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Islamist Movements Gaining Momentum

Despite decades of state repression and political exclusion, Islamist movements worldwide, and especially in the Middle East, are gaining momentum and adapting to take advantage of new political realities.

Islamist groups are a diverse mix of mainstream adherents, peaceful moderates, fundamentalists who rigidly interpret Islamic Law, and militant jihadists who use violence to further their goals. In some cases, these groups are lumped together indiscriminately by governments rooting out terrorism or are misrepresented by the media.

Islamist Diversity

Distinguishing between various Islamist groups is crucial, especially for policy-makers, says Nathan Brown of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington.

"There are some movements that participate completely within the system and that aim to be completely above-ground and legitimate movements. There are some that are completely underground and aim to overthrow the system," says Brown. "There are some that sort of have a foot in both camps like [Lebanon's] Hezbollah [party], which does participate in the government but also maintains an armed wing. And then there's a wide variety, not simply in terms of means but also in terms of ideology. Do they want a state totally governed by Islamic Law? Do they concentrate on society? Do they concentrate on culture?"

Brown, who teaches political science at Georgetown University, says most Islamist movements are non-threatening. But he adds that there are a few fringe groups that resort to violence to achieve their political goals.

Most experts agree that, in many cases, the methods used by Islamist movements have been influenced by decades of political exclusion, state repression and mutual intolerance in countries like Syria, Egypt, Algeria and Tunisia. Syria violently crushed a Muslim Brotherhood rebellion in the 1980s and the movement has since been banned. Algeria witnessed a bloody civil war after its army cancelled the 1992 general elections, citing fears that an Islamist win would jeopardize democracy. The Algerian authorities emerged victorious, but the conflict spawned new extremist groups, like the Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat, which many counter- terrorism experts fear could become a regional umbrella for North African militant Islamists.

Sherifa Zuhur of the U.S. Army War College Strategic Studies Institute in Pennsylvania says state repression has bolstered the popularity of Islamists. She adds, "There is political intolerance from each respective government, and it depends what they [i.e., Islamists] try to do. For the most violent groups, the issue is that most ordinary people want to lead their lives without violence. So they don't want to encourage groups that use them as a shield, and so on. But they might still have sympathy for elements that are being repressed by the government, being arrested, detained, not charged, disappeared, tortured. And so, part of the problem is the way that they are handled."

Over the years, many Islamist groups have adopted ambiguous agendas to escape government scrutiny and repression. But Georgetown University's Nathan Brown says that has only added to the suspicions surrounding Islamist organizations.

"Nobody knows what they stand for, partly because they don't know themselves. They're debating this among themselves, and [this ambiguity is] partly because what they do is a craft language that's designed sometimes to paper over their own differences and also to appeal to a broader audience," says Brown. "That sounds very, very good on a general level. But everybody wants to know what are the details, what's going to happen if you actually get into power. And that's where Islamist movements are only now beginning to spell things out."

Opening the Door of Democracy

Some groups like Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood, which adopted secrecy in the 1950s and '60s to escape state repression, have become more open. That change, says Nathan Brown, comes with new thinking about democracy and freedom by the leadership of many Islamist movements.

"Sometimes we can get just a glimpse and sometimes we have much more extensive knowledge of the debates that are going on. But basically, there seems to be partly a generational struggle, a new rising generation that says, 'We've got to participate within the system, we've got to politicize ourselves,' and an older generation which has some very bad experiences going in that direction," says Brown. "And there are some who are working very, very hard to do what they see as melding the growing concerns about freedom and rule of law and accountability of power with traditional Islamic vocabulary as well. And those are probably the most dynamic and interesting thinkers."

Some analysts say a similar debate is taking place among militant Islamists and jihadists, especially in Afghanistan and Iraq. The Hudson Institute's Eric Brown says this debate focuses on two issues: jihadist strategies and a widening Shi'ite-Sunni split.

"There are new variables that have been thrown into our present situation, for example, the Sunni-Shi'ite rivalry. What is clear is that the resurgence of radical Sie's has certainly triggered a reaction within the Sunni world," says Brown. "And I think that this rivalry, which unfortunately you're seeing being carried out today in the streets of Baghdad, is probably going to be a real driver of how the future generations of Islamist intellectuals and ideologues understand the world and the strategic environment in which they are operating, and understand what their objectives are."

An Islamist Future

What the future holds for Islamist groups depends to a large degree on whether they are militant jihadists or moderate Islamist parties operating within their local political systems. For moderate Islamists, the question many analysts ask is whether new thinkers will have more participation. Some experts suggest that power-sharing could encourage Islamists to moderate their positions.

These movements, as Sherifa Zuhur of the U.S. Army War College in Pennsylvania sees it, will continue to gain momentum. What is worrisome, in her view, is the direction militant Islamists might take in the future. She says,"We might see them disappearing in some places and yet reemerging elsewhere, where you have sleepers who preach their mission to their followers and continue their jihad. In terms of those movements becoming a broader base, I'm hopeful that that won't happen. In terms of Islamist movements that moderate that violence, I think they're still popular."

Whether mainstream Islamists succeed in moderating violent groups remains to be seen. But that kind of influence, most analysts say, depends on whether governments hostile to Islamists will allow them greater political participation.

This story was first broadcast on the English news program,VOA News Now. For other Focus reports click here.