If one were to ask an Arab what has happened to the Arab countries, and why the terrorism and extremism we see today did not exist in the 1950s and 1960s, the answer would probably point to the frustrations and struggles of dual identities: Arab nationalism and Islamism. After the collapse of Arab nationalism, Islamist movements and ideologies emerged to fill the void. The two developments that exposed the dangerous turn to extremism the Islamist movements had taken were the attacks of September 11, 2001 and the recent Arab uprisings, called the “Arab Spring.”
From the events of 2001 until the latest Arab upheavals, the West has pursued support for a moderate Islam in the region, to eliminate terrorism. Concepts such as a “new Middle East” and support for democracies rather than tyrants became prominent rhetorically. But do leaders in the West realize how rivalries and distrust persist among Muslims, between Muslims, and against other, non-Muslim minorities? Do the values of a moderate and pluralist Islam exist today or have they disappeared completely? If they exist, how can the West support such examples of moderate Islam?
Suspicion among Muslims and toward non-Muslim minorities has a long history, but has become aggravated especially now. Sunnis do not trust Shias and Islamists are suspicious of liberals, and tension is mutual, as each group reacts to the other. Many who do not belong to Islamist parties and who represent minority groups in Egypt and Tunisia are terrified of the Muslim Brotherhood and their more extreme counterparts, the so-called “Salafis” (imitators of the Saudi Wahhabis). An Islamist state could not be expected to guarantee liberty for everyone. Shias, for their part, are anxious about the power of political Sunnism and its impact on them.
Extremist and terrorist ideological networks are present throughout the Middle East and North Africa. The recent terrorist attack on Algeria, in which foreign hostages from Japan, Philippines, Romania, Britain and the United States were killed, is connected to the terrorist invasion of nearby northern Mali. Absence of security, arms smuggling from a collapsed Libya, and rising instability are aggravated, not resolved, by Islamists in power around the region. The horrible situation in Syria, with continued fighting between the regime and armed groups, is a breeding ground for terrorism. Lack of security and stability have spread in Iraq, Yemen, and Lebanon no less than Tunisia and Egypt.
This shift to extremism in the Arab world did not happen overnight. After the disintegration of the Ottoman Empire beginning in the nineteenth century, Pan-Arabism came forward with a vision of resistance to outside rule through a “new” social order, conceived along Islamic lines. Some Egyptian and the Syrian representatives of pan-Arab nationalism believed in an authoritarian state that would unify the heterogeneous Arabs into a single nation and creed. Pan-Arab nationalism was secular, and was crystallised as a political movement in the 20th century by a Syrian Christian, Michel Aflaq, who founded the Ba’ath (“Renaissance”) Party in Damascus in 1940. Aflaq, a Christian, said that Islam could not be dissociated from an Arab nationalist identity, but that the state must be separate from religious institutions. As cited by Kanan Makiya in his 1998 book Republic of Fear, Aflaq wrote, “We wish that a full awakening of Arab Christians takes place, so that they can see in Islam a nationalist education for themselves.”
When Gamal Abd Al-Nasser took power in Egypt in 1952, the country became the spiritual home of Arab nationalism. But enthusiasm for this identity did not liberate the Arab nation from foreign hegemony; nor did it generate the freedom, development and democracy that the people and especially the youth desired. Arab leaders in Egypt, Syria and Iraq, as extreme ultranationalists, disregarded the principles of freedom and democracy. One of the main causes of the decline of nationalist ideology seems to have been the 1967 Arab defeat in the Egyptian-led war against Israel.
The failure of, and disappointment in, nationalism allowed Islamists to gain new ground. At the end of the 19th and the beginning of the 20th centuries, Muslim thought was occupied by the critical, philosophical views of reformers such as the Iranian Jamal ad-Din al-Afghani (1839-97), the Egyptians Muhammad Abduh (1849-1905) and Ali Abderraziq (1888-1966) as well as others who favored adoption of Western cultural achievements while preserving Islamic belief.
The advocates of that version of reform called themselves “Salafis,” or imitators of the Prophet Muhammad and the first three generations of his companions and successors. They resisted the weight of Islamic law on Arab society – a burden much lighter in the Ottoman, Persian, and Indian Muslim empires – and questioned the spiritual tradition of Sufism. But they did not try to expel their opponents from the body of Muslim believers or advocate armed attacks on the West.
