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"Islam is the Solution": How Extremist Political Islam Feeds on the Failures of Secular Arabs

The revival of Islam as a political force in the 1970s is a sociopolitical phenomenon that is often difficult to understand. Much to the confusion of many, the Islamic resurgence took place after waves of modernization, secularism, and nationalism hit the Arab World. In this essay, I argue that extremist strands of both political Islam and Islamic fundamentalism have and continue to gain traction in the Arab world due to continued failures of the state: in the Arab Israeli conflict, in providing for its people, and in exercising sovereignty without foreign influence


There are a number of terms that are relevant to the understanding of modern Islamist movements in the Arab World. Political Islam, or sometimes Islamism, refers to “Islam as a political ideology rather than as a religious or theological construct.” Political Islam can range from moderate to extreme, but in all cases, its adherents hold the belief that “Islam as a body of faith has something to say about how politics and society should be ordered in the contemporary Muslim world” (Ayoob, 2004, p. 1). Islamic fundamentalism is a closely related—but highly debated—term, describing a certain strand of political Islam. Islamic fundamentalism is often understood in the context of political Islam; indeed, many scholars use both terms interchangeably to indicate a religious-political belief that the return to the fundamentals of the Islamic tradition is the key to political and socioeconomic prosperity, following the failures of secular, modernist, and nationalist movements (Esposito, 2000, pp. 49-59).

Islamic fundamentalism can also be understood independent of Political Islam, as a belief advocating returning to the origins of Islam and the Islamic tradition from the days of the Prophets and the Righteous Caliphs. That is, a belief of Islamic revivalism that “advocates a return to what is perceived as a lost purity in religious practice”. Islamic fundamentalism contrasts with Islamic modernism, which does not rely on a literal interpretation of the Quran, instead seeking to preserve the spirit of the Quran in a modern social context (Andersen, et al., 2011, pp. 147-8).

Within Islamic fundamentalism, Islamic extremists refers to those “who would use violent or coercive means to implement a fundamentalist Islamic political agenda.” (Andersen, et al., 2011, p. 147) When discussing the rise and salience of Islamic fundamentalism, this essay will use a ‘liberal’ interpretation of the term to refer to extremist strand Islamic fundamentalism, consistent with common everyday use of the term. Furthermore, Islamic fundamentalism and Islamic extremism implicitly imply a belief in political Islam; this is understood by the origins of the modern Islamic revival.

Islamic Resurgence and Revival

Movements of political Islam, Islamic fundamentalism, and Islamic extremism, though not identical in meaning, are closely coupled and follow the same trends in terms of emergence, popularity, and spread. While Islamic fundamentalism is not new, political Islam is a modern phenomenon rooted in the sociopolitical conditions of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries (Ayoob, 2004, p. 2). The rise of political Islam led to the rise (or, rebirth) of the rest of the spectrum of Islamist movements, including fundamentalism and extremism. This is because as political Islam gained traction, its adherents followed contending beliefs in realizing its vision. The rise of political Islam, and therefore the rebirth of the entire spectrum of movements into mainstream social and political circles, took places in what is known as the Islamic revival or resurgence, taking place in the late 1960s and early 1970s (Esposito, 2000, p. 50).

Some believe that “there is a connection between the decline of Arab unity as a symbol and the rise of Political Islam.” Indeed, “as Arab unity was becoming increasingly discredited through the years, especially after 1967, new paths were sought.” (Andersen, et al., 2011, pp. 77-8). In the same spirit as my main thesis, I argue that the birth of political Islam was indeed a result of the failures of the secular Arab state.

A series of crises since the late 1960s has discredited many regimes and Western inspired modernization paradigms, triggering the politics of protest and a quest for greater authenticity. The resulting call for an Islamic alternative has been reflected in slogans such as “Islam is the solution” and “Neither West nor East.” —John Esposito, (Esposito, 2000, p. 50)

Beginning with the Arab-Israeli war of 1967, the failures of Arab Nationalism and Secularism frustrated many Arabs. Further events, including the growth of armed resistance the Arab-Israeli conflict, sectarian conflict in the Lebanese civil war, and the success of the 1979 Iranian Islamic Revolution all contributed to discredit secularism and modernism, in favor of an Islamic movement. Indeed, Esposito argues that “modernism has been perceived as a form of neocolonialism, an evil that supplants religious and cultural identity” (Esposito, 2000, p. 50).

