What is Islamism?

Islamism is a modern political concept which declares the integrity and validity of Islam as a system for living, as outlined in the Qur’an, which attempts to establish Muslim values as the basis for Muslim societies.

It is often seen as a conservative and traditional force against the Westernisation of Islamic societies. However, many Muslims dispute that this is what Islamism is, or that there is even such a thing as Islamism.

If the nature of Islamism divides Westerners, it divides Muslims too.

1928 The Islamic Revival

The dismemberment of most of the Muslim Ottoman Empire by non-Muslim European colonial powers after World War One (following colonial aggression against other major Muslim empires such as Mughal India and Safavid Persia) provided a dramatic blow to Muslim consciousness. The last Islamic empire had been brought to its knees.

Muslim writers in India, some of whom were involved in growing calls for a partition of an independent India into separate Muslim and Hindu states, began to call for a new political awakening for Muslims.

The Muslim Brotherhood was founded in Egypt in 1928. The Brotherhood claimed it had a vision of Islamic democracy that was both modern and traditional. It was the first major Islamist grouping and quickly inspired others across the Arab world.


Early meeting of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt

1948 Israel and Palestine

Undoubtedly, one of the most galvanising forces in the revival of Islam has been the foundation and expansion of the state of Israel.

In 1917, with the Balfour Declaration, Britain, in the process of expanding its authority in the Middle East, committed to the foundation of a Jewish homeland in Palestine. Previously mainly populated by Arab Muslims and Christian, Jewish migration to the area accelerated, especially immediately before and after the Nazi Holocaust.

In 1947, the United Nations agreed to partition Palestine into two states, one Jewish, one Arab (Muslim and Christian) with a shared administration over Jerusalem. This led to the formation of the state of Israel in 1948 and immediate war, which Israel won.Newly independent Arab states were aggressively anti-Israeli.

The 1967 Six Day War saw Israel seize the West Bank from Jordan and the Gaza Strip from Egypt when the Arab states lost a war they had begun. Israel began to dispossess and deport large numbers of Palestinians. The Palestinian Liberation Organisation (PLO) began a long insurgency with violence and atrocities on both side.

Attempts to censure Israel at the United Nations were blocked by her allies, the United States and the United Kingdom, Palestine’s old colonial master. Islamists saw these events as proof of the ongoing attempts of Israel’s Western allies to aggressively interfere in the region’s affairs.

Increasingly violent groups emerged, which openly supported terrorism and the destruction of Israel. The Oslo Accords of 1993 promoted a “roadmap” to a two-state solution in which each side recognised the right of the other to exist. However, progress since has been very slow and has often reversed into violence and recrimination from both sides.


Mass protests by a coalition of Islamists, Communists and liberals brought down the Shah’s regime in Iran in 1979.

1979 Iran Becomes An Islamic Republic

The Shah of Iran, Reza Pahlavi, ruled Iran from 1941 to 1979, was much feted by Western powers not least Britain for his liberal attitudes to Western interests in the country’s enormous oil wealth. But in Iran, Pahlavi was not nearly so well-regarded.

The Shah lived in immense luxury whilst Iranians were generally poor. He was a brutal dictator. His intensely feared secret police, SAVAK, was one of the bloodiest in the world.

In the late 1970s, when strikes and protests finally re-emerged, such was the unpopularity of the Shah that his regime quickly crumbled. The Islamist leader, Ayatollah Khomeini, returned from exile, the Shah fled, and an Islamic republic was declared.

The suddenness of the events shock waves through the Islamic world. At the heart of Islamism was the belief that a modern, pure Islamic democracy could exist, and here, it was hoped, was one.

However, the new regime in Iran proved oppressive and many Iranians fled abroad. Moreover, it attracted the hatred of the United States and its allies in the region, such as Saudi Arabia.

1970s: The Global Influence of Wahhabism Grows

Wahhabism is named after an eighteenth-century Arabian preacher and scholar, al-Wahhab. He advocated a strict, puritanical revival of Islam with a literal interpretation of the Qur’an as the basis for the whole society.

Wahhabism is a particularly strict and literalist form of Islam and is the major doctrinal approach of the oppressive, traditionalist royal regime of Saudi Arabia, which became vastly rich on oil production in the 1960s and 1970s.

From the 1970s onwards, the Saudi regime was accused by Muslims of using its vast financial resources to “bribe” Muslim communities outside Arabia with patronage and investment in return for acceptance of Wahhabi principles.

By the 1990s and 2000s, many liberal Muslims both in the Middle East and the West were writing of an alarming move towards a literal, intolerant Wahhabi approach to the religion, under huge Saudi pressure on mosques and political groups.

Certainly, more extreme forms of Islamism receive funding and their religious identity from Wahhabi sources. However, it should also be remembered that the United States also funded Islamic extremist groups, most notably in Afghanistan.


Cartoon from 1979 shows Soviet leader Brezhnev intimidating weaker “Muslim rebels” in Afghanistan. Initially, the latter were seen as freedom fighters by US and UK and funded as such.

1979 Afghanistan

Afghanistan was invaded by the Soviet Union in 1979. Islamist resistance groups were secretly supported by the Americans whom they saw as anti-Communist allies in a war of Soviet aggression. Among these groups were the Taliban.

