA) in Rome.

Copyright © AIJAC 2001
Last Updated 28 September, 2001
Cultural Institute of the Italian Islamic Community


1. Often called fundamentalist Islam, I do not use this term (or radical Islam). If anything, I would use the term radical pseudo-Islam, thereby indicating that Islamism is not a legitimate form of Islamic expression.

2. Ronald A. Lukens-Bull, "Between Text and Practice: Considerations in the Anthropological Study of Islam," Marburg Journal of Religion, Dec. 1999, p. 6.

3. Dale F. Eickelman, "Changing Interpretations of Islamic Movements," Islam and the Political Economy of Meaning, ed. William R. Roff (London: Croom Helm, 1987), pp. 13-30.

4. Muhammad Tahir-ul-Qadri, Philosophy of Ijtihad and The Modern World (Lahore: Idara Minhaj-ul-Quran, 1985), pp. 26-28.

5. Martin Lings, A Sufi Saint of the Twentieth Century (London, Allen & Unwin, 1971), pp. 79-98.

6. R. Stephen Humphreys, "The Contemporary Resurgence in the Context of Modem Islam," Islamic Resurgence in the Arab World, ed. Ali E. Hillal Dessouki (New York: Praeger Publishers, 1982), pp. 74-75.

7. Khalid Duran, "Muslims and Islamists in America," L'abbaglio dell'immigrazione (Rome: Istituto di Formazione per le Scienze Antropologiche, 2000), pp. 27-28.

8. Rahim Yar Khan, "Mission Statement of Tanzeem-e-Islami," Sept. 8 and 9, 1967, Ta'aruf-e-Tanzeem-e-Islami

9. Richard P. Mitchell, The Society of the Muslim Brothers (London: Oxford University Press, 1969), pp. 16-21.

10. 'Abdullah al-Harari, Maqalat as-Sunniya (Beirut: Dar al-Masharih, 1998), pp. 38-42.

11. Vesti (Tel Aviv), n. 1888, Oct. 19, 2000.

12. Islam Karimov, Uzbekistan on the Threshold of the Twenty-first Century (Richmond, Surrey: Curzon Press, 1997), pp. 19-28.

13. ITAR-TASS International News Service (Moscow), Sept. 28, 2000.

14. Asher Eder, Peace Is Possible between Ishmael and Israel according to the Qur'an (Jerusalem: Root & Branch, 1996), pp. 5-11.

This page was produced by Joseph E. Katz
Middle Eastern Political and Religious History Analyst 
Brooklyn, New York 
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