A Primer on Islamism Today

How much do you really know about Islam? Read this basic guide to find out.

Most of us hear about various Islamist groups such as Al-Qaeda, Taliban, Muslim Brotherhood, Hezbollah, and Hamas without understanding what they really represent, why they have won support, and the similarities and differences between them. Similarly we hear the words Sunni and Shia to distinguish Muslims and Islamist groups from one another, but few know what they mean. The following gives a brief overview of Sunni and Shia Muslims, Islamism, and the two Islamists groups most in the news today: Hezbollah and Hamas.

Shia and Sunni Muslims

When the Prophet Muhammad died in the early 7th Century, he left the religion of Islam along with an Islamic State on the Arabian Peninsula with around one hundred thousand Muslim inhabitants. The major difference between the Sunnis and the Shia has to do with the issue of succession after the Prophet’s death. Sunni Muslims agree with many of the Prophet’s companions and with what actually happened, that the new leader should be elected from among those capable of the job. Shia Muslims believe leadership of the Muslims is a divine right of the family of the Prophet, and believe leadership should have passed directly to Muhammad’s cousin/son-in-law Ali. Therefore, since Muhammad’s death, Shia Muslims have not recognized the authority of elected Muslim leaders, choosing instead to follow a line of imams which they believe have been appointed by the Prophet Muhammad or God.

Sunni Muslims make up the majority (85-90%) of Muslims. Significant populations of Shia Muslims can be found in Iran and Iraq, and large minority communities are located in Yemen, Bahrain, Syria, and Lebanon.

Despite differences in opinion and practice, Shia and Sunni Muslims share the main articles of Islamic belief. Most Shias and Sunnis consider each other Muslims, although ethnic and political issues may divide them.


Islamism is an umbrella term applied to a variety of Islamic movements that are quite diverse. What they have in common is the belief that Islam is not only a religion, but also a political system that governs the legal, economic and social aspects of the state according to its interpretation of Islamic law. This understanding differentiates Islamism from secular political groupings such mainstream/traditional Islam, which does not treat the Islamic scriptures as a plan for political theory. The term Islamism does not necessarily imply militancy.

The major difference between the Sunnis and the Shia has to do with the issue of succession after the Prophet’s death.

In the past several years Islamist parties have won or have become a significant opposition force in nearly every country they have entered elections, most notably Turkey, Pakistan, Iran, Palestine, Egypt, Morocco, Iraq and Lebanon. This rise in power is a consequence of a number of factors, including a sense that the ideologies that had dominated the Middle East since decolonization had failed to attain the expected economic and political goals, corrupt and sometimes brutal domestic governance, and foreign military occupations and threats (mostly from Israel, the United States and the U.K.). Islamist groups appeal to both the religious and secular because they offer a package of legitimate good governance, national identity and resistance to foreign occupation and subjugation.

Who are Hezbollah and Hamas?

Since their individual beginnings in the 1980’s, the Islamist Hezbollah and Hamas have emerged as the main Arab political groups fighting against the Israeli occupations in Lebanon and Palestine. Many argue they emerged as a direct response to decades of Israeli occupation and an absence of international intervention. They receive wide support in their respective countries for both their military accomplishments and welfare programs. At the same time, both groups elicit criticism for militant actions that draw severe Israeli responses. Both are listed as terrorist organizations by the United States.


Hezbollah, or Party of God, was founded by Lebanese Shia clerics to resist Israel’s invasion and occupation of Southern Lebanon in 1982. Three factors were responsible for the creation of Hezbollah: the rise of Shia immigrants to Lebanon in the 1970’s, the success of the Iranian revolution in 1979, and the Israeli invasion of Southern Lebanon in 1982. Over the two past decades it has evolved into a movement with a military wing of thousands of trained guerrillas, a political wing that constitutes 18% of the seats in parliament, and an extensive welfare program benefiting thousands of Lebanese.


According to their political platform of 2003, Hezbollah views as an important goal the fight against western imperialism and views the conflict with Israel as its main concern. It declares to seek Israel’s destruction and supports other militant groups that share this goal. It favors the introduction of an Islamic government in Lebanon by peaceful democratic means. Its ideology is based in the Shia tradition of Islam, specifically, concepts of Islamic scholars in Iran.

Terrorism vs. resistance

The United States, Britain and Israel list Hezbollah as a terrorist organization, while the government in Beirut has declared it a national resistance movement. Its members have carried out numerous suicide attacks against Israeli targets inside Lebanon and had adopted the tactic of taking Western hostages through freelance hostage-taking cells.

