The major players in the Islamic fundamentalist movement have all emerged from similar circumstances of displacement, occupation, and social upheaval. Whether the group be Hamas, Hezbollah, or the Taliban they all arose from modern political struggles teamed with a desire for the establishment of a traditional Islamic state. Given the dual structure of Islam as both a state/empire and a religious community/ideology it is not surprising that such a desire would present itself throughout these different groups. The Prophet Muhammad founded Islam as not only a religion but a nation, replete with rules of political and religious governance; that his most hard-line followers would use this as a basis for holy war should not be surprising.
The idea of unity between the two, religion and state has been a motivating factor in the Islamic fundamentalist desire for an Islamic state. In many Muslim dominated countries religion is large political factor (Lewis. B. 2003. p. 49) and has been throughout their history. In this respect the groups use the population’s own desires to further their objective, creating a movement out of their oppression. Writer, Bernard Lewis explains in his book The Crisis of Islam, “for the formative first generations of Muslims, whose adventures are the sacred history of Islam, there was no protracted testing by persecution, no tradition of resistance to a hostile state power. On the contrary, the state that ruled them was that of Islam, and God’s approval of this cause was made clear to them in the forms of victory” (2003. p. 38). This is what the fundamentalist hope to regain through their continued terrorist campaigns; to these groups religion is politics. As Ayatollah Khomeini said, “Islam is politics or it is nothing” (qtd. In Lewis, B. 2003. p. 39).
Each of the groups discussed here are similar to Khomeini and each other in their exercise of politically motivated religious campaigns. Though separated in some cases along sects lines, the Taliban is largely Sunni in nature while Hezbollah identifies more closely with the Shiite sect, their initial motivations are the same and their means of carrying out their agendas share many common factors including martyrdom and taking hostages. Their shared hatred of the West and Israel, provides room for intersecting agendas to eradicate Western influence and remove Israel as a national threat.
Though not the oldest of the groups, Hamas is the closest to the Israel-Palestine conflict that is a standing point of many fundamentalist groups ideologies. Formally named, Al-Harakah Al-Muqawama Al-Islamiya (the Islamic Resistance Movement), Hamas was established on December 14, 1987 as a result of the Palestinian uprising dubbed the Intifadah “as a means of channeling the rage and efforts of the first Intifadah toward the liberation of all Palestine and the creation of an Islamic state in its place” (Aboul-Enein, Y. 2003. p. 65). Unlike other Palestinian groups, Hamas sought to fight the Palestinian-Israeli conflict on religious terms, simultaneously combating the Israeli occupation and the Palestine National movement (Armstrong. K. 2000. p. 352).
Although behind violent suicide bombings and other attacks on Israel, the group also established social services, schools, health care facilities in the Palestinian community. As Lt. Comm. Youssef Aboul-Enein of the U.S. Navy explains, “The Hamas tactic offers a quasi-state and helps endear the population to Hamas, as well as providing a source of recruitment” (2003. p. 65). Unlike the Taliban, which operated from their own interpretations of the Quranic scripture and shia law, Hamas operates much more like a government. As analyst Shaul Mishal explains, “it operates in a context of opportunities and constraints, conflicting interests, and cost-benefit considerations, and is attentive to the fluctuating needs and desires of the Palestinian population and cognizant of power relations and political feasibility” (2003. p. 570).
Without effective representation from other key figures in the Palestinian debate, the people have turned to Hamas as a governing body and the group has responded in kind effectively taking control of Gaza in June 2008 (“The Wandering Palestinian.” 2008. p. 57). With 1.5 million people living within the area’s 146 square miles (“The Wandering Palestinian.” 2008. p. 59), many in poverty and unable to access international humanitarian aid, it is not difficult to see more fuel for the Hamas fire being produced. It is unlikely that Hamas will disband even after its demands are met; now so entrenched in Palestinian society’s framework, if not for their terrorist activities they would most closely resemble a political party.
