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November 19, 2002

Osama bin Laden and Other Thoroughly Modern Muslims Take on the World

WASHINGTON, DC—Osama bin Laden may have operated from a cave in one of the least-developed countries in the world, but his radical Islamic movement is thoroughly modern. In many ways, radical Islamists are a mirror image of Islamic liberals, whose peaceful struggle to establish democracy is generally more popular among Muslim populations.

Researcher Charles Kurzman presents these and other observations about the roots, goals, and methods of Islamist movements in the Fall/Winter 2002 issue of Contexts magazine, a peer-reviewed journal of the American Sociological Association. Kurzman’s article, “Bin Laden and Other Thoroughly Modern Muslims,” also includes a discussion about the Islamic world’s reactions to this radical Islam, and the ironies in U.S. foreign policy that radical groups exploit. An Assistant Professor of Sociology at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, Kurzman has extensively studied modernist Islam, the Islamic revolution in Iran, and social movements in developing nations.

Like all political movements, Islamists are divided as to how to achieve their goals. “Some prefer a hearts-and-minds strategy, ‘calling’ Muslims to increased piety…. Others argue that state conquest cannot be delayed….” But some of these state-oriented Islamists seek to take power democratically, while others pursue putsches and terrorism. This division reveals one of the least-known aspects of the Islamist movement: For all their notoriety, Islamists remain unpopular among Muslims.

Kurzman characterizes Islamists as those who—much like Christians who idealize the example of Jesus Christ—regard the time period of the Prophet Mohammed as the “golden era” of Islam and want to recapture it. Islamists “seek to regain the righteousness of the early years of Islam and implement the rule of shari‘a (Islamic law),” either by the state enforcing and adopting it as the law of the land or by Muslims abiding by the norms of their own accord. “Islamists envision overturning tradition in politics, social relations and religious practices. They are hostile to monarchies, such as the Saudi dynasty in Arabia; they favor egalitarian meritocracy, as opposed to inherited social hierarchies; they wish to abolish long-standing religious practices such as the honoring of relics and tombs.”

Radical Islamists have much in common with Islamic liberalism, another key movement. Both liberals and radicals seek to modernize society and politics, recasting tradition in modern molds, believing there are multiple ways of being modern. Neither wishes to discard modern conveniences, such as electricity and technology, nor believes that modernity is limited to Western culture.

Kurzman notes a considerable irony in U.S. foreign policy, as the “West, which generally considers itself the underminer of tradition, supports traditional elites in the Islamic world. Bin Laden and other Islamists repeatedly take advantage of the contradiction."

Kurzman’s analysis distinguishes between traditionalist Islamic movements (such as the Taliban), with whom Islamists may be allied, and with whom they may share certain symbols of piety; but “they are quite distinct in sociological terms. Traditionalists such as the Taliban of Afghanistan, in contrast with Bin Laden’s al-Qa’ida Islamists, draw on less educated sectors of society, believe in mystical and personal authority, and are skeptical of modern organizational forms."

Many Islamist leaders have university degrees rather than seminary training, and the rise of Islamist movements in the 20th century is closely associated with both the growth of secular and the decline of seminary educational systems, resulting in tremendous diversity of Islamic opinion. Most Islamist leaders graduated from “modern schools, and share modern values such as human equality and rule of law,” notes Kurzman. So, while bin Laden is a civil engineer by training, he issues religious judgments as though he had been educated in the seminary.

Both ideologically and in practice, Islamists have adopted modern ideas, forms, and methods: “Regardless of the ancient terminology, al-Qa’ida and other Islamist groups operate globally like transnational corporations, with affiliates and subsidiaries, strategic partners, commodity chains, standardized training, off-shore financing and other features associated with contemporary global capital.” In fact, says Kurzman, “insiders often referred to al-Qa'ida as the ‘company.’” Islamists’ use of thoroughly modern methods (e.g., cell phone, faxes, computers, wire money transfers) is consonant with bin Laden’s using videotape and audiotapes of himself to reach the world’s media. But Islamists reject other modern Western norms; they are openly hostile to separation of church and state. Like the Mafioso and other illegal networks, Islamists organize around informal personal ties.

Western bias lumps the Islamic Republic of Iran with the Taliban, but Kurzman reveals they are fundamentally different. Iran is a modern state (with important institutional continuities to its past), while the Taliban in Afghanistan was not. For example, Iranian women are in the labor force and active in many segments of public life (including as parliamentary representatives). The Taliban barred girls from attending schools, and women from virtually all aspects of the labor force.

Kurzman concludes that as of yet, the war on terrorism has not generated the massive negative reaction among Muslims that some observers expected. A Gallup poll of nine Muslim societies at the end of 2001 indicated that only 15 percent of respondents said they considered the September 11 attacks to be morally justified. Election results in a number of countries with large Muslim populations show that when free or partially free elections are held, Islamists rarely fare well. When given a choice, Muslims (such as in Iran) choose liberal forms. And, when Islamists do well, success generally flowed from their promises to follow democratic norms.

Members of the media interested in a copy of the Kurzman's article should contact Johanna Ebner, ASA Public Information Office (202-383-9005 x332, Further information on ASA's Contexts magazine, published by the University of California Press in Berkeley, can be found at

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About the American Sociological Association
The American Sociological Association (, founded in 1905, is a non-profit membership association dedicated to serving sociologists in their work, advancing sociology as a science and profession, and promoting the contributions to and use of sociology by society.