How Religious Extremism Is
Reshaping Middle Eastern Politics

By Ilan Berman

Perhaps the single most devastating threat to current Middle Eastern peace efforts is the rampant spread of hostility and terror. This violence, aimed at the Israeli state and its tenuous attempts at moderation and reconciliation, has been widely perceived as the reassertion of Palestinian and Arab identity through hostility and conflict. Palestinian scholars such as Edward Said have called the shift towards reconciliation a "Palestinian Versailles", where the Palestinians forfeit a measure of their national identity and aspirations, not to mention dignity, by simply contemplating a peace accord that does not capture the full breadth of their desires and demands.[1] The rapid spread of anti-Israeli and anti-"Peace Process" terrorism is a tribute to the growing popularity of these rejectionist viewpoints, spurring violence in the face of mounting domestic and international pressures for moderation. In addition, anti-Oslo terrorism is unique and problematic in its incorporation of religion as a motivational and legitimizing force, condoning and even promoting confrontation in the name of Islam. This use of religion as a justification for violence causes acts of terror to take on cultural and societal dimensions not echoed in modern Western militant organizations.

The beginning of the trend towards the acceptance of violence as a religiously-sanctioned and legitimate political tool finds its roots in the Islamic reaction to the Camp David Accords and the Iranian Revolution. These two landmark events, one promoting moderation and rapprochement with the Western cultural infrastructure, the other highlighting the power of insurgent religion as a motivating force, played very different roles in the development of religiously-inspired violence and the proliferation of Islamic terrorism. Their effects upon present-day religious extremism have led to an escalating cycle of anti-state and anti-Western terror that has dominated the Middle Eastern political scene and captured the attention of the international media.

The Camp David Accords and Their Aftermath; Islamic Rejection of Moderation

While representing a landmark attempt at regional moderation in Middle Eastern diplomacy, the Camp David Accords had unforeseen and adverse effects upon the theories and policies of Islamic radicals. The reformation of the Arabic nationalist drive into a religiously-motivated force following the Camp David Accords spurred a violent reaction to, and backlash against, those leaders in the Middle East that were seen as ascribing to Western culture and tradition. Egyptian President Anwar Sadat, who had initiated the Accords with Israel in a dramatic departure from standard Arab policy, was among those to feel the wrath of the newly formed Arabic religious identity in the form of Islamic jihad (holy war).

The popular Arabic reaction treated the proposed rapprochement with Israel and the West with equal parts distrust and anger. The popular perception was that the Accords encouraged the progressive parceling of Palestinian claims to legitimacy, insinuating that the increasingly peaceful interchange between Egypt and Israel would marginalize the Palestinian issue, leaving Palestinian aspirations of sovereignty and statehood unfulfilled. The reactions from various religious fundamentalist groups within Egypt were extremely severe. The powerful Muslim Brotherhood organization, a benchmark of Egyptian religious identity, was particularly opposed to Egypt's growing closeness with the West, decried the softening of Egyptian foreign policy vis--vis Israel and the West in its publications and policies. A statement issued in 1975, during the course of Anwar Sadat's shift toward moderation, asserted that "[t]he Palestinian problem must be taken out of the narrow regional framework and again placed on the broad Islamic horizon...the soil of Palestine in its entirety is usurped Islamic soil. For this reason, the jihad is obligatory and is in fact an individual obligation for the Muslims..."[2]

This statement was an excellent example of the trends taking place within the hearts and minds of Islamic traditionalists. No longer were proponents of Islamic extremism open to negotiation regarding a peaceful coexistence with Western power, but instead had crystallized a violent, staunch opposition to any encroachment of the Middle East by Western civilization. The absorption of the Israeli-Palestinian issue and its redistribution into the religious arena of emerging Islamic fundamentalism marked a crucial nexus in the nature of the Arab-Israeli conflict. No longer was there a possibility to appease the nationalistic aspirations of the Palestinians with compromise. Instead, the emergence of unifying Islamic sentiment in the Middle East led to the perception of increasing incompatibility between Western and Arabic cultures, prodding the development of broad anti-Western reactionism and the increasing inability to maintain cohesive mediation between Arabic and Western powers. The growing rift between Islamic and Western culture, and the increasing struggle for the reassertion of Islamic identity, were to be bolstered greatly by the Islamic Revolution of Iran, and the successful model for Islamic rebellion it embodied.

