Competing Visions: Zionism, Nationalism, Pan-Arabism, and Islamism

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Competing Visions: Zionism, Nationalism, Pan-Arabism, and Islamism

Early in its history, the Middle East was a focal point for important developments in human civilization. The first societies formed in Egypt and Mesopotamia, and three of the largest monotheistic religions (religions that believed in only one god)—Judaism, Christianity, and Islam—were all founded in the Fertile Crescent, a semicircle of land defined by the Mediterranean coastal region of Palestine in the west and the Tigris/Euphrates River valleys in the east. Because it connected Asia, Africa, and Europe, the Middle East was a crossroads and a battleground for many great empires. At one time or another, the Egyptians, the Persian Empire (an Asian empire that ruled in various parts of the Middle East and Russia from 550 to 330 bce), the Roman Empire (an empire that ruled between c. 27 bce and 476 ce and controlled territories ranging from Germany to Northern Africa and into the Persian Gulf), the Ottoman Empire (a vast empire of southwest Asia, northeast Africa, and southeast Europe that reigned from the thirteenth century to the early twentieth century), and many other less significant empires claimed large parts of the Middle East as their territory. Though the dominant influence on the region since the seventh century ce has been the Islamic religion, each of these other influences and many more can be found in the cultures of the Middle East.

In the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, the Middle East remained a focal point of change and conflict. Ever since the last days of the Ottoman Empire, which ruled over most of the Middle East from 1516 to 1918, several ideologies have influenced politics and cultures in the Middle East. (Ideologies are theories and plans about how to structure human societies.) Zionism, Nationalism, Pan-Arabism, Islamic fundamentalism, and a range of other ideologies, both religious and secular (non-religious), have started political movements, caused countries to go to war, and brought together and separated many societies in the Middle East.


One of the most controversial ideologies to shape life in the modern Middle East is Zionism. Started in Eastern Europe in the nineteenth century, Zionism was originally a movement that wanted to create an independent homeland for Jewish people. Because Jews were a minority religious group in Europe and parts of Asia and had little power, they were often blamed by governments for various societal problems. This led to anti-Semitism, or discrimination and abuse against Jewish people, in many countries. Anti-Semitism grew worse in the nineteenth century as governments issued pogroms, or organized killings and persecution, against Jews, first in areas like Poland and Russia, and later in Austria, Hungary, France, Germany, and other countries. Jews seeking to escape this persecution began looking for a place to begin a country of their own. Many areas were suggested, such as Argentina or parts of Africa, but there was more support for a return to the site of the Jewish ancient kingdom, the Kingdom of Israel, with its capital in Jerusalem in the land of Palestine, a part of the Ottoman Empire. In 1881 a Jewish author named Leo Pinsker (1821–1891) wrote a book titled Autoemancipation to promote this idea; though the book was not read by many, it did prompt a small group of European Jews to immigrate to Palestine. In 1896 a Hungarian Jew named Theodor Herzl (1860–1904) published a popular exploration of the same idea. His book, The Jewish State, drew the attention of many to the ideas of Zionism, and Herzl founded the World Zionist Organization to promote and fund the immigration of Jews to Palestine. By the turn of the twentieth century, several thousand Jews had moved to the region, forming the basis for a new community in Palestine based on Zionism.

Zionism was initially based on the idea that Jews would thrive if they could form a separate community of their own, but it developed into a complex plan for building first a community, then a state. Zionist organizations formed in many countries in Europe and in the United States. They collected money and helped organize the immigration of Jews from anti-Semitic communities to Palestine. Once Jews reached Palestine, Zionist agencies helped these immigrants settle in, finding them jobs or a place in the communal farms, or kibbutzim, that they had established. Over time, Zionists formed their own government system called the Jewish Agency. After the British took control of Palestine from the Ottoman Empire following World War I (1914–18; war in which Great Britain, France, the United States, and their allies defeated Germany, Austria-Hungary, and their allies), the Jewish Agency built roads and schools and provided social services for themselves.

