How to Understand Islamism: Read What Its Leaders Actually Say

To read Yusuf al-Qaradawi’s 1984 book Islamic Education and Hasan al-Banna is to get an Islamic education. Nobody should be allowed to talk about Islam or political Islamism without having read this or similar texts. Just as Marx claimed in the Communist Manifesto of his movement, the Islamists, too, disdain to conceal their aims. Yet those who don’t read their actual texts, speeches, and debates and only read their public-relations disinformation know nothing.

It’s easy to see why al-Qaradawi is the leading Sunni Islamist thinker in the world today, the spiritual guide behind Egypt's Islamist revolution. He knows how to express his ideas clearly and persuasively. Here is his depiction of the Muslim world before the rise of revolutionary Islamism to power and prominence:

Just imagine a waste land which has no sign of leaf or tulip or hyacinth far and wide, but which blossoms forth immediately with the first sprinkle of the rains of blessing, and fields of flowers begin to bloom. Lifeblood starts circulating in its lifeless body. ...

The condition of the Muslim nation was like a wasteland in the middle of the fourteenth century Hijri (mid-nineteenth century). The pillars of caliphate had broken which was the last display of unity under the flag of Islamic belief. Islamic countries were breathing their last under the talons of capitalist countries like Britain, France and others, so much so that Holland, whose population was [small] dominating over the ten million strong population of Indonesia with the help of force and weapon. It had spoilt the face of Islamic decrees and putting Quran behind was busily engaged in its disrespect. Blind imitation of self-made Western laws and appreciation of foreign values had set over the lives of Muslims. The youths and lovers of new culture who were bearers of the so-called modern culture were particular victims of this. Western domination upon the field of education and means of communication was producing heaps of Westernized "Khan Bahadur" (honorable people) whose names were no doubt Islamic but brains were West-bred.

There is a huge amount to analyze in this passage. Notice his different angle on what, for the Western author, would be a tale of Western imperialism, and his different angle on the technological and organizational backwardness of Muslim peoples. Al-Qaradawi does not put the emphasis on Western strength or even on injustice, but on Muslim weakness. He does not flinch from facing the humiliations of the situation. He promises -- as the Arab nationalists did sixty years ago -- that his doctrine will bring rapid development and tremendous power. Like Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev once did, al-Qaradawi pledges to the West: "We will bury you."

Islamism is a formula to turn inferiority into superiority, to make the Muslim world number one. It uses religion and is formed by key themes in Islam, but ultimately it has nothing to do with religion as such. This is a political movement.

Al-Qaradawi is not upset by recent U.S. policy, but by well over a century of Western policy. This bitterness is not going to be conciliated. The problem is not in Western actions -- which, anyway, cannot be undone -- but with the interpretation of these actions. They are seen as rooted in a desire to destroy Islam, as being based on a permanent enmity, and no gesture by contemporary Western leaders can lead to the end of this view. On the contrary -- such things will be interpreted through the prism of this view as a trick, or as a sign of retreat and weakness.

Moreover, al-Qaradawi does not talk about the need for urbanization, the equality of women, modern education, and greater freedom as the solution. Indeed, his view is totally contrary to a leftist or liberal or nationalist Muslim, who would stress the need to borrow any ideas and methods other than purely technological ones from the West in order to gain equality and even superiority. Think of how Asia has succeeded -- Japan, South Korea, Singapore, and now even China -- through eagerness to blend borrowings, adaptation, and its own historic culture.

For al-Qaradawi, the issue is completely the abandonment of Islam.

Equally -- while defeat in World War Two taught Japan to forget about military conquest, and China's decades of relative failure taught it to change course -- al-Qaradawi favors blood and violence, revolution, and totalitarianism.

Note, too, that al-Qaradawi is far more sophisticated than a demagogic firebrand. He does not criticize the Muslims who wanted to become Westernized. Rather he feels sorry for them, calling them “victims.” That’s how one builds a movement with a wider base of support, though the actual Islamists in the field rarely show such a tolerant pity.

Moreover, as a man of religion, al-Qaradawi feels no need -- at least consciously so -- to create a new ideology. Indeed, human action is not at all the fountainhead of their view of history. Nevertheless, al-Qaradawi refers to the movement as revolutionary. He knows that its goal is to seize state power and then to use that position and the compulsion it offers to transform the society.

More al-Qaradawi:

When circumstances reached this limit, God's will came into action. He took over the responsibility for the protection of Islam. ... To revive Islam, to put life in the dead spirit of the nation, and to carry it to the climax of success and development He chose Hasan-al-Banna who laid the foundation of the [Muslim Brotherhood] movement.

This passage is notable for claiming that al-Banna was divinely inspired, literally a prophet. If Muslim Brotherhood supporters honestly believe that, they certainly cannot deviate from diamond-hard hatred of Christians, Jews, and the West.

There is an important clue here, too. To say that al-Banna was divinely inspired implies that he altered Islam, moved it in a different direction. This would be an admission of heresy, since Muhammad is supposed to be the last of the divinely inspired prophets.

Here is a weakness of the movement. For a long time, conservative, traditional Muslims did view Islamism as heresy, but as it gains hegemony there are fewer and fewer such people. In Syria, for example, non-Islamist pious traditionalists in rural areas were transformed into Islamists. The combination of Westerners saying that Islam is merely plagued by a few extremists and those who say that Islam is inevitably radical keeps people from understanding this all-important reality.

Western observers often take for granted or discount the seriousness of a movement claiming that it is a direct instrument of God’s will. They are used to subverting far weaker contemporary Western religious impulses, or look at those from the past that crumbled in a test of wills with rationalism, modernism, material interests, and personal hypocrisy.

Yet if it is sincerely and profoundly believed that one’s worldview is a product of divine will (an attitude that not a single leader or party in any industrialized state does), this has profound implications. It means that you don’t sell out, get seduced by materialistic lusts, or moderate your ideas and goals except as a conscious, short-term tactical expedient that you reverse at the first possible opportunity.