Episode 2: Islamic Extremism in the Modern World

Host: Joan Neuberger, Professor, Department of History, and editor, Not Even Past
Guest: Christopher Rose, Outreach Director, Center for Middle Eastern Studies

Secular_Religious_Extremism_ChartIn this episode, we tackle “that pesky standard” in the Texas World History course that requires students to understand the development of “radical Islamic fundamentalism and the subsequent use of terrorism by some of its adherents.” This is especially tricky for educators: how to talk about such an emotional subject without resorting to stereotypes and demonizing? What drives some to turn to violent actions in the first place?

Guest Christopher Rose from UT’s Center for Middle Eastern Studies offers a few suggestions and some background information on how to keep the phenomenon in perspective.

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Standards Alignment | Transcript | Documents and Further Reading


The standard I’m addressing reads as follows:

(14) History. The Student understands the development of radical Islamic fundamentalism and the subsequent use of terrorism by some of its adherents. The student is expected to:

A) Summarize the development and impact of radical Islamic fundamentalism on events in the second half of the 20th century, including Palestinian terrorism and the growth of al-Qaeda; and
B) Explain the U.S. response to terrorism from September 11, 2011, to the present.

In talking about this, I’d like to suggest three points to bear in mind:

  1. Keep it in perspective
  2. Not all extremism is Islamic
  3. What are the roots of discontent?

1) Keep it in Perspective

Even though it gets a lot of news, the number of people involved in extremist activities is actually quite small.

Pie Chart/Venn Diagram of the World Muslim Population showing relative extremism. Please note: we have no idea where the author got an estimate of 18 million Muslims in the US – most estimates put the actual number closer to two or three million.

The number of people directly involved with the 9/11 plot, including the 20 hijackers, was less than 50.  At its most powerful in 2003, all of the al Qaeda branches together had less than 5,000 active members, this out of a worldwide Muslim population of over 1.2 billion.

Megan Reid of the University of Denver put together a chart documenting the numbers of protestors who turned out in various locations against the Innocence of Muslims video, comparing it with the number of protestors who participated in the Arab Spring.

The first point I would make is, remember when talking about this subject that, although it is an important topic in current events, we are still talking about a very small percentage of the overall Islamic population of the world, and remember to bring that up. Most of the world’s Muslims don’t have anything to do with terrorism.

2) Not all extremism is Islamic

The standard mentions the “impact of radical Islamic fundamentalism … including Palestinian terrorism.” This is a problem, because until the 1980s, Palestinian terrorism was actually secular in nature, usually Marxist.  The idea that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is seen as a holy war is actually an idea that’s held in the west, but only by the extremists on both sides on the ground there. Most Israelis and Palestinians simply see this as a battle over land and resources that they both claim as their own, based on historical precedent, not religion.

Chart of Groups and Movements in the Islamic World. Not all of these (Ba’athism, Libyan Socialism, Salafism/Wahhabism) are necessarily violent movements in and of themselves, although each has developed offshoots that do espouse violence.

This chart explains who some of the active groups are, but, in a nutshell:

Right now, the West Bank is controlled by the Palestinian Authority, which is the successor to the Palestine Liberation Organization, or PLO. The PLO is a secular group that was founded in the 1960s and was associated with Yassir Arafat.  Arafat, for the record, may have given lip service to Islam, but his religious devotion ended around happy hour.

Its main rival for decades was the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, which was a Marxist organization run by George Habash.  The PFLP fizzled out in the 1970s, and was replaced as a key actor by Hamas, which is the Palestinian chapter of the Muslim Brotherhood. Hamas took off in the 1980s with support from Hizbollah in Lebanon, and they now control the Gaza Strip.

It does bear mentioning that there are small Jewish extremist groups at work in Israel that also fuel the conflict. Yitzhak Rabin was assassinated by a young right-wing Jewish man in 1995, which was a huge shock to many Israelis.

The Ba’athist movement that is the dominant political force in Syria currently — this is the ideology that is espoused by the current Asad regime — as well as espoused by Saddam Hussein in Iraq is another secular movement. It was actually a political philosophy first proposed by a Lebanese Christian, Michel ‘Aflaq, as an alternative to the Pan-Arab movement that was espoused by Egyptian president Gamal Abdul Nasser. ‘Aflaq wanted to propose a pan-Arab ideology that used less Islamic terminology so that Arab Christians wouldn’t feel threatened or left out. It was adopted as a state ideology in both Iraq and Syria — then, of course, both countries decided they were practicing it properly and the other was doing it wrong, so the two regimes never got along.