This is not to say that scholarship such as that of Sayyid Qutb and Hasan al-Banna well before the 1960s played no role in the Islamic revivalism. Indeed, both Qutb and al-Banna advocated political Islam, and Qutb advocated militant extremist Islamism. While both had followers, al-Banna even forming the Muslim Brotherhood, such groups and ideologies never entered the mainstream until the Islamic revival took place. While scholars could agree that the revival could not have taken place if the works of al-Banna, Qutb, and others was unavailable for the masses to draw from, the argument remains that the failures of the secular Arab state were the trigger of the resurgence.1

Though groups like the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, Gaza, and Jordan existed before the awakening took place, there are two final points to be made: first, the largest growth of the Brotherhood occurred after the awakening. Second, the founding of the groups and their entrenchment in society took place as ‘charitable’ organizations providing social services to the poor in area where the state had failed to provide. It is thus still true, and in line with the thesis of this essay, that the Islamization of society took place thanks to the multiple failures of the secular state.

Movements in the Palestinian Territories: Founding and Growth

The roots of Hamas can be traces to the Muslim Brotherhood in Gaza, which itself was an offshoot of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood. Sheikh Ahmad Yassin was the leader of the group, and gained its recognition from Israel as a charitable organization, and eventually even an association in 1979 (Tekuma, 2009). The official founding of Hamas as an armed resistance movement, however, took place in February 1988, as a “direct outgrowth of the intifada”. Hamas’s call for military resistance against Israel was not new, neither was its packaging of resistance as Islamic; groups such as Islamic Jihad operated in Gaza prior to the intifada. Hamas’s novel addition, however, is the coupling of the Gazan Muslim Brotherhood’s social agenda, with a political and military agenda: armed resistance for the creation of an Islamic state in all of historic Palestine (Smith, 2009, p. 410).

Prior to the intifada, the Gazan Muslim Brotherhood grew as a grassroots organization, providing charitable social services to the general population of the Gaza Strip. The group was allowed by Israel to “set up an Islamic university and build mosques, clubs and schools” (Tekuma, 2009). The initial growth of the Brotherhood and the expansion of the base thus happened because basic it provided basic services that the states failed to provide, and in doing so, it created a network. The Brotherhood kept morals high in a time where occupation brought things to a stop, and the Palestinian Liberation Organization—the secular sole legitimate representative of the Palestinian people—was doing very little to alleviate the situation.

By the time the intifada started, Hamas was still relatively small compared to Fatah and other resistance movements. In the 1990s, the PLO and especially Fatah began to “lose influence as hope of a diplomatic settlement turned to despair”, and as the prestige of the PLO and Fatah began to “wane as a result of […] failed diplomacy, the appeal of Islamic groups increased”, Says Smith, adding, “[Hamas] alone appeared determined to achieve the goal of Palestinian independence” (Smith, 2009, p. 411). As it became clear that Hamas was a real military threat to Israeli stability, Israel began its crackdown on Hamas. Yet, “each military assault only increased Hamas’s appeal to ordinary Palestinians”, signaling popular sympathy to Hamas and its cause, in the shadow of the failures of other secular groups to provide a viable alternative (Tekuma, 2009).

After the participation of the PLO in the Madrid Peace Conference and Oslo, the Palestinian Authority exerted some self-governance over some areas of the West Bank and Gaza Strip, thus beginning some signs of a secular “state” in these areas. Hamas emerged as the main opposition of the Palestinian Authority. With the PLO’s diplomatic failures, as well as increasing evidence of economic corruption, and a poor handling of the state’s economy, the secular nationalist movement felt incompetent, and many turned to Hamas; they were clean. After Israel withdrew from Gaza in its unilateral disengagement of 2005, the Palestinian Authority failed yet again to rise to the occasion and govern properly. (Usher, 2006, p. 4)

By 2006, during the Palestinian Parliamentary Elections, and against all expectations, Hamas crushed Fatah in a massive victory, winning 76 seats out of the 132-member chamber, with Fatah getting only 43. Graham Usher lists three factors contributing to Hamas’s victory: Palestinian disillusionment with PLO diplomacy and the prospects for peace, Hamas’s record of “clean and selfless service”, and the Palestinian Authority’s “failure to bring political progress, economic recovery, law or order in the aftermath of the Gaza withdrawal” (Usher, 2006, p. 4).

Movements in Lebanon: Founding and Growth

Hezbollah’s founding is traces to a period in the 1980s, as the Lebanese Civil War was still unfolding. Due to the sectarian nature of Lebanon, and in particular the Lebanese Civil War, it is often times difficult to find the reasons for the founding, growth, and popularity one group, since sectarianism is always a factor. The growth of a Sunni Islamist group, for instance, can be tied to either the growth of the Sunni population, or growth of the Islamist ideology, and its appeal to the masses.

