Tarek Osman, author of a new book, Islamism: What It Means for the Middle East and the World, emphasized that militant Islamism is not an entirely new phenomenon, but the Islamic State (ISIS)’s particular brand of it is.
Militant Islamism dates back at least half a century, he said, but what has changed in the past five years are the ambitions of groups like ISIS. Today’s militant Islamists have transitioned from opposition group politics—using terrorism to undermine a state—to actively seeking to replace state institutions, he said.
These groups demand submission from those in their occupied territories, and derive legitimacy from providing them basic services, he said. For that reason, they are difficult to combat. “It is one thing to deal with groups that are underground, that try to assassinate and blow up,” he said. It is more challenging to “eliminate groups that control parts of land, with inhabitants and political structures.”
He outlined two problems presented by this “new type of challenge.” In the Syrian conflict, “there are some countries that are able more or less to use groups such as ISIS to deploy them for some resources.” Eliminating such a group would not only require massive resources that no “power in the world, in the West or Middle East, would want to commit.” But also, it is not a choice we can expect to be supported by the very states benefitting from manipulating militant Islamists to their own ends.
Further, regional tensions are high, he said; referring to the deepening cleavage between Sunnis and Shias, as a Saudi-Iran shadow war rages. For these financial and geo-political reasons, “militant Islamism as we see it today,” will “be with us for some time.”
In his book, Osman writes, “The large Islamist groups and the serious Islamist thinkers will have to defend the idea of Islamism against the charge of being fundamentally equated with violence and terror.”
He elaborated that the key challenge for non-violent Islamists will be demonstrating political Islam’s compatibility with modernity, especially in light of the region’s “youth bulge” population. This huge population of young people made use of new technology to mobilize in record numbers and usher in the Arab uprisings, he said, but their faith has been shaken as the Islamists they brought to power failed to govern.
Osman rejected the notion that there was a universal Islamism that could be easily transplanted, describing instead national experiences. Islamism may hold particular influence in Tunisia, Morocco, Iraq, Turkey, Iran, and the Gulf states like Kuwait, Bahrain, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. But its national forms have not turned out to be workable models when they are exported to other places in the Arab world, he said.
Osman offered the observation that “Gulf states oppose political Islam because it threatens their top-down state management.” Saudi Arabia’s monarchy relies on obedience from its citizens, he elaborated, and therefore, Gulf leaders reject a version of Islam that tries to demonstrate its relevance by promising elections and state government.
The April 25, 2016 event was held as part of IPI’s Distinguished Author Series.
Warren Hoge, IPI Senior Adviser for External Relations, moderated the conversation.