Fundamentalism and extremism speak to the Muslim world’s deep-seated yearning for change. Sentiments that decades ago supported leftist ideologies across the Muslim world today fuel Islamic ideology and more so the extremist interpretations of it. Look and listen closely and you can see Lenin’s ghost standing behind Khomeini, and an undertone of Che Guevara in bin Laden’s bluster. Bin Laden is not quite as dashing as Che, and al-Qaeda is far too steeped in jihadism to have come up with a really good T-shirt, but still it has attained glory as the iconic flag-bearer of resistance in the postcommunist world. It appeals to those who, after the fall of the Berlin Wall, still yearn for revolution. Until violent jihadism meets the same fate in the many pockets of the region where it is currently wreaking havoc that Islamic revolution met in Algeria, many Muslims will continue to see in the jihadi fighter a compelling representative of their hunger for success and respect. This is why the effort to quash radical groups is vitally important and must be sustained. But fundamentalism has also been changing from within, recognizing the limits of revolutionary violence and turning attention instead to participation in elections and to winning over converts by championing the cause of social justice and representing the interests of the poor in the political system, providing much-needed social services. With the putting down of Islamic revolts in state after state—Egypt after 1981, Syria in 1982, Algeria after 1991, and most recently, Saudi Arabia after 9/11—many fundamentalists conceded that the creation of Islamic states was no longer in the cards. The call for an Islamic state was not entirely abandoned, but increasingly it was recognized as a distant prospect, and social activism took over as the work at hand. Many popular clerics have also stepped up to denounce violence in the name of Islam, especially in the wake of 9/11. Even Shia fundamentalism, which was the force behind Khomeini’s fashioning of the Islamic Republic as the domain of clerics and which sees politics as inseparable from Islam, has been moderating.
Three decades after the Iranian Revolution, it is not Khomeini’s heirs who are the most popular voices of Shia faith, but the quietist Ayatollah Sayyid Ali al-Sistani, who sees to the affairs of his community from his perch in the holy city of Najaf in southern Iraq. Sistani stands for the older Shia tradition, which holds that, absent the return of the messiah, the Mahdi, the ideal Islamic order is not within the realm of the possible. Clerics, he says, should merely see to it that the state does not repress Islam or violate major Islamic teachings, and should otherwise leave politics alone. Since 2003, Sistani has gathered an impressive following and is today the most venerated and influential Shia cleric not only in Iraq, but far beyond. Shias from Detroit to Delhi embrace him as their “source of emulation.” Even in Lebanon, where Shiism is usually associated with Hezbollah, most Shias follow Sistani. That is also now the case in Kuwait and Saudi Arabia. Even in Iran, observant Shias have turned to Sistani.