Zionists promoted their ideology as a way to avoid conflict and anti-Semitism, yet in forming a Jewish society in Palestine they created the very conflict they hoped to avoid. From its very beginnings, Zionists ignored or tried to downplay the impact their ideology had on the mostly poor Arab inhabitants of Palestine. Yet in developing a Jewish community, Zionists bought and later stole land from the local Arabs, who were called Palestinians. The Palestinians came to the realization that Zionists planned to create a Jewish community on what had long been Arab land, and by the 1920s Arabs in Palestine and in the surrounding areas began to express their opposition to Zionism. By the 1930s many Palestinians had committed themselves to combating Zionism. Though Arab resistance was not explicitly anti-Jewish—Muslims have had a long history of tolerance for Judaism—it was openly anti-Zionist.

Though Zionists had once claimed they could live in harmony with Arabs, constant conflict with Arabs in Palestine, especially after the 1930s, pushed Zionists to develop plans for a separate and independent Jewish state on Palestinian land. The United Nations (an international organization founded in 1945 and made up of most of the countries of the world) supported this Zionist plan after World War II (1939–45; war in which Great Britain, France, the Soviet Union, the United States, and their allies defeated Germany, Italy, and Japan) but the Palestinians and other Arab countries saw this Jewish state as a threat to Islam and as a loss of Arab land. Jews and Arabs went to war in 1948 over the creation of the Jewish nation of Israel. Even though the Palestinians and Arab countries could supply more manpower and weapons, the Jews were better organized and had more international support (due to sympathy because of persecution by the Germans in World War II as well as a large Jewish movement in the United States) and by 1949 the armies of Israel forced thousands of Palestinians to evacuate their homes and move to surrounding Arab states such as Jordan and Syria. For Zionists, the creation of the state of Israel was the realization of many years of hard work and sacrifice. But it was not the end of Zionism. Zionists have continued to promote the defense of the state of Israel and the right of Jews from around the world to immigrate to Israel. Zionism also continues to draw opposition from Arab countries in the Middle East. Critics of Zionism have said that the movement is racist because of the way Zionists have denied rights to Arabs living in Israel and the Occupied Territories (lands occupied by Israel after the Six-Day War of 1967, a war in which Israel fought with Egypt, Syria, and Jordan over land and resources). Arab opponents often called Zionism a form of colonialism by Western countries (countries such as Britain, France, Germany, Canada, and the United States) hoping to create an ally in the predominately Arab Middle East since many Western countries, most notably the United States, supported the creation of Israel. In the 1950s and 1960s, many of these Arabs joined together to create an ideology of their own, called Pan-Arabism.


Zionism was a form of an ideology called nationalism that had reshaped much of Europe and indeed the world in the years after the seventeenth century. The core idea of nationalism was that a people with shared ethnic, cultural, and/or religious identities had the right to form their own nation; such ideas had led to the formation of nations such as the United States in the eighteenth century, and the formation of the independent nations of Germany and Italy in the nineteenth century. Nationalism had not historically been an important factor in the Middle East. People derived their identity from their religion (Islam) or from their local tribal relationships; ties to regions, such as Palestine or Mesopotamia or Arabia, were simply not that important in most of the Middle East (though Egypt, with its long history, was an exception). Under the Ottoman Empire, the Middle East had been divided into relatively small administrative units, and leadership within those units was led by traditional tribal sheikhs or imams. With the coming of Zionism and the breakup of the Ottoman Empire following World War I, however, the idea of nationalism radically reshaped the region and the ways that people identified themselves.

