Political Islam’s Moment of Reckoning

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An egyptian pro-government supporter, is helped away after being injured during clashes with supporters of deposed Egyptian President Mohamed Mursi that erupted at Tahrir Square and around the US Embassy in Cairo, on 22 July 2013. (Photo: AFP - Fayez Nureldine)

By: Bilal El-Amine

Published Wednesday, July 24, 2013

I. Ikhwan’s Resounding Fall

It remains unclear what course the events in Egypt will take after the toppling of Muslim Brotherhood President Mohamed Mursi. What can be said with some certainty, however, is that the Brothers will not give in easily, because they rightly see it as a fight for their very survival. The Egyptian Ikhwan is considered to be the mother ship of political Islam in the region, and its demise could very well deal a fatal blow to the Islamist movement on a broad scale.

Just imagine a political movement that is a decade and a half shy of being 100 years old, that has tasted the worst state repression for its beliefs, and has waited patiently for its turn to rule. It wins (albeit by a small margin) the first real elections in the history of Egypt only to be booted out after a single, solitary year in office. This is the unbearable situation the Ikhwan find themselves in at the moment.

It’s true, as many have said, that they only have themselves to blame. In their few short months in power, the Brotherhood managed to alienate virtually every sector of society, including fellow Islamists like the Salafi Nour Party. This was compounded by their inability to translate their core slogan of “Islam is the solution” into anything meaningful or concrete that made a difference in people’s lives or even gave them hope of a better future.

Their approach to governance amounted to little more that an attempt to hijack the state, extending their reach into all its branches and institutions, in a process that became known as the “Ikhwanization” of the state, neglecting major issues of concern like the economy. In a very short time, it became clear that they intended to follow in the footsteps of their predecessors, dishing out that toxic mix of neoliberalism and kowtowing to the US and Israel, as Sadat and Mubarak had done.

It is difficult to determine how much this will impact the regional network of Muslim Brothers, who are effectively ruling in a number of countries, including Turkey, Tunisia, Sudan, Morocco, and Yemen, in addition to aspiring Ikhwan franchises elsewhere. For some time now, the development of each local branch has taken a largely independent course, adapting to their national circumstances, thus insulating them from the ups and downs of their counterparts near and far.

II. End of an Era?

Undoubtedly, Islamism as a rising and, in many cases, popular political current will be seriously damaged by the Egyptian Brotherhood’s misfortune. The Ikhwan’s resounding failure in power will forever dull the appeal that political Islam had for millions of Muslims, who were convinced that Islamic rule was the answer to an increasingly complex and uncertain world.

Some may have gone too far in comparing the fall of Mursi to that of the Berlin Wall, suggesting that the Islamists will soon join their Communist predecessors in the dustbin of history. Such predictions may be a bit premature, given that political Islam has far deeper roots in the Arab world than anything the communists and nationalists ever had.

There is also the problem of alternatives, for no ideology will disappear without another emerging to take its place. The Arab uprisings may have succeeded in achieving the impossible by deposing some of the region’s most entrenched dictatorships, but the revolutions have yet to put forward real alternatives beyond the liberal promise of political democracy. The cry for social justice which sparked the uprisings in the first place has fallen by the wayside, with little on offer in terms of alternative economic models, for example, from the revolutionary movements.

If the former opposition, with the help of the armed forces, do succeed in completing their revolt against the Brotherhood in Egypt, the Islamist movement will not disappear anytime soon and may very well survive to make another bid for power at a later time, for they have mastered the art of survival outside the halls of power and under much worse circumstances than the ones they face today.

As for the fate of political Islam, it’s much too early to declare its end, even as the dominant ideological current in the region. Let us not forget that there are powerful, emerging alternatives to the Brotherhood within Islamism such as the Salafi movement. Some commentators even predict that the waning fortunes of the Ikhwan will translate into a boost for the Salafis, particularly the increasingly more active radical elements among them.

III. Salafi Temptations

Despite their fundamentalist approach to religion, which adheres to a literal understanding of Islamic scripture, the Salafi movement remains diverse and in a constant state of flux. It has interacted and formed hybrid strands with other Islamist currents such as Wahhabism and the radical teachings of Sayyid Qutb of the Muslim Brotherhood, entering politics with force over the past quarter century.

We can identify three general strands within the movement: 1) a somewhat apolitical wing, to which many of the early adherents belonged, that leaned toward what can best be described as lifestyle Salafism; 2) a sizeable, pragmatic current – like Egypt’s Nour Party – that has been given the opportunity to engage in mainstream politics thanks to the Arab Spring; and 3) a small, but highly dangerous and growing, trend of what is sometimes referred to as jihadi Salafis, most prominently expressed in the al-Qaeda phenomenon sweeping the region.

This last group has experienced an upsurge starting in the mid-1990s, gaining prominence in the insurgencies against the US invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, right through to their growing presence among the Syrian opposition today, where they are rapidly gaining a reputation as a formidable military force.

The movement has traditionally enjoyed the generous support of the oil-rich Gulf countries, particularly Wahhabi Saudi Arabia, in addition to a number of Western governments. Washington, for example, trained and armed Arab Salafi volunteers fighting the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan in the 1980s. They consequently had a falling out after a series of al-Qaeda attacks on US targets starting in the 1990s, which culminated in the September 11 attacks, only to revive their stormy relationship after the outbreak of the Syrian uprising.

It’s true that on one level Washington and the Salafis are bitter foes, engaged in a global war, but in Syria – as in Afghanistan before it – they share a common enemy that makes working together, however indirectly, too tempting to pass up. Salafism’s profound anti-Shia Muslim orientation fits so neatly with US interests in the region that Washington is often willing to overlook the consequences of lending support to such dangerous groups.

IV. Heart of Darkness

Among the central tenets of Salafism – and particularly its dominant Wahhabi brand – is a genocidal hatred of Shia Muslims, who are seen as heretics to the faith, a crime punