Islamism is the most widely discussed -ism of our time, and also the most controversial. It has appeared under various headings, including fundamentalism, radical Islam, political Islam, and integrisme (in France). It has been in existence in one form or another for a few decades, but it became a political force only after the death, in 1970, of Gamal Abdel Nasser, which also marked the demise of Nasserism, the most recent phase of Arab nationalism. Nine years later the Shah's regime fell and the Ayatollah Khomeini returned to Tehran from his Paris exile.
By that time, at the very latest, there could have been no doubt that a new movement had appeared on the international scene, claiming to be (and believed by many to be) the wave of the future. It preached a return to the strictest observation of the Koran and the shari'a (as it interpreted them) and the destruction of all its enemies, foreign and domestic. If Khomeini was the prophet of the Shi'ite brand of Islam, Sayyid Qutb had been the inspiration of the far more numerous Sunni radicals. Qutb, a secular Egyptian writer, returned to the religion of his forefathers following a two-year stay in the United States in the late 1940s (a confrontation with a civilization he loathed). Like some other converts, he became a zealot thirsting for martyrdom. A man of mediocre intelligence who did not produce a single new idea, he preached a fanatic obscurantism. Similar figures can be found in the history of other religions, but Qutb also advocated violence—not only against Christians and Jews (something that would not have caused him any trouble in Nasser's Egypt) but also against fellow Muslims who did not accept his version of Islam. Thus he was on a collision course with the government of the day, and in 1966 Nasser had him hanged.