Journal Essay

Nationalism, Anarchism, Reform: Political Islam from the Inside Out

James L. Gelvin

Fall 2010, Volume XVII, Number 3

Dr. Gelvin is a professor in the Department of History at the University of California at Los Angeles.

In July 2008, The New York Times ran an article about the evolution of the militant Algerian organization, the Armed Islamic Group (GIA), into a branch of al-Qaeda called “al-Qaeda of the Islamic Maghreb.”1 The GIA emerged after the Algerian government canceled the second round of parliamentary elections in 1992 to prevent a victory by the Islamic Salvation Front (FIS), a party led by a broad coalition of Islamic activists who had banded together to take advantage of a temporary thaw in Algerian politics. The GIA was not interested in parliamentary politics; its goal was to overthrow the Algerian government by violence and establish an Islamic government in its place.

According to the article, in 1994 the group was approached by Osama bin Laden, who sought to establish a base in Algeria. The group refused bin Laden’s request. In an interview obtained by The New York Times, one of the group’s leaders stated that he told Bin Laden, “We don’t have anything to do with anything outside….We are interested in just Algeria.” Ten years later, in the fall of 2004, a spin-off and successor to the GIA, the “Salafist Group for Preaching and Struggle” (al-jamaa al-salafiya lil-dawa wal-qital — or GSPC) reversed the GIA’s decision and contacted Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the (now deceased) leader of al-Qaeda in Iraq.

What caused the group to reverse its predecessor’s decision? According to one account, immediately following 9/11, the Bush administration changed its designation of the GSPC from a “regional insurgency” to a terrorist group. It also began targeting the group as part of the Global War on Terror. In March 2004, a covert American operation led to the capture of one of the group’s leaders. In the wake of the incident, the group contacted al-Zarqawi and began operations against Westerners and Western interests in Algeria and beyond. Said the GSPC’s leader, “If the U.S. administration sees that its war against the Muslims is legitimate, then what makes us believe that our war on its territories is not legitimate?”2

There are two aspects of this story that are important for the argument presented in this article. First, there is the difference between the two statements: “We don’t have anything to do with anything outside….We are interested in just Algeria,” and “If the U.S. administration sees that its war against the Muslims is legitimate, then what makes us believe that our war on its territories is not legitimate?” The significance of the two comments will become apparent below.

The second aspect of this story that is important for us concerns the problem of labeling and the transformative power of labels. Timothy Garton Ash addressed the latter issue directly when he wrote in the pages of the Guardian,

[F]inding the right words is part of stopping [terrorists]. It means we’ve correctly identified our real enemies. It also means we don’t unnecessarily create new enemies by making all Muslims feel that they’re being treated as terrorists.3

Ash was not the only observer disturbed by the careless application of labels. In April 2008, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) issued a “guidance memorandum” entitled, “Terminology to Define Terrorists: Recommendations from American Muslims.”4 “Words matter,” the memorandum begins. “We must carefully avoid giving Bin Laden and other al-Qaeda leaders the legitimacy they crave, but do not possess, by characterizing them as religious figures, or in terms that may make them seem to be noble in the eyes of some.” The memo goes on to critique various words used to identify those behind 9/11.

So what words are “out” and what words are “in” for identifying America’s enemies in the Global War on Terror (itself a phrase that was rhetorically downgraded at the outset of the Obama administration to “overseas contingency operations”)? “Out” is anything having to do with religion: all variations on jihad (jihadi, jihadist, mujahid, mujahidin), salafi, Islamist, Islamic terrorist, holy warrior, and the empty neologism, “Islamo-fascist.” “In” is “violent extremist” (to differentiate al-Qaedists and their ilk, one might suppose, from pacifist extremists) and “terrorist.” The DHS memorandum thus takes us from the world of religion to the world of terrorology.

There is much to appreciate in the DHS’s attempt to bring order and sense to the problem of nomenclature. Naming is, of course, inextricably linked to the process of classification and understanding. And there is much to applaud in the department’s quick tutorial in things Islamic in their attempt to get it right, just as there is in the decision to move away from religious terminology to identify the enemy. A look at two examples will demonstrate why.

First, the term jihadi: The DHS memo rightly points out that, since jihad is a central tenet of Islam, applying the term jihadi to Bin Laden and his ilk blurs the distinction between al-Qaedist ideology and the beliefs of most Muslims. This is a distinction that should not be blurred. In fact, al-Qaedists read into jihad meanings alien to most mainstream Islamic scholars. For example, al-Qaeda views armed struggle against Islam’s enemies as a personal obligation to be undertaken by all Muslims. Their reasoning is that waging a defensive jihad is incumbent on all when the Islamic community is under attack — as it has been, they claim, since the beginning of the Reconquista. For them, jihad-as-armed-struggle is a sixth (neglected) pillar of the faith, and those who do not undertake it cannot be considered true Muslims.5 Most mainstream jurists, on the other hand, have viewed armed struggle under present circumstances as a responsibility to be delegated to proper authorities, such as governments and their armed forces.6 And most jurists associate any litmus test for being a true Muslim with the heterodox Kharajite sect of the first Islamic century. According to most jurists, the Kharajites’ gravest sin was that they sowed the seeds of fitna (discord) in the community by doing what Bin Laden and others do: pronouncing Muslims they disagreed with to be non-Muslims, thus rendering them suitable for killing.7

Furthermore, as the DHS memo points out, identifying Bin Laden with jihad bolsters his religious credentials — something he has, in the past, been very concerned about.8 And Bin Laden has reason to be concerned: In spite of the fact that he was educated in business and not religious sciences, Bin Laden has taken upon himself the right to issue fatawa (religious pronouncements) — a task usually reserved for those with special training. It is not for naught, then, that various leaders of al-Qaeda themselves designate their group as part of a greater “jihad movement” or as “jihadi-salafis.”9

This brings us to a second term that has begun to dominate the literature about al-Qaeda and its spin-offs: “salafi.” Salafis are distinguished by two characteristics. First, salafis reject all sources of religious knowledge except two: the Quran and hadith (collections of the sayings and acts of the Prophet and his companions) along with, usually, that which can be directly extrapolated from the Quran and hadith. Second, salafis look back to the original Medinan community established by Muhammad (the community of the salaf al-salih, the pious ancestors, from which the term salafi is derived) as the ideal community, worthy of emulation.

