Since the Sept. 11 terror attacks nearly five years ago, Americans have come increasingly to believe that political Islam is a mortal threat to the West, an aggressive and totalitarian ideology dedicated to random destruction and global subjugation. Fueling Western fears is the migration of political Islam into tiny, but important, communities of Muslims living in Europe. The victory by Hamas in Palestinian parliamentary elections and the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt reinforced perceptions that political Islam is inexorably on the march.
Some American commentators have called for an all-out war against all manifestations of political Islam. Disentangling myth from reality about this movement, whose goal is to establish governments based on sharia, Koranic law, is an intellectual challenge fraught with difficulties. Here are five facts to consider:
Fact 1: The political Islamist movement is highly complex and diverse. It encompasses a broad spectrum of mainstream and militant forces. Mainstream Islamists - that is, Muslim Brothers and other independent activists - represent an overwhelming majority of religiously oriented groups (in the upper 90th percentile, whereas militants or jihadists are a tiny but critical minority); they accept the rules of the political game, embrace democratic principles, and oppose violence.
In the 1940s, 1950s, and 1960s the Muslim Brotherhood - the most powerfully organized of all Islamists, with local branches in the Arab Middle East and Central and South and Southeast Asia - flirted with violence. But since the early 1970s Muslim Brothers have increasingly moved to the political mainstream, and aim to Islamize state and society through peaceful means. Although Muslim Brothers are often targeted and excluded from politics by ruling autocrats, they no longer use force or the threat of force to attain their goals.
Fact 2: Mainstream and enlightened Islamists are playing an active role in expanding political debate in Muslim societies. They have forced existing secular dictatorships - such as those in Egypt, Tunisia, Morocco, Algeria, Turkey, Jordan, and even Saudi Arabia - to respond to their challenge to open up the closed political system and reform government institutions. Without such pressure, these authoritarian Arab rulers would have no incentive to respond to demands for inclusion and transparency.
Historic opponents of Western-style democracy, Islamists have become unwitting harbingers of democratic transformation. They formed alliances with their former sworn political opponents, including secularists and Marxists, in calling upon governments to respect human rights and the rule of law.
Mainstream or traditional Islamists are not born-again democrats and never will be. They are deeply patriarchal, seeing themselves as the guardians of faith, tradition, and authenticity. In Kuwait and Saudi Arabia, Islamists have vehemently opposed efforts to give women the right to vote or to drive cars. In Egypt, Morocco, Jordan, Tunisia, Algeria, Pakistan, and other Muslim countries, they denounce any legislation that would enable women to divorce abusive husbands, travel without male permission, or achieve full representation in government.
Nonetheless, many Islamists are gradually becoming initiated into the culture of political realism and the art of the possible. They are learning to make compromises with secular groups and rethink some of their absolutist positions. Events have forced them to come to grips with the complexity and diversity of Muslim societies. More and more, they recognize the primacy of politics over religion and the difficulty, even futility, of establishing Islamic states.
Fact 3: There is a tendency among Western observers to stress the "Islamic" factor in Muslim politics. Most Muslim governments are secular and hostile to political Islam and Islamists.
Governments which claim to be "Islamic," such as the Islamic Republic of Iran, the Sudan, and, formerly, Afghanistan under the Taliban, though fully clothed in Islamic dress, have much in common with their secular authoritarian counterparts elsewhere. There is nothing uniquely "Islamic" about their internal governing style except the rhetoric and the symbolism. They have not offered up an original model of Islamic governance. Political Islam is more an ideal type than a concrete, well-delineated sociopolitical program. Once in power, Islamists face a Herculean task of coping with political reality. Their ideal model of an Islamic state does not translate into the concrete currency of jobs and bread and butter.
Fact 4: Mainstream Islamists may serve as a counterweight to ultramilitants like Al Qaeda. Immediately after Sept. 11, leading mainstream Islamists - such as Hassan al-Turabi, formerly head of the Islamic National Front and now of People's Congress in Sudan who, in the early 1990s, hosted Osama bin Laden and Sayyed Mohammed Hussein Fadlallah (spiritual founding father of Lebanon's Hizbullah) - condemned Al Qaeda's Sept. 11 attacks on the United States as harmful to Islam and Muslims, not just to Americans.
Youssef al-Qardawi, an Egyptian-born conservative Islamic cleric based in Qatar, issued a fatwa denouncing Al Qaeda's "illegal jihad" and expressed sorrow and empathy with the American victims: "Our hearts bleed because of the attacks that have targeted the World Trade Center, as well as other institutions in the United Stated." Mr. Qardawi, who is widely listened to and read by a huge Muslim audience, wrote that the murders in New York could not be justified on any ground, including "the American biased policy toward Israel on the military, political, and economic fronts."
Little wonder why Al Qaeda's leaders, including bin Laden, Ayman al-Zawahiri, and Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, often attack mainstream Islamists and accuse them of treachery.
Fact 5: Like their secular counterparts, Islamists are deeply divided over tactics and strategy. They do not see eye to eye on the pressing issues facing their communities and societies. Lumping all Islamists together is not only simplistic but also false. The depth and intensity of internal fault lines within the Islamist and jihadist movements are very real.
These internal fault lines are as important, if not more so, than the so-called clash of cultures or religions between the Christian West and the world of Islam. Instead of a clash of civilization, there exists a clash of fundamentalism - tiny minorities in both camps who are beating the drums of a cultural war.
• Fawaz A. Gerges, author of the recent "Journey of the Jihadist: Inside Muslim Militancy," is a Carnegie scholar.