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).