Saddam Hussein suddenly decided to start working in Islamic symbols into his government in 1990 after the invasion of Kuwait in a misguided attempt to rally the world’s Muslim population to his side against the allied forces who were preparing to launch a military strike against him. It didn’t work–the pictures of him sharing lots of alcohol with various state leaders, rumors of many mistresses, etc, were too strong for him to be credible as a religious man. Also, many people just didn’t like him.

Al-Qaeda is an outgrowth of the Salafist movement, which claims to be seeking a return to “pure Islam” as it was practiced under the prophet Muhammad and immediately afterward. Salafist practice discards a lot of what they feel is “innovation,” or practices or theologies that were added in the centuries afterward. Salafist ideology is essentially constructed on the notion that only their (the Salafis) version of Islam is correct; everyone else is misguided and, anyone who rejects the Salafist ideology is not actually Muslim. This is why al-Qaeda had no problem attacking Muslim targets–according to their own ideology, those guys weren’t actually Muslim. And they didn’t have any problem attacking Muslim targets–Osama bin Laden was responsible for the deaths of many more Muslims than non-Muslims over his tenure as head of al-Qaeda.

3) Roots of Discontent

Finally, I just want to take a moment to talk about why extremism seems to be so popular.  The ultimate problem in the Middle East is that freedom of expression is extremely limited. In 2011, Freedom House listed only one country in the entire region as politically free, and that was Israel (Israel proper, not including the West Bank and Gaza). Morocco, Kuwait, Lebanon, and Turkey were listed as “partly free” – Turkey keeps going back and forth between free and partly free – and all of the other countries were “not free.”

This, combined with a population that is growing rapidly and is increasingly younger — half of Iran’s population is under thirty, as is two thirds of Saudi Arabia’s — means that you have a young, reasonably well educated population coming into adulthood with no chance that their standard of living will match that of their parents—in most cases they will have a lower standard of living than their parents did at their age, in some cases it will even be lower than that of their grandparents. Unemployment is extremely high, college graduates frequently work in the informal economy or in manual labor (if they can find work at all), and they have absolutely no chance to register their disappointment at the ballot box. They quite literally can’t do anything to change their situation, and this breeds frustration.

For years, these extremist groups — odd as it may seem — were frequently popular with younger people just because it seemed like they were doing something to change the status quo. And we are talking about people who feel as if they can’t control their futures and that they are powerless.

The Arab Spring is a similar reaction, one that’s probably a little healthier as it has actually managed to change the system in three countries already, and Syria is, as of now, teetering. And one interesting thing to note is that, although the Muslim Brotherhood won the majority in both the Tunisian and Egyptian parliaments, and some in the west are a little concerned about this, in countries that have liberalized the political process–Jordan, Lebanon, Kuwait–the Islamist parties usually come in victorious at first, but then within a cycle or two, they lose their majority and things balance out. So, if the Egyptian military can keep its hands off of things–a big if–we’ll probably see a different picture there in a few years.

Documents and Further Reading:

Download a PDF version of the chart above.

Freedom House’s 2012 report on Freedom in the World (includes clickable map of countries).

Megan Reif. “Arab Uprisings Vs. Anti-Film Riots.” Personal Web Site, September 16, 2012.
Reif, a faculty member at the University of Denver, provides a statistical analysis to show that pro-democracy “Arab Spring” crowds were much larger than those involved in the  protests in the Middle East and North Africa over the “Innocence of Muslims” video deemed insulting to Islam. She concludes that a lack of media objectivity about geographic scope of so-called “Muslim Rage” has dangerous implications.

Sabrina Tavernise. “Turkish Schools Offer Pakistan a Gentler Vision of Islam.” The New York Times. May 4, 2008, online edition.
This news article discusses a Turkish movement to tone down the extremist rhetoric in some religious schools in rural Pakistan with a progressive vision of Islam that is compatible with multiculturalism and democracy.

Noah Feldman. “Why Shariah?The New York Times, March 16, 2008, online edition.
The Islamic legal codes—shari’a—get a bad rap these days, usually in the West where it’s seen as the antithesis of all that Western representative government has come to embody. But is that necessarily the case? What is shar’ia? And why would anyone in their right mind propose it as a valid source of law in the West? Noah Feldman examines these questions and more.

