Sovereignty, or supreme power, belongs to Allah.

Even though it did not lead to peace throughout Europe, the Peace of Westphalia, a series of treaties signed in 1648, ended the Thirty Years' War in the Holy Roman Empire, as well as other destructive wars plaguing Europe. The Treaty was also important for leading to international agreement on, and acceptance of, the idea of the sovereignty of nation-states. Sovereignty, the supreme power in a given area, was to be embodied in a state which could exercise authority within its own borders, and prevail over challenges from religious dignitaries and other forms of influence.

This configuration of sovereign states in international relations entailed a number of factors: territorial integrity of the state; ultimate power of decision-making by the state authorities; and no interference by outsiders in the domestic activities of the state. Thus, individual states -- not any supranational authority or religion -- became the actors in international relations. States became the legal expression of nations, people bound by ties of different kinds but primarily by language, culture, religion, common history and common values.

Since then, however, the principle of national sovereignty has often been disregarded in practice. Legal equality between states has existed more in theory than in practice. The principle of non-intervention in the affairs of other states has not been observed. State sovereignty has been challenged by international agreements, by attempts to formulate binding international law, and by supra-national organizations such as the United Nations and the International Criminal Court. The processes of globalization, with increasing interdependence of markets and businesses in the world, and modernity with its influence on culture and economic life and the movement of people and goods beyond a local area, have qualified state sovereignty. Nevertheless, the political system of sovereign states stemming from Westphalia remains in existence as shown by the 193 states that now, at least legally, exercise sovereignty in their own territory and are members of the United Nations.

Ideologies in the 20th century however, primarily Marxism and Nazism, laid claim to control or influence nations on a world-wide basis. Hitler wrote of the personality and conception of "the Volkish state" which would be spread throughout Europe. Soviet Marxism called on "workers and oppressed people in the world" to unite. Today, with the rise of Islamists to power, or influence, in Egypt, Tunisia, Yemen, and Iran, the world is faced with another ideology, Islamism, a comparatively modern term.

There are two ultimate aims of this ideology. One is to restore wherever possible the first system of government set up in Islam in the 7th century -- the Muslim Caliphate -- by uniting Muslim nations either through political action or by force, as the Muslim ruler applies and enforces the holy law of Islam. The second is to have people convert to Islam, or to have them, in the religions of Christianity and Judaism, submit to Islamic rule.

It is not always easy to distinguish between Islamism, supposedly the ideology of an active minority, and the religion of Islam. In Bernard Lewis's words, Islam "is not only a religion in the narrow Western sense but a whole civilization which grew up under the aegis of that religion." In contrast to the Westphalian system of a secular state sovereignty, Islam has a political identity and allegiance transcending all others. Sovereignty, or supreme power, belongs to Allah. In practice that power rests in the ruler who acts on the basis of Sharia, or Islamic, law.

It is an open, though important, question whether the essence of, and interpretation of, the political identity of Islam is the call for jihad ["struggle," and the common name for holy war], a key element of the Muslim faith.

Even agreeing that Islamism is not synonymous with the religion of Islam, it is not easily differentiated from it because the religion is founded on a community of believers [the ummah] and the legal, social and moral prescriptions to which the members of this ummah, or Nation of Islam, adhere.

Both Islamism and the religion of Islam share most values; if they differ, it is not because of incompatible views but on tactical questions on the manner of implementing those views. The objective for both is to promulgate Islamic rule throughout the world. That rule, however, is theoretically not imposed on followers of Christianity and Judaism, the two "tolerated" religions; individuals who can practice their religion but who accept and pay for -- in higher taxes and limits on what they can do -- their status of inferiority. In practice, however, however, the tolerance is not always tolerant, as can currently be seen in attacks against Egypt's Christian Copts, the original inhabitants of Egypt; against Christians in Nigeria, Mali and the Sudan; against Jews in general, and of course against other Muslim sects with whom a Muslim of a different sect might disagree.

Can Islamism be compared to the two former totalitarian ideologies, Communism and Nazism, with their outreach to the world? Former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher thought this was so. In an article in The Guardian on February 12, 2002, she wrote of Islamic extremism that, "like Bolshevism in the past, it is an armed doctrine. It is an aggressive ideology promoted by fanatical, well-armed devotees." Even without strong rhetoric of this kind, the analogy is plausible because of the similar ambition of the "secular political religions" of Communism and Nazism. Islamism, an extreme religious political ideology that claims universal truth, aspires to convert people throughout the world. Islamism is based in areas controlled by Islamic forces; this control leads to the removal of non-Muslim influences and power. The Islamist ambition is the exercise of power and control, and the imposition of Sharia law, which is not limited by the boundaries of individual national states.

