Islamic Fundamentalism: A Brief Survey (Part 3 of 7)

by Bruce Gourley


As has been noted, Islamic political fundamentalist movements are a twentieth-century development.  Not surprisingly, the majority of these movements are of the Sunni variety.  Of the 175 Islamic fundamentalist groups (mainly of the political variety) in the Arab world as identified by Dekmejian from 1970-1995, only 32 were Shiite fundamentalists (with an additional four having both Sunni and Shiite followers).[31] In the years since the pattern has remained the same. The most prominent current expression of Islamic fundamentalism, the twenty-first century terrorist organization Islamic State (also “ISIL”, “ISIS”, or “Daesh”), is primarily Sunni.

Tracing the history of all the various Islamic fundamentalist groups is beyond the purview of this paper.  Accordingly, an analysis of a few countries will serve as evidence of the varied manner in which Islamic political fundamentalism has clashed with secular Muslim governments, resulting in mounting tensions, but varying successes, in terms of political involvement.

The ongoing legacy of The Muslim Brotherhood is evidenced in Egypt’s central role in Sunni fundamentalism:  40 of the 175 identified Islamic fundamentalist groups (as noted by Dekmejian) are based in Egypt.  Of the 40, three are major fundamentalist groups:  Hizb al-Tahrir al-Islami (Islamic Liberation Party), Jama’at al-Muslimin (The Society of Muslims; also known as al-Takfir wal-Hijrah) and Tanzim al-Jihad (Jihad Organization).  One figure, Sayyid Qutb, is the dominant link between the Brotherhood and all three of these Egyptian-based militant groups.  In addition, Qutb links the Brotherhood and Pakistan’s Jama’at-i Islami (the two earliest expressions of Islamic political fundamentalism) and is the key to understanding modern expressions of Sunni fundamentalism (and by extension, terrorism) which originated after his death.

Qutb, an Egyptian government official who was offended by the racism and the openness between sexes he witnessed during a visit to the United States in the late 1940s, became an ideologue and activist, influenced by the radical teachings of Sayyid Abu’l-A’la Mawdudi, founder of the Jama’at i-Islami.  Joining the Muslim Brotherhood in 1952, Qutb led the Brotherhood’s shift from non-violence to violence.  His influence led to the attempted assassination of Nasser in 1954, which in turn led to government suppression of the Brotherhood, including the internment of Qutb and other radical Brotherhood members.  Influencing the Brotherhood movement from jail, Qutb garnered support from the military wing of the Brotherhood within and outside of Egypt, while continuing his opposition to Nasser’s regime.

By the 1960s, Qutb had formulated a structured, albeit not fully developed, ideology of modern society as evil and ignorant of Islam’s divine guidance.   The duty of true Muslims was to purify the world by the internal transformation of Islamic society and militant jihad against the non-Islamic world.  He published his views in Milestones in 1964.  Qutb, echoing Mawdudi, called for a “vanguard” of dedicated Muslims to emulate the Prophet in separating themselves from society in order to achieve the ultimate goal of establishing God’s sovereignty throughout the earth.  The book, along with Qutb’s martyrdom in 1966, spurred Islamic fundamentalists to rapid growth and splintering in the 1970s.[32]

The three main Egyptian Islamic fundamentalist groups are all influenced by Qutb and draw support from the midde and lower-middle class (bazaar merchants, clerics, teaches, professionals and burecrats), yet each is distinctive enough to prevent a unified front.  Hizb al-Tahrir al-Islami (or ILP) has focused its attacks primarily on government structures, while al-Takfir has charged that all who are not part of the group are unbelievers.  Both outsiders, the ILP initially sought to quickly capture political control of Egypt, whereas al-Takfir pursued a long-term policy of political takeover.  Both groups were suppressed by the Egyptian government in the late 1970s, although they have not been driven out of existence.

