Militant Islam is a term used to cover those groups, currents, symbols, and individuals who use Islam as a pretext for armament, fighting, and violence. It is a term that covers various methods and styles, ranging from radical theorizing and the issuance of provocative fatwas, to planned and organized operations, to simple cold-blooded murder.
According to some today, there is a vast difference between militant and political Islam, yet history tells us that this is not an accurate reading. From the beginning, the Muslim Brotherhood—the oldest and most prominent representatives of political Islam—have cultivated militant Islam from within through secret organizations and specialist groups. It is well known that the Brotherhood carried out many bombings, assassinations, and acts of violence under the eyes of their founder, Hassan Al-Banna. The group also sought to incite revolutions, as happened in Yemen in 1948. During the era of the second Brotherhood General Guide Hassan Al-Hudaybi, this violent trend continued. At the time, illustrious Brotherhood member Yusuf Al-Qaradawi conveyed his consent, as did Zaynab Al-Ghazali. The trail can also be traced back to Sayyid Qutb, who was executed following a state crackdown on the Brotherhood in the 1960s. Indeed, we can assert that the violent religious organizations of the 1970s emerged from the womb of Qutb’s rhetoric.
In the 1980s, at the time of the Afghan Jihad against the soviets, some claimed that the Muslim Brotherhood had nothing to do with what was happening there. However, this is untrue because the group was actively involved from an early stage with the Afghan Arabs, most notable with Abdullah Azzam, a true Brotherhoodite in terms of origin, thought, and loyalty. The same goes for Osama Bin Laden, who was once a Brotherhood member until he was expelled from the group at a certain stage due to a dispute over the tenets of discipline and obedience. Two of the Brotherhood’s General Guides famously visited Pakistan, Mohammed Nasr and Hamed Abu Mustafa Mashhur, the latter of whom offered Bin Laden a return to the group’s ranks but he refused. The Brotherhood also used to support Burhanuddin Rabbani and his military commander Ahmad Shah Massoud unreservedly, and they benefitted from the situation in Afghanistan overall for two reasons: They were able to gain influence over the charitable organizations that were providing financial support to the Afghan and Arab Mujahedeen, along with the training camps where recruits were preparing for “a day after Afghanistan”.
In the 1990s armed Islamic movements returned strongly to the Arab scene, especially in Egypt. They were based—in terms of their rhetoric and stances towards the state and society—on the literature of the Muslim Brotherhood. Here some may contend that a fatwa actually acquits the Brotherhood’s discourse from the consequences of these militant groups, but this is only a small part of the truth. The fatwa may isolate the radical discourse of those groups, but their organization and infrastructure still owe themselves to the Brotherhood.
The infrastructure of these violent religious groups was built on the Muslim Brotherhood ideology. It occupied center stage and represented the principal recourse to justify their bloody acts.
In this context, we can observe that militant Islam, represented by terrorists and violent acts, often spreads under the banner of political Islam. Aside from the history mentioned above, consider the example of the jihadi movement that has grown under the rule of Hamas in Gaza, or how Al-Qaeda has grown under the rule of the Muslim Brotherhood in Sudan. Likewise, Shi’a violence and terrorism grew under the rule of Shi’a political Islam in Iran, and then moved on to Iraq to spread terror, murder, and devastation after power was seized there.
Today, in light of the fundamentalist spring that has swept through the so-called Arab Spring states, we can identify a continuous relationship between current events and history. To emphasize the point, under the Ennahda movement in Tunisia jihadi movements are wreaking destruction, and in Egypt the same is happening in Sinai and elsewhere, with preachers on the streets of Cairo glorifying Sadat’s assassin, Khaled Islambouli, as a hero and a martyr. In Libya, although political Islam has not come to power due to multiple factors unique to the situation in that country, the Islamists still have a strong political presence. Violent religious groups are spreading in the south, in contact with the triangle of Algeria, Mali, and Mauritania in the west, and southern Egypt and northern Sudan in the east.
There are three important conclusions to note here. Firstly, attempts to market a decisive separation between militant Islam and political Islam are not necessarily fact-based or objective. In most cases they are attempts to polish, serve, and promote an agenda. They do not actually intend to read or analyze the situation in as much as they are concerned with acquitting political Islam and the history of the Muslim Brotherhood, its rhetoric, and its ideology, from any links with violence.
Secondly, a high degree of intimacy between these militant and political groups and currents has been found in all political and social processes after the fundamentalist spring. Any disputes going on between them merely fall within the notion of “tensions brought about by close proximity”. In other words, all these groups head out from the same starting points and the same rhetoric, and are fighting over the same social strata. Any disputes are borne out of similarity, not contradictions.
Thirdly, political Islam groups—after coming to power—have benefitted greatly from the presence of these militant groups and currents. They exploit them to put pressure on state institutions such as the judiciary, and public institutions such as the media and other political parties. The political Islamists put themselves forward as a form of salvation front that can curb the actions of the radicals. This is especially true when it comes to relations with Western countries, where they say: “It’s either us or them, we represent moderate Islam and they represent radical Islam or political Islam as opposed to militant Islam”.
All of the above confirms that we have entered a fundamentalist era with fundamentalist priorities. From here, political and diplomatic mechanisms, thoughtful arguments, and understanding and analysis will help to create a more coherent and sophisticated vision.
Militant Islam and political Islam share a deep-rooted history, ideology, and rhetoric. Given recent developments, this would suggest that religious violence will only increase in future.