Once Britain and France defeated the Ottoman Empire in World War I, they set about dividing the Middle East to suit their needs. The nations of Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, and Transjordan, and the territory of Palestine, were created under a system called the mandate system, that was devised by the League of Nations, an international governing body that aimed to ease disputes between countries after World War I. Other nations such as Turkey, Egypt, and Iran, which already had independent national governments, were allowed to remain free of foreign guidance within their newly defined borders. Arabia, a vast desert in the southern half of the Arabian Peninsula, was left in tribal hands, with the Saud family bringing order to the region by the early 1930s. The mandate states, as the first group was called, all had difficult beginnings. Iraq, for example, was created with boundaries that did not conform to geographical features or ethnic groups; it contained Sunni and Shiite Muslims (two branches of the Islamic religion that differed on who should hold power in the religious community) as well as a large Kurdish (non-Arabic Muslims) population. Lebanon was expanded from its original foundation as a Christian community surrounding Mount Lebanon into a much larger territory that included Christians and several Muslim factions, all of which might have been better suited to live in neighboring Syria. Lebanon's odd construction was driven by France's desire to contain the power of Muslims within Syria. Palestine was not defined as a nation, but as a territory under British administration, for the British recognized the difficulties that faced Zionists and Palestinians as they fought for control in the region.

From these difficult and unstable beginnings, nations of varying degrees of stability were formed. Turkey provided an example of the power nationalism had to organize a people. Turkey was originally under the control of the Ottoman Empire and after World War I many different groups, including the Greeks, the Italians, and the Armenians (Christian Turks) fought to take possession of Turkish land. Mustafa Kemal Atatürk (1881–1938), a Muslim Turk, started a movement within the Muslim community in Turkey to not let their Turkish culture and heritage be destroyed by outside forces. Using the idea of nationalism, Atatürk encouraged people of the Muslim faith in Turkey to bond together and with his newly created forces defeated the Greek and Italian armies and kept the Armenians from taking over large amounts of land to create their own country. Atatürk quickly created a new government and began to modernize Turkey by adopting secular laws, creating new roads and transportation systems, and promoting economic growth through trade with Western countries. By the time the mandate system was put into place, Turkey was already an independently functioning country and was not forced to operate under foreign rule. Other countries that were not as stable as Turkey, such as Syria, Lebanon, Iraq, and Transjordan (later Jordan), functioned during the mandate period (c. 1920–1940s) with relatively stable national governments, although they were based on European models and had leaders hand-picked by the European powers. However, these governments tended to be autocratic, which meant that a strong central figure, usually a king, held most of the power, and the general population had few choices regarding their governance. Moreover, popular opinion in these countries was deeply divided, with some groups preferring identities based on tribal loyalty, ethnicity, or religion over nationality. Such tensions produced a governing system in Lebanon in which power was distributed by a complicated formula based on religion and ethnicity; this system produced frequent changes in power and, from the 1970s onward, frequent periods of civil war. Following World War II, most Arab nations went through another period of upheaval that saw these nations change their leadership and their ideology, but keep their national boundaries stable.

There were groups in the Middle East, however, who strongly wished to form nations, but were prevented from doing so. In the treaty that ended World War I, Kurds were offered the opportunity to form their own nation in both Turkey and Iraq, and Armenians fought to rule a new nation called Armenia in the northeast. Turkey was unwilling to lose all the lands held by these ethnic groups, however, and brutally oppressed their populations in order to gain control. While the Armenians kept control of the small country of Armenia, the Kurdish lands were largely divided among stronger groups that remained part of Turkey, Iraq, Iran, and Syria. To this day, Kurds and Armenians have continued to petition the international community for support to form or join their own nations.

The best-known case of a people who possess a national identity but not an actual nation is that of the Palestinians. In the 1948 war that created the state of Israel, hundreds of thousands of Palestinians were forced from their homes and villages and became refugees in camps in Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, and Syria. In the Six-Day War of 1967, Israel expanded further, taking military control of Palestinian populations in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. Because the Palestinian population was scattered over many countries and no longer owned any land, it was often disorganized and had no system with which to attempt to create a new Palestinian nation. Gradually institutions were organized to promote a Palestinian national identity. The best known of these organizations is the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), a government system that has grown over the years since its founding in 1964 to provide a wide range of social services to its people. Palestinians also formed a number of terrorist organizations whose primary goal was reclaiming the land that formerly made up Palestine and the destruction of the Jewish state of Israel. Because a key part of their national identity was built around destroying Israel, Palestinians received little support from many Western countries in the 1960s and 1970s. By the 1980s, however, many nations recognized the Palestinians and worked to promote a solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Even though some progress was made, the Palestinians still remained a people without a state in 2005.


