Fighting ideology with ideology: Islamism and the challenge of ISIS

A worker decorates a Christmas tree designed by Lebanese designer Elie Saab in front of the Al-Amin mosque in Beirut, Lebanon, December 9, 2015. Picture taken December 9, 2015. REUTERS/Jamal Saidi - RTX1Y14M
Editor's note:

Islamists on Islamism Today” is a new series within Brookings’s Rethinking Political Islam project. In this series, we hear directly from Islamist activists and leaders themselves, as they engage in debate with project authors and offer their own perspectives on the future of their movements. Islamists will have the opportunity to disagree (or agree) and challenge the assumptions and arguments of some of the leading scholars of political Islam, in the spirit of constructive dialogue.

Mainstream Islamist movements in general, and the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood in particular, have been trying to differentiate themselves from Syrian armed factions on one side and ISIS on the other by labeling themselves as part of a “moderate Islamic current.”

But in reality, moderation and centrism (wasatiyyah) or temperance (i’tidal) are positive terms like any other claimed by those who want to distinguish themselves from ISIS and disavow any crimes that it commits in the name of religion. In so doing, such groups signal that it is they, in fact, who have a proper understanding of Islam.

However, this disavowal, however well-intentioned, is of little use if Islamist movements do not review and reevaluate those elements within their inherited religious tradition that dominate much of Islamic discourse today. I am referring, for instance, to the impurities and inaccuracies which have paved the way for the rise of extremism in Syria and elsewhere – elements which have created a fertile environment for ISIS and its counterparts.

To overlook this process, and merely claim moderation, laud one’s group as defenders of human life, or to just issue statements and write books—all of this, while welcome, does not adequately demonstrate the actual difference between centrist (wasati) and extremist movements. It is not enough to assert the numerous and very real divergences between mainstream Islamist groups like the Muslim Brotherhood and extremists like ISIS. The true task at hand lies in fighting ideology with ideology. The obligation, then, is to undermine the foundations upon which extremism has drawn and to lay to rest those controversial rulings, religious personalities, and eras which provide fodder for an Islamic legitimacy for extremist ideologies to hide behind, and with which to deem their actions Islamic. Such rulings rely upon certain interpretations of the Quran and Sunnah (sources of legislation in Islam).

The ISIS dilemma

ISIS and others like it have attracted and will continue to attract youth in our region. (This does not necessarily mean that they will join extremist groups or take to the battlefield, but, rather, that at least some of their ideas around religion and politics will gain traction). These generations, living in an era of stark decline, yearn for a redeemer. They have been inspired by a type of charismatic leadership, heard about for so long in Islamic religious stories from the pulpits at Friday prayers. They describe the image of the ideal leader: clad in traditional Arab clothing, with a long beard, short, ankle-length trousers, carrying a sword by which he beheads infidels, both Muslim and non-Muslim. Born from the womb of defeat, he aims to restore the glory of Islam and grant victory to believers. He speaks an old, classical Arabic (one which today is not common or understood easily).  At the same time, he recalls those historical circumstances that have shaped the dismal present (such as war and colonialism), resulting in a sort of siege mentality , which only further emboldens his desire for the return of the legendary Islamic conqueror of old.

Let us be honest. If we examine leaders of extremist movements, they look and behave more authentically “Islamic” than leaders of mainstream Islamist movements like the Muslim Brotherhood. They have a state and a caliph who is a descendant of the tribe of Quraysh (often considered a caliphal prerequisite) and the House of Hashim to pay allegiance to. Seeing all this, how exactly do you compete with such an image? Merely claiming that you are a moderate and that you represent the true Islam will not be enough.

From the perspective of the broader Islamist movement, something good can come out of ascendance of ISIS and its counterparts. Through their actions, these extremists are making the world realize how much it needs mainstream Islamic movements, and that in order to reduce religious strife and reach some level of peace and stability—which global powers and institutions seek— one has to ally with sensible parties and support centrist movements.