Al-Jihad (or Qaeda al-Jihad), in contrast, quietly infiltrated military, security services and other governmental institutions.  Their power was revealed in the assassination of Anwar Sadat in October, 1981.  The group’s leaders cited the disparity between Egypt’s laws and Islamic Law, Sadat’s peace with Israel, and government persecution against Islamists in September 1981 (part of an effort to counter the growing fundamentalist presence in Egypt) as the rationale for killing Sadat.  In the months that followed, the government arrested thousands of Islamic fundamentalists, thus curtailing the group’s effectiveness.  Today, the Egyptian government continues to suppress militant fundamentalism through government force.[33]

In Syria, the Brotherhood’s influence is also drawn from the urban middle to lower-middle classes, comprised of educated small businessmen, professionals and clerics, the segment of the population which has benefited the least from the military and rural oriented Ba’thi party. In addition, the Brotherhood has produced a number of splinter groups.  Syrian Islamic fundamentalists became more militant in the 1970s, turning to armed jihad by 1976.  Numerous attacks on the government structure took place in ensuing years, leading to government efforts to suppress the fundamentalist groups.  The Syrian government crushed an uprising of fundamentalists in Hama in 1983, leading to a period of decline for fundamentalists, who were unable to win the Sunni population to their cause.  Despite ongoing repression, fundamentalism remained an ongoing threat in Syria,[34] eventually creating national instability and paving the way for the terrorist group Islamic State to establish a home base.

Algeria has also witnessed the growth of a strong fundamentalist presence.  In the 1980s a combination of agricultural crisis, unemployment, rampant inflation, shortages in housing and basic goods, declining revenues from the oil and gas industry, and growing foreign debt led to social unrest and class cleavage.  Militant fundamentalist demonstrations resulted, and despite the governments attempt to crack down on fundamentalist groups, mass rioting, led by fundamentalists, took place in 1988.  After a bloody government reprisal against the rioters, the Algerian president began a process of democratization.  The fundamentalist Islamic Salvation Front then won major electoral victories in 1990 and 1991, only to have the election results cancelled by the military, and thousands of fundamentalists sent to prison.  In the aftermath, the movement went underground.  Islamic fundamentalism continues to exist in a variety of sometimes competing movements, and has been responsible, along with the Algerian government, for periods of violent civil war in recent decades. Active terrorist groups remain, some likely affiliated with al-Qaeda.[35]

Turkey provides an example of the influence of Islamic fundamentalism in an avowed secular state.  From the 1950s through the 1970s, Turkey was a multi-party state, experiencing military coups in 1960 and 1970.  Long-standing political unrest and instability led to a political coup in 1980, with the military regime giving way to a democratic, parliamentary government in 1982.  In the ensuing years, the military has remained a powerful force within the parliamentarian structure, as Turkey has continued a program of modernization and remains on friendly terms with the West.  Although the democratic political structure and relative freedom within Turkish society has allowed Islamic fundamentalism to flourish, the government and military have thus far kept fundamentalist groups in political check.  The main fundamentalist group, Turkish Hezbollah, has been responsible for hundreds of murders in recent decades.  In January 2001, the Turkish government raided the organization, arresting scores of militants, and killing the group’s leader, Huseyin Velioglu.  The raid, which led to the discovery of the corpses of hundreds of Hezbollah victims, dealt a significant setback to the militant group, which nonetheless remains active.[36] The Turkish government is currently an ally with the United States in attempting to eradicate the Islamic State in neighboring Syria.

One of the more vivid examples of Islamic fundamentalism within recent decades is that of Afghanistan.  In 1978, the People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan (PDPA) seized power in a military coup.  Allying with the Soviet Union, the PDPA began shaping Afghanistan along Marxist lines.  With Islam thus threatened, the mujahideen, a loose alliance of Afghan nationalists, rebelled and took over many of the rural areas of the country.  In response, the Soviet Union invaded in 1979 in an effort to shore up the PDPA, a move which swung popular support to the mujahideen even as millions of Afghans fled to neighboring Pakistan and Iran.  The Pakistan government supported the refugee mujahideen with arms and military training, as did many other countries hostile to the Soviet Union, including the United States.  Many Islamic fundamentalist groups were among the mujahideen factions, including Al Qaeda, led by Osama bin Laden.