The Iranian Revolution; a Precedent for Islamic Insurgency

In 1979, the forces of Islamic revivalism received great initiative and momentum with the establishment of the Islamic Republic in Iran. The masses, dissatisfied with the modernization and Westernization of the Shah, turned against their ruler in revolt, creating a "true" Islamic state governed by Islamic beliefs and Sharia (Islamic law). The impact of the Islamic Revolution was immense, both in bolstering the power and popular opinion of Islamic revivalism and in heightening the political stature of Islam in the Middle East. The establishment of the Islamic Republican Party (IRP) in Iran gave Islam access to the world political arena, gaining more power, recognition and legitimacy with the installation of a religious-based regime. Ideologically, the Islamic Revolution provided a viable framework of a true Islamic society, governed by the laws and ideals espoused by fundamentalists. The Revolution also motivated proponents of fundamentalist Islam by providing an example for successful religious insurgency, which would become internalized by Islamic revivalist movements in their drive towards the re-establishment of Islamic supremacy in the Middle East. This lesson would be revisited in the development of a comprehensive series of steps embodying the evolution of Islamic political violence and terror.

"The Jihad Doctrine" - Religious Justification for Islamic Terrorism

The growing dissatisfaction of Islamic radicals with the secular and Westernized state of Arabic politics was evidenced by an alarming increased propensity for the use of violence as legitimate political action. This trend, evident in the fedeyeen guerrilla attacks upon Israel in the 1950's and 1960's, took on a more radical dimension with Sadat's moderation and Egypt's reconciliation with Israel and the West. Whereas prior to Camp David radical Islamic violence was localized, sporadic and directed at bastions of Western power and influence, the years following Camp David and the Iranian Revolution saw the rise of a militant ideology that sanctioned the use of violence against Muslims and non-believers alike. This ideology created the basis for the use of violence for religious motivations, condoning armed struggle to reassert the primacy of the Sharia and Muslim ideals. The "Jihad Doctrine" marked an important step in the formulation of Islamic radical philosophy and technique in attempts to combat what was seen as a growing decadence and secularism within Arabic societies and the cultures of the Western Hemisphere. The doctrine was a seminal transformation in the growing radicalism of Islamic movements, coalescing religious justification for violent Islamic action and leading to a reordering of fundamentalist policies regarding their own regimes and the West. Through the "Jihad Doctrine", radical Islamic movements legitimized violence and terror against "enemies of Islam", both domestic and foreign. The doctrine paved the way for a new era of violent insurgency, which would have a dramatic impact upon the politics of Arabic countries and grow to influence Western civilization. The key aspect of the "Jihad doctrine" is the subjective interpretation of the Koran with regard to violence against non-believers. According to Rudolph Peters, the essence of the doctrine is "the existence of one single Islamic state . . . It is the duty of the umma to expand the territory of this state in order to bring as many people under its rule as possible. The ultimate aim is to bring the whole earth under the sway of Islam and to expatriate disbeliefÓ"[3] The "Jihad Doctrine" draws its strength from the subjective interpretation of Islamic texts to fit a certain desire or motivation.[4] The espousal of Islamic beliefs as a justification for violence and terror provides legitimacy for the behavior of Muslim radicals. The advocation of Islamic scripture as the basis for extremist insurgency and jihad furnish a powerful defense and sanctioning force for extremism actions and terror in politics and popular opinion.

