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The term Islamic fundamentalists commonly refers to groups who seek to promote the role of Islam in political, social, and economic life, and who contend the necessity of establishing an Islamic state based on Islamic sharia law. The term Islamic extremists, in contrast, refers to fundamentalist groups who operate outside the law and espouse violence to attain political power.
Islamic fundamentalist movements in the Middle East and North Africa claim to represent a periphery whose political recognition and economic interests have been excluded by incompetent, corrupt, and authoritarian pro-Western regimes. The sluggish performance of these states vis-à-vis the demands of civil society for greater political participation and socioeconomic equality has led many disenfranchised young people to support Islamic fundamentalist movements as a mode of protest. The limited ability of modern nation-states to overcome these domestic problems has become increasingly acute as a result of fiscal restrictions on their redistributive capacities in the era of globalization. In addition, Islamic fundamentalist movements view the globalization process as an imperialist plot to pollute their countries with Western businesses and consumption patterns, and to impose painful adjustment reforms arranged by international financial institutions. Moreover, these fundamentalist movements are often motivated by political grievances with what they consider to be inconsistent U.S. foreign policy toward the Islamic world.
Islamic fundamentalist movements often use populist rhetoric laced with anti-Western attitudes, and they rely on previously mobilized Islamic mission-oriented groups who have not benefited from open-door economic policies. Islamic fundamentalists perceive their relationship with the incompetent pro-Western regimes as a zero-sum game. In the majority of cases, these movements occupy part of the political space as important countermovements or sources of opposition to existing authoritarian (and mostly secularist) regimes, and as such they have enjoyed relative legitimacy. The tyrannical states, in turn, have responded with security crackdowns and tougher regimentation measures, and in so doing have pushed moderates toward more radical positions. The polarization between Islamic fundamentalist movements and their countries’ incumbent regimes has been growing since the mid-1980s as the globalization process has deepened.
Historically, Muslim responses to the challenge of Western colonialism have affected the current tension between Islamic movements and the regimes under which they operate. The colonial era resulted in the incorporation of the countries of the Middle East and North Africa into the capitalist world system, and in the consolidation of internally bureaucratic and externally territorial states. The colonial legacy also contributed to the deficient nature of state building and capitalist development in the region. The most problematic legacy from the colonial era is overdeveloped states coupled with underdeveloped social structures. The state apparatus during the colonial period was not created by national bourgeoisie but by foreign colonial administrators who inflated the size of the bureaucratic machine, especially its military and security sectors, to serve the colonialists’ own purposes and to confront any possible resistance. The rulers of the postcolonial states produced much the same type of effect via the creation of authoritarian systems with a lopsided size of state to society features but without a hegemonic and independent social class. Furthermore, under the forms of capitalism artificially established, the state role has been even more exaggerated in order to promote delayed capitalist development in the name of national interest. In such circumstances, social classes are excessively dependent on the state, and the absolute primacy of the state resulted in an embryonic class structure in these countries immediately after their independence.
Most governments in the Middle East and North Africa are characterized by a coercive security apparatus, a lack of legitimacy, and inefficient administration. They also tend to be nondemocratic, despite their differing or even contradictory ideological bases. When these states’ attempts at capitalist development were undertaken by a small group of crony capitalists operating within a rigid bureaucracy, the military and security sectors resorted to raw coercion, and they repressed Islamic fundamentalist movements in order to preserve their invested interests. Although the state is supreme, the society is primordial and indeterminate in terms of its economic and political functions. The primacy of the state has in fact hindered the development of Islamic fundamentalist movements in the Middle East and North Africa, and most Islamist movements in the region have not developed organizational strength. They have, however, exhibited greater militancy toward the state and less coordination with civil society, which has resulted in greater repression by the state. Although exclusion and repression by the authoritarian states helped forge a sense of solidarity in Islamic society, the fundamentalist movements have exhibited a lack of centralized bargaining power at the national level. Islamist fundamentalist groups tend to push their own agendas regardless of the deleterious consequences for civil society as a whole, which has ultimately caused them to become more marginalized.
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