The opposition to the nationalism of independent Arab states was an ideology known as Pan-Arabism, or Arab nationalism. In its simplest terms, Pan-Arabism held that two unifying forces formed the basis for national identity: Arab ethnicity and the Islamic religion. Arabs were the original followers of Islam and during its early history it was the force that unified the peoples of the Arabian Peninsula and Egypt. When the Ottoman Empire, led by Islamic Turks, took political power in the early sixteenth century, many of the cultures of the Arabic people tied to Islam were either suppressed by Ottoman rulers or made unlawful in favor of peace between nations in the empire. In the late nineteenth century, as the Ottoman Empire went into decline, political thinkers in the Arab world began to suggest that Arabs ought to unite to form a powerful, unified nation and reclaim the former glory that the region had enjoyed before it was eclipsed by the rise of the West.

In the early years of the twentieth century, an Arab leader named Sherif Hussein ibn Ali (c. 1854–1931) of Mecca conspired to organize an Arab revolt against Ottoman rule. Hussein was encouraged by the British in the early years of World War I, and he successfully rallied Arabs to fight alongside the British against the Ottomans during the war. After the war, however, Britain and France chose to create individual nations, rather than create one large Arab nation in the Arabian Peninsula. (Hussein's son Faisal was made king of Iraq.) From that time onward, those who resented the European influence in forming nations in the region suggested that the answer to the troubles plaguing the Middle East could be found in Pan-Arabism.

Pan-Arabism became a true movement in the Middle East in the 1950s and 1960s. Several conditions allowed Pan-Arabism to flourish at this time. Britain and France withdrew their direct involvement in Middle Eastern governments beginning in the 1930s but especially after World War II, and Arab nations began to act more independently. The removal of European influence allowed the Arab nations to consider their shared interests. In 1945, seven Arab states formed the Arab League, an organization designed to promote regional cooperation. One thing that unified the Arab League states was their mutual support for Palestinians, who were struggling with Jewish Zionists for control of Palestine. Yet the combined forces of several Arab nations could not prevent the creation of the state of Israel in Palestine in 1948, nor the eviction of approximately seven hundred thousand Palestinians from their homeland. Many of the Arab countries that took part in the war against Israel, such as Iraq, Syria, and Egypt, were so dissatisfied with their countries performance that they held coups (uprisings intended to create change) and installed new leaders in the government. Many of these new leaders, politicians who unlike the leaders they replaced were not influenced by Western foreign powers, began to consider the advantages of a unified Arab nation.


The single greatest champion of Pan-Arabism was Egyptian president Gamal Abdel Nasser (1918–1970), who took power in a military coup in 1952. As the leader of the most economically advanced Arab nation, with the most powerful army, Nasser believed that it was his job to lead an Arab revival. His leadership was so important that Pan-Arabism is sometimes known as Nasserism. Nasser wanted to distance the Arab world from the West, so he embraced socialist economic programs (systems where the government owns the means of production, such as land and factories, and controls the distribution of goods and services) similar to those in the Soviet Union, which had emerged after World War II as an enemy of the United States and its democratic allies. Nasser recognized that the shared religious faith of the Muslims was an important unifying factor, but he did not want religion to be part of the government. Finally, he encouraged Arabs to rally behind their hatred of their shared enemy: Israel. Nasser issued many provocative statements concerning the destruction of Israel, which were intended to arouse Arab sympathies.

In 1958 Nasser led the first real attempt to bring about Arab unification. He organized the formation of the United Arab Republic, a political union between Egypt and Syria. Though the two countries did not share a border, they began to pursue a merger of their economies and political systems. Trouble began right away, however, for the union was hardly a merger of equals. Syria had sought Egypt's help to avoid a communist (system of government in which the state plans and controls the economy and a single party holds power) takeover of their country, but soon it seemed to Syrians that they had invited an Egyptian takeover. Popular resistance to the union led to a military coup in 1961 that restored independence to Syria and effectively disbanded the United Arab Republic (though Egypt continued to use the name until 1971).