Al-Qaedists certainly are salafis, as anyone remotely acquainted with their pronouncements can attest. But they are not the only salafis. In fact, there are at least two types of salafis who would use salafism for the purpose of tajdid (renewal of Islamic society). Each group uses the foundational texts in a different way: One group uses them as an instructional manual, the other as a jumping-off point. The first group includes salafis like the wahabiya10 of Saudi Arabia and the Taliban, who believe the sources provide them with a strict roadmap to be followed without deviation. Hence, their single-mindedness when it comes to dress codes, gender relations, prescribed punishments and the like. They derive their position on all of these issues from applying a close reading of the two sources and a particular hermeneutical strategy that enables them to fill in lacunae. Counterposed to these salafis are the so-called “modernist salafis.” The concern of the modernists — indeed their raison d’être — is to align Islam with the modern world. As a result, they self-consciously subsume the interpretation of the Quran and hadith within a post-Enlightenment episteme. Drawing from that episteme, the modernists argue that one can find women’s rights, human rights, democracy, etc. in the Quran and hadith. When Muhammad died, for example, the elders of the community met to “elect” the first caliph. Is this not parliamentarianism, the modernists ask? The same elders committed the caliph to fulfill certain conditions and swore loyalty as long as he did so. How is that different from constitutionalism?

Using the term salafi to designate Bin Laden and others like him lumps “good” modernist salafis in with “bad” “fundamentalist” salafis. (The use of the terms “fundamentalism” and “fundamentalist,” by the way — terms which have no Arabic equivalent and were originally coined to describe a specific current in the American Protestant tradition — seems to enjoy diminishing popularity when applied to Islam.11) And, if there ever is to be that “Islamic Reformation” that (mostly) Western commentators have so patronizingly been demanding, it will have to come from the “modernists,” so that would be a mistake.12

Overall, then, using religious terminology for either bureaucratic or propagandistic reasons is neither accurate nor smart. On the other hand, neither is the solution proposed by the DHS: simply designating our enemies as terrorists or violent extremists. The problem with using these terms is that they are too vague to be of any analytical utility. The pages of the numerous terrorology journals that have proliferated in the wake of 9/11 are filled with an eclectic cast of characters: Osama bin Laden, Ted Kaczynski, Basque separatists, the ancient Zealots, Timothy McVeigh, PKK guerillas, Indian Thuggees, bomb-throwing anarchists, radical environmentalists, the Ismaili Assassins of the twelfth century, fringe animal-rights and abortion-rights advocates, Saddam Hussein, at least three prime ministers of Israel, the aforementioned Algerian insurgents, the Red Brigades, the government of Syria (but no longer that of Libya) and others. At the time the DHS issued its memorandum, the U.S. Department of State listed 42 groups that met one or more of six criteria as terrorist organizations — a number that was only limited, one supposes, by a lack of imagination.13 These groups have articulated widely differing ideologies and use violence for widely different purposes. So in the end, one must ask: What does al-Qaeda have in common with the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia? They kill people. But so do shark attacks.

Terrorism is a relational term. One rarely finds anyone identifying him- or herself as a terrorist. There is, of course, the occasional exception. The Stern Gang, active in mandatory Palestine, did so, and the website Minbar al-tawhid wal-jihad quotes Abdullah Azzam, the Palestinian-born “Afghan Arab” and mentor (and possible victim) of Osama bin Laden, as stating,

We are terrorists (irhabiyun), and terrorism is a sacred duty. Let the West and East know that we are terrorists (irhabiyun) and we are terrifying (murib). As written in the Quran: [And prepare against them what force you can and horses tied at the frontier, to frighten thereby the enemy of God and your enemy and others besides them — 8:60]. Terrorism (irhab) is a sacred duty in God’s religion.

Nevertheless, it is telling that the article by Azzam that follows is not only entitled, “Jihad…Not Terrorism,” but goes on to detail why the former term is an appropriate description of Azzam’s activities, not the latter. There is no contradiction here. In the first instance, Azzam is referring to terror in its original sense; in the second, the neologism that entered the English language after the great terror of the French Revolution, which, of course, connotes something far different from merely scaring off an enemy — although international jurists still cannot agree upon a common definition. It is this lack of common definition that created the opening for Bin Laden to appear outraged in his videotaped statement of September 2007, when he declared that a country that had committed genocide against its indigenous peoples and had dropped atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki had no right to call him the terrorist.14

So, then, if religious terms are out and terrorology neologisms are, at best, imprecise and, at worst, an abomination, what then is left? In terms of typologizing movements that use Islam as their primary marker, one approach would be to explore how those on the inside do it, partly because they are more aware of nuances, partly because, for them, drawing distinctions has consequences. In their writings and videotapes, Ayman al-Zawahiri and Umar Abd al-Hakim (a.k.a. Abu Musab al-Suri), two of the most important theoreticians in the ranks of al-Qaeda, have laid out their own roadmap for what might be placed under the rubric “political Islam.”15 Drawing from that roadmap, it might just be possible to arrive at the proper labels.

To begin with, al-Zawahiri, like others associated with al-Qaeda and its ilk, consistently identifies the “Zionist-Crusader alliance” as the main enemy of Islam and the Islamic community. But in his writings and speeches, al-Zawahiri also castigates two types of fifth columnists within the Islamic world: those who have abandoned their previous commitment to jihad, and those who are guilty of the sin of particularism.

