The radicalization of Islam has historic roots reaching back to the 1930s, '40s and '50s, when Muslim writers were also protesting colonialism and what they saw as imperialistic British and U.S. interventions in the Middle East.
The Muslim Brotherhood, founded in Egypt in 1928, sought to couple resistance to foreign domination with establishment of an Islamic state run by sharia law, which imposes strict interpretations of the Koran. The Brotherhood at first worked closely with the secret Free Officers revolutionary movement led by Gamal Abdel Nasser and Anwar al-Sadat, which aimed at overthrowing the British regime and the Egyptian royal family.
But after the group's military coup toppled the Egyptian monarchy in 1952, Nasser's regime sorely disappointed the Brotherhood as insufficiently Islamic. A failed assassination attempt on Nasser by an embittered Brotherhood member in 1954 prompted the secular government to brutally suppress the movement and imprison its leaders.
One of those imprisoned leaders was Sayyid Qutb, known by his followers as “The Martyr,” whose anti-Western writings would become extremely influential in the jihadist movement. In 1948, while on a study mission to the United States, he wrote with distaste of the sexual permissiveness and consumerism he saw, comparing the typical American to a primitive “caveman.” Alienated by America's hedonism, he argued the only way to protect the Islamic world from such influences would be to return to strict Islamic teachings.
Qutb spent most of the last decade of his life imprisoned in Egypt, where he was tortured. While in prison he wrote Milestones, his famous work espousing his vision of Islam as inseparable from the political state, and concluded the regime was a legitimate target of jihad. He was convicted of sedition in 1966 and hanged.
The ideas of writers like Qutb have been adopted by radical Islamic groups (Islamists) today, generating concern in the West. An updated version of Milestones, published in Birmingham, England, in 2006 and prominently displayed at the bookstore next to the controversial East London Mosque contains a 1940s-era instruction manual by another member of the Muslim Brotherhood with chapter headings like “The Virtues of Killing a Non-Believer for the Sake of Allah” and “The Virtues of Martyrdom.”
The Muslim Brotherhood was “really the first organization to develop the idea that you could have an Islamic state within the modern world,” according to New Statesman political editor Martin Bright.
Although the Brotherhood is sometimes represented as moderate in comparison to jihadist groups like al Qaeda, Bright notes its motto remains to this day: “Allah is our objective. The Prophet is our Leader. The Qu'uran [Koran] is our constitution. Jihad is our way. Dying in the way of Allah is our highest hope.” In 1981, Sadat, who had become Egypt's president, was assassinated by four members of a Brotherhood splinter group.
Robert S. Leiken, director of the Immigration and National Security Program at the Nixon Center in Washington, D.C., recently interviewed leaders of the Brotherhood in Europe and the Middle East. He concluded the organization “depends on winning hearts through gradual and peaceful Islamization” and is committed to the electoral process. However, the group does authorize jihad in countries it considers occupied by a foreign power.
For instance, Yusuf al-Qaradawi, the Brotherhood's spiritual leader, has supported suicide bombing in the Palestinian occupied territories and called it a duty of every Muslim to resist American and British forces in Iraq.
Jamaat-e-Islami, the radical Asian offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood, originated in British India first as a religious movement in 1941 and then as a political party committed to an Islamic state in 1947. It is the oldest religious party in Pakistan and also has wings in Bangladesh and Kashmir.
The party was founded by Abdul A'la Maududi, a Pakistani journalist who promoted a highly politicized, anti-Western brand of Islam. In his writings, Maududi asserts that Islamic democracy is the antithesis of secular Western democracy because the latter is based on the sovereignty of the people, rather than God.
Maududi was the first Muslim to reject Islam as a religion and re-brand it as an ideology — political Islam. His writing strongly influenced Qutb during his years in prison. British former radical Ed Husain writes that the organizations in London where he first heard Islam described as a political ideology in the 1990s — the Young Muslim Organization and the East London Mosque — both venerated Maududi.
But while Maududi urged gradual change through a takeover of political institutions, Qutb argued for “religious war,” seizing political authority “wherever an Islamic community exists,” and jihad “to make this system of life dominant in the world.”
In support, Qutb cited the Prophet Mohammed's declaration of war on the infidels of Mecca. Qutb tarred all Christian, Jewish and Muslim societies of his time as jahili — disregarding divine precepts — because their leaders usurped Allah's legislative authority. “When I read Milestones, I felt growing animosity toward the kuffar (non-Muslims),” Husain writes.
Husain would eventually move on to an even more radical group, Hizb ut-Tahrir (Party of Liberation), founded in Jerusalem in 1953 by Palestinian theologian and political activist Taqiuddin an-Nabhani. While Qutb and Maududi argued that Muslims had a religious duty to establish an Islamic state, Nabhani “provided the details of how to achieve it,” writes Husain — through military coups or assassinations of political leaders.
Today, Hizb ut-Tahrir says it seeks to establish a caliphate, or Islamic state governing all Muslims, through an “exclusively political” rather than violent method. However, the group was recently denounced by a former senior member, Maajid Nawaz, who told the BBC that according to the group's own literature, the caliphate is “a state that they are prepared to kill millions of people to expand.”
Today, reverence for the writings of Qutb or Maududi should be a litmus test for any Islamist group's level of radicalism, according to Husain. But University of Birmingham sociologist Tahir Abbas cautions that Maududi's writing “is about trying to fight off the yoke of colonialism as much as developing a pan-Islamic identity. When it comes to Maududi, he's writing for his time — and people take it out of context.”
Indeed, to the uninitiated, the writings of both Qutb and Maududi come across as rather dry, if fiercely loyal, interpretations of the Koran as the supreme word.
Still, Maududi's party, Jamaat-e-Islami, has spawned its share of leaders preaching violent hatred against the West. Hossain Sayeedi, a Jamaat-e-Islami member of the Bangladesh Parliament, has compared Hindus to excrement. In public rallies in Bangladesh, he has urged that unless they convert to Islam, “let all the American soldiers be buried in the soil of Iraq and let them never return to their homes.”