Islamic extremism (or ‘Islamism,’ either term being preferable to ‘Islamic Fundamentalism’) was born in Egypt in the late 1920s. During the inter-war years, the country was occupied by the British military. The Nationalist Wafd movement, led by Saad Zaghloul, opposed the presence of the British, as would anyone whose country is being occupied by a foreign military power.
In 1928 Hassan al-Banna established al-Ikhwan al-Muslimin (the Muslim Brotherhood), the first Islamist movement. The British government supported the nascent movement in an attempt to counterbalance the Nationalists. In modern Egyptian politics, the Muslim Brotherhood is the largest opposition party to Hosni Mubarak’s National Democratic Party; Mubarak has been in power since the assassination of Anwar Sadat in 1981. The Muslim Brotherhood has always been illegal, and, over the years, thousands of its members have been imprisoned by the Egyptian government.
The ideology of the early Brotherhood is very similar to that of Islamist groups today – they denounced the Egyptian government as secular and regarded Egyptian society in terms of jahaliya, a barbaric, pre-Islamic society not based on Islamic shari’a law. Sayyed Qutb, an Egyptian intellectual associated with the Muslim Brotherhood, wrote a book called Ma’alim fil Tariq (“Signposts on the Road”), which proved to be highly influential on the thinking of modern Islamists. Qutb wrote the book in 1964 while in prison; 2 years later he was executed by hanging.