In his Fursan tahta raya al-nabi (Knights under the Prophet’s Banner),16 a tract which is a strange amalgam of history, polemic, personal testament and tour d’horizon of the “jihadi Islamic movement,” al-Zawahiri identifies two groups that are guilty of abandoning their commitment to jihad. The first is the Muslim Brotherhood of Egypt, the premier Islamist political association in the Arab world. Since its founding in 1928, the Muslim Brotherhood has had a checkered history with both the Egyptian government and political violence. In 1987, the brotherhood renounced violence and pledged allegiance to the Egyptian government (which rewarded the brotherhood by reaffirming its refusal to allow the group to participate in the electoral process as a formal political party). The second group al-Zawahiri castigates for abandoning jihad are those jailed members of the Islamic Group (al-gamaa al-Islamiya) who renounced their jihad in 1997 and agreed to a ceasefire with the Egyptian government. Before its repression (and the merger of some recalcitrant elements of the organization with al-Qaeda), the Islamic Group had been responsible for attacks against tourists and other targets during the 1990s. Its purpose was to disrupt the Egyptian economy and thus bring down the government. In his book, al-Zawahiri treats both the Muslim Brotherhood and the Islamic Group “defectors” with scorn, writing, “Has it become the job of the jihadi groups…to repeatedly importune corrupt secular governments to grant us permission to establish an Islamic state?”17

The second group al-Zawahiri castigates consists of those who might be accused of the sin of particularism, i.e., those whose geographic and philosophical horizons fall short of encompassing the entirety of the Islamic umma. For example, one might expect al-Qaeda and Hamas to be natural allies. After all, both employ a discourse in which jihad takes pride of place. The “Charter of the Islamic Resistance Movement (Hamas) — Palestine,” for example, mentions jihad no less than 11 times, and Article 15 of the charter explicitly states that jihad is an individual duty incumbent on every Palestinian.18 Returning to the banished terminology, then, both al-Qaeda and Hamas might be called jihadi. Both al-Qaeda and Hamas claim to derive their ideology from the principles of the Medinan community, so going back again to the banished terminology, both might be called salafi. Both al-Qaeda and Hamas want to have all of Palestine governed according to the dictates of Islamic law, so going a third time to the banished terminology, both might be called Islamist. And both have committed acts of violence against civilians, so both might be called terrorist. Nevertheless, al-Zawahiri has condemned Hamas (and, unsurprisingly, its Lebanese Shii analogue Hezbollah) for a number of reasons. He has condemned Hamas for reaching agreement with secularists. By joining Fatah in a unity government, he argues, and thus committing itself to “respecting” previous agreements with Israel, Hamas “fell into the quagmire of surrender” and “committed aggression against the rights of the Islamic umma.”19 He has condemned Hamas for “entering polytheistic councils” (Hamas participated in the Palestinian parliament). And he has condemned Hamas for basing its right to rule on vox populi rather than divine commandment (it ran in and won in parliamentary elections). Most important, al-Zawahiri has condemned Hamas for privileging the bond of nationality over the sacred bond of religion and for transforming a front in the struggle to liberate all Islamic lands from Spain to Bosnia to Kashmir to the Philippines into just another movement for national liberation:

Muslim youths in Afghanistan plunged into battle to liberate Muslim land…. They used Islamic slogans alone — a matter of utmost significance because many battles for liberation that have taken place in our Islamic world have mixed together nationalist slogans with patriotic and Islamic slogans, and sometimes even leftist and communist slogans. This has produced among young Muslims a rupture between their Islamic jihadi beliefs, which must be based solely on devotion to the religion of God, and the practical implementation of those beliefs.
The Palestinian case is a good example of this, because there they have mixed slogans and beliefs with the conviction that it is perfectly fine to ally with the devil if it leads to the liberation of Palestine. They allied with the devil — and they lost Palestine.20

For al-Zawahiri, the liberation of Palestine provides a way station on the road to liberating the entire Islamic umma. For Hamas, the liberation of Palestine is the goal.

In response to al-Qaeda’s attacks, Hamas has called al-Qaeda “destructive and isolationist” and has attempted to expunge al-Qaeda from Gaza by violently suppressing al-Qaeda affiliates, such as Jaysh al-Islam, Fatah al-Islam, Jaysh al-Umma, al-Tawhid wal-Jihad and Jund Ansar Allah. Hezbollah has responded to al-Zawahiri and the al-Qaeda tendency as well: Hezbollah’s secretary general, Hasan Nasrallah, once described al-Qaeda as an “entity trapped in the medieval age and bent on killing innocent Muslims,” while the group’s “spiritual guide,” Muhammad Fadlallah, called 9/11 “a gift to the American administration.”21

As will be seen below, these musings of Ayman al-Zawahiri on the Muslim Brotherhood, Islamic Jihad, Hamas, Hezbollah and the like, on the one hand, and his determination to tease out and flaunt the differences between those groups and al-Qaeda, on the other, provide us with an implicit schematic rendering of political Islam. The rendering provided by Abu Musab al-Suri in his rambling, 1,600-page Internet tome, Dawa al-muqawama al-Islamiya al-alamiya (Call to a Global Islamic Resistance), is, on the other hand, explicit. Tracing the emergence of modern Islamic movements from the abolition of the caliphate in 1924 and the founding of the Muslim Brotherhood four years later, al-Suri argues that it was not until the 1965-90 period that the main categories of contemporary Islamic movements truly crystallized. For al-Suri, these categories consist of nonpolitical movements that concentrate on missionary activity and separate that activity from the realm of politics; political movements such as the Muslim Brotherhood that have, in various places and times, participated in the political process; jihadi movements; and separationist/takfiri movements, the most famous of which was the Egyptian group commonly called takfir wal-higra, active in the 1970s. Al-Suri subdivides the category of jihadi movements into those like al-Qaeda, that are part of what he designates as bricolage drawing from the “Muslim Brotherhood/Sayyid Qutb/ibn Taymiyya/salafi/Wahhabi”22 tradition, and those like Hamas, that were born of foreign occupation or aggression. Since, according to al-Suri, the nonpolitical and political movements pulled towards each other during the 1990-2000 period, and since, according to al-Suri, takfiris have been, at best, dupes and, at worst, agents provocateurs, what remains, in effect, is a rendering that closely approximates that of Ayman al-Zawahiri.23

Following the typology suggested by al-Zawahiri and al-Suri instead of the typology suggested by the Department of Homeland Security, then, al-Qaeda stands in opposition to two types of organizations within the Islamic community. One might be called reformist, the other Islamo-nationalist. Let’s look at these in turn.