Most similar to Hamas in its ideological construction and shared enemy, Hezbollah has been an ongoing presence in Lebanon and the middle east for decades. Formed in Lebanon in the 1980s by Lebanese supporters of Iran’s Ayatollah Khomeini and members of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps, it is one of the longest standing Islamic fundamentalist groups (Darling, D. 2006). Before September 11, 2001 and the deaths resulting from the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center, the group retained responsibility for more American deaths than any other terrorist organization (Darling, D. 2006).
Hezbollah, also known as the Party of God, first became visible in 1985 with an “Open Letter” defining its movement. According to the letter, the group aimed to define itself “as a struggle movement of faithful Lebanese who believe in Islam, resistance and liberation of the land” (Saab, B. Fall 2008. p. 94). Hezbollah has continually asserted its ideology and political ideals through public documents, stressing its goal of establishing an Islamic Republic, not unlike Iran (Saab, B. Fall 2008. p. 95). Unlike groups like the Taliban though, Hezbollah’s objectives are to establish the republic through popular consensus and legitimate political involvement (Saab B. Fall 2008. p. 95). Hezbollah draws strongly on the religious ideologies of Shia Islam, adoption and application of wilayat al faqih as a governing authority, and jihad. Their primary argument in favor of an Islamic system based in classical Shia interpretation of the Quran, is the view that it is the “only system of governance capable of guaranteeing justice, liberty and security for all” (Saab, B. Fall 2008. p. 95).
Throughout its existence, the group has made multiple inroads into the politics of Lebanon. Operating much like a political party within the larger nation-state, the group has promoted its ideology to the whole of Lebanon through a political agenda. Through social and economic programs within the Shia community, it has also become a large player in the religious community. In certain areas of Lebanon, Hezbollah’s dominance has led to the establishment of Islamic order consisting of the imposition and exercise of Islamic law. As Saab explains, “Unlike the Taliban’s almost medieval system of governance, Hezbollah’s Islamic state embraces a conception of modernity that integrates material and spiritual progress. In this vision, Islam and development go hand in hand, and in fact promote one another” (Fall 2008. p. 97).
Hezbollah has made itself an exception in comparison to the Taliban, Hamas, and other fundamentalist groups, as one of the primary political strategies of the organization has been a ban on the use of arms against the ruling Lebanese government and the general public (Saab, B. Fall 2008. p. 93). Aware of the public perception of such acts against Lebanon, the group has worked with few exceptions to aim its violence at the outside. In May 2008, the group betrayed this long held tenet of operations and waged a two week campaign on the streets of Beirut. In an essay for the Middle East Peace Council, writer Bilal Saab notes that this confrontation, caused by Lebanese directives to limit the group’s military strength, had severe drawbacks for the group, “Hezbollah today scores very low on the popularity scale in Lebanon. More political actors and parties now genuinely distrust and fear the Shia group and view it as the only remaining obstacle to the process of state rebuilding and democracy consolidation” (Fall 2008. p. 94).
Though Hezbollah’s means within Lebanon are controlled and unusual in the face of other fundamentalist groups, the group’s views of Western culture and the state of Israel are highly illustrative of the fundamentalist stance concerning the two. Using strategies all too familiar in the scope of jihadist tactics, Hezbollah has aimed its military power largely against eliminating any foreign presence in Lebanon. Through use of suicide operations, guerilla warfare, and hostages they have continually warred against the U.S. and Israel in particular (Saab, B. Fall 2008. p. 97). For a decade, from 1990-2000, the group focused much of its military resources against Israel in attempting to force them from the southern part of Lebanon. Following this there was a brief period of pseudo-peace between the two, as Hezbollah limited its use of terrorism to cases “when the organization felt that Israel had overreached” (Saab, B. Fall 2008. p. 98). During this time, much of the group’s initiatives were toward strengthening their political objectives and presence. In view of Hezbollah’s primary objectives of a ruling Islamic power structure though, the peace with Israel was short-lived once again coming to a head in 2006 with yet another major military offensive.
