Small Wars Journal

A Genealogy of Egyptian Islamic Radicalism

Mon, 03/17/2014 - 5:08am

A Genealogy of Egyptian Islamic Radicalism

Shawn Green

From Egypt in recent years have emerged a number of individuals and groups with radical political and social views derived from Islam. These people include Sayyid Qutb, Muhammad Abd al-Salam Faraj, a leader in the Islamic Jihad, and Ayman al-Zawahiri of al-Qaeda infamy.

However, it is the intention of this essay to argue that these radical individuals and groups are not the product of perennial characteristics of Islam. Instead, it will be put forward that today’s radical Islamic groups and figures are the result of colonialism and post-colonial political, societal and economic policies and the spread of Western ideals.

Before Egypt gained independence it was dominated by the British. This humiliation plus social change and economic dishevelment brought about the establishment of the Muslim Brotherhood by Hasan al-Banna. This organisation and its leader then became influential during ensuing turbulent times. Following WW2 the Muslim Brotherhood suffered at the hands of the Egyptian Government as it embarked on social reform. However, these reforms only brought about greater issues. From this period emerged Sayyid Qutb and his radical views. Qutb was gaoled and eventually executed by the Sadat regime for his beliefs and actions. What resulted from Qutb’s ideas and subsequent execution was further radicalisation of fringe groups and individuals. One of these individuals was Muhammad Abd al-Salam Faraj, who espoused the struggle against the ‘near enemy.’ Both Qutb and Faraj inspired the likes of Ayman al-Zawahiri, who wields much influence over today’s global Salafi jihadist movement.

First discussed in this paper will be colonial Egypt and the political, social and economic issues that lead to the formation of the Muslim Brotherhood.

This will be followed by the period up until the al-Nasser Government. Examined third is the life and ideas of Sayyid Qutb. Discussed fourth are the Islamic militants that were influenced by the above events, organisations and individuals.

The period of European exploration and colonisation in large parts of the Islamic world has greatly contributed to the rise of Islamic activism and militancy. This is because what was packaged up with European colonisation was the newly minted political and social organisational concept called the nation-state, and at the core of the nation-state is secularism. For some Muslims, secular activity means a deviation from the norm (Azzam 2006, p. 1120).

In the last decades of the nineteenth century, European powers expanded into further territories and looked to secure their current foreign possessions. In this period, Egypt was under British rule (Cleveland & Bunton 2009, pp. 103 104). The British not only shaped Egypt socially through the spread of secular activity, but also economically as well, as the British were determined to ‘advance’ Egypt. They attempted to do this economically by concentrating on agricultural production. By the 1880s this policy had been largely successful. However, with the rise of material standards came cut backs. The British rolled back spending on a wide spread state-sponsored education system for financial, and political reasons. What was to replace the old system was a new Western secular system only available to newly enriched elites, who would be imbued with western ideals and could then ‘advance,’ the country (Cleveland & Bunton 2009, pp. 104-106).

Policies such as these brought anti-British sentiment and many started to highlight Egypt’s Islamic roots and it being part of the Islamic world, not Europe. In this charged atmosphere an international recession hit, which hurt Egypt badly. So, in the lead up to WW1 opposition to British rule was loud but primarily of a nationalist nature (Cleveland & Bunton 2009, pp. 107-109).

Post WW1, there was an uprising against British rule, which lead the British to agree to some, but not full independence for Egypt. After a constitution was drawn up, elections were held that were won by the Wafd party. However, by the 1920s problems such as, British control, a flawed constitution and political parties with no respect for a democracy, all resulted in a politically chaotic Egypt. This meant that societal issues were not being addressed (Cleveland & Bunton 2009, pp. 193-197).

Adding to the turbulence after the uprising were Egyptian intellectual elites. They asserted that laws created by man are superior to those of god. The same intellectuals declared that Islamic culture was dead and responsible for Egypt’s ‘decline,’ and that Western civilisation was superior and the only way for the country to ‘advance.’

For the next decade, Wafd liberal secular government policies went after anything Islamic (Moaddel 2005, pp. 209-211). Out of the above developments came Hasan al-Banna and the Muslim Brotherhood.

The Muslim Brotherhood was established in 1928 by a devout 22 year old named Hasan al-Banna. During his formative years, al-Banna was alarmed at the moral standards of Egypt, which he blamed on Western ideals. He wrote that after WW1 ‘a tide of atheism and lewdness overtook Egypt… devastated religion and morality. Nothing could stop the storm.’ This view and continued Egyptian humiliation at the hands of the British, and deepening inequality, guided al-Banna’s decision to start the Muslim Brotherhood (Calvert 2010, pp. 81 82).