When the Soviet Union finally withdrew from Afghanistan in 1989, leaving the PDPA in power, the mujahideen did not stop fighting.  In 1992 they captured the capital of Kabul and overthrew the PDPA, only to lapse into infighting among the various factions.  In 1996 the Taliban, having emerged as the strongest faction, seized control of Kabul.  Although initially hailed by both the Afghan populace and the United States, who had hopes for a return of stability to the country, the Taliban, allied with bin Laden, soon forced their concept of Islamic fundamentalism upon Afghanistan.  The result was a period of severe oppression as the Taliban, with their religious police, punished citizens who engaged in un-Islamic activities such as television, movies, music, kite-flying and chess.  Men were forced to wear beards of proper length, and women were curtailed from public life and were severely punished if not properly clothed or accompanied by a male relative when in public.  Punishment of offenders in the form of death was not uncommon.

The reign of the Taliban, however, proved short-lived.  On September 11, 2001, Al Qaeda operatives hijacked four U.S. commercial planes, crashing two of them into the Twin Towers of New York City’s World Trade Center and one into the U.S. Pentagon.  The fourth crashed in rural Pennsylvania as passengers struggled with the hijackers.  The attacks killed nearly 3000 people, and the United States quickly launched a counter-attack, invading Afghanistan and installing a new government on December 22, 2001. Despite a decade and-a-half of U.S. intervention, however, Islamic fundamentalism remains a destabilizing force within Afghanistan.[37]

Lebanon is another Arab country with a strong opposition fundamentalist presence.  Since the 1970s, both Sunni and Shiite fundamentalists (such as the Islamic Unity Movement, the Islamic Association, and Amal and Ummat Hizb Allah) have been competing for political supremacy, fueled by opposition to the West and to Israel, as well as Lebanon’s religious establishment and government.[38]

Iran provides the sole example of the political triumph of Shiite fundamentalism.  The Islamic revolution of 1979, led by the influential Islamic theologian Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini and fueled to a significant degree by restless young people, provided a model for how Islamic fundamentalism could takeover government structures.  Khomeini’s widely disseminated speeches against the Shah and advocating Islamic law helped pave the way for the revolution.  The new regime immediately banned alcohol, repressed women, and implemented the death penalty for adultery, all the while voicing open hatred of the West.  By the end of the 1980s, however, revolutionary fervor was waning as Iranian businessman tired of isolation from the West.  Although Islamic law yet governs Iran, the country has at times made various overtures to the West. [39] Economic pressure from early 21st century sanctions on Iran led in 2015 to the signing of a nuclear deal between the world’s superpowers and Iran that is designed to prevent Iran from building a nuclear bomb for at least the next ten years. For now, the deal ensures that Pakistan remains the sole Muslim nation having nuclear weapons.

Saudi Arabia is an example of a country governed by Islamic Law (sharia law).  Long influenced by scriptural fundamentalism of the Wahabbi tradition, the Saudi government in recent decades has nonetheless faced opposition from many Muslims from both the right and left of the political spectrum.  In a country in which women are openly repressed and crimes are dealt with according to a strict interpretation of the Quran, the Saudi ruling royal family has nonetheless maintained ties with the Western world for their own economic benefit and that of the country.  Accordingly, many militant fundamentalists (both Shiite and Sunni), opposed to all Western influences, have long agitated for stricter application of Islamic law.  The ruling family in the late twentieth century responded by making some concessions to militant fundamentalists, but the Gulf wars served to heighten the tension between the government and militant fundamentalist factions. Islamic fundamentalists from Saudi may well have financed the terrorists who destroyed the World Trade Center. In 2015 Saudi Arabia’s leaders gave women the right to vote, but otherwise Sharia Law remains firmly in place and religious dissent is harshly punished.[40]

Sudan’s distinction lies in being the first country to be governed by Muslim Brotherhood Islamic fundamentalism.  The Brotherhood pursued a policy of gradualism in the 1970s, while Sudan struggled with socialism.   The gradualist policy paid off in the next decade, leading to a period of significant political influence in the 1980s as Brotherhood leaders, including Dr. Hasan al-Turabi, formerly imprisoned by the government, were released and given cabinet positions.  In 1989 a coup d’etat led to Turabi emerging as Sudan’s supreme ideologue and de factor ruler.  Shraria law was imposed on the country, and Turabi began an ethnic cleansing campaign against non-Muslims.  A strict Islamic state, Sudan’s government has long been a haven for Islamic terrorists. Now divided into North and South Sudan, the nation as a whole is among the most unstable in the world.[41]

All of the above and a number of other countries have been dealing with a growing Islamic political fundamentalist presence since the 1970s, a presence further magnified in the post 9/11 twenty-first century world.[42]