The spread of violent radicalism in the post-Camp David Era emerged from the integration of several factors, each playing a crucial role in the development of Islamic terrorism and insurgency. This internationalization of Islamic religious radicalism through the proliferation of the "Jihad Doctrine" created the basis for greater membership and a wider audience for Islamic propaganda and politics. The increasing radicalism of extremist Islamic movements did not occur overnight, but rather developed gradually through phases. I have attempted to define these factors as three distinct stages, each developing from its predecessor. They are:

I. Islamic violence as insurgency; rebellion against modernism within Arabic countries

II. Islamic violence against Western power within the Middle East

III. International Islamic violence against Western power; terrorism in Europe and America

I. Islamic violence as insurgency; rebellion against modernism within Arabic countries

Characterized by the successful religiously-led mass rebellion in Iran and the assassination of Egyptian president Anwar Sadat, this phase plays an extremely important role in the formulation of an increasingly radical and violent Islamic opposition to the Westernization of the Arabic state. The co-opting of Islamic primacy in Muslim culture in favor of Western modernism led to an increasingly pressing need for the reaffirmation of Islam as the supreme guide of politics and culture in Arabic society. The reformation of Muslim identity along radical insurgent lines found unusual success with traditionalist elements of Arab culture. The murder of Egyptian president Anwar Sadat served as a crucial stepping stone in the formulation of this extremist Islamic policy. The assassination of Sadat was a turning point in the development of Islamic fundamentalism, bringing increasing attention and power to extremist religious factions and sparking a radicalization of the growing fundamentalist resurgence. The murder, and the religious backing enjoyed by the assassins in the wake of the killing, clearly pointed to the radicalization of Islamic opposition.

The assassination of the Egyptian president on October 3, 1982 was the culmination of a growing separatism between the Egyptian community and the policies of the President. It was furthermore an exemplification of the expanding power of radical fundamentalist religious ideologies. Sadat had come to be seen as having betrayed the tenets and fundamental principles of the Arab League and Islam itself. His adherence to the Camp David Accords was commensurate with a rejection of the principles of binding Arab and Islamic hostility toward Israel and the Western establishment. Reactions to Sadat's policies were harsh and widespread. Author Afaf Lutfi al-Sayyid Marsot explains the development of extremist insurgency against the moderation of Arab-Israeli hostilities embodied by Camp David: "...The peace treaty with Israel fanned anti-Western feelings and gave rise to the opposition of the fundamentalist groups that finally assassinated Sadat."[5]

Far from being persecuted by the mass populace for their atrocity, the efforts of Sadat's assassins were extolled by Islamic philosophers. Islamic thinkers such as Abd al-Salam Faraj argued that it was the individual duty of all Muslims to subvert the present corrupt regime with one of righteous Islamic values and morals.[6] Thus, according to Islamic ideologues, the assassins of Anwar Sadat were not committing murder, but rather fulfilling a duty and obligation required of pious Muslims. Other radical Islamists, like Sheik Khamis, provided the justification for the assassination of Sadat by expressing the popular extremist sentiment. "Sadat was against Islam...he deserved to be killed. Sadat's main sin...was Camp David."[7]

The Camp David Accords, or more specifically the stabilization of Israeli-Egyptian relations and the Egyptian abandonment of overarching Arab and Islamic hostility, caused a dramatic shift towards extremist thought and lent itself to the increasing legitimation of violence in the philosophies and actions of Islamic extremists. Though the assassins of Sadat were tried and executed, their example transcended their deaths, setting a strong precedent that violent reactionism to secular government was not only possible, but potentially dramatically successful. This revelation created a reformulation of extremist Islamic doctrine, setting the pace for a further expansion of extremist hostility directed at the West and Western power. It would not take long for this newfound radicalism to spread throughout the Middle East.