The other organized attempt to bring about Pan-Arab political unity came from the Baathist movement. Baath is an Arabic word meaning rebirth, and from the founding of the Baath Arab Socialist Party in Syria in 1947, Baathists sought a rebirth of Arab power through its motto of "Unity, Freedom, Socialism." The major thinker behind Baath ideology was a Syrian Christian named Michel Aflaq (1940–1989). Baathism promoted a secular form of government in which the important industries were nationalized, or brought under the control of the government in order to provide work for all the people. This form of socialism was similar to that of the Soviet Union, but Baaths did not try to rid the public of the influence of religion as did the Soviets. They recognized that Islam played an important role in unifying the Arab people. Early Baath leaders wanted democratic rule as well as expanded personal freedoms and the Baath Party gained followers in many Arab nations, particularly in Syria and Iraq.

In the beginning, the Baath Party hoped to draw upon popular support to bring about a peaceful unification of Arab nations. Following the failure of the United Arab Republic in 1961, however, the Baath Party splintered into several opposing factions. In Syria, the Baath Party was taken over by military figures who wanted complete control over the Syrian government. By 1970 the Baaths had placed dictator (absolute ruler) Hafez Assad (1930–2000) in power. Assad controlled the Baath Party, and the strict laws he placed on individual freedom, as well as the absence of democracy in Syria, led to a major departure from the party's original ideals. In Iraq the Baath Party first came to power in 1963, and secured complete control over the Iraqi government in 1968. Under dictator Saddam Hussein (1937–), who ruled from 1979 to 2003, the Baath Party became a tool for Hussein to enforce his personal control over all political activity in the country.

The end of Pan-Arabism

Pan-Arabism proved far more attractive as an idea than as a practical means of ruling. The failures of Nasserism and Baathism, both of which fell prey to the desire of individual rulers to exert personal control, effectively killed the Pan-Arabist ideology. Contributing to the decline of Pan-Arabism was the continued failure of the Arab nations to defeat their Israeli and Western enemies. Even the Palestinians, who had once looked to Arab unity as a means of helping them return to Palestine, decided in the 1970s that they would be better off working alone.

Islamism: A possible return to Muslim unity

Pan-Arabism was discredited as an organizing principle in the Middle East by the end of the 1960s, yet the nationalism that had provided structure in the region since the 1920s had also not met with real success. Though many Arab states had gained wealth from their oil industries, all of them were experiencing economic problems, political infighting, and domestic unrest. Many of these problems were blamed on the influence of the West. Muslims in the Arab world had long complained about Western influences. They claimed that Western influence had destroyed the Arabs' former power, and that it had also fostered the opinion in the international community that the Arab world was primitive and backward. They also pointed to the ways in which Western ideas were corrupting Arab youth. Many Muslim leaders in various countries attempted to use the ideology of Islamism, a political and social program based on the Islamic faith, after the mid-1970s with varying results to combat the effects of Western culture in the Middle East.

The Islamic religion actually had a long history as a political ideology. Muhammad (c. 570–632 ce), the founding prophet of Islam, was both a political and religious leader, unifying many tribes in the Arabian Peninsula during his lifetime. The leaders of Islam who succeeded Muhammad, called caliphs, created a powerful empire that lasted until about 1258 and spread Islam and the Arabic language throughout the Middle East. During the rule of the Ottoman Empire, Turkish sultans claimed the role of caliph, but Islam was not as essential to their rule as before. It was not until the modern era that Islam once again returned as a powerful political force in the region.

Saudi Arabian Wahhabism

The nation of Saudi Arabia was formed in 1932 after Abd al Aziz ibn Saud (c. 1880–1953) defeated other tribal chieftains in the wilderness of the Arabian desert. Ibn Saud and his family, the Saudis, were followers of Wahhabism, a conservative branch of Islam that promoted strict observance of Sharia, a system of Islamic holy law based on the teachings of the Koran (the Islamic holy book). Wahhabism insisted on separation of men and women in all public activities and strict observance of daily prayers, among other things. For many years, Saudi Arabia's isolation from other countries (it did not participate in the major Arab wars against Israel and other Western influences), as well as its great oil wealth and political and financial stability, made Saudi Arabia a stable Islamic power in the Middle East.