These 19th century “Salafis” were superseded, in the consciousness of many discontented Arabs, by the ultrafundamentalist Wahhabis from the Arabian Peninsula, who later usurped the term “Salafi;” and then by Hassan al-Banna (1906-49), the Egyptian founder of the Muslim Brotherhood.
Mohammed Arkoun (1928-2010), an Algerian scholar of Islamic studies, in his Arabic-language Toward a Comparative History of Monotheistic Religions, argued that this happened for two reasons. First, intellectual capital was absent from Arab world centers such as Baghdad or Cairo; second, an indigenous Arab business class, that would presumably support critical attitudes, had disappeared. Then, after the victory of Wahhabism in Saudi Arabia in 1924-25, and particularly following the increase in Saudi energy income, Wahhabi-inspired radical thinking enjoyed huge funding and support.
Mohammed Al Zulfa, a former member of the Saudi Arabian Shura Council, a supreme consultative body reporting to the country’s king, and a writer for the main Saudi journals, has examined the links between the Muslim Brotherhood and the Wahhabi/”Salafi” ideologies. He points out that once Nasser in Egypt and his Syrian allies, whose influence grew in Damascus in the 1950s, began opposing the Muslim Brotherhood, the Brotherhood traveled to Saudi Arabia, where its members worked mostly in education and the media. The Muslim Brotherhood is similar to the Wahhabis/Salafis in that they both oppose respect for non-Muslims; pluralism in Islamic opinion, and Muslim women’s rights. The doctrines of violent, anti-Western Muslim Brotherhood figures, such as Sayyid Qutb (1906-66), identified as the intellectual paragon of the movement, then reshaped the religious curriculum in Saudi schools and universities.
However, while these textbooks were edited by Muslim Brotherhood members, who differ from the Wahhabis in favoring participation in electoral politics, they were formulated to serve the Wahhabi context. They conformed to the past Saudi practice of excluding the term “Wahhabi” from textbooks and public statements – a phenomenon reflecting widespread repulsion for Wahhabi extremism among Muslims – and proclaiming themselves nothing more than “Salafi” Muslims, or simple representatives of Sunnism (that is, of ahl-as-sunna wa’al jama’a,” or “the people of the Islamic tradition united in consensus”). Today, it is common for Wahhabis/Salafis to call themselves “the monotheists” (muwahhidun) – as if only they were faithful to Islamic belief in One God – although acceptance of, and even pride in, the title of Wahhabi is growing.
The role of the Muslim Brotherhood in the Arabian Gulf countries was similar to that in Saudi Arabia. Salim Al-Naimi, a researcher from the United Arab Emirates (UAE), has disclosed to the journalist Abdullah Al-Rasheed that the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood migrated to the UAE in 1973, searching for jobs and to escape political persecution in their home countries. Al-Naimi’s account appeared in the series “The Muslim Brotherhood in the UAE: The full story,” published by the pan-Arab daily Al-Sharq Al-Awsat (The Middle East.) After the founding of “Al Islah” (“Reform”), a branch of the Muslim Brotherhood in the UAE in 1974, the Brotherhood penetrated the education sector through formulation of curricula and control of student activities. Dr. Abdullah al-Nafisi, a former professor of political science at Kuwait University, mentioned in his study, “The Muslim Brotherhood – Trial and Error” that many Muslim Brotherhood members immigrated to the Gulf, where they formed committees in Kuwait and Qatar, along with the UAE. Delegates from the Gulf states collect funds for the Brotherhood internationally.
The Iranian Revolution in 1979, even though it occurred in a non-Arab country, reinforced the appeal of Islamist ideology across the Middle East and North Africa. Khomeini’s regime wanted to exploit, and still manipulates for political advantage, the lack of freedom and discrimination the Shia Muslims face in Sunni-majority countries. Khomeini made no secret of his wish to overthrow the Saudi authorities; Radio Tehran broadcast regular appeals to Saudi Shias to rise up against their oppressors. The Iranian regime pursues the same strategy today, revealed in its support for protests in Bahrain, especially on Al-Alam, an Arabic news channel broadcasting from Iran and owned by the state media corporation, Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting (IRIB).
