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William J. Hamblin and Daniel C. Peterson
Monday, April 27 2009

Islamic Terrorism

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What is the Islamist Movement?
By William J. Hamblin and Daniel C. Peterson 

With the ongoing war on terror, many people have been wondering about Islamic fundamentalists, or, as they are more commonly called today, Islamists. What is the Islamist movement? During Muhammad's lifetime (570-622) he became not only a prophet, but the ruler of a kingdom, which, in the last two years of his life, encompassed most of Arabia. The Qur'an (Koran)-the revelations of God to Muhammad, revered as Islamic scripture-contains numerous and sometimes lengthy passages presenting the legal principles upon which an authentic Muslim society should be governed. At its core, Islamic law (Arabic shari'ah) is Qur'anic law, a mixture of civil, criminal and religious regulations.

Following the death of Muhammad, the principles of law and government in the Qur'an were interpreted by generations of legal scholars. When facing new legal and political questions not explicitly answered in the Qur'an, judges and rulers would try to formulate scholarly consensus on how to answer a question based on logical extrapolation and analogy. The result was the development of a complex Islamic law code, which in many ways parallels the role of the Talmud in medieval Jewish life. There were enough essential differences between differing models of interpretation that eventually five major different legal systems developed in the Islamic world, which agree on most fundamentals, but often differ on many particulars. For over a thousand years, countries with Muslim majorities, including most of the Middle East, were governed by one of these five schools of Islamic law. (It should be noted that Orthodox Judaism is also distinguished by its strict adherence to rabbinic law as codified in the Talmud. One of the goals of the Orthodox in Israel is to establish Talmudic principles and rabbinic law as the official legal and political system of Israel-which currently has a European-style secular system.)

In the nineteenth century, European imperialists managed to either conquer or render tributary nearly all Middle Eastern countries. In the process, the imperial powers brought European ideas about government and law to the region, promising liberty and equality. In reality, though, for over a century Muslims were generally treated by European powers as second-class citizens in their own lands. The usual Muslim experience was, therefore, that the European system of constitutionalism, parliamentary government, equality, and democracy was a farce, intended only as a means to subdue conquered peoples.

When European colonial domination of the Middle East collapsed following World War II, newly independent Muslim states faced the enormous problem of creating new governments and legal systems from scratch. For practical purposes, most states retained the legal systems of their European colonizers, which had been in force in much of the area for over half a century. Many states retained monarchies-constitutional or otherwise. Other states attempted to formulate some type of democracy. Some flirted with Marxism or socialism. Tragically, most ultimately devolved into military dictatorships.

A Return to Islamic Law

The Islamists want to change this situation, seeking to restore what they feel is the authentic Muslim political and legal system that had been in force before the coming of the Europeans. At the most basic level, Islamists believe that their societies should be founded upon, organized and run according to Islamic law as found in the Qur'an and its schools of orthodox interpretation. Another general Islamist goal is that the moral decadence of the West-immodesty, sexual promiscuity, drinking, drug use, greed, secularism, vulgarity-should be minimized in their societies through strict moral codes.

Whereas all Islamists agree that majority Muslim countries should reestablish Islamic law as their foundational legal and political system, they often differ as to the best means to achieve this goal. The vast majority of Islamists opt for moderate and peaceful means of renovation, via religious revival, education, and legal transformation through legitimate political and legal channels. Thus, many Muslim countries have Islamist political parties advocating peaceful change. Unfortunately, many governments in the Near East-much as Iran was under the former shahs-are oppressive and tyrannical military dictatorships that brook no opposition (and which, like the Shah's regime, are sometimes supported by Western powers, including the United States). Thus, peaceful change is often impossible, leading to the radicalization of Islamist groups, who see violent revolution as the only means of obtaining their legitimate political aspirations, precisely as happened in the Islamic revolution in Iran.

There are many facets and factions to Islamist movements today. A large minority of Muslims throughout the Near East are Islamists, and the vast majority of these advocate peaceful and moderate means to obtain their goals. Unfortunately, however, a growing small minority are turning increasingly to violence and terrorism. Usama bin Ladin's terrorist organization is one of these; in a future column we will explore why Usama and his supporters view the United States as their major enemy.

© 2003Meridian Magazine.  All Rights Reserved.





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