Reformists might be considered the social democrats or Fabians of political Islam. They come in two varieties. First, there are those who advocate incremental change and function as a lobby and sometimes a political party. Included in this category are Jordan’s Islamic Action Front, which has participated in parliament, and factions within the Muslim Brotherhood of Egypt, which, as was mentioned earlier, cannot itself act as a political party. The second type of reformist includes those who have abandoned high politics and instead concentrate on transforming — Islamizing — society. They frequently undertake missionary work toward that end. Their view is that Islamic rule cannot be imposed from the top down on a society that is unprepared and undeserving of it. While this second type of reformist does not seek to participate in governance (at least not yet), those who have taken this path do, nevertheless, participate in politics. In addition to redefining the nature and scope of politics by bringing an alternative discourse and set of concerns into the public sphere, reformist groups frequently take on responsibilities abandoned by cash-strapped governments, such as providing social services or distributing welfare. By performing tasks previously undertaken by the state, they undercut the state’s moral and political authority, whatever their intention.

The second category identified as fifth columnist by al-Zawahiri (but described less provocatively by al-Suri) might be described as Islamo-nationalist. This category includes groups that seek to control the instruments of state, engage in wars of national liberation or both. These groups then seek to use their control over the state to set an agenda in which Islam takes pride of place. As opposed to the reformists, some of whom merely seek to participate in affairs of state playing by the rules of the game, Islamo-nationalists seek to redefine the very nature of the state. There are a number of examples of Islamo-nationalist organizations: Hamas, Hezbollah and factions within the Taliban (in spite of the organization’s close association with al-Qaeda). While touting an Islamic agenda, these groups have made their relationship to nationalism clear. Article 12 of the Hamas charter says, point blank, “Hamas regards nationalism as part and parcel of the religious faith.” Hezbollah’s 2009 manifesto states, “Lebanon is our homeland and the homeland of our fathers and ancestors.” And Hasan al-Banna, who founded the Muslim Brotherhood of Egypt, went so far as to tell a British newspaper — albeit with more than a touch of calculation — “[We are] neither politicians nor a political party but simply nationalists working for the welfare of Egypt and the restoration of usurped Egyptian rights.”24 Whatever his motivation in making this statement, it is significant that it was to the category of nationalism al-Banna turned in order to explain his organization to a foreign audience.

Islamo-nationalists may not, at first glance, appear to comprise a coherent category. They have, for example, used a number of tactics to assume power. In Iran, they participated in revolution; in Palestine, they have participated in elections; in Somalia and Afghanistan, they have participated in armed struggle. Islamo-nationalist groups also come in a variety of forms. Some, such as the Taliban of Afghanistan, are vanguardist, mobilizing a small number of activists to take power. Others, such as Hezbollah and Hamas, have built mass-based political operations. Both Hezbollah and Hamas are totally interwoven into society through a network of charities, social-service organizations, militias and so on. Whatever their differences, however, all Islamo-nationalist organizations (like the reformist organizations identified above) do have something in common: They have chosen to work within the established nation-state system. Hamas seeks the liberation of Palestine; Hezbollah claims to fight for Lebanese sovereignty; the Taliban (or factions thereof) even sought to represent Afghanistan at the United Nations. Now compare the Taliban’s quest for recognition by the United Nations with the attitude of al-Qaeda toward that body. According to al-Zawahiri and others, the Crusader powers created the United Nations, which, in turn, created Israel, which is the linchpin in the Zionist-Crusader alliance. For al-Zawahiri and his associates, the United Nations is little more than “an organization of unbelief,…an instrument for applying the decisions of the Zionist/Crusaders, among which are decisions to wage war against us and to divide and occupy our lands.”25

The fact that both reformists and Islamo-nationalists work within the nation-state system drives Ayman al-Zawahiri and his associates to distraction. According to the online magazine Sawt al-jihad (Voice of Jihad):

[There has to be] a collapse of national identities. When these are opposed to the Sharia or attempt to rival it, and when they cause division among people and [provide a basis for] allegiances, then these national identities should fall.26

At first, it might seem counterintuitive that groups identifying themselves with Islam should work within the nation-state system. After all, Islam is a universal religion, and the Islamic community stretches around the globe. But when thinking of Islam and nationalism, it is necessary to remember two things. First, other transnational religions have become the wellspring of territorial nationalisms. One need only think of Catholic Irish nationalists, Hindu nationalists or Zionists. Second, one must remember that no living religion exists outside the history, practices and experiences of its followers. Muslims, like the rest of us, live in a world in which much of their social and political existence has been defined by the modern state and the modern state system. It only stands to reason, therefore, that their Islam would conform to such a world as well.

The roots of the contemporary Islam/state pas de deux can be traced back to the beginning of the nineteenth century. Starting at that time, the inhabitants of the Middle East were affected by the same transformative processes that were simultaneously affecting the inhabitants of Europe and much of the rest of the world. Included among those processes was the imposition of the modern state, which first arrived in the Middle East as a result of the emulation of the Western model of statecraft by Middle Eastern rulers and potentates and as a result of formal imperialism. Although the ability of Middle Eastern states to expand their power and intrusiveness varied from place to place and took decades to evolve to the level known today, over the course of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries these states were increasingly able to extend their disciplinary and representational reach and engage their populations in common practices. This extension and engagement, in turn, activated and reinforced modes of conceptualizing society and government very similar to those that developed in Europe.

This being the case, one would naturally assume that the social and political movements that have emerged in the Middle East during the last century — including those that use Islam as their primary marker — would be analogous to European social and political movements. On the flip side, one would assume that the social-science categories developed to typologize European social and political movements would be applicable to the Middle East, or else not be valid for Europe either. Hence, the use of the labels “reformist” and “Islamo-nationalist” to refer to movements singled out for criticism by al-Zawahiri and al-Suri, and hence al-Zawahiri’s and al-Suri’s criticism of these movements in the first place. But if it is the case that their criticism goes back to the willingness of the reformists and Islamo-nationalists to work within the parameters of the nation-state system, and if it is the case that the sociopolitical movements that have emerged in the Middle East would naturally correspond to sociopolitical movements that emerged in Europe in response to similar conditions (our predisposition to mystify things Islamic notwithstanding), how, then, should al-Qaeda and its ilk be classified?