The deeply conservative religious ideology of the Brotherhood drives mainly from the Wahhabist movement of Saudi Arabia. Though the Brotherhood’s ideology does have mystical elements embedded in it due to early Sufi influences (Calvert 2010, p. 83).

Al-Banna believed that Western influence had to be resisted and that the political and social revival of Egypt could only come by way of restoring Islam to the centre of Egyptian life, which meant ousting secular law and replacing it with the Shari’ah (Clelveland & Bunton 2009, p. 199). To realise this goal there had to be cultural revivalism, so the Brotherhood established a boys youth movement that instilled masculine concepts such as bravery and chivalry into young men. Through cultural development and grass roots mobilisation the Brotherhood believed they could restore Islam to its rightful spot (Calvert 2010, p. 83 84).      

Even though al-Banna publicly detested European socio-political ideologies, much of the discourse and ideas produced by al-Banna and the Brotherhood in the 1930s resembled the arguments and beliefs of growing anti-liberal, anti-democratic and anti-capitalist movements in Europe in the 1930s. Also, Al-Banna’s distaste for liberal, secular policies such as roles for woman in the public domain, and the mixing of sexes, was so intense that he equated these policies to a disease (Moaddel 2005, pp. 210 213).

In the 30s the Muslim Brotherhood was an apolitical Islamic organisation that provided social services and private debates on moral reform. It also concentrated on recruitment.

In this period the Brotherhood grew quickly and it is estimated that it had between 50,000 to 150,000 members in its three hundred branches (Munson 2001, p. 488).

There are a number of theories on how the Muslim Brotherhood attracted such numbers so quickly and became such a strong, influential organisation.

The first explanation is that the Brotherhood offered a traditional identity and the displacement of aggression while Egypt was in a period of great social change. Relative group depravation is another theory (Munson 2001, pp. 490 491). Though Munson (2001, pp. 494 495) offers his own explanation for the Brotherhood’s popularity. He argues that it is a case of political opportunity due to the presence of the British in Egypt, the decline in legitimacy of the Wafd party, and the anger over the intention and then creation of the state of Israel.

In 1941 the Brotherhood entered the political fray by entering candidates in that year’s election while also holding large demonstrations that called for the expulsion of the British and social reform. This lead to the Brotherhood being banned and its leaders including al-Banna being imprisoned. However, with the onset of WW2 the British were preoccupied with other matters, so released Brotherhood leaders.

During WW2 the Brotherhood flourished. It produced multiple publications and continued to organise large demonstrations. The Brotherhood also established its own paramilitary wing to further its cause through political violence (Munson 2001, pp. 488 489).

The justification for creating a paramilitary wing was that al-Banna believed jihad was not just the attempt and process to purify the inner self. The inner struggle to supress and discard the ‘baser elements’ of an individual’s soul for al-Banna, is a direct reflection of the struggle to supress and discard the ‘baser elements’ of humanity. Both the soul and humanity must be purified and if necessary by force, so as to bring about a society as intended by God. He believed and agreed with others that Muhammad considered the use of force to bring about purification the lesser of the two jihads, but he added that this does not mean it should be neglected (Heck 2004, p. 99).

By 1949 the Muslim Brotherhood had grown in strength considerably. It is believed that the organisation had anywhere between 300,000 to 600,000 members in over two thousand branches (Munson 2001, pp. 488 489).

This build up by the Brotherhood coincided with political and economic developments post WW2, where there was rising frustration with ruling elites due to the growing disparity between the haves and the have nots.

Though some social welfare policies were implemented by post war governments, they did little to alleviate social issues, so grievances grew. In this volatile atmosphere, militant members of the Brotherhood went on a violent campaign targeting foreigners and their businesses, and what militants believed were complicit government officials (Cleveland & Bunton 2009, pp. 302 303).

In response to militant violence, the Egyptian Government banned the Brotherhood and its leaders were once again imprisoned. In retaliation, the Brotherhood assassinated Prime Minister al-Nuqrashi. To continue the cycle of violence, two months after the assassination of al-Nuqrashi, it is presumed (Munson 2001, p. 489) that Egyptian security forces had a hand in the murder al-Banna.

The death of al-Banna closed a chapter on the Muslim Brotherhood story, and symbolised the chaos and disarray that had engulfed Egyptian political and social life in that period (Cleveland & Bunton 2009, p. 303), from which, the likes of Sayyid Qutb emerged.

In his formative years and while working as a civil servant, Sayyid Qutb held liberal secularist beliefs. It was only in the turbulent 1940s that he started to examine his country’s issues through an Islamic lens (Shepard 1992, pp. 197 198).