II. Islamic violence against Western power within the Middle East

The next phase in the development of Islamic radicalism surpassed insurgency against state government, focusing instead upon a violent reaction to the overarching Western cultural structure internalized by many Muslim societies. Once the prospect of Islamic insurgency had been realized as feasible and coherent, the next step in the development of Islamic radicalism was to attack the corruptive Western socio-cultural infrastructure. This new phase of Islamic radicalism was tragically documented by the 1983 suicide bombing of the Marine Barracks in Lebanon, in which an Islamic militant drove a truck carrying 12,000 pounds of high explosive into the U.S. Marine compound in Beirut. The resulting death toll was immense; nearly three hundred American soldiers died as a result of the suicide bombing.[8] The Marine Barracks bombing was an alarming exemplification of a growing trend within radical Islam. Having surpassed the hurdle of state and national insurgency, the theories of Islamic extremists had now become directed at examples of the secular Western power structure in the Middle East. The bombing did not mark the height of Islamic violence, but merely the beginning of an increasingly violent chain of events. Having successfully struck against the Western establishment within the Middle East, the Islamists grew more daring in their policies and actions. The stage was set for an internationalization of Islamic terrorism into the Western Hemisphere.

III. International Islamic violence against Western power; terrorism in Europe and America

The suicide bombing of the Marine Barracks in Beirut heralded a new chapter in Islamic violence. The radical fundamentalist element discovered that not only could they successfully strike against state and local governments within their own societies, but that they could also attack the enormous Western establishment, with significant results. Following this recognition, it was only a matter of time until the formulation of policies engendering armed attacks against Western targets in the Western hemisphere, in the "belly of the infidel". The most visible manifestation of this expansion of Islamic violence against the West was the World Trade Center Bombing of 1993, in which explosives planted by Islamic radicals ravaged one of the premier financial establishments of the United States. The Trade Center Bombing struck a firm blow on the part of Islamic extremists against one of the cornerstones of Western "decadence", the capitalist financial establishment. The bombing, while massive in destruction, had much greater psychological, ideological and political impacts on the international community. The bombing signaled a terrifying development; the forces of radical Islam had succeeded in the expansion of their violent struggle from insurgency on the state and national level, to attacks against Western influence in the Middle East, and finally to the attack of Western targets in the West itself. This bold expansion of extremist ideology created a dramatic radicalization of Islamic political violence. The power wielded by religious extremists prone to violence terrified Western powers, elevating the goals and agendas of radical fundamentalists to new heights through extensive media exposure. Furthermore, the inability of Western governments to formulate a resolute plan of counter-terrorism in response to growing Islamic violence has illustrated a dramatic threat to international security. The internationalization of Islamic insurgency marked a new era for Islamic power in the Middle East as well, heralding a reassertion of religious power in the political arenas and policies of Middle Eastern countries.

Future Possibilities; Oslo, the Palestinian Authority, and Beyond

The growing ability of extremist movements to lash out successfully at Western institutions has resulted in the flourishing propagation of international Islamic terrorism. The belated efforts of Western counter-terrorism have proved largely ineffectual. The success of landmark acts of terror, such as the assassination of Anwar Sadat, the Marine barracks bombing of 1983 and the bombing of the World Trade Center, have left an indelible mark upon both the Western and Islamic communities. To the West, the spectre of the rising violence of radical religion is a terrifying prospect, confronting the secular multitudes with forces they can neither comprehend nor control, but which continue to be a menace. On the part of the Islamic umma, the success of these same acts has led to a bolstering of popular support in favor of radical reactions to the encroachment of Western secularism. The Islamic masses have learned that they can effectively and significantly lash out against Western power and society. This realization has led to an increase in popular support for the forces of radical Islamism, garnering them prestige, power and a broader venue to espouse their desired return to traditionalism.

