To some extent, this notion was as old as Islam itself, which in its classical form brooked no division of the political and religious spheres. But in practice, as Islam spread, divisions occurred. And religious law, far from being a simple set of prescriptive rules, was interpreted and elaborated by hundreds of schools of law and fur-ther tempered by local traditions and customs.
Throughout the history of Islam, however, there have been puritans who demanded a return to the purity of the earliest caliphates, no matter how mythical this pristine condition was. But no puritan reformer has been more influential than the 18th-century Arab firebrand Muhammad ibn al Wahhab (1703-92). Critical of mainstream Sunni legalism, Sufi mysticism and philosophy, and anything smacking of "innovation," he forged a crucial alliance with the Saud clan, then engaged in a struggle with the Ottoman overlords.
The critics of Wahhabism, including many prominent Sunni jurists, saw it as a crude attempt to re-Bedouinize the religion by elevating the customs and practices of the desert Arabs (such as attitudes about the covering of women) into bedrock principles of the faith. Crude as it was, however, Wahhabism endured because of its ties with the Saud clan, which only strengthened over time through mutual support and intermarriage. In 1932, when the clan was established as the royal family of Saudi Arabia, the narrow, intolerant Wahhabi strain of Islam effectively became the established religion of the kingdom. And soon, with the Saudis' growing oil wealth, the Wahhabi religious establishment became one of the most richly funded and aggressive pros-elytizing bodies in the world, spreading an intolerant version of the faith that began to compete with other more tolerant and locally inflected varieties of Islam.
But if Islamism and Wahhabism emerged in the Arab core of the Muslim world, one of the ironic turns of recent history is that political Islam fared better beyond the Arab core than in it. An Islamic republic, albeit Shiite rather than Sunni, arose in Iran in 1979, and in both Turkey and Algeria, Islamist parties became important political players (at least until the one in Algeria proved too successful and was suppressed by the military). In nations of the Arab core, by contrast, Islamists have been tolerated—and often modestly encouraged—to the extent that they posed no direct threat to the political regimes. Those individuals who take Islamist notions too seriously, including bin Laden (whose unhappiness about the Saudi kingdom's close ties with the infidel Americans is now well known), have faced exile or worse. But, as the world has learned, those outcast Islamists have learned to operate quite effectively in strange lands, whether in Afghanistan or Europe or even the United States.
Is Islamism, then, a clear and present danger—to the United States and to the world in general, including its 1.2 billion Muslims? The answer might seem obvious in light of the havoc wreaked by a band of Islamist zealots on September 11. To the extent that it nourishes and encourages fanatical hatred, it clearly is a danger. And as Johns Hopkins University international security specialist Michael Vlahos argues in his cogent study "Terror's Mask: Insurgency Within Islam," Americans must be forthright in naming their foe. It is not some nameless "terrorism," Vlahos writes, but a dangerous movement within Islam.
This Islamist insurgency is certainly not all of Islam. And in his book Jihad: The Trail of Political Islam, the French scholar Gilles Kepel makes the persuasive case that Islamism itself has split into moderate and extreme elements, with the former championing various notions of Muslim democracy and the latter resorting to violence and terrorism to bring about totalitarian theocracies. Indeed, Kepel argues that September 11 was a last-ditch effort on the part of Islamist extremists to revive their waning movement. "In spite of what many hasty commentators concluded in its aftermath," Kepel writes, "the attack on the United States was a desperate symbol of the isolation, fragmentation, and decline of the Islamist movement, not a sign of its strength and irrepressible might."