From 1949 to 1951, Qutb wrote three books on how Islam can deliver socio-economic justice. These publications put him on the map as an important thinker and spokesman for the Islamic movement, as Qutb argued that Islam was a force for not only traditional values, but in the realms domestic and international politics also (Calvert 2010, pp. 124-127).

It is believed by Calvert (2010, p. 127) that this turn toward Islam to solve Egyptian issues was due to an ontological need for security because of the ongoing upheaval in Egypt. This ontological crisis was exacerbated by Qutb’s time in the United States from 1948 to 1951. During his time in the U.S., Qutb came to the conclusion that Americans were crass, vulgar, selfish and not interested in the spiritual dimensions of life. He also disapproved of American women’s overt sexuality. In the U.S. he found the answer to not only Egypt’s, but the Muslim world’s moral degradation and oppression (Calvert 2010, pp. 139- 154).   

In 1952 a group of officers in the Egyptian Army calling themselves Free Officers headed by Colonel Abd al-Nasser, staged a coup and overthrew the Government, so as to put an end to the ongoing disorder in the country. Once the Free officers seized power, they banished the monarchy and cooperated with their main rival the Muslim Brotherhood (Cleveland & Bunton 2009, pp. 303-306). During this period of government Brotherhood coexistence, Qutb joined the Muslim Brotherhood because of its religious and socio-political stances (Calvert 2010, p. 83). He quickly became one of the organisation’s leading thinkers (Shepard 1992, p. 199).  

Initially, Qutb and the Brotherhood supported the government with its populist agrarian and social reforms, but this did not last long. Two years into their partnership the Brotherhood and Qutb grew disillusioned with the al-Nasser Government (Shepard 1992, p. 199), so much so that members of the Brotherhood attempted to assassinate al-Nasser. This was the excuse needed for the government to ban the organisation, execute six of its leaders and gaol thousands of its members (Cleveland & Bunton 2009, p. 306). One of those gaoled was Qutb. From prison he developed and jotted down his growing radical Islamic ideas (Shepard 1992, p. 199).

Qutb was forty nine years of age when he entered Tura Prison in 1954. The prison was filthy, brimming with prisoners, and prison guards tortured and abused prisoners on a daily basis (Calvert 2010 pp. 197 198). Such conditions and treatment brought Qutb to question the nature of the society that had produced these conditions (Moaddel 2005, p. 218), and had imprisoned him and banned the Brotherhood (Calvert 2010, p. 216). To answer this question, Qutb reached for the concept of jahiliyya, a state of ignorance (Moaddel 2005, p. 218), which could not only answer the above question, but also delegitimised the al-Nasser Government, and other secular governments in the Islamic world.

This is because Qutb now believed, God was the creator of codes that govern political, social and economic life for man. So, to submit to the laws and regulations made by man was to live in a state of ignorance or barbarism (Calvert 2010, pp. 215-217).

Qutb had picked up this concept form Abdul Ala Mawdudi, who had revived the jahiliyya concept so as to delegitimise the Indian secular state (Sageman 2004, p. 9).

It seemed that the longer Qutb spent in prison the more radical his views became. This was on display in his 1964 book ‘Milestones,’ which was published during Qutb’s two years of freedom.

In this work he declared that political authorities, and not just those in the Islamic world, but all across the globe, were jahiliyya and that Islamic activists should prepare themselves for the struggle to replace these ignorant states (Shepard 1992, p. 199).

Unlike al-Banna, who was concerned mostly for Egypt’s moral and social decline, Qutb was concerned for humanity as a whole, as he thought it was on the brink of destruction.

He believed that Western ideals could not provide the values needed for human progress and development. That Communism humiliated man, while Capitalism exploited him. Both defied God’s authority and the dignity he had bestowed upon man. Qutb believed that the only way to address this problem was to restore an authentic, original umma that would be a vanguard in the struggle to restore humanity to its rightful place under the sovereignty of God, as only Islam had the values to accomplish this task (Sageman 2004, pp. 9 10).

Qutb also argued that the dawa, the call to God through preaching was not enough to bring about this change. For Qutb, with the use of the sword, the lesser jihad would pave the way for the greater jihad. Narrow definitions of jihad he thought, obscured the ‘universal nature of Islam,’ and that is to wipe the world clean of tyranny (Sageman 2004, p. 12).

In 1965 the al-Nasser Government decided to crack down on the now underground Muslim Brotherhood and Qutb once again. This was because it could not allow such a threat to operate, especially when the government was still trying to assert its control over Egypt. In the same years there was also an economic downturn, Egypt had become involved in a civil conflict in Yemen, and government reforms were faltering (Calvert 2010, p. 254).