As in the case of the various organizations and parties that might be included within the categories of reformism and Islamo-nationalism, al-Qaeda and al-Qaeda-type groups should neither be understood in terms of an autonomous category of religion nor be defined by the level of political violence they are prepared to commit. Nor, if the social sciences have any validity at all, should it be necessary to invent a sui generis category for them based perhaps on some irreducible Islamic civilization or tradition. Instead, the category most appropriate for al-Qaeda and its various spin-offs and imitators is Islamo-anarchist. 27

Before dealing with the appropriateness of this typology, it is necessary to deal with what is meant here by the word “anarchist.” Social scientists have defined anarchism in a number of ways. Some look at it as a subcategory within the broader category of eschatology or political violence. Some look at anarchism as a form of psychopathology. Most commonly, social scientists with a historical bent identify anarchism with a specific intellectual tradition — the deformed twin of Marxism, if you will, or a stepchild of the Enlightenment. This, of course, was the anarchism that was preeminent during the movement’s European and émigré heyday from 1880 to 1920. And, if we were to restrict anarchism to one geographic area and one time period, and eliminate from the fold self-proclaimed anarchists who derived their brand from Christian antinomianism [faith is sufficient for salvation –ed.] or Liberalism or some other tradition, their case is plausible. There is, however, a different way of looking at anarchism: Anarchism is not an intellectual tradition, per se; rather anarchism, like nationalism, is a distinct category of political phenomenon. 28

As in the case of nationalist movements, all anarchist movements display the same general characteristics, even though they differ on particulars. For example, all anarchist movements share structural similarities — their organizational structure tends to range from nebulous to non-existent. Some anarchist movements have resorted to spectacular acts of violence to energize the masses and mobilize them for the cause. During the nineteenth century, such acts of violence were known as “propaganda of the deed.”29 One of those deeds took the life of an American president.

These are, however, only superficial resemblances. There is a third, more elemental point of comparison: Both anarchist groups and al-Qaeda hold a distinctive worldview that is both defensive and anti-systemic. In other words, both view their actions as a response to an oppressive system, and the destruction of that system is the single-minded objective of both.

Waging “defensive jihad” against the “Zionist-Crusader alliance,” the world order it has imposed, and the aggression it is committing against Islam is central to al-Qaeda’s discourse. Here is how Bin Laden has put it:

Why are we fighting and opposing you? The answer is very simple: Because you attacked us and continue to attack us. You attacked us in Palestine.…You attacked us in Somalia; you supported the Russian atrocities against us in Chechnya, the Indian oppression against us in Kashmir, and the Jewish aggression against us in Lebanon. Under your supervision, consent and orders, the governments of our countries, which act as your agents, attack us on a daily basis. These governments prevent our people from establishing the Sharia, using violence and lies to do so.30

In the discourse of al-Qaeda, the Zionist-Crusader alliance plays the same role that the capitalist system, the nation-state system or, more recently, the “globalized world order” plays in the discourse of Western anarchism. For al-Qaedists, the aggression the alliance has committed — and continues to commit — against the Islamic world has taken a number of forms, ranging from the military to the ideological to the political. For example, according to al-Qaedists, the Zionist-Crusader alliance has instilled nationalism in the minds of Muslims in order to divide and subjugate them. For al-Qaedists, this is a key element in the Zionist-Crusader alliance’s ideological assault. The Zionist-Crusader alliance has also installed the nation-state system in predominantly Muslim territories for the same purpose. For al-Qaedists, this is a key element in the Zionist-Crusader alliance’s political assault. Again, to quote the Voice of Jihad:

The (Arab) nation-states…are a Western model that the West created to allow it to build up its general colonialist plan for the Islamic East. These countries have no religious foundation and have neither a right to exist nor a popular base. They were forced upon the Muslim peoples, and their survival is linked to the Western forces that created them. Therefore, the general aim of the jihad and the mujahidin is to strike at the foundations and infrastructure of the Western colonialist program or at the so-called world order — or, to put it bluntly, to defeat the Crusaders in the battle that has been going on for over a century. Their defeat means, simply, the elimination of all forms of nation-states, such that all that remains is the natural existence familiar to Islam — the regional entity under the great Islamic state.31

But what would that “regional entity under the great Islamic state” be, exactly, and how would a Muslim live his or her life in the “natural existence familiar to Islam?” Anarchist plans for the future, when such plans are articulated at all, tend to be vague afterthoughts. The main focus is on the sins of the current system and the fight that is to be waged. Nevertheless, Bakunin had his romanticized Gemeinschaft; similarly, a caliphate seems to play the same role for al-Zawahiri and, to a lesser extent, Bin Laden.

A lot — probably altogether too much — has been made of the call to reestablish a caliphate. This is probably because it reeks of exoticism and medievalism, and thus we can caricature and stigmatize those who attacked us. But for al-Qaedists, the term caliphate has, so far, escaped rigorous definition. Various al-Qaedists have used the term “caliphate” in various ways. Sometimes al-Qaedists have used it as a metaphor, as when al-Zawahiri defined it as “Islamic rule that will respect the rights and honors of its citizens, fight corruption and spread justice and equality,” a place “in whose shade will retire every Muslim — nay, every wronged one and seeker of justice on the face of this earth.”32 Sometimes for al-Qaedists, the caliphate takes the form of a post-millennarian hallucination, as when Bin Laden, who rarely broaches the subject, said, “The entire Islamic community has set in motion the establishment of a rightly-guided caliphate, which our prophet foretold in an authentic hadith; to wit: the rightly-guided caliphate will return, God willing.”33 The one thing that can be said for sure is that al-Qaedists do not envision the establishment of an Islamic superstate with the disciplinary attributes and hierarchies of a modern nation-state. Rather, in the al-Qaeda imagination it seems that the caliphate might be defined as a territorial expanse freed from the constraints of the nation-state system and ordered and administered according to the precepts of Islamic law.

