A number of Islamist organizations have declared jihad or what they call holy war in defense of Islam. Some analysts say these jihadists are seeking to organize a global movement with the goal of establishing a totalitarian Islamic system.
For most of the 20th century, the West struggled to contain the spread of communism. The war of ideas, capitalism versus communism, lasted until it became clear that instead of offering justice and equality, communism stifled prosperity and individual liberty.
Many analysts say that the ideology that motivates terrorism is similar but that its tactics perhaps are even more destructive. Some Muslims seem to be ready to blow themselves up and commit acts of violence that horrify other Muslims and non-Muslims alike.
Religion as a Political Instrument
Shmuel Bar, an analyst at the Institute of Policy and Strategy in Herzliya, Israel, says many radical Muslim leaders today use religion to motivate followers to fight for their worldview.
"If fighting is ordered for you, though you dislike it -- you may dislike a thing that is good for you and like a thing which is bad for you, Allah knows, but you do not -- then, there's a sort of crack in my moral certitude," says Bar. "I am saying: 'I feel that this is wrong, but I can't know if it's right or wrong. Only Allah knows. But Allah is not speaking to me. Allah gave the Koran and there are scholars who have interpreted the Koran and continue to interpret the law. And I will go to them and ask: 'What is the law of Allah?'"
Leaders of extremist groups such as al-Qaida, and Islamic Jihad in Egypt, Lebanon and the Palestinian territories, as well as new movements cropping up in Central Asia, Indonesia and elsewhere are calling Muslims to join a holy war in defense of their faith.
Akbar Ahmed, Chairman of Islamic studies at American University in Washington says the term jihad, originally meaning "endeavor," or "struggle," refers primarily to a spiritual effort to live according to the commands of the Almighty. But it has taken on a different meaning.
"Jihad has come to mean a religious, fanatic, aggressive action by Muslims against non-Muslims and sometimes even against Muslims. It has come to mean terrorist strikes. It has come to mean extremism and expressions of Muslim fanaticism," says Ahmed.
A few decades ago, many scholars say, religion did not play such an important role in the Muslim world as it does today. Mary Habeck, a history professor at The Johns Hopkins University and author of the book, Knowing the Enemy: Jihadist Ideology and the War on Terror, says the number of jihadists in the 1980s was so small that few people knew they existed.
"But they have won a hearing within a larger part of the Islamic world because so many states in the Islamist world have failed miserably to provide justice or social equity of even development," says Habeck. "And many people have not agreed with the violence, but have agreed that 'we need some other, more Islamic, solutions to our problems,' people who think: 'These guys [i.e., jihadists] at least are doing something, whereas my government won't do anything."
Professor Habeck says the movement is still relatively small and splintered, but that it is gaining momentum. Even Muslims who condemn violence, she says, often express understanding for terrorists. Following the 2005 bomb attacks in London, a public opinion poll of Muslims in Britain showed that more than 10 percent of Muslims supported the bombers and 16 percent sympathized with them.
Many analysts agree that the absence of a strong central authority in the Islamic world has enabled radical groups like al-Qaida to assert their influence and attract impressionable young people. They note that in the past, a strong central ruler, or caliph, supported by his clergy would decide how the Koran is to be applied in social, political and economic situations. Today, many local imams often interpret the scriptures as they see fit.
But many observers, including James Phillips, a Middle East analyst at The Heritage Foundation in Washington, say the chances of a jihadist movement reaching the scope and impact of 20th century communism are slim.
"A lot of the Islamic groups are very ad hoc and heterogeneous. Although they may agree on the need for a global Islamic state, I think they might fight bitterly over who is going to be leading that state. The Soviets were able to establish much greater central control over the global communist movement than Islamic radical leaders have been. Iran has tried to take the lead, but has not been as successful as Moscow was," says Phillips.
Many analysts consider the divide between Shia and Sunni Muslims to be the strongest impediment to the development of global jihadism. Still, most agree that escalating radical Islamist violence must be countered. Analyst James Phillips says young Muslims especially need to be educated about the effects of totalitarian regimes imposed by the Nazis, the communists and the Taleban.
American University's Akbar Ahmed says mainstream Muslim leaders have a special duty to their communities. "They need to step up to the plate. They need to be talking to non-Muslim, visiting synagogues, churches, taking friends and colleagues with them and inviting non-Muslims to mosques and creating that kind of dialog because if that does not happen, then I am afraid we are in for a very unsettled, unhappy time in the coming future."
Professor Ahmed says religious leaders must remind Muslims that in the words of the Prophet Mohammed, the greatest jihad is the struggle to uplift oneself spiritually.