Militarily at least, these conflicts have had little effect on the organization, with an estimated 4,000 active fighters and more weapons, Hezbollah has only increased in strength (Saab, B. Fall 2008. p. 98). However, it’s decreasing popularity among the average Lebanese may accomplish what the Israeli army has failed to do, subdue the group’s militancy. By turning its militia against the Lebanese people in May 2008, they created a pervasive strain of distrust in their objectives and loyalty to the people. Hezbollah, like the Taliban and Hamas grew out of strife within its respective country; when the conflict was created by outsiders impeding Lebanese rights, Hezbollah could be viewed in a perspective of being for the people. By turning the violence inward, they created terror in the very people whom they wish to appeal to. Like the Taliban, first greeted with relief and open arms after the oppression of the Soviet Union and the disordered violence following Afghanistan’s liberation from communism, Hezbollah’s violence has created a rift between its fundamentalist objectives and the average Lebanese Muslim.
The Taliban, though only emerging in 1994, grew out of Afghanistan’s troubled and turbulent modern history. Following the withdraw of the Soviet Union in 1989, Afghanistan saw itself divided by civil war (Rashid, A. 1999. p. 24). The Taliban came at an opportune time for a fundamentalist movement, as writer Ahmed Rashid explained in his 1999 report on the Taliban, “Into the political vacuum left by 20 years of war and the collapse of stable government has marched a new generation of violent fundamentalists, nurtured and inspired by the Taliban’s unique Islamist mode” (p.22). Unlike Hezbollah and Hamas, the Taliban has not been prolific in issuing statements or creeds for the movement, rather they exerted their control and intentions through extreme social mandates and increasingly violent means.
The civil war placed the majority Pushtuns, of which the Taliban were members, against ethnic minorities in northern Afghanistan (Rashid, A. 1999. p. 24). Initially the group of religious students presented themselves as a positive alternative to the status quo and made quick progress in the central and eastern parts of the country and controlled approximately one-third of the country by 1995 (Goodson, L. 2001. p. 77). Having lived as refugees in Pakistan, they “vowed to bring peace to Afghanistan, establish law and order, disarm the population and impose sharia (Islamic law)” (Rashid, A. 1999. p. 24). To the war weary Afghans, particularly their fellow Pushtuns, the Taliban were instantly popular and must have seemed a gift from God. By September 1996, they had taken Kabul pushing its government to the north (Goodson, L. 2001. p. 78).
The Taliban is the only one of the three organizations discussed that did not receive strong support from Iran from the time of its inception. As a perverted version of Deobandism, a branch of Sunni Islam, the Taliban was in opposition of the Shiite ruled authority of Iran (Rashid, A. 1999. p. 26). Instead, from 1997 until 1999 when the Taliban came under pressure from the United States and the United Nations for its support and protection of Osama Bin Laden, the Taliban saw a large amount of its financial support coming from Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emigrates (Goodson, L. 2001. p. 80). However, following the ousting of the Nawaz Sharif government in Pakistan which lessened the countries official ties to the group, the Taliban attempted to strengthen its ties with Iran in order to continue trade (Goodson, L. 2001. p. 83).
By 2000, the Taliban were fully entrenched in the political and economic policies of the country and Afghanistan experienced its first time of peace in 22 years (Goodson, L. 2001. p. 86). The term peace, however, is applied loosely. Historically though Afghanistan was a religious and lifestyle tolerant nation, the Taliban continued the separations propagated by the civil war and added their own. As writer, Larry Goodson explains, “Ethnic and sectarian differences have been deepened by the Taliban’s successes and the atrocities that have occurred” (2001. p. 86), best illustrated by the Taliban’s continued campaigns against Hazara minority. Despite frequent clashes with the Hazara and other ethnic minorities working as part of the Northern Alliance, by 2001 90-97% of the country’s territories were controlled by the extremist group and their army had grown to as many as 45,000 fighters (Goodson, L. 2001. p. 85).