Since the 1990s, however, Saudi Arabia's balance between maintaining a strong Islamic culture and good foreign relations with Western countries has weakened. Saudi Arabia had been a close ally of the United States since the 1970s. The United States purchased the majority of Saudi oil and provided the kingdom with military protection. In the 1991 Gulf War (a war in which the United States and other Western nations defended Kuwait against invasion from Iraq), American troops were based in Saudi Arabia. Yet Saudi Arabia strictly limited Western influences in the country. Western visitors and workers were kept separate from Saudis, and Western media were censored. Only the wealthy members and friends of the royal family were able to enjoy the excesses of Western wealth. After the 1979 Islamic Revolution in Iran, however, many supporters of Islam began to criticize the Saudi relationship with the West. Saudi terrorist Osama bin Laden (1957–) is a follower of Wahhabism, and in the 1990s he began to call for an Islamic revolution within Saudi Arabia, claiming that the royal family had perverted Islam to support its excesses and to maintain its political alliances. In the 2000s the Saudi government, already considered one of the world's most conservative, or extremely traditional, governments, struggled to contain unrest among Islamic activists who wanted to increase the importance of the Islamic religion in their nation.

Islamic Revolution in Iran

Iran is not an Arab nation, and geographers and historians disagree on whether or not it should be considered as part of the Middle East. Its history is very different from that of most of the Middle East, and the great majority of Iran's population is ethnically Persian. Yet Iran is also an overwhelmingly Muslim nation that has participated in many of the key regional events of the twentieth century, including its opposition to the creation of Israel and its long war with Iraq (1980–88). Most importantly, Iran was the first nation in the world to undergo an Islamic revolution (a movement to allow the Islamic religion to govern all matters in a country, including laws, foreign policy, and economics). After years of rule by a Western-backed shah, or king, in 1979 a popular revolt led by Muslim clerics brought about sweeping changes in Iran's government. That year, religious leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini (1902–1989) was named Supreme Leader of the Islamic Republic of Iran. Khomeini was both the political and the religious leader of his nation, and he oversaw reforms that made Islam the basis for all aspects of Iranian life.

The Iranian revolution convinced Islamists that it was possible to bring about a revolution that would make Islam the focus of national life, just as it was the focus of personal life for so many Muslims. It also convinced them that it was possible for a Muslim country to eliminate or radically limit Western influences. Iran quickly became an enemy not only of the West, but of any country that did not heed the rise of the Islamic revolution. It contributed money and soldiers to Islamic revolutionaries in other countries. Western nations accused Iran of supporting terrorism, for it supported groups such as the Lebanon-based Hezbollah, which kidnapped Westerners and conducted militant strikes against Israel and other opponents of Islamic rule. In the 2000s the United States publicly disapproved of Iran's attempts to attain nuclear weapons, and some observers feared the United States would go to war with Iran to prevent it from obtaining such weapons.

Islamic insurgents throughout the Middle East

Following the successful Islamic revolution in Iran, Islamism grew in strength throughout the Middle East.

Islamists or Islamic Fundamentalists?

Many people in the West refer to those Muslims who want to make Islam the center of political and social life as Islamic fundamentalists. But some scholars of the Middle East, including Bernard Lewis, one of the most prominent Westerners to study the region, believe that the label "fundamentalist" distorts what is really happening in the Middle East. "Despite its common use," writes Lewis in From Babel to Dragomans: Interpreting the Middle East, "the term is inaccurate and misleading. Fundamentalist is a term originating in the United States in the early twentieth century, and used to refer to certain Protestant groups [a sect of Christianity] that asserted ... their belief in the literal divine origin and textual inerrancy of the Bible." In the West, the term fundamentalist is used to indicate someone who follows strict observance of the basic principles of a religion.