Qutb was taken to a military prison and eventually put on trial for subversion, sedition and planning to commit acts of terror. According to Calvert (2010, pp. 258 259), it is ‘difficult to judge the validity of the regime’s case against Qutb.’

However, the following year Qutb was found guilty of the charges laid against him and was sentenced to death and then executed. Though this was not the end of Qutb’s thoughts and convictions as his execution inspired a whole new generation of militants. This new breed of Islamic radicals were prepared to by any means necessary bring about Qutb’s Islamic vision for not only Egyptians, but Muslims as well, and at times, humanity as a whole (Calvert 2010, pp. 262-268).

Filling the Egyptian leadership vacuum left by the death of al-Naser in 1970 was Anwar al- Sadat. Left with interrelated political and economic problems, Sadat went about addressing these issues by seeking a treaty with Israel, whose military victories in 1967 and 1973 had left Egypt in a vulnerable position. To aid in bringing about a truce would be the United States. Once a truce was established, the al-Sadat regime opened up Egypt economically. However, al-Infitah, the opening, was a failure and unrest in Egypt continued. Making matters worse were the 1978 Camp David Peace Accords that were brokered by the U.S., where Sadat agreed to peace with Israel, which sent shock waves throughout Egypt and the Muslim world (Cleveland & Bunton 2009, pp. 374-380).

In the above climate the Islamic militant group al-Jamaat al-Jihad was born. One of the founders of this group was influential ideologue Muhammad Abd al-Salam Faraj (Calvert 2010, p. 283). In his document ‘The Absent Duty’ that built on a lot of Qutb’s ideas (Sageman 2004, p. 15), Faraj coined the phrases ‘the near enemy,’ and ‘the far enemy.’ According to Faraj, the destruction and removal of the ‘near enemy,’ the secular authorities in the Islamic world that presided over jahiliyya societies was paramount (Gerges 2005, pp. 44 45). Once this was achieved then an Islamic state could be established. For Faraj it was also an obligation for every Muslim to take up the lesser jihad, so as to bring about these Islamic states (Sageman 2004, p. 15). Most agree that this document was one of the most influential works in Islamic militant circles from the 1970s through to the mid-90s (Gerges 2005, pp. 44 45).

Due to continuing unrest and depravation, al-Jihad managed to recruit members from the government, military and the Presidential Guard, who assisted in the assassination of al-Sadat for which Faraj was found guilty of and executed for.

In the same time frame, in another wing of al-Jammat al-Jihad was Ayman al-Zawahiri (Bonney 2004, p. 288), who joined the group at a young age due to the trauma brought on by the execution of Qutb (Calvert 2010, pp. 264 265).

Al-Zawahiri was heavily influenced by the beliefs and arguments of Qutb and Faraj, however, he and his Saudi Arabian colleague Osama bin Laden embraced, augmented and pushed the beliefs of the above individuals further.

This was due to unsuccessful attempts by Islamic militants to overthrow the ‘near enemy,’ so believed that ‘the far enemy,’ particularly the U.S., who they perceive as supporting and propping up ‘the near enemy,’ war must be waged against, thus justifying the attacks in New York and Washington on September Eleven 2001 (Gerges 2005, pp. 43-48). 

To make the case that radical beliefs and militancy are perennial features of Islam is hard to do when Egypt is examined. This is because of the impact British rule had on Egypt, which brought social upheaval, humiliation, dissent and therefore the creation of the Muslim Brotherhood by Hasan al-Banna. Also, continued British influence, botched policies by independent governments, and continued government repression, fostered greater relative group depravation, which produced the radical beliefs such as those of Qutb, a Brotherhood member. The result of the above scenarios were Islamic militants such as Faraj and al-Zarqawi, who embraced and expanded on Qutbs views, and who then contributed in the creation of today’s local and global jihad movements.


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Bonney, R 2004, Jihad: From Qur’an to bin Laden, Palgrave Macmillan, New York, N.Y.

Calvert, J 2010, Sayyid Qutb and the Origins of Radical Islamism, Hurst & Company, London.   

Cleveland, W, L & Bunton, M 2009, A History of the Modern Middle East, 4th edn, Westview Press, Boulder, CO, U.S.A.

Gerges, F, A 2005, The Far Enemy: Why Jihad Went Global, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge. 

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About the Author(s)

Shawn Green is a former infantry soldier with 1st Battalion, Royal Australian Regiment in the Australian Regular Army and has operational experience in East Timor. He earned a Bachelor of Social Sciences from La Trobe University in Melbourne and is currently studying for a Masters in Counter Terrorism at Monash University in Melbourne.