In response, Saudi Arabia backed the “As-Sahwah” (“Awakening”) movement, which may be considered a Muslim Brotherhood variant, again adapted to Saudi Wahhabism. More books appeared, attacking the Shias and especially Khomeini’s views. These books – like the arguments of Khomeini’s followers – rejected modern thinking as an “intellectual invasion.” Saudi Arabia, considered the guardian of Sunni Islam, spent billions of dollars on challenging the Khomeini-backed Shiites. According to Iraqi journalist Abdulkhaliq Hussein, in his Arabic-language book The Western Impasse –The Awareness Deficit, Saudi Arabia has spent $87 billion on spreading Wahhabism around the world. Greater rigidity was applied to all aspects of Saudi society, including media, education and women. As-Sahwah expanded into being more than a religious movement: it became a political Islamist agenda, in which Wahhabis recruited young men for jihad in Afghanistan and elsewhere.
At the time of the Afghan war against the former Soviet Union, the United States knew nothing about Wahhabism. Western politicians saw Wahhabi and South Asian jihadis as foot soldiers available to challenge Soviet power. The U.S. supported Pakistan-based jihadis against the Soviet Union in Afghanistan without understanding that a failure to distinguish between the Islamic fighters would have consequences, made worse by the abandonment of Afghanistan by the West after the Russians were driven out.
NOW A SIMILAR mistake is being made by U.S. policies, through apparent support for the Muslim Brotherhood. Elected leaders in Washington may believe the Muslim Brotherhood to be a moderate movement. Just because the Muslim Brotherhood has been elected, in a questioned democratic process, does not exempt the West from critically examining the movement’s goals. Elections and democracy are not the same; and it is often insufficient to have elections without first developing well-established, functioning pillars of democracy, such as freedom of speech and the press, equal justice before the law, property rights, and critically-oriented education that encourages questioning.
Previously operating in the background, the elected Muslim Brotherhood now dominates Egypt. That the new Egyptian constitution has been written by Islamists, without input from liberals, leftists, and representatives from Egypt’s Christians, is a serious warning sign. In so violating democracy, the Muslim Brotherhood demonstrates its need to dominate the state. A thirst for power and control is not a sign of moderation and compromise.
Avoiding another September 11 will not be made possible by embracing Islamists or pursuing a truce: opposition to terrorism requires a confrontation of ideologies. The Islamists’ power through the ballot box, and the promises they have made, are no guarantee against extremism. The West should understand that silence about an elected government’s violations of people’s dignity will only further inflame existing struggles. A better safeguard against extremism is the disentanglement of Islam from radical ideologies through the encouragement of enlightened, rational scholarship. This will come about with a transformation of school and university curricula, and the introduction of a humanities curriculum alongside studies of comparative religion and philosophy, in countries such as Saudi Arabia or Egypt, where these topics are absent or restricted.
Moreover, books by Ibn Taymiyyah (1263-1328), Sayyid Qutb and others, which reject pluralism and promote extremism, should be studied in context, alongside works by Jamal ad-Din al-Afghani, Muhammad Abduh, Ali Abderraziq, and other, more modern and open-minded commentators. The Shias in Sunni-majority countries should also be given more equal opportunities and should have the right to study moderate Shia scholars such as the Iraqis Mohammad Baqir al-Sadr (1935-80) and Abu al-Qasim al-Khoei (1899-1982), who favor separation of clerical and state authority. This may help protect Arab Shias from exploitation by the Iranian regime. Clerics on satellite channels who directly incite terrorist acts should be held responsible as criminals, and those who promulgate extremist views must be answered on the same or other platforms. Terrorism cannot be defeated only by killing extremist leaders and holding premature elections. Radical Islamist ideology must be analyzed and challenged. Otherwise the fight against terrorism – especially after the impending destruction of Sunni Syria – will have no end.
Originally published at the Gatestone Institute.
About the Author: Najat AlSaied is a Saudi PhD researcher in media and development at University of Westminster in London.
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