Despite the Taliban’s fall from power and decrease in ranks, they still remain a dangerous and strong presence in Afghanistan. The group continues to utilize the despair of the Afghan people to further its support in the country, which even now shows a permanent presence of the Taliban in 54% of the country (2008. Afghanistan Decision Point 2008). The Taliban, like Hamas, fills the gaps where the traditional government fails to provide aid or support to the people. Afghans, impoverished and in the midst of decades of violence, are disillusioned with the current government and the U.S.’s efforts to end the violence and restore stability (2008. Afghanistan Decision Point 2008). They are not seeing results, and just as they did in 1994, some people are still turning to the Taliban to represent their interests.
Each of these groups share similarities and differences. A major unifying factor among the groups is their hatred of the West and Israel, though the degree and applications have varied. Hamas, as a group operating within Palestine and as a reaction to Israeli government policy towards Palestine, has the deepest hatred against Israel. However, like Hezbollah which has fought its own bloody battle with Israel over territory, Hamas has attempted to maneuver itself as a political as well as militant vehicle in Palestinian-Israeli relations. Largely defined by violence, Hamas has like Hezbollah participated in negotiations with Israel. The Taliban’s conflict with Israel, on the other hand, is one of association. Like other terrorist organizations, such as al Qaeda, they oppose Israel due to its actions toward Palestine and have not fought them within their own territorial boundaries. Western influence and U.S. support of Israel is also a major basis to these fundamentalist groups’ hatred toward the West. Also, of importance in the Islamic fundamentalist view of the West, is the role in which the U.S. is cast. As Bernard Lewis explains, “Fundamentalists are anti-Western in the sense that they regard the West as a source of Evil that is corroding Muslim society” (2003. p. 59). As with each though, their main concentration of effort has been towards the ruling parties of their own countries.
All of these groups, emerged at critical points in their respective national histories and have used the conflict to build their numbers. Hezbollah was a reaction to the ongoing occupation of Lebanon by Israel and an extension of Iran’s agenda of an Islamic state. Due to their concentration on not only military campaigns but also social and political campaign, they have been able to garner support and limited autonomy within Lebanon. Their recent violence toward the state may turn back the tide on their ability to remain a player in Lebanese politics but Tehran’s support of the group is still strong. Hamas found itself created out of the 1987 intifadah, an explosive and bloody chapter in Palestinian history. Their support among Palestinians has only grown as the years go by without peaceful and mutually beneficial resolution. Similar to Hezbollah, Hamas has also become a social advocate for the Palestinian struggle, providing assistance within the community. The Taliban drew heavily on the fractured nature of Afghanistan during the civil war. Their message of unity and traditional governance based on religious principal, was a welcome relief to a large portion of the Afghan people. Their notion of jihad seemed an obvious solution. It was not until they had firmly established a foothold that the discrepancies between normal conservative Islamic principal and the perverted notions of the Taliban became evident.
The Taliban, the most heavy handed and non-forgiving of the groups, still retains a base in Afghanistan and continually contributes to insurgent campaigns against the U.S. and NATO soldiers. Their policies, as a governing body, were so entrenched in outdated social codes and misinterpretation of Islamic scripture that it is difficult to foresee them regaining the same control they had in 2001 before the fall of their regime. However, Hezbollah and Hamas still continue to show strides in the political arena. Though compromised by their actions in May, Hezbollah has years of established contacts and conduct in the political sphere of Lebanon to remain influential. Their use of violence, though alienating to larger society, is still able to provide them with insurance against state led retaliation. Their success in campaigns against Israel, which contrary to intention have not lessened their military capacity, have illustrated their strength. As for Hamas, as long as the Israel-Palestine conflict continues they are ensured support. Even as the different groups practices’ have gained notoriety and they’re presence inspired fear within their countries, their promises and assistance still ring hopeful to some. As long as they represent any form of hope, regardless of their violent means or alienating rhetoric, they will continue to find recruits and supporters among the people.
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