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The War of Ideologies in the Arab World

Radical Islamist ideology must be analyzed and challenged or the fight against terrorism wil have no end.

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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