Michael Slackman. “Stifled, Egypt’s Young Turn to Islamic Fervor.The New York Times, February 17, 2008, online edition.
“While there are few statistics tracking religious observance among the young, there is near-universal agreement that young people are propelling an Islamic revival, one that has been years in the making but is intensifying as the youth bulge in the population is peaking. In Egypt, where the people have always been religious and conservative, young people are now far more observant and strict in their interpretation of their faith.”

Kevin Sullivan. “Younger Muslims Tune In to Upbeat Religious Message.” The Washington Post, December 2, 2007, online edition.
While many in the West envision a younger, more pious generation of Muslims as a possible threat, Muslims are as innovative and diverse in their religious practices as Christians can be. This article examines the upbeat, contemporary, sometimes funky version of Islam.

Andrea Elliott. “Where Boys Grow Up to Be Jihadis.” The New York Times Magazine, November 25, 2007.
What motivates a young man from northern Morocco to follow a path that will eventually lead him to detonate a bomb on a train bound for Madrid? Andrea Elliott follows one young man’s journeys from the slums of Tetouan to jihad.

Reza Aslan. “Why Do They Hate Us? Strange Answers Lie in al-Qaida’s Writings.Slate Magazine, August 6, 2007.
What does al-Qaeda want? It’s hard to say: it seems that President Bush said far more about the organization’s goals than Osama bin Laden or Ayman al-Zawahiri ever did. Aslan reviews two collections of primary sources collected from al-Qaeda stashes to try to make sense of it all.


Jason Burke. “The Key Books on Islamic Extremism.” The Guardian, November 7, 2012.
From an anatomy of modern Pakistan to an account of the hunt for Bin Laden, here are the 10 best titles on militant Islamism, according to The Guardian and Observer‘s South Asia correspondent Jason Burke, author of The 9/11 Wars and Al-Qaeda: The True Story of Radical Islam.

Lawrence Wright. The Looming Tower: al-Qaeda and the road to 9/11New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2006.
This Pulitzer-prize winning narrative by an Austin-based writer traces the rise of jihadism and the development of the al-Qaeda movement, and offers a harrowing account of the planning and execution of the 9/11/01 attacks.

Reza Aslan. Beyond Fundamentalism: Confronting Religious Extremism in the Age of Globalization. originally published as How to Win a Cosmic War. New York: Random House, 2009.
What do jihadis really want? Nothing. Although they give lip-service to the suffering of Muslims worldwide, they’re engaging in a fight much deeper–and ultimately one that is unwinnable. Contrasting the rise of extremist movements in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, Aslan documents the 20th century rise of religious fundamentalism worldwide.

Standards Alignment:

Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills:
This podcast is inspired by the following standard in the Texas high school world history course:

(14) History. The Student understands the development of radical Islamic fundamentalism and the subsequent use of terrorism by some of its adherents. The student is expected to:

A) Summarize the development and impact of radical Islamic fundamentalism on events in the second half of the 20th century, including Palestinian terrorism and the growth of al-Qaeda; and
B) Explain the U.S. response to terrorism from September 11, 2011, to the present.

National Standards for History, Basic Edition:
This podcast addresses the following standards in World History Era 9:

Standard 1B
The student understands why global power shifts took place and the Cold War broke out in the aftermath of World War II.

  • Analyze how political, diplomatic, and economic conflict and competition between the United States and the Soviet Union affected developments in such countries as Egypt, Iran, the Congo, Vietnam, Chile, and Guatemala.

Standard 1C
The student understands how African, Asian, and Caribbean peoples achieved independence from European colonial rule.

  • Explain how international conditions affected the creation of Israel and analyze why persistent conflict developed between Israel and both Arab Palestinians and neighboring states.

Standard 2D
The student understands major sources of tension and conflict in the contemporary world and efforts that have been made to address them.

  • Analyze why terrorist movements have proliferated and the extent of their impact on politics and society in various countries.

Standard 2F
The student understands worldwide cultural trends of the second half of the 20th century.

  • Describe varieties of religious belief and practice in the contemporary world and analyze how the world’s religions have responded to challenges and uncertainties of the late 20th century.



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1 thought on “Episode 2: Islamic Extremism in the Modern World

  1. Pingback: Episode 24: European Imperialism in the Middle East (part 2) | 15 Minute History

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