In the case of Hezbollah, its founding and growth can be more clearly understood when studied comparatively with the Shiite Amal Movement. Hezbollah was founded after the Amal Movement, and eventually outgrew Amal to become the dominant and leading Shiite group in Lebanon. As such, an understanding of the differences between Amal and Hezbollah can help us understand the growth and popularity of Hezbollah independent of sectarian issues.

The Amal Movement was founded in the 1970s and, unlike Hezbollah, did not call for political Islam. Daniel Byman explains that “Amal, although heavily influences by Islam, was in essence a secular movement, seeking to unite Lebanon’s [Shiites] along communal rather than ideological lines” (Byman, 2005, p. 82). Hezbollah, on the other hand, was an Islamist Shiite group, advocating the formation of an Islamic republic (Andersen, et al., 2011, p. 86). As such, the issue of the popularity of Hezbollah over Amal within Shiite circles can be viewed in a secular-versus-Islamist lens.

Again, like Hamas and its Muslim Brotherhood predecessor, social and charitable service was a big component of Hezbollah’s popularity. Interestingly, such service was also a component of Amal. Anderson et al. explains that “grass-roots loyalties to each groups were ephemeral, depending on particular and immediate material conditions rather than deep-seated ideological beliefs.” As such, the increase in Hezbollah’s loyalty over Amal can be seen as a success on their part to provide effective services, and a secular Amal’s failure to do the same. Indeed, the “desperate state” of Shiites in Lebanon, and Amal’s “inability to effect a solution” to their strife, especially at the height of the civil war, is directly linked to Hezbollah’s popularity (Andersen, et al., 2011, p. 86).

Hezbollah’s growth also occurred in light of the general condition of statelessness in Lebanon, during the civil war and after. Enabled by its grassroots orientation, and thanks to the ineffectiveness of the state, and contending secular movements, Hezbollah was triumphant.

Since the 2005 assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik al-Hariri, and Lebanon’s “Cedar Revolution” that year, the country has been sharply divided into two camps: the first, known as the March 14 Alliance, includes secular and pro-Western groups such as the Sunni Hariri’s Future Movement, as well as Christian groups like the Phalanges and the Lebanese Forces. The second is known as the March 8 alliance, and includes Shiite Hezbollah and Amal, Christian Free Patriotic Movement, and other others. While Islamism is certainly not a common policy of the March 8 alliance, the popularity of Hezbollah directly affects the popularity of the alliance.

Since 2005, Lebanon’s government has been largely controlled by the March 14 alliance, especially the Future Movement or Saad al-Hariri. Such group was seen as pro-Western, and not too hostile towards Israel. But also, Lebanon’s successive governments from 2005 until 2011 were accused of corruption and favoritism. Such corruption, combined with the statelessness of Lebanon, contributed to the popularity Hezbollah (Haddad, 2006), leading to a 2009 Parliamentary Election victory of the March 8 movement, and a 2011 change in government, with the March 8 Alliance in power for the first time.

Another factor for Hezbollah’s popularity is the 2006 Israeli invasion of Lebanon. First of all, the war was a proof to many that the moderates towards Israel were both ineffective and wrong, Israel being an aggressive, expansionist state that needs to be resisted. As such, the Lebanese moderates lost ground, and the idea of armed resistance against Israel became sensational. The resistance was viewed as victorious after Israel’s withdrawal (Salem, 2006, p. 13), and Hezbollah therefore was seen as more effective vis-à-vis Israel, compared to the Future Movement and other moderates.

National Implications

The national implications of the popularity of extremist political Islam parties in the Palestinian territories is the Hamas victory in the 2006 elections, explained earlier in context of the failure of the moderate secular movement. This victory, after an initial period of disagreement, eventually led to a Palestinian national unity government that included both Hamas and Fatah members. Both the initial Hamas government and the national unity government were subject to economic sanctions (to be discussed in “International Implications”). The strain on the unity government and Fatah’s blame of Hamas for the sanctions ultimately lead to the breakup of the unity government. Intense fighting between Hamas and Fatah followed, and the Hams siege of Gaza (Hovedenak, 2009, pp. 70, 74).

Today, Gaza and the West Bank are separate political entities, with the Gaza Strip controlled by Hamas. Hamas-controlled Gaza has been more hostile towards Israel and has been connected to more “resistance operations” against Israel, including firing rockets towards civilian and other targets.

In Lebanon, the popularity of Hezbollah was a contributing factor to its growth and support, and contributed in the March 8 victory in the 2009 elections. The Pro-Syrian Alliance now controls the government, and has strong stances against controversial topics of national interest, including the Special Tribunal for Lebanon, and its implications on the status of the investigations of the assassination of former PM Rafik al-Hariri (Salem, 2011).