When taken in this light, examination of the Middle Eastern political structure and the current peace negotiations becomes more problematic and explosive. The growing shift of popular support towards religiously motivated movements puts the Israeli government in a tenuous position in its bargaining with the Palestine Liberation Organization. The reformation of Arabic ideology around Islamic values and ideals following the Camp David Accords and the Iranian Revolution has sparked the popularity of religious movements calling for a return to traditional values and culture. In this light, the power of nationalism and nationalist movements is both diminished and threatened. Islamic fundamentalism has become an increasingly insurgent movement in a time of rapprochement and moderation. The nationalistic aspirations of the PLO remain ineffectual in the new Arabic unity, precisely because they do not address the religious drives and desires of the people. The PLO ideology remains one of nationalist aspiration, attempting to satisfy the Palestinian desire for national sovereignty and identity but not addressing the new Palestinian religious identity, and thereby not incorporating to the growing power of the Arab religious movement. The PLO has become a dinosaur in the world of Arabic politics; outdated and impotent, ascribing to tenets that expressing obsolete sentiments and unifying factors within Arabic culture.

This is not to say that the PLO is totally bereft of power and legitimacy in the Middle East. [Editor's Note: I differ with the author on PLO 'moderation'.] The growing moderation of the PLO, marked by the 1993 Oslo Accords, has gained the organization popular support on the part of the Palestinian community. The final actualization of Palestinian nationalist desires is within reach, causing the PLO to be seen as a vanguard of Arab and Palestinian interests. However, the Islamic desire for traditionalism and staunch anti-Westernism has been left unanswered by the moderation of the PLO. Furthermore, secular bargaining and compromise with Western interests threaten Islamist attempts to reassert the primacy of religion. In light of the Islamic rejection of Western influence, power and legitimacy in the region, the newfound moderation of the PLO is becoming increasingly viewed as unacceptable and antagonistic to the forces of extremist Islam. If the forces of nationalism have ceased to exert power over the masses of Arabic people, and if these people have found new identification and unity in the Islamic religious identity, then the PLO only nominally represents the desires of the Palestinian people, contenting itself with settlements for land while leaving the issues of Islamic primacy, identity and Islamic-Western competition untouched. In light of this formulation, demands for a PLO initiative in the moderation of Islamic hostilities must, by necessity, go unanswered, for the organization can exert no jurisdiction over the forces of extremist Islam. Indeed, fresh news of PLO support of Islamic terror and violence by groups such as Hamas should come as no surprise; the bolstering and endorsement of religious extremism allows the PLO to marginally obtain the backing of religious extremists, thereby maintaining a modicum of popularity among the Palestinian people.

This understanding creates harsh choices for the powers involved in the moderation and diffusion of the Israeli-Arab conflict. It is becoming increasingly clear that attempts at peace cannot be limited to a strictly territorial parceling, and equally clear that the forces of radical Islam, whose claims for territorial and religious identity remain unanswered, will exemplify their defiant religious revival through violence and terror. By ignoring the growing power of radical Islam, the Oslo Agreement remains an ineffective answer to the Israeli-Arab conflict, failing to grasp and adapt to the new religious politics of the Middle East.


Ilan Berman is a graduate student of Law and International Affairs at American University in Washington, DC.


1) Said, Edward "Palestinian Versailles", Progressive, December 1993.

2) Dietl, Wilhelm Holy War, Macmillan Publishing Company, New York, 1984. p. 57.

3) Peters, Rudolph Jihad in Classical and Modern Islam, Markus Weiner Publishers, Princeton, 1996. p. 3.

4) Hussain, Asaf Political Terrorism and the State in the Middle East, Mansell Publishing Limited, New York, 1988. p. 5.

5) Christian Science Monitor, "From politics to Coptics, shedding light on modern Egypt", September 5, 1986.

6) Peters, Rudolph Jihad in Classical and Modern Islam, Markus Weiner Publishers, Princeton, 1996. pp. 7-8.

7) New York Times, "Egypt's angry Islamic militants", November 20, 1983.

8) Hammel, Eric The Root; The Marines in Beirut August 1982-February 1984, Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, San Diego, 1985. p. 426.

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