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.