There are some things people do not know about Islam and the history of Islam. Now, I'll put out there right now that I am an atheist, I do not believe in god and I am certainly not a muslim; but if we are to understand the world today we must understand this faith. With that in mind I am going to discuss the current facination with "fundamentalist" or radical Islam. These have been generally seen as having a long history and being rooted in the past and traditions of Islam. They are rooted in the past and traditions of Islam, but they do not have as long a history as some would have you believe.
Before the time of western colonialism in the Islamic world Islamic legal codes and
political philosophy had been fairly static for hundreds of years. The four schools of Sunni jurisprudence had been around in their current form for hundreds of years and Shi', though more dynamic, was around for even longer. But these were not the Sharia that we see in today's radical sects, these were drawn from the Quran and Sunnah (collection of writings about Muhammad) and interpreted acording to different philosophical ideals. With the advent of western colonial powers in Muslim lands, specifically england (it always is, isn't it?), the muslims began to question why they were seemingly so easy to conquer and rule. Some answered this with modernism and progressive Islam, al-Afghani and, later, Iqbal, others answered with a reformation of sorts. In the same way that the christian reformation sprouted new sects which viewed the bible as the only true christianity these new regressive sects viewed the Quran and Sunnah as the only true way to know Islam. Unfortunately, they seem to have done a none to great job, or, at best, have read into these resources rationalizations for traditional behavior which is not mentioned in either source. The burqa and hijab, coverings for women, are not prescribed for women specifically, only that they cover their chest and be modest. Both of these examples are traditions of arab and east asian cultures that have been integrated into Islam.
One of the better known sects of radical Islam is the Wahhabis. al-Wahhab was around in the 17th century, pre-colonial days for the middle-east, and basically decided that because the Califate(Khalifat), the Ottomans, was corrupt and could no longer be considered the true leaders of Islam he had to lead true muslims only according to the Quran and Sunnah. This didn't really catch on right away. It was a prosperous time for the Muslim world and the west had not begun the largest of their colonizations of muslims, so he was mostly dismissed. The Wahhabis continued as a small sect until the colonization began in earnest, when the failings of the Muslim world began to be blamed on its corruption in the eyes of Allah. This is, of course, a story as old as time. Great power begins decline and suddenly the "moral" people pop up yelling about how it is the godless and the sinners who are to blame, see: fundies in the US. Well, unfortunately for us, this really took hold.
When this became a real problem was at the beginnings of decolonization. The radical sects had heretofore remained fairly apolitical if the colonizers allowed them to practice their form of Sharia, which the Brits inevitably did. Once the former colonies were formed into new states these groups began organizing politically in a number of them. The Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt is generally the most known of these groups. They were a Wahhabi group which began to organize to bring the country under Sharia. Because of a strong secular military they failed. Not so in Saudi Arabia. The house of Saud, the royalty in Saudi Arabia, used the Wahhabis as a local powerbase and used the Wahhabi ideology as a basis for their rule. Given that 15 or the 19 11 sept. hijackers came from Saudi Arabia, we can see how successful the Wahhabis were in establishing their ideology.