The Oxford dictionary defines an “extremist” as “a person who holds extreme political or religious views, especially one who advocates illegal, violent, or other extreme action.” An extremist group is defined as “a group of individuals whose values, ideals, and beliefs fall far outside of what society considers normal.” While there have been extremist groups in all religions and societies throughout history, including Islamic history, most historians trace the roots of Islamic extremism to the seventh-century group known as the Kharijites that developed around the same time as Shi’a Islam as a response to what they perceived as unjust rule. Muslim extremist groups have historically been marginalized by the mainstream and have eventually disappeared over time.
Islamic extremism today is in many ways a reaction to various developments in the last two centuries. One of these was the decline and subsequent colonization of many Muslim-populated areas by European powers, which resulted in modernization and Westernization policies in many Muslim-populated countries in the 19th and early 20th centuries that viewed Islam as backwards, outdated, and a barrier to progress. In response to this new and humiliating circumstance, some Muslim groups espoused a return to the original practices of Islam as they understood them to have been practiced during the lifetime of the Prophet Muhammad and his immediate successors. Commonly known as revivalist or fundamentalist movements, they sought solutions to the many problems facing Muslim societies through a literal and sometimes puritanical vision of Islam. These movements have sometimes taken on political overtones or issued calls for an “Islamic state”, and in some cases have resorted to violence. This has occurred in situations where, in addition to the previously mentioned factors, various extremist groups formed in response to specific issues or causes, many of which stem from conflicts over land and independence, such as the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan and Chechnya, the Indian occupation of Kashmir, the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza, and the American occupation of Iraq.
Additionally, some extremist groups formed in opposition to their own despotic governments; for example, in Egypt the Muslim Brotherhood was initially formed to resist British occupation, but then turned against Egyptian rulers when they also failed to live up to their expectations, and eventually gave rise to more extremist groups such as Islamic Jihad.
What is clear from many of these groups is that their extremist version of Islam is often a motivating factor, just as the power of religiously driven zeal has been used throughout history to fuel and galvanize popular movements that arise in response to perceived ills. This is not unique to Islam or Muslims but rather spans the gamut of the human condition.