The beliefs that Islam should play a larger part in government and secular issues, however, are commonplace in many Middle Eastern countries. The vast majority of Muslims, writes Lewis, "believe in the literal divine origin and textual inerrancy of the Koran" (the Islamic holy book). They accept that their religion should be the primary shaping force in all areas of social life, including politics. The idea that religion should be set off in a separate part of social life is rejected in much of the Muslim world. Those who hold these ideas and want to make them part of their national culture are more accurately called Islamists. Hence, the term Islamic fundamentalist is used to describe a small minority of Islamists, including terrorists like Osama bin Laden, who want to eliminate all contact with the Western world, strip Muslims of many of the individual rights they have gained in the twentieth century, and return to an outdated form of Islamic rule.

Islamist movements, however, had existed for many years in the Middle East. They formed in response to the movement in the 1920s to create secular nations based on Western models, and gained in strength after World War II as many Arab nations reorganized their political systems. One of the first and most enduring groups was the Muslim Brotherhood, which was founded in Egypt in the late 1920s by Hasan al-Banna (1906–1949). The Muslim Brotherhood hoped to bring about Islamic government in every Arab state, and it soon created subgroups in other Arab nations. Its motto, quoted on the Federation of American Scientists' terrorism Web site, is: "Allah [God] is our objective. The Prophet [Muhammad] is our leader. Qur'an is our law. Jihad [holy war] is our way. Dying in the way of Allah is our highest hope."

Over the years, the Muslim Brotherhood and like-minded groups sought to bring an end to the secular governments in their nations. The most prominent groups to follow in the footsteps of the Muslim Brotherhood have been Islamic Jihad and Hamas in Palestine, the Islamic Action Front in Jordan, and the National Islamic Front in Sudan, as well as groups called the Muslim Brotherhood in these and other countries. Beginning in the late 1960s and early 1970s, these Islamist groups, which came to be known as Islamic fundamentalist groups in the West, also began to use terrorist attacks and assassinations to accomplish their political goals. In 1981, for example, members of the Muslim Brotherhood assassinated Egyptian president Anwar Sadat (1918–1981) after he made peace with Israel. In the Occupied Territories (Arab land taken over by the Israelis during the Six-Day War in 1967), Islamic fundamentalist groups have used suicide bombings as one of their tactics. In the 2000s, Islamist groups and their followers have become a significant political force in many nations of the Middle East, and in Muslim nations outside the Middle East such as Algeria and Indonesia.

In the 2000s, one of the best-known Islamist organizations was Al Qaeda, a group created in the 1980s to support the Islamist Taliban movement in Afghanistan, a group that wanted to change Afghanistan's government to one under Islamic rule and preserve Islamic culture in the country. Al Qaeda and its leader, Osama bin Laden, became notorious around the world in 2001 when they organized terrorist attacks on targets in the United States, killing several thousand people in New York City and Washington, D.C. Al Qaeda hoped to use its opposition to the West, especially the United States, to start a revolution throughout Middle Eastern countries that would strengthen the position of the Islamic religion in all parts of secular life. However, widespread disapproval of terrorist attacks, even from supporters of Islam, limited the political effectiveness of the group, and its leaders have been hunted relentlessly by the United States, Israel, and other nations since 2001.

The future of Islamism

Today, many outsiders view Islamic terrorist activities as the most significant expression of Islamist ideology. These acts, however, represent only the extreme political fringe of what is in some countries a broad-based, popular movement. As of 2005, political and social groups promoting an increased role for the Islamic religion were gaining significant support in Turkey, Egypt, and in the newly formed government that was emerging in Iraq. Moderate, or reform, Islamists in these countries believe that they can increase the importance of Islam and make significant improvements in the welfare of their people without placing themselves in opposition to secular governments in the Middle East and beyond. While support is growing for Islamism, the ideology has yet to be a main source of change in most Middle Eastern countries.

For More Information


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Mintz, John, and Douglas Farah. "In Search of Friends Among the Foes: U.S. Hopes to Work with Diverse Group." Washington Post. September 11, 2004: p. A1.

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Competing Visions: Zionism, Nationalism, Pan-Arabism, and Islamism

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