Updated December 1, 2011
The term 'Islamism' is used regularly today in describing Islamic extremist groups such as Hamas, Hezbollah, and al-Qaeda. Many, therefore, have come to think of the term in this simple context only: that Islamism is the same as Islamic extremism or radicalism. It is not.
In his testimony to the U.S. Senate, Maajid Nawaz, a former leader for the global Islamist extremist group Hizb ut-Tahrir, described four beliefs that all Islamists, or followers of Islamism, generally share: 1) "Islam is a political ideology rather than a religionâ€¦. there must be an Islamic solution to everything"; 2) "Sharia[h] religious code, which is a personal code of conduct, must become state law"; 3) The "Ummah, or the Muslim global community" is "a political identity rather than a religious identity"; and 4) The political ideology with its laws (Sharia) and global community (ummah) is "represented by an expansionist state, and that is the Caliphate."
Islamists believe that the destruction of the Islamic Caliphate and fall of Islam as a world power resulted from Muslims turning away from the early teachings of the religion and adopting a more Western and secular way of life. Therefore, a return to the original teachings and traditions of the faithâ€”as outlined in the Quran and by the writings and way of life during the time of the Rightly Guided Caliphs (632-1258)â€”is seen as the only way to restore Islam's standing and dominance in, or rule over, the world. Moreover, Islamism holds that the teachings of Islam should be applied to every aspect of life; Islam is viewed as a complete system.
The goal of Islamism is to "Islamize" the globe through "conquest of the world" just as parts of the world were conquered by Islam under the Prophet Muhammad in the 600s and later by the Islamic empires. However, Islamists differ in their methods on how to reach this goal: Political Islamists believe in working within the system, for example through the ballot box, to bring about their desired reality; revolutionary Islamists seek to overthrow the Middle Eastern regimes through infiltrating the militaries and staging coups; and militant Islamists, or jihadists, advocate an all-out armed struggle against the status quo, being current Muslim regimes and the Western World. The last type of Islamist depends heavily on terrorist tactics.
The Islamist ideology prevalent today finds its roots in the teachings of Hassan al-Banna, founder of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood in 1928. The Brotherhood under al-Banna was the first organization in the post-World War I eraâ€”which witnessed the end of any type of Muslim rule across the globe for the first time in over one thousand yearsâ€”to advocate a return to Islam by adopting Sharia and eliminating Western influences from the Middle East, which includes eliminating the Jewish people from what al-Banna saw as Muslim land, through violent and political jihad.
For al-Banna, the goal of the Brotherhood was to Islamize Egypt from the bottom-upâ€”through social work and education, known as da'waâ€”before establishing Islamic governments, first in Egypt and then throughout the Muslim World, which would rule according to Sharia. Following such an accomplishment, the next step would be the unification of these regimes to form a modern-day Caliphate. Finally, upon the Caliphate's creation, the goal would be to take control over all land that was at one time in history under Muslim control, and then over the globe, erasing boundaries and instilling Muslim dominance over all peoples. This remains the goal, and pathway towards it, for many Islamists today.
The Muslim Brotherhood's ideology, with its acceptance of jihad and goal of reasserting Muslim dominance over the world order, is the foundation of modern Islamic extremism and the model used by almost all of today's Sunni terrorist groups. Many of the world's most dangerous extremistsâ€”such as Sayyid Qutb (the so-called "father of uncompromising militant Islam"), Abdullah Azzam, and Ayman al-Zawahiriâ€”were either members of, or closely associated with, the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood. Moreover, the Brotherhood spawned various Islamist movements in the region, many bearing the same name but some even more radical such as the Palestinian Islamic Jihad, which today operates in Gaza, Egypt's Jamaat al-Islamiyyaâ€”one of the group's responsible for assassinating Egyptian President Anwar al-Sadat in 1981, Hamas, and even al-Qaeda.
Today's Islamist extremists mostly follow the work of Sayyid Qutb, a one-time Egyptian Muslim Brother. Drawing from the work of Ibn Taymiyah (1263-1328), Muhammad 'Abduh (1849-1905), and Rashid Rida (1865-1935), Qutb separated himself from al-Banna by suggesting Islamizing society from the top-down. To him, "a revolutionary vanguard" should impose an Islamic state onto Egypt through violence, which would then Islamize Egyptian society and eventually the world by exporting the Islamic revolution. Qutb's greatest influence on the Islamist ideology was his analysis of modern society. Qutb asserted that all modern societies, even Muslim ones, existed in jahiliyyaâ€”the state of ignorance before Islam spread under the Prophet Muhammadâ€”and therefore launching violent jihad is not only justified against all societies in order to extend the rule of "real Islam," but is a religious obligation for all Muslims as well. Many of the active Islamic extremist groups today use Qutb's work as justification for their terrorist attacks and murder of Muslims and non-Muslims alike.
 Maajid Nawaz, "The Roots of Violent Islamist Extremism and Efforts to Counter It," Testimony before the U.S. Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs, S. Hrg. 110-942 (July 10, 2008): 6-7.
 Are Knudsen, "Political Islam in the Middle East," Chr. Michelsen Institute, CMI Report R (2003: 3): 1.
 Mehdi Mozaffari, "What is Islamism? History and Definition of a Concept," Totalitarian Movements and Political Religions, Vol. 8, No. 1 (2007): 21-4.
 Nawaz, "The Roots of Violent Islamist Extremism," 7-8.
 Steven Emerson, "Report on the Roots of Violent Islamist Extremism and Efforts to Counter It: The Muslim Brotherhood" (report submitted to the Hearing before the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs, S. Hrg. 110-942, July 10, 2008): 105.
 Ibid., 104.
 Ibid., 105.
 Andrew McGregor, "'Jihad and the Rifle Alone': 'Abdullah 'Azzam and the Islamist Revolution," The Journal of Conflict Studies (Fall 2003): 93.
 Daniel Ungureanu, "Sayyid Qutb's Ideological Influence On Contemporary Muslim Communities Across Western Europe," International Journal of Philosophy of Culture and Axiology, Vol. VII, No. 2 (2010): 182-5.