The movement receives financial, political, and material support from Iran and Syria. Syria has previously offered to disarm Hezbollah if Israel returns the Golan Heights, which it has held since 1967.

Israeli defeat brings popular support

In the late 1990s Hezbollah increased its attacks on Israeli forces in Lebanon. In May 2000, when the Israeli army withdrew from Lebanon, Hezbollah was widely seen as the cause of the defeat. Consequently, the party’s popularity grew within Lebanon and throughout the Arab world, and today serves as an inspiration to militant Palestinian factions fighting to liberate occupied territory.

In addition to the Shia community, which makes up 40% of the Lebanese people, many Lebanese Christians and Sunnis support Hezbollah because of its military success and its extensive social development rogram, which includes free schools, hospitals and social assistance programs.

The Palestinian Intifada

“Many Lebanese Christians and Sunnis support Hezbollah because of its military success and its extensive social development program, which includes free schools, hospitals and social assistance programs.”

With the end of the Israeli occupation of Southern Lebanon, world powers called for Hezbollah to disarm. However, a few months after the Israeli withdrawal, the second Palestinian uprising, the second intifada, broke out in October 2000, providing Hezbollah’s armed wing the new role as guardian of all Arabs and Muslims.

In October 2000 Hezbollah kidnapped three Israeli soldiers on the Lebanese border and demanded Israel release Arab prisoners. In January 2004 Israel released nearly 500 Palestinian and Lebanese prisoners in return for a kidnapped Israeli businessman and the bodies of the four soldiers.

Recent news

In July 2006 Hezbollah fired rockets at two Israeli armored Humvees on the Israeli side of the Israel-Lebanon border. The militants killed three soldiers and kidnapped two others, and called for another prisoner exchange. Israel retaliated with bombing raids, an air and naval blockade of Lebanon, a force of tanks and armored personnel carriers, and ground raids into southern Lebanon, killing at least 370 civilians, injuring thousands, displacing an estimated 750,000. Meanwhile, Hezbollah has fired rockets into Israel’s northern cities and towns, killing 17 civilians and injuring 418.

The Lebanese government has disavowed Hezbollah’s actions while urgently calling for international peacemakers to end the conflict.


Hamas, which means zest, is an acronym of the Arabic words for Islamic Resistance Movement. It is a Palestinian Sunni political organization created soon after the first Palestinian intifada erupted in 1987. It currently forms the government of the Palestinian people, and is the only government in the Arab world to be voted in through a free and fair election monitored by the international community.

Hamas was founded as the Palestinian arm of the Egyptian Islamist group the Muslim Brotherhood. Like the Muslim Brotherhood, it offered social services to Palestinians in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, and consequently gained a large following among the Palestinian people, the majority of whom are poor, disenfranchised refugees. Even after the formation of the Palestinian Authority, Hamas continued to deliver essential services and was seen by many as a credible voice with consistent principles as opposed to the Palestinian Fatah led government that was plagued by mismanagement and corruption.

According to several current and former U.S. intelligence officials, beginning in the late 1970s, Israel gave direct and indirect financial aid to Hamas over a period of years because they wanted it to be a viable alternative to the PLO (Palestinian Liberation Organization) so as to weaken it.

Like Hezbollah, Hamas has a military wing that has focused on attacks on Israel, including suicide bombings and rocket fire.


According to its 1987 charter, Hamas is opposed to the existence of Israel and calls for the creation of an Islamic Republic in what is now Israel, the West Bank, and Gaza Strip. However, over the past three years Hamas has shown signs of shift toward political pragmatism and realism. In 2004, Hamas offered a 10-year truce in exchange for several conditions, including a complete withdrawal from the occupied territories. In February, 2006, in an interview in Russian newspaper, the Hamas leader Khaled Mashal declared that Hamas would stop armed struggle against Israel if it recognized the 1967 borders, withdrew itself from all Palestinian occupied territories and recognized Palestinian rights. Hamas, more than other militant organization, has been committed to ceasefires, including the 16-month ceasefire that ended in June 2006 when Israeli naval gunboats fired artillery shells at civilians on a northern Gaza beach, killing 7 Palestinian civilians and wounding 32 others.

Recent news

On June 25, 2006, Hamas militants in Gaza entered Israel through an underground tunnel, killing two Israeli soldiers and capturing a third. This attack precipitated the Israeli assault on Gaza that began two days later. 100 Gazans were killed and 300 injured within three weeks of the assault. In this same period, one Israeli soldier was killed and 12 Israelis have been injured.