The Future of the Islamic Movement


The Arab-Israeli conflict did not make the Islamic movement, and peace between Arabs and Israelis will not break it. From the time of Hasan al-Banna, the founder of Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood, onward, groups seeking to institute an Islamic moral, social and political order have used the conflict with Israel as an instrument for promoting their goals. They have piggybacked on the rage against Israel and sympathy for the Palestinians ceaselessly drummed up by nationalist governments. Unencumbered by the practical burdens of governing, these groups have often gone further than nationalist regimes in advocating violence to regain "Muslim" soil and the holy city of Jerusalem. They have doubtless gained a measure of popular support in this fashion, and they have gained it at very little cost since Israel's strongest supporter, the United States, remains deeply hostile toward what it terms "Muslim fundamentalism." But the actual objectives of the Islamic movement do not lie in Palestine. They lie at home.

Recruitment of Islamic activists at high schools and universities succeeds so well because the movement addresses issues like poverty and unemployment, the growing gulf between rich and poor, inadequate government services, political corruption, perceived government subservience to American demands, and the hedonistic or European lifestyles of the well-to-do. The Islamists deal with these issues through a comprehensive critique of modern life in the Islamic world and argue persuasively that a return to core religious values would bring social justice, good government and a higher level of moral life while putting Muslims in touch with their glorious past.

Responses to this message take various forms. Many people change their personal behavior and become more community-oriented but do not seek to change the government. Others, where constitutionally possible, organize politically. They see the ballot box as their instrument for achieving social and political change, and they see the rootless poor of the big cities-inclined by their village origins to turn to religion for solace-as their natural allies. An impatient and sociopathic few kill public officials and blow up buildings in the time-honored but futile belief that terrorism can bring about chaos and therefore the opportunity to seize power.

Register for free to continue reading.
Registered users get access to two free articles every month.

Or subscribe now and save 55 percent.

Subscription benefits include:
  • Full access to
  • Six issues of the magazine
  • Foreign Affairs iPad app privileges
  • Special editorial collections

Latest Commentary & News analysis