This is on the one hand. But on the other, ISIS’s presence has had negative repercussions that directly affect Islamist movements, such as ongoing inter-sectarian clashes. We witnessed such flare-ups in Iraq, Syria, and even in my home country of Lebanon, where extremist movements have been active, all under the pretext of eliminating “the enemy within” – namely members of mainstream Islamist movements and their other, like-minded allies in society. For ISIS, these groups represent an enemy more dangerous than the “far enemy.” In their view, Islam’s internal ranks must first be purged from impurities before fighting the non-believers. Accordingly, fighting mainstream Islamists is a priority on the road to achieving a final, lasting victory.

There are other often indirect repercussions to the post-Arab Spring marginalization of mainstream Islamist groups, such as pushing youth toward extremists who frame the decision to join moderate groups as a form of betrayal or infidelity to Islam. In the eyes of the angry and oppressed, occupation and dictatorial regimes can only understand the language of revolution and force. They believe that repressive regimes should not be treated less brutally than how these regimes treat their own people. Therefore, extremist movements aim to (and often succeed) in crossing international borders to other states that they believe prop up their own repressive regimes. Pulling off successful attacks creates a kind of fear-inducing balance by making others feel a taste of the repression they experience. All of this, the thinking goes, makes them more deserving to represent Islam compared to nonviolent or gradualist movements, because Islam must be a religion of strength, not weakness.

Despite being lumped in as “extremists” and accused of terrorism, we saw some Islamist movements—such as Ennahda in Tunisia—turning into more of a civil party, and embracing a civil state. This is not necessarily the perfect solution for every time and place. Even if this was the proper and necessary way forward—alternatives such as the “Turkish model” represented by the ruling AK Party come to mind—this does not mean that it will inevitably succeed elsewhere. Figuring out the proper path in each context requires a careful study of the distinctive local contexts in question, as cultural and religious attitudes may vary considerably between, say, Lebanon and Pakistan.

The broader Islamic movement faces additional challenges. For one, I believe mainstream Islamism will lose its longstanding reputation as the most “Islamically authentic” actor on the political scene. Like it or not, this has been a major pull factor for its support and one of its fundamental, distinguishing characteristics. As a result  of these doubts over “authenticity” and “strength,” the Islamically-inclined who want to be active in political parties, movements, and NGOs may move to other Islamic factions. In the current environment, particularly where Muslim Brotherhood and Brotherhood-inspired groups are absent or suppressed, they will not find an organized Islamic alternative with a clearer vision and orientation than ISIS and its ilk. At the same time, however, mainstream Islamism will not be completely stripped of its religious character or Islamic background. It will subsequently continue to remain subject to marginalization and accusations from secular parties and authoritarian regimes which claim that Islamists hide behind civil entities as a shrewd political maneuver, all in the hope of not being outed as the extremists that they really are.

The leadership of Islamist movements has remained rigid and resistant to change amid the challenges posed by this new environment, to the point that even after supposed “changes,” we see the same faces as these groups’ leading figures with much of the same ideas and blindspots. The resulting question, then, is both urgent and difficult: what can mainstream Islamists do to convince observers that a substantial transformation or a shift has occurred, so that skeptics might consider changing their own perceptions, and to start believing that real change has come? This cannot simply be a “relaunch” of the existent movement or a publicity campaign by the same party under a new name.

Many Muslims today face a profound dilemma, feeling stuck in a position of having to compete with everyone—extremists and moderates. Islamists accuse you of watering down the faith, secularists accuse you of extremism, and you find yourself stuck somewhere in between. You can’t find a category that captures the essence of your ideology and offers the differentiating value required by society’s various segments, all of whom feel pressure to take sides. They tell you it’s black and white, when all the while you’re immersed in your fog of grayness.

The Islamist movement’s internal revolution

The Arab Spring—which broke the barrier of fear stifling Arab communities, sparking revolutions in their countries—also materialized within parties and movements, whether in Syria or elsewhere. This was an inevitable outcome, a natural progression, and in part a product of a technological revolution which eliminated geography as  an obstacle for communication. An increasingly large segment of Arab populations are increasingly socially and politically aware.

