Islamic extremism is characterized by a certain diversity between groups; however, there are certain things, which run like common denominators through all these groups.
These common characteristics are mainly based on theological orientation, political or social objectives and others. Some of these general characteristics are common to most of the extremist groups.
A strictly literal interpretation of the Qur’an. The Qur’an, believed to be the revealed word of God has to be taken as literally as possible. Obedience to God is to be measured, among other things, by the strict observance of the letters of the Qur’an. However, a question may rise as to why extremists do not take literally those verses that seem to promote openness to Christians. An example of such verses is: ‘Surely those who believe, and those who are Jews, and the Christians, and the Sabians… whoever believes in God and the Last Day and does good, they shall have their reward from their Lord. And there will be no fear for them, nor shall they grieve”, (2:62).
Among the issues about which Muslim theologians have no unanimous position is the exegetical approach to the text of the Qur’an. What can be said as far as extremist groups are concerned is that they follow the dominant exegetical trend, which gives priority to a verse ‘revealed’ at a later date in cases where there are two apparently conflicting verses. In other words, later verses abrogate earlier verses. Given that verses which carry a degree of violence and exclusiveness, are generally ‘late comers’, the Islamic extremist naturally gives priority to these rather than to any other.
Noteworthy is the fact that not all extremist individuals have the ability to read a particular verse in relationship with another. If we are to speak of an extremist exegesis this is founded, usually, on an individual or a few individual self-styled scholars who come out stressing the importance of certain verses without reading the other related ones. No wonder that extremism is fueled mainly by Friday homilies, publications of individual spiritual leaders and in our days, extremist media. The problem has to be looked at in terms of the inability of many individuals (in Islam) to read the text objectively by themselves and choose a personal way of living according to it. It is the problem of a lack of space where people can debate freely about exegetical issues.
The stress on the Jihad. Although not all extremist groups are militant groups and although differences can be traced between extremist movements and organizations, the jihad is one of those realities which are stressed by all.
From Arabic j-h-d meaning to ‘endeavor’, ‘strive’ or ‘labour’; the term is commonly used to refer to a struggle. Although struggle can be of many forms (spiritual, economic, political) extremist ideologists have tended to use the term jihad for war against all un-Islamic individuals, societies and systems. While advocates of a ‘moderate Islam’ argue that ‘Jihad’ is more of a spiritual struggle than a physical one, a number of historians agree that the concept has been frequently used to refer to that duty which is of every Muslim believer, to take action against infidels or non-believers whether these are individuals, governments or social structures.
One of the most notable ideologists of Islamic extremism, the Egyptian Sayyid Qutb who is also a pillar in the pantheon of the Muslim Brothers, put the Jihad as the most important duty of a Muslim after faith in God and belief in God’s being one (tawhid). Usama bin Laden, Ayman al-Zawahri and other leaders of Al-Qaeda affiliated movements have preached the importance of the jihad as the only way to defend Muslims and also to raise the banner of Islam in all parts of the world.
According to Islamic extremist ideologists, the concept of the jihad implies seeing the world as divided into two: the believers and the infidels; the Muslims and their enemies. With this division, there is a conflict of forces, which are competing to dominate the world. As long as Islam and the Sharia have not covered the whole extent of planet earth, the world is in a state of war and the jihad is a duty for all believers.
Failure to have an objective reading of history. Extremist groups of all religions have always had a bad relationship with history. Just as some Christian extremists find nothing worth calling true Christianity between the death of the last Apostle and the Reformation, Islamic extremist groups see ‘unbelief’ or jahliyya everywhere between themselves and the so called ‘well-guided Khalifs’. They thus have the mission to bring about an era of belief or faith, which was lost centuries ago.
Another way of reading history is to insist on a ‘golden age’ of Islam during the time of the first Khalifs. Extremist groups teach a time (past) of pure Islam and a perfect society. They fail to admit that the so-called ‘golden age’ was also a time of infighting between different factions of Islam. In fact, three of the first four Khalifs did not die a natural death, but were assassinated.
Islamic extremism writes history in such a way that Islam has always been a victim: victim of the crusades, victim of colonialism, victim of imperialism. Muslim historians, extremists or non-extremists fail to admit that if Islamic invasions went as far as Spain, it was not in defense of Islam but for expansionist motives. They have difficulty in admitting the responsibilities and injustices committed by Arabic Muslim slave traders on the African continent. (A.K.)