If one compares the al-Qaedist view of the caliphate with that of the Party of Liberation (hizb al-tahrir), one can see the danger of placing too much significance in the call for its reestablishment. The Party of Liberation, founded in Palestine in the 1950s, shares a political and social vision not unlike other parties founded during the heyday of Third World ideologies, as might be gleaned from its chosen name. Like al-Qaeda, the Party of Liberation advocates the restoration of the caliphate. Unlike al-Qaeda, however, the party’s vision of the caliphate is that of a modern, corporatist state, albeit a very large one. It has even laid out the blueprint for a functionally divided, hierarchical apparatus for governance. And, unlike al-Qaeda, the party claims not to believe in defensive jihad or, under present circumstances, the use of violence.34 Advocating a caliphate, in other words, is similar to labeling something as terrorism: it tells us nothing useful about a group’s ideology.

But there is still the issue of Islamic law to be resolved. It has been argued that al-Qaeda cannot be equated with an anarchist group because its spokesmen have advocated the reestablishment of a caliphate “strictly ruled by religious law.” Anarchists, on the other hand, “looked toward liberation from the bonds of all hierarchical authority, religious structures, and both secular and religious law.”35 The problem with this argument is that it assumes that all anarchist movements, throughout the world and throughout time, must subscribe to an Enlightenment conception of freedom that views human freedom through the lens of individual freedoms. Sayyid Qutb, the Muslim Brotherhood intellectual and author from whom al-Qaedists and their ilk have frequently drawn — would, for one, beg to differ. In his works, Qutb sets up a different linkage, one that associates human subjugation with the oppression of human laws and uncontrollable desire for material goods and physical pleasure, on the one hand, and human freedom with submission to God’s will rather than to the rule of man and human compulsions, on the other. As Ayman al-Zawahiri puts it, “True freedom means submission to the law of God, looking down from high upon desires, excesses and passions.”36 It is not that either Qutb or his disciple lacked familiarity with the Enlightenment ideal; they just chose to reject it.

Now, it should be noted that the discussion above privileges a small, albeit notorious, group of Arab al-Qaedists: Ayman al-Zawahiri, Abu Musab al-Suri, Osama bin Laden and their immediate cohort. Since those claiming affiliation with the al-Qaeda “network” stretch from the GSPC in North Africa to the Jamaa Islamiya in Southeast Asia, one must be cautious with generalizations based on such a narrow sample. After all, the actions and pronouncements of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi earned the Jordanian-born thug a strong reprimand from al-Zawahiri.37 Taking it one step further, it is worth emphasizing that the three categories of political Islam discussed in this article — reformist, Islamo-nationalist, Islamo-anarchist — should be seen as what sociologists call “ideal types”: conceptual models, rarely encountered in the wild in their “pure” form, against which observable facts might be compared. As seen in the Algerian example with which this essay began, it is possible for groups to evolve from one type to another over time. (The same is true for individuals: Before he adopted his global vision, Ayman al-Zawahiri himself began his career as an activist dedicated to overthrowing the Egyptian government and replacing it with an Islamic one.) And, as we know from the Muslim Brotherhood of Egypt, it is possible for boundaries within organizations to be fuzzy or for organizations to house multiple perspectives. Hence, there is an ongoing argument within the Muslim Brotherhood of Egypt about the relative importance of dawa (missionary work), versus siyasa (political work). And the Brotherhood is not the only Islamist group pulled in multiple directions. The Jordanian Muslim Brotherhood tried to resolve the dawa/siyasa dilemma — and avoid government repression — by setting up a separate party, the Islamic Action Front, in 1992. The Jordanian Muslim Brotherhood concentrates on dawa, the Islamic Action Front on siyasa.

But even if the three categories are ideal types, it should appear evident by now that both the language of religious studies and the language of terrorology are inadequate for identifying and thus understanding the phenomena we are witnessing in the Islamic world. Besides the problems underscored by the Department of Homeland Security, there are two problems with the language of theology. First, it mystifies our object of study. It treats religion as a distinct phenomenon impervious to analysis that must be accepted on its own terms. Second, it reinforces the idea of Islamic exceptionalism. Notwithstanding the occasional Samuel Huntington or Bernard Lewis, this battle is long over in the academic study of Islam and its followers. The language of terrorology also presents us with two problems. First, it mistakes an attribute — political violence — for essence. Second, it can only be wielded as a blunt instrument.

It seems, however, that having abandoned the first approach, policy makers are already backpedaling from the second. In March 2009, for example, the British government announced it was interested in reestablishing contact with the “political wing” of Hezbollah. Around the same time, the Obama administration announced that it might be interested in talking with more “reasonable” (i.e., “statist”) elements within the Taliban. Since then, the outreach to the Taliban has become more concerted. While the language of terrorology has not been replaced, a more nuanced view toward political Islam has been taking shape. Groups that were once lumped together according to their tactics are being differentiated by their aims. And since there are existing social-science categories to which these groups belong, this can only provide us with a better understanding of who they are.

1 Michael Moss, “In Algeria, Insurgency Gains a Lifeline from Al Qaeda,” The New York Times July 1, 2008, p. 1.

2 For the centrality of the Global War on Terrorism on strategic thinking within the GSPC, see the statements of Abu Umar Abd al-Bara, head of the GSPC’s “advisory council,” at, particularly (last accessed July 17, 2009).

3,,2215010,00.html (last accessed May 22, 2009).

4 (last accessed May 22, 2009).

5 For the reasoning behind this, see, inter alia, Muhammad Abdel Salam al-Farag, “The Forgotten Duty” (excerpts), in John J. Donohue and John L. Esposito, eds. Islam in Transition: Muslim Perspectives, (Oxford University Press, 2006) , pp. 417-24.

6 This has been the case since the seventh-century caliphate consolidated its position and, the argument goes, asserted its Weberian monopoly over lawful violence. See, inter alia, Chase F. Robinson, “Reconstructing Early Islam: Truth and Consequences,” in Herbert Berg, ed. Method and Theory in the Study of Islamic Origins, (Brill, 2003), pp. 101-34.