Regional and International Implications

Regionally, the stance of Hamas as anti-Israel, anti-negotiation, and anti-peace further complicates the Arab-Israeli conflicts, and reduces the outlook of its resolution. Hamas’s position on Israel led to an Israeli refusal to negotiate with, or tolerate, Hamas. The situation between Israel and Hamas led to the 2008-2009 Gaza War, as well as the continuing blockade and humanitarian crisis in the Gaza strip.

In addition, the salience of Hamas in Palestinian politics provides a pretext for an Israeli refusal—or at best, reluctance—to negotiate; Israel is hesitant to negotiate with the Palestinian Authority if they do not represent all Palestinians, and do not control all of the land they are negotiating for (Hovedenak, 2009, pp. 75-6). Further, the existence of Islamist elements within the West Bank (though not in control), multiplies such Israeli reluctance to negotiate.

Internationally, Hamas’s formation of government caused many Western countries to impose sanctions on the new government, and block all foreign aid, after Hamas’s refusal to modify its policy on the recognition of Israel (Hovedenak, 2009, p. 70). Hamas’s presence in the national unity government of 2007 was welcomed by the Western community but did not lead to the lifting of the sanctions which have been imposed. “Without the materialization of the expected rewards from the compromises [of the national unity government], internal frustration rose within Hamas”, and, within three months, lead to the breakup of the government (Hovedenak, 2009, p. 74). Today, Hamas’s existence in Gaza is pretext for continued blockade and sanctions, and the stalling of international peacemaking efforts.

As for Lebanon, the pro-Syrian government resulted in Lebanon being one of two Arab countries voting against the recent Arab League resolution to impose sanctions on Syria, as well as its suspension (The Associated Press, 2011). It can be seen that the implications of a popularity of Islamists within their sphere does not necessarily only lead to Islamist implications, but can have completely unrelated implications, depending on the political stances of the party which employs Islamism as a vector.

Hezbollah’s sizeable popularity in Lebanon and its stance against peace and negotiation with Israel also complicates regional politics. Hezbollah’s activity provides pretext for many of Israel’s action, including its possession of the Golan Heights for security, and its fear of Iran. Hezbollah is deemed a western threat and a terrorist organization, and as such Lebanese regional politics is affected. The most prominent example of such implications is the 2006 Lebanon War, which was a direct result of Hezbollah prominence and activity in the region.


One pattern that perhaps becomes evident is that political Islam rarely seems to become popular on its own right. The same applies to Islamic fundamentalism and extremism. Though one can observe a number of thinkers adhering to political Islam, or militant extremism, the salience of political Islam and Islamic extremism into mainstream culture and politics seems to be a result of external factors, not the content of the ideologies themselves.

In the case of the Palestinian territories, we can see how the failure of peaceful negotiations, the corruption of Fatah, and reputation of Hamas as honest and upright lead directly to its explosive popularity. Hamas’s firmness with respect to the Arab-Israeli conflict makes it a more attractive ideology, given the results of Fatah’s attitudes.

In the case of the Shiite groups of Lebanon, Hezbollah’s growth and popularity can also be understood in the context of the failures of the secular groups; the Amal movement’s inability to lift Lebanon’s Shiites out of poverty, and their weak stance on the Israeli invasion of Lebanon during the civil war were all contributing factors, causing the Shiite constituency to turn to Hezbollah.

There is something to be said, however, about political Islam on its own right, and its effectiveness in attracting the masses. After all, it is no coincidence that it is always the Islamist party that gains traction after the failures of the secular groups. Once secularism and western modernism fails, political Islam in itself becomes attractive to the Arab constituency; this has been shown in the discussion of the Background and Islamic Resurgence. It is thus sufficient to have an ineffective secular movement for the Islamist parties to make gains.

Works Cited


  1. It can also be argued that scholarship of those like Qutb and al-Banna is both inspired from such failures of the secular political system and ideology. Indeed, in describing the message of the Brotherhood in one of its founding documents, al-Banna references patriotism and nationalism as essentially flawed systems of belief (al-Banna, ca. 1928, pp. 4-5). In addition, in a letter dated 1947 to Egypt’s King Farouk and others, al-Banna also references failures of the Western world, especially in foreign relations, as an additional reason for the need for a political Islam. In addition, al Banna attempts to demonstrate how “Islam is the Solution” through demonstrating potential reform that can be provided by Islam in Arab states (al-Banna, 1947, pp. 2, 10-1). It should be noted that al-Banna, unlike Qutb, never advocated militant or extremist Islamism; the brotherhood indeed unequivocally rejected Qutbism (Ayoob, 2004, p. 2).