When the Soviets withdrew in 1989, and the Marxist regime in Afghanistan collapsed in 1992, many saw it as a great victory for Islam. Veterans of the war returned home to the countries of the Middle East and North Africa and began less high-profile but long and bloody civil wars in countries such as Algeria.

As the Islamist revival continued, and the presence of fundamentalists became more apparent in Muslim countries, the societies sometimes adopted more conservative principles.

In previously more liberal capital cities, more Arab women turned away uncovered heads and revealing Western fashions.

Finally, in 1991, Saddam Hussein, once an American ally, attacked Kuwait as a means to attack Saudi Arabia. For the first time in decades, large numbers of Western troops were now directly invading Islamic soil.

The old narratives of an ongoing, centuries-long Western attack on Islam had never been more underlined for many. In the decades which would follow, this process would only intensify.

After the end of the war in Afghanistan, a well-connected Saudi who had been fighting in the war there named Osama bin-Laden formed al-Qaeda.

2001 al-Qaeda, the Taliban and Iraq

The 1993 Oslo Accords’ “roadmap to peace” for Israel and Palestine provided a crossroads for the Islamic Revival. As part of the roadmap, a small number of authoritarian Arab regimes recognised Israel whilst the Palestinian leadership were seen as having admitted defeat to Zionism, that is, the commitment to a Jewish homeland.

Israel remained a sorely divisive issue in the Muslim world. Many wanted to find a realistic solution to the issues of Palestine and for the region to move on, others rejected all compromise, seeing Israel as a cruel, racist regime supported by its ally, the United States.

People like bin Laden saw this as an opportunity to promote their own rejection of all things Western, seeing America’s hand in everything. They could paint the Oslo Accords as final proof of the necessity for a radical, militaristic Islamic revival, far beyond anything that had gone before.

Based in Afghanistan, bin-Laden arranged the bombings of US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998, killing 200 people, drawing world attention to al-Qaeda for the first time. Three years later, he arranged the September 11 2001 destruction of the Twin Towers in New York City.

The United States, backed by its ally the United Kingdom, immediately attacked Afghanistan and two years later, in contravention of international law, attacked Iraq. A series of calamitous Western military campaigns ensued, accompanied by murderous civil wars.

Rather than quell the narrative of murderous Western Crusaders among Muslims, the deaths of at least a million Afghans and Iraqis in illegal wars only served to emphasise it.

2011 the Arab Spring and ISIS-Daesh

In December 2010, a young Tunisian man, faced with harsh treatment by an uncooperative and arrogant police officer, set himself on fire in the street. That image was immediately went viral on social media. This small, tragic image came to represent all that was wrong in the old Arab dictatorships.

The capital cities of the Arab world were soon also filled with protestors and over the course of the next year, the old dictators fell from power in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, and Yemen. Major protests arose in many other countries.

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Egyptian protest in Cairo during the Arab Spring

Young Arabs demanded democracy, greater openness, work opportunities and, in some cases, better human-rights and women’s-rights conditions. Briefly, it appeared as if change was coming to the Arab world, as it had to Communist Eastern Europe 20 years before.

But hope quickly faded. Many Arab Spring demonstrations were met with violent responses from authorities.

Civil war broke out in Libya, where the 30-plus-year rule of Colonel Gaddafi came to an end. Extraordinary images filmed on a mobile phone of the once-feared dictator being beaten to death in the streets of Tripoli circulated around the world.

A long and bloody civil war opened in Syria. In the countries which descended into chaos, there was now a radical resurgence of violent jihadism, which would entirely eclipse al-Qaeda on the international stage.

ISIS, or Daesh as it is known in the Arab world, was a relatively obscure extremist Wahhabi militant group until in 2014, it proclaimed itself a caliphate and assumed political control in large parts of Syria and Iraq, both of which were in or just emerging from civil war.

The group is now infamous worldwide for its astonishingly violent religious conservatism but is actually is particularly adept at social media, posting Internet videos of beheadings of soldiers, civilians, journalists and aid workers. It uses the destruction of non-Islamic cultural heritage sites as a form of negative public relations.

In Nigeria, a similarly brutal African group named Boko Haram has created havoc in the north of the country.

For many, among the most shocking aspects of ISIS is its attraction of young Muslims who grew up in the West. There has been much analysis of what has created this.

Among the reasons given is a sharp rise in Islamophobia in the West following the terrorist attacks in New York whilst young Muslims. Some have stated that there is an irreconcilable breakdown in relations between the West and Islam, whilst others have claimed that this is an untruth.

And yet, despite the continued dominance of Arab affairs in the world of Islam, most Muslims today are not Arabs.

The eight countries with the largest Muslim populations are Indonesia, Pakistan, India (which is not actually a Muslim-majority country), Bangladesh, Nigeria, Egypt, Iran and Turkey. Of these, only Egypt is an Arab country.

Tens of millions of Muslims live in Western countries and for every person who supports ISIS-Daesh or al-Qaeda or Boko Haram, there are many people who are seeking to just their lives within the country they call home.

Others are calling for a wider reform of Islam and Muslim values to accommodate the greater social liberalism with which they grew up.

So much of the history of Islam, right up to our present day, seems to exist within the context of the Arab nations, yet it is very possible that its future lies elsewhere.

This post is an extract from our recently published A Quick History of Islam, which can be downloaded here.

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