Islamism is a term which is controversial and has been defined in different ways, both intellectually and in practice. It has also taken somewhat varied forms in individual countries.

Different forms of Islamism have been expounded by a number of Muslim intellectuals, such as Sayyid Qutb, Abul Ala Maududi, and Hasan al Banna. One of the students of Qutb was Ayman Zawahari, the ideological teacher of Osama bin Laden. The most notable Shi'a counterparts of this Sunni group are represented by the late Ayatollah Rohollah Khomeini and the Islamic Republic of Iran, which he founded; by Moktada al-Sadr in Iraq, and by the Hezbollah in Lebanon.

Some Islamists, such as the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, claim to advocate peaceful change. Others, such as the Taliban, the Algerian Islamic Salvation Front, and the Egyptian Jamaa Islamiya, call for violent jihad and violence directed against non-Muslims and apostates. According to sharia law, apostasy, seen as desertion and betrayal of the Islamic community, is a crime punishable by death. The apostate must be executed, even if he repents.

In a milder form, the government of Saudi Arabia uses charges of apostasy and blasphemy to suppress discussion and to silence dissidents.

The essence of Islamism, or Muslim radicalism, is the assertion that a strict interpretation of Islamic theology, the Koran, Hadith [acts and saying attributed to the prophet Mohammed], and commands of Mohammed, which should guide the life of all Muslims in personal, political, and social areas. It is a plan for global action, responding to contemporary modernity, and rests on the historical reality that the Prophet was a sovereign ruler, a leader who by force established the Islamic state in Medina and whose followers conquered parts of Asia, Europe and North Africa.

Maudidi argued that Islamic states must be established based on pure Islam, and that Islam is a militant ideology and program which seeks to alter the social order of the whole world and rebuild it in conformity with its own Islamic tenets and ideals. Islamic Jihad would necessarily destroy non-Islamic systems and would bring about a universal revolution.

Hasan al-Banna, who founded the Muslim Brotherhood in 1928, called not only for political systems to be founded on Islamic rule, but also for jihad to be the way in which the mission of spreading Islam was fulfilled, and to work for pan-Islamic unity.

More extreme concepts were expounded by Sayyid Qutb, the major intellectual influence on the Brotherhood after Banna's death in 1949. Qutb called for a more aggressive attempt -- not simply to defend the homeland of Islam, but to carry the movement of Islam throughout the world to the whole of mankind. In addition, Qutb used the Islamic concept of "takfir" [the declaration that someone is an apostate], to threaten and justify attacks on Muslim rulers who did not rule on the basis of pure Islam. Non-Muslims could be tolerated but apostates could not: the penalty is death -– the basis for the assassination of Egyptian President Anwar Sadat; he had made peace with the infidel Jewish state, Israel.

Differences have thus been expressed within the forces of Islamism. The Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and similar groups elsewhere always purport to be moderate in their political policies claiming to be reformist not revolutionary, supportive of democracy and elections, and conceive of change through political action. In contrast, the more extreme Salafi movement emphasizes the spread of the fundamentalist Sharia law, the Islamic faith and its moral order that will overcome countries of unbelief – a mission to be implanted by jihad or armed struggle against non-Muslim power.

Both are expressions of political Islam in the Muslim world: the aims are the same, but the means of the Muslim Brotherhood and similar groups is political infiltration, often through the use of social welfare programs; the Salafi seem to favor more direct imposition of their views. Future events will decide if Muslim states will become or remain tyrannical or whether political systems based on some limited form of government more accountable to the people will prevail. The key problem for the world is the degree to which Islamic control in Arab countries will continue to be an obstacle to reform and will prevent the emergence of secular democratic changes. As the Dutch MP, Geert Wilders states: Any religion that invites you in but then will not let you out is no longer a religion; it is a totalitarian political movement. Others have referred to it coarsely as a "roach motel," in that one may enter, but one may not leave.

In theory, the totalitarian regimes of Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union were monolithic entities controlling all jurisdiction and decision-making. In practice, there were power struggles, diffusion of decision-making, and a complex relationship between the single party in the country and the state. The Islamist ideology and Muslim states based on fundamentalist sharia law resemble this totalitarian pattern.

The democratic countries of the world must now be cautious that the forces of political Islamism and jihadist activism do not in the 21st century advance their worldwide ideology that threatens the rest of the world as did, in similar fashion, Marxist Communism and Nazism in the 20th century.

Michael Curtis is author of Should Israel Exist? A Sovereign Nation under attack by the International Community.

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