“Islamism is the sole growing, developing, and truly popular populist ideology in the Middle East,” wrote House Taskforce on Terrorism and Unconventional Warfare Director Yossef Bodansky in 1999. His book, Bin Laden: The Man Who Declared War on America, documented the enduring appeal in Muslim-majority societies of Islam as a political system as opposed to other ideological alternatives.
“The Islamists had correctly read the dominant regional trends,” Bodansky noted. Namely, political Islam “has already replaced nationalism and other Westernized ideologies. Most people genuinely believe that ‘Islam is the solution,’ even though ideas vary about what this ‘Islam’ is.” Muslim thinkers such as Hassan al-Turabi, the intellectual guiding light behind the Islamic regime that came to power in Sudan’s 1989 military coup, believed that
Islamism constituted the sole expanding positive and promising ideology. Turabi noted the rapidly growing number of thinking people—including diehard Marxists and thoroughly Westernized intellectuals—who were discovering, returning to, and adapting Islamism.
Turabi elaborated upon his ideas with French author Alain Chevalerias, who collected these discussions in the 1997 French “book fittingly titled Islam—the Future of the World,” Bodansky observed. He especially emphasized:
For the Arab world, Turabi noted, the key challenge was the accelerating decline of panArabism as a political doctrine. In every area politicized pan-Arabism had entered an era of regression. This was an inevitable by-product of the decline of the Arab state in the Muslim era. Many of the ardent supporters of panArabism were currently looking for ties of a different kind to unify the Arabs and revitalize their self-respect. Growing numbers of them had already entered a profound discourse with the Islamist parties in an effort to find common language and objectives. Consequently, Turabi argued, many of these formally pan-Arab entities had evolved to such a degree that it was difficult to distinguish if they now held a pan-Arab or a pan-Islamic position.
Bodansky noted the belief similarities between pan-Arabists and Turabi:
Obviously all of these entities, whether pan-Arab or pan-Islamic, had continued to adamantly refuse any foreign rule. Nationalistic rhetoric notwithstanding, this was in essence an Islamic principle. Turabi stressed that as such this principle exceeded the confines of the Arab world to include the entire Muslim world.
Islam as a political ideology had dangerous implications for any regime deemed insufficiently obedient to God’s will, Bodansky summarized, for in Turabi’s view
if the government in an ostensibly Muslim state actively suppressed the Islamists, the Islamists had a right to rebel and even use force, for such a government was apostate—suppressing political Islam and the propagation of Islamism.
Such considerations had worried Middle Eastern dictators including Iraq’s Saddam Hussein, traditionally known for their relative secularism. Yet like other analysts, Bodansky noted how in 1998 “Baghdad’s overall attitude toward militant Islamism has changed.” Beset by various threats to regime survival in the aftermath of Iraq’s 1991 Gulf War defeat and the imposition of international sanctions, Hussein had taken a utilitarian approach to jihadists such as Osama bin Laden.
As Iraq’s crisis has mounted, Baghdad has encouraged the Islamists—a combination of Arab “Afghans” and Muslim Brotherhood offshoots—because of a series of pragmatic considerations. Saddam Hussein needs their anti-Shiite zeal to counterbalance the Shiite revivalism in the south. Their all-Islamic ideology also limits Kurdish nationalism. In the Sunni Arab parts of Iraq the Islamists have developed a comprehensive social services program to ease the suffering of the Iraqi people that has resulted from the U.N. sanctions, distributing food, medicine, clothes, and money to the growing numbers of Iraqis attending religious lessons in their mosques. These activities are financed by Osama bin Laden’s charities. Starting in the mid-1990s with a few mosques at al-Fallujah, about 60 miles west of Baghdad, and Mosul, in Kurdistan, the Islamists—bearded and wearing their special outfits, which are a combination of traditional Arab gowns and camouflage military-style uniforms—can now be seen all over Iraq.
Bin Laden moved quickly to solidify the cooperation with Saddam Hussein. In mid-July, Ayman al-Zawahiri traveled to Iraq clandestinely. He met senior Iraqi officials, including Taha Yassin Ramadan, to discuss practical modalities for the establishment of bin Laden’s base in Iraq, the expansion of training for his mujahideen, and a joint strategy for an anti-U.S. jihad throughout the Arab world and North Africa. Baghdad could not have been more helpful, conditioning its support on bin Laden’s promise not to incite the Iraqi Muslim Brotherhood into establishing an Islamic state in Iraq; in other words not to conspire against Saddam Hussein’s reign. While in Iraq, Zawahiri was also taken to visit a potential site for bin Laden’s headquarters near al-Fallujah and terrorist training camps run by Islamists. In the name of Osama bin Laden, Zawahiri assumed responsibility for a training camp in the al-Nasiriyah desert established by Iraqi intelligence in about 1997 for terrorists from Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States.
Hussein’s rediscovery of Islam’s political advantages had earlier precedent from the 1980s, Bodansky examined:
Because all of the leaders of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) had been affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood in their youth, the PLO was one of the first Palestinian organizations to recognize the emerging power and significance of radical Islamist terrorism. Yassir Arafat began using Islamic terminology in his speeches.
“Khalil al-Wazir,” Bodansky added,
then Arafat’s military chief, who is better known as Abu-Jihad, was one of the first to recognize Islamist terrorism as the wave of the future. He had al-Fatah (Arafat’s own branch of the PLO) “adopt” the various branches of Islamic jihad in Israel, Jordan, and Lebanon. For example, the investigation of the May 1986 riots at al-Yarmuq University in Irbid, Jordan, determined that Khalil al-Wazir played a prominent role in organizing a secret alliance between the Jordanian branch of the Muslim Brotherhood and the local secret Communist party known as the Marxist Cells. He also provided the Jordanian Islamists with funds and arranged for joint terrorist training in PLO camps outside Jordan.
Islamic zeal linked the PLO with training camps in Pakistan supporting the 1979-1989 jihad against the Soviet occupation of neighboring Afghanistan. “In 1986 the PLO started to send the most promising radicalized youth to advance training in mujahideen camps in Pakistan, where all the Islamist parties provided special training facilities,” Bodansky noted. Already there helping lead this fight was the Palestinian jihadist thinker Abdullah Azzam, Bodansky observed. “In the mid-1970s Azzam broke with the Palestinian armed struggle against Israel because it was driven by national revolutionary ideology instead of being an Islamist jihad.”
Bodansky asserted in 1999 that the Middle East’s “pro-Western conservative regimes are near collapse, more from self-destruction than anything else, especially in Saudi Arabia,” but subsequent decades have disproved his pessimism. Abdel Fattah al-Sisi returned Egypt to a pro-Western strongman rule after a brief Muslim Brotherhood-dominated regime interlude in 2011-2013 following Hosni Mubarak’s fall from power during the “Arab Spring.” Meanwhile Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states including Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates along with Morocco have embarked upon domestic reforms and growing ties with Israel.
Yet Bodansky in 1999 demonstrated in detail how Islam remains the dominant political factor in Muslim-majority countries, an assessment that is hardly changed in 2022. From Afghanistan and Pakistan to Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and Somalia, the historic struggle between Islamic and Western influences, as analyzed by Bodansky, continues. Only time will tell when the zeal for Islam’s faith-based politics will finally burn out as Muslims struggle globally to integrate into the modern world.