Two examples in the non-Arab world are Malaysia and Indonesia.  Since the 1980s, Malaysia has become an increasingly Islamic nation as Muslims have proliferated within a society which is open to a variety of beliefs.  Although Islam is now recognized as the official state religion, the state itself is secular, and the constitution provides religious tolerance.  Within this political paradigm, the influence of fundamentalist Muslims, initially finding expression in student activists during political and social crisis in the 1970s, is growing in significance.[43]

Indonesia, on the other hand, has the largest Muslim population of any country, yet is not an Islamic nation.  Islamic fundamentalists, although increasing in influence somewhat, have been hampered by a wide diversity of Islamic faith traditions that are a result of long-standing religious syncretism.[44]

The current conflicts in the Arab world are magnifying the Islamic fundamentalist influence throughout the world.  As such, a closer examination of Islamic fundamentalist responses to modern science, western society and the secular state is in order.

Continue to Part 4 — Islamic Fundamentalisms: Responses to Modern Science

(or return to Table of Contents)


[31]  Dekmejian, 223-247.

[32]  Voll, “Fundamentalism in the Sunni Arab World.” 368-374.  Sayyid Qutb, Milestones (Indianapolis:  American Trust, 1990).  Ahmad S. Moussali, Historical Dictionary of Islamic Fundamentalist Movements in the Arab World, Iran and Turkey (Lanham, Maryland: The Scarecrow Press, Inc.), 240-242.

[33] Dekmejian, 73-102. Following the 2011 Egyptian Revolution, the Muslim Brotherhood ascended to formal political power in parliamentary and presidential elections, bestowing the presidency upon Mohammad Morsi. In 2013, however, mass protests led to the overthrew Morsi and the banning of the Brotherhood.

[34] Ibid., 103-118.

[35] Ibid., 205-208.  Hugh Roberts, “From Radical Mission to Equivocal Ambition: The Expansion and Manipulation of Algerian Islamism, 1979-1992,” in Accounting for Fundamentalisms, The Fundamentalism Project, Volume 4, eds. Martin Marty and R. Scott Appleby (Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 1994), 428-489. Anna Lazzarin, “Algeria and the Islamic Movement: a Problem of Exclusion, Fundamentalism, and Memory,” Foreign Affairs Review, May 6, 2014.

[36]  Anat Lapidot, “Islamic Activism in Turkey Since the 1980 Military Takeover,” in Religious Radicalism in the Greater Middle East, eds. Bruce Maddy-Weitzman and Efraim Inbar (London and Portland, Oregon: Frank Cass, 1997), 62-74.  Kushner, Encyclopedia of Terrorism, 368-369.

[37]  Kushner, 20-24, 71-74, 246-247, 357-359.

[38]  Dekmejian, 162-170.

[39] Hito, 142-226.  Nikki R. Keddie and Farrah Monian, “Militancy and Religion in Contemporary Iran,” in Fundamentalisms and the State, The Fundamentalism Project, Volume 3, eds. Martin Marty and R. Scott Appleby (Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 1993), 511-538.

[40] Dekmajian, 130-151.  Hito, 108-141. “Eleven Things Women in Saudia Arabia Can’t Do,” The Week, December 7, 2015.

[41] Dekmejian, 186-189. “Fragile States Index,” The Fund for Peace, 2015, online at

[42] Maddy-Weitzman and Inbar, Religious Radicalism.  Pipes, In the Path of God, 203-278. For more recent developments, see: Daniel Byman, What Everyone Needs to Know, Al Quaeda, The Islamic State and the Global Jihadist Movement (New York: Oxford University Press, 2015); Lawrence Davidson, Islamic Fundamentalism, An Introduction, Third Edition (Santa Barbara, Cal.: Praeger, 2013); Youseff M. Choueiri, Islamic Fundamentalism 3rd Edition: The Story of Islamist Movements (New York: Bloomsbury Academic, 2010)

[43] Manning Nash, “Islamic Resurgence in Malaysia and Indonesia,” in Fundamentalisms Observed, The Fundamentalism Project, Volume 1, eds. Martin Marty and R. Scott Appleby (Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 1991), 691-715, 724-734.

[44]  Nash, 715-729.