7 The terms “takfir” and “takfiri” have such negative resonance among mainstream Muslims that they have often been invoked by those opposing the ideology of the al-Qaedists to vilify their enemy. For example, the anti-al-Qaeda website “Islam against”—whose purpose is “uncovering deviant ideologies, extremism, terrorism, and their proponents”—has condemned Umar bin Mahmud Abu Umar (a.k.a., Abu Qatada), who is affiliated with al-Qaeda and has seen action in both Afghanistan and Algeria as a “misguided, bloodthirsty takfiri”: “Abu Qatada said in his interview with the Hayat newspaper (May 19, 1999): ‘We do not desire to fight America unless it attacks us, and begins the fight first. This is different to the fight against the apostate regimes in our lands, those against whom jihad is an individual obligation upon every single Muslim.’ This is the ideology of takfir, the excommunication of governments, and then by extension whole societies that was given a fresh revival in the works of Sayyid Qutb, the root of all contemporary takfiri and jihadi groups. This then leads to the justification of the killing of innocent men, women and children. …This trait is not unique to Abu Qatada, rather it is a trait of all contemporary neo-Kharijites — may Allah disfigure them.” — a-misguided-bloodthirsty-takfiri.cfm (last accessed May 21, 2009). In his defense, Abu Qatada cites sources that demonstrate “the act of declaring non-believers non-Muslims is a religious requirement par excellance.” See Abu Qatada, “Limatha al-jihad?” (Why Jihad?) (last accessed July 28, 2009). On the other hand, the “kharajite” and “takfiri” labels seem to rattle other al-Qaedists, who have been provoked to respond. While it seems al-Qaedists simply dismiss the former label out of hand, their response to the latter varies. Sometimes, they claim that they do not have to declare their Muslim rivals and enemies to be unbelievers (yukaffirun) because the actions of those rivals and enemies clearly place them outside the Islamic community (yakfirun). At other times, they defend the notion of takfir as lawful as long as prescribed rules and procedures — such as not declaring whole categories of people apostates — are followed. See, for example, Abu Muhammad Asim al-Maqdisi, “al-Risala al-thalathiniya fi al-tahthir min al-ghalu fi al-takfir” (The Thirteenth Letter Warning of Over-enthusiasm in Takfir), (last accessed 21 August 2009); Abu Hafs al-Jaza’iri, “Matha taqsadun bi-minhaj al-takfiri” (What You Mean by ‘the Takfiri’ Program) and Abd al-Hakim Hasan, “Shubha anna al-mujahidin gulat wa-khawarij” (The Legal Error of Accusing the Mujahidin of Being Fanatics and Kharijites), (last accessed May 22, 2009); Abu Jandal al-Azadi, Usama bin Laden: Mujadidu al-zaman wal-qahiru al-Amrikan (Osama bin Laden: The Renewer of the Age and Vanquisher of the Americans),, 70-4 (last accessed July 23, 2009).

8 Magnus Ranstorp, for example, argues convincingly that bin Laden’s fatwa of February 22, 1998, was, among other things, an effort to legitimize the right of an upstart to issue a fatwa in the first place. Magnus Ranstorp, “Interpreting the Broader Context and Meaning of Bin-Laden’s Fatwa,” Studies in Conflict and Terrorism Vol. 21, 1998, pp. 21-30.

9 According to Thomas Hegghammer, “[When] Muslim states speak of militant Islamists they consider illegitimate, they do not use the term Jihadist, but rather explicitly delegitimising terms such as ‘terrorists’ [irhabiyyun], Kharajites [khawarij], ‘deviants’ [munharifun], or members of ‘the misled sect’ [al-fi’a al-dhalla].” (The term munharifun might better be translated in the Soviet style as “deviationists.”) Hegghammer, “Jihadi Salafis or Revolutionaries? On Religion and Politics in the Study of Militant Islam.” Paper presented at the annual meeting of the American Historical Association, New York, NY, January 5, 2009. For self-designations of al-Qaedists, see, inter alia, Umar Abd al-Hakim (Abu Musab al-Suri), Dawa al-muqawama al-Islamiya al-alamiya (Call to a Global Islam Islamic Resistance), (last accessed May 22, 2009); Ayman al-Zawahiri, Fursan tahta raya al-nabi (Knights under the Prophet’s Banner), (last accessed May 22, 2009).

10 The term wahabiya (Wahhabi) refers to a puritanical Islamic movement. It is based on the teachings of Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab, an eighteenth-century Muslim scholar from Arabia.

11 For a history of the term fundamentalism, see James L. Gelvin, The Modern Middle East (Oxford University Press, 2007), p. 298.

12 Besides the presumption of those who stand outside the Islamic tradition and call for an Islamic Reformation, the call is misguided for a number of reasons. According to Islamic tradition, Islam is already a reformation; after all, God gave the same message to the Jews and Christians, but they managed to corrupt it. Furthermore, if one looks at the position of Martin Luther on such matters as adhering to scripture, purifying the faith, destroying graven images, casting out from the community of believers those who fail a religious litmus test, and inciting religious violence, the closest strain in Islam to those who carried out the Protestant Reformation in Europe would include Osama bin Laden, among others.

13 For the most current listings, see (last accessed July 17, 2009).

14 David C. Rapaport, “The Four Waves of Rebel Terror and September 11,” (last accessed November 11, 2008);,, (last accessed July 4, 2009); (last accessed November 11, 2008). Also see, inter alia, Joseph Massad, “Introduction: The Opposite of Terror,” in The Persistence of the Palestinian Question: Essays on Zionism and the Palestinians (Oxon: Routledge, 2006), pp. 1-10; and Charles Tilly, “Terror, Terrorism, Terrorists,” Sociological Theory, Vol. 22, March 2004, pp. 5-13.

15 While “political Islam” is, perhaps, the most common generic term applied to the phenomenon discussed in this article, it is problematic because it assumes the meaning of both “political” and “Islam” to be self-evident. The term used by Abd al-Hakim (al-Suri) in his Dawa, cited above, is sahwa (awakening), a term ironically employed to designate the American-backed, anti-al-Qaeda counterinsurgents in Iraq.

16 al-Zawahiri, Fursan, pp. 165-207.

17 Ibid., p. 178.

18Mithaq harakat al-muqawama al-Islamiya—Filastin (Hamas),” n.p., Muharam 1, 1409 A.H.