For the older generations of Muslim Brotherhood leaders, the trials they have experienced at the hands of authorities over the past century gave them the patience and wisdom to cope with the reality of almost any situation, however dire. This is what kept the organization and its associated institutions safe from extinction. This instinct for self-preservation would have consequences. Brotherhood leaders failed to sustain internal development in order to ensure that they could attract and guide new members. Their excessive caution led to a state of stagnation and a fear of change, turning the movement into an organization resembling those it claimed to oppose.

The “veiled” democracy within these organizations, particularly the mother movement in Egypt, was a catalyst for growing internal tension, with more and more members, particularly youth, questioning longstanding leaders and internal structures. What is needed is nothing less than aggressive internal renewal, even a “revolution” of sorts. This renewal isn’t simply a matter of conducting internal elections and tallying votes to elect a majority as much as it is a matter of hearing other voices and suggestions, creating the appropriate environment and the required space to develop these ideas, through self-criticism and research, without fear of censorship from party elders.  I hope to list here some of reasons for the internal tensions and restlessness, which play a role in fueling the necessary internal revolutions:

  • Democracy  within many (but not all) Islamist movements is disguised by what is known as shura (“consultation”), which is often not enough, especially as recommendations made during shura are non-binding upon leadership. This means that such shura sessions are held only to listen to other opinions, yet the leadership can still make any decision it sees fit. Also, many Islamist movements’ internal electoral processes borrow just the voting aspects of democratic governance, leaving behind other components such as running platforms, projects, debates, discussions, and interviews with voters. Moreover, according to norms prevailing within many Islamist movements, it is still taboo to directly run for a certain post. They believe that anyone who proactively puts themselves forward for a post should not be supported, as to do so betrays a concerning thirst for power. They quote a Hadith—attributed to Prophet Muhammad and narrated by Abu Musa:

I went to the Prophet, peace and blessings be upon him, along with two of my cousins. The first said: O, God’s Messenger, we want you to appoint us as judges in the land that God Almighty has bestowed upon you. Then the second man also said the same. The Prophet responded: By God, we do not appoint anyone for such tasks to anyone who directly asks for or hints at it.

This part of internal Islamist culture deters many from presenting their ideas or taking the initiative, fearing accusations of pursuing a post for personal gain or power.

In saying this, I don’t deny that Islamist movements’ internal processes heavily rely on shura, which is  certainly a good thing. They do not make major decisions without the group’s or voters’ input. Appointments to posts are conducted mostly through elections. However, the problem is not the system itself but, rather, in its application. There is a difference between the letter of the law and its spirit. Taking them at their face, the leadership is complying with their own stated rules and organizational bylaws, but in some cases, out of  caution, it might bend these directives. It may also ask its members to support a particular group or individual not out of principle but out of self-preservation.

  • Despite longstanding and well-intentioned attempts to clarify their positions, many Islamist movements’ positions on sensitive issues (i.e. the relationship between “religious” and “political” activities, and whether partisan work or religious education should be prioritized) remain foggy and unclear, as members have sometimes widely divergent opinions, leading to uncertainties and splintering which, in turn, affects societal perceptions of mainstream Islamists and their ideological coherence. Although it’s both normal and healthy to have a variety of opinions within a movement, and although these different views are ideally supposed to enrich the organization, this lack of clarity on controversial topics has only served to increase internal factionalization.
  • In the Syrian case in particular, there has been a failure to stand up to injustice in a way that satisfies the expectations of the Islamist rank-and-file. Mainstream Islamist organizations, despite decades of operation, have also been unable to claim any real and lasting political or military successes. Even their popularity after the Arab Spring came with its own existential danger. This failure pushes members and supporters to a state of frustration easily exploited by advocates of extremism or even non-Islamist parties, provoking internal splits. This outcome is not new, nor is it limited to the Syrian landscape. If we examine the Islamic movement in Egypt, we can see that, despite (or perhaps because of) its efforts to preach nonviolence, it gave birth to individuals and splinter groups that resorted to violence during certain periods under the weight of oppression.

During the Arab Spring, we witnessed the establishment of at least two parties born of the Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party, namely the more “progressive” Strong Egypt Party led by former Brotherhood leader Abdel Moneim Abul Futouh, which many  Brotherhood youth joined. Yet, we also witnessed groups carrying out retaliatory attacks after General Abdel Fattah al-Sissi’s coup. It is worth noting that they are still operating under the name the “Revolutionary Punishment” (al-‘iqab al-thawri) amidst an official media blackout about the casualties of the attacks. On the Syrian side, a not insignificant number of Islamists joined Nusra Front and Ahrar al-Sham, while the majority joined Liwa al-Tawhid and similar groups, after the Muslim Brotherhood-linked “Shields” failed to provide the needed military change in the Syrian landscape.

If we want to suggest practical steps to address the above-mentioned issues facing the Islamic movement and the centrist current as a whole, we have to be willing to scrutinize how we came to where we are now and build on that assessment. Only then will we be able to come up with the appropriate interim solutions for the current period. At the same time, these interim proposals will not hold up when the Arab context changes dramatically once again. In fact, continuing to along the same path—which at the time may have shown evidence of significant “rethinking”—will in some cases only make matters worse.

With that in mind, the appropriate approach, in my view, is to go back to the roots of the problem in order to try and identify problematic sources in our religious thinking. This should be carried out through an in-depth review of Islamic jurisprudential and legislative sources without any concerns or worries about the rejection of such efforts by certain religious figures who claim an adherence to traditional Islamic legal principles which have been passed down from prior generations (al-usuliyyah). In reality, in rejecting religious renewal, they are trying to preserve their religious status, protect “secular” authoritarian regimes that use religion to suppress their people, or sustain a sociopolitical system which granted them an authority and status which they wouldn’t have enjoyed under different circumstances.

The real role of the “middle,” or centrist, Islamic movement—which believes in the universality of Islam—is to journey along this path of purging religion from the impurities of past ages using modern tools in the review and revision process. This should be carried out on several fronts, especially that of scientific development, which has given us better tools to carry out this endeavor. These tools can help in investigating certain historic accounts and stories, reviewing hadith, Qur’anic exegesis (tafsir), and traditional Islamic legal manuscripts more generally.

After that, a review process should be conducted on those issues where contradictions emerge – those areas where society gets lost when it notices the discrepancies between some texts and their corresponding applications. For example, ISIS often bases its actions according on a verse from the Quran or the actions of one of the Prophet’s companions (such as burning someone alive as in the case of the Jordanian pilot, the enslavement of women, and the killing of innocents). The verse of the Quran offered up as a justification may even, upon first glance, seem to support the action. But the real questions that should be asked are things like: What is the context of the verse? Why did God reveal this verse (asbab al-nuzool) to the Prophet and under what circumstances, and are there other verses that complement, define, and frame the apparent meaning? All of the above are necessary elements in the effort to clarify uncertainty and to put an end to criminal or unreasonable violations and justifications in the name of religion.

In conclusion, the tragic outcomes we see with ISIS and other jihadist movements today are not related to a recent past or to the present, but rather to a certain strand of Islamic thought that exists even in the books adopted by mainstream Islamist movements. The call here is not to demean the work of religious scholars or erase any jurisprudential (fiqhi) legacy. It is an invitation to review and scrutinize ideas on a scientific (‘ilmiyya) basis, and to put them to the test at a time when extremist ideologies and terrorism have spread in the name of religion. This will contribute to reform and the representation of the proper understanding of Islam not only in the face of anything that goes against its values but also against anything that tries to tarnish its image, thus completing what the early scholars (fuqaha’) strove for. In so doing, Islamist movements would then truly be Islamic: by fighting action with action and ideas with ideas, and not simply with denunciation and disavowal.

By saying all this, I am not denying that pioneers of the Islamist movement did indeed take and support bold stances and initiatives, but giving a lecture here and a conference there or writing an article here and a book there—although important—is not sufficient in terms of making progress on the ideological front. There has to be a serious, systematic endeavor, a large-scale collaboration between like-minded groups and individuals, and an allocation of resources in order to arrive at certain intellectual and ideological conclusions. This should be undertaken by trusted Islamic organizations and entities, and then published as part of a new awareness campaign that matches the degree of ideological awareness with which the Islamist movement began its initial journey.