19al-Zawahiri: Hamas istasalama” (“al-Zawahiri: Hamas Sought Surrender”),, March 12, 2007 (last accessed November 11, 2008).

20 al-Zawahiri, Fursan, p. 58. See also Abu Muhammad Maqdisi, “Nahnu wa-Hamas lisna ala minhaj wahid wa-huma min yualinu thalika” (We and Hamas do not share a program and they admit it), (last accessed June 28, 2009).

21 Saleh al-Naami, “Hamas Versus Al-Qaeda,” Al-Ahram Weekly Online Vol. 853, July 12-18, 2007; Bilal Y. Saab and Bruce O. Riedel, “Hezbollah and Al Qaeda,” TheNew York Times, April 9, 2007, (last accessed April 25, 2010); Sayyid Muhammad Hussein Fadlallah, “We Must Think Before We Act: September 11 Was a Gift to the U.S. Administration,” in John J. Donohue and John L. Esposito eds. Islam in Transition: Muslim Perspectives, pp. 449-59. See also Anders Strindberg and Mats Warn, “Realities of Resistance: Hizballah, the Palestinian Rejectionists, and al-Qa’ida Compared,” Journal of Palestine Studies, Vol. 34, Spring 2005, pp. 1-19; Bernard Rougier, Everyday Jihad: The Rise of Militant Islam among Palestinians in Lebanon (Harvard University Press, 2007), pp. 155-68; Khalid Amayreh, “Hamas and al-Qaida: The Prospects for Radicalization in the Palestinian Occupied Territories,” (October, 2007) (last accessed November 11, 2008); Rayan Haddad, “Al Qaïda/Hezbullah: la concurrence à distance entre deux logiques d’action jihadistes différentes pour la capitation des cœurs et des esprits de l’Umma,” Cultures and Conflicts, Vol. 66, Summer 2007, pp. 157-77.

22 The correct chronological order would be ibn Taymiyya-Wahhabi-Muslim Brotherhood-Sayyid Qutb. All the items on this list belong to the category “salafi.” Taqi al-Din ibn Taymiyya was a fourteenth-century Muslim scholar who preached jihad against the Mongols; Wahhabi and Muslim Brotherhood have been described above; Sayyid Qutb was a member of the Muslim Brotherhood of Egypt who was hanged by Gamal Abd al-Nasser in 1966. Both the members of groups like al-Qaeda and the groups themselves are sometimes referred to as “Qutbi” by their detractors (see footnote 7).

23 Abd al-Hakim (al-Suri), Dawa, op. cit., pp. 660-854. Although in this work he does not single out Hamas for disparagement, al-Suri makes his attitude apparent: He puts “localism” — i.e., fighting within the “Sykes-Picot boundaries” (boundaries drawn up by Britain and France during World War I that divided up Ottoman territory into zones of direct and indirect control) — on his list of the most important problems faced by “jihadi” groups. “These (types of) jihads,” he writes on p. 854, “have been tried and found wanting for forty years.”

24 “Nationalism in Egypt: The Muslim Brotherhood’s Campaign,” The Times (London), November 26, 1946, p. 1.

25 (last accessed November 11, 2008).

26 Brad K. Berner, The World according to Al Qaeda (n.l.: Booksurge, 2005), pp. 147-8. On October 22, 2007, bin Laden reiterated the message in a tape released to al-Jazeera: “The interest of the Islamic nation surpasses that of a group — it is more important than that of a state….Some of you have been lax in one duty, which is to unite your ranks.... Beware of division.... Muslims are waiting for you to gather under a single banner to champion righteousness.” See Document /ShowDoc09. asp?DocID=110056&TypeID=9&TabIndex=3.

27 James L. Gelvin, “Al-Qaeda and Anarchism: A Historian’s Reply to Terrorology,” Terrorism and Political Violence Vol. 20, No. 4, Oct.-Dec. 2008, pp. 563-81. See article for full documentation of the argument summarized here.

28 See, inter alia, Gelvin, ibid., pp. 606-11; and George Esenwein, “Comments on James L. Gelvin’s ‘Al-Qaeda and Anarchism: A Historians Reply to Terrorology,’” Terrorism and Political Violence, Vol. 20, No. 4 Oct.-Dec. 2008, pp. 597-600.

29 See, for example, Mark Sedgwick, “Al-Qaeda and the Nature of Religious Terrorism,” Terrorism and Political Violence, Vol. 16, 2004, pp. 801-2.

30 Raymond Ibrahim, ed., The Al Qaeda Reader (Broadway Books, 2007), pp. 197-9.

31 Berner, The World According to Al Qaeda, op. cit., pp. 147-8. See also Document /ShowDoc09 (last accessed November 11, 2008); Abd al-Hakim (al-Suri), Dacwa, 560, 578-603.

32 Cited in Laura Mansfield, ed., Al Qaeda 2006 Yearbook: Messages from Al-Qaeda Leadership (TLG Publications, 2007), pp. 61, 234.

33 (last accessed November 11, 2008). Alternative English translation in Bruce Lawrence, ed., Messages to the World: The Statements of Osama Bin Laden (Verso, 2005), p. 121.

34; (last accessed May 23, 2009).

35 Richard Bach Jensen, “The International Campaign against Anarchist Terrorism, 1880-1930s,” Terrorism and Political Violence, Vol. 21, No. 1, Jan. 2009, p. 105.

36 Sayyid Qutb, al-Adala al-ijtimaiya fi al-Islam (Social Justice in Islam) (Maktaba Misr, 1949), p. 39; Qutb, Maalam fi al-tariq (Milestones on the Road) (Dar al-Shuruq, 1982), pp. 66-9; al-Zawahiri, Tahrir al-insan wal-awtan tahta raya al-Quran (The Freedom of Mankind and Nations under the Banner of the Quran), (last accessed August 22, 2009).

37 Al-Zawahiri to al-Zarqawi, Oct. 11, 2005, and English) (last accessed May 23, 2009). See also al-Maqdisi, “al-Zarqawi: munasara wa-munasaha(al-Zarqawi: Support and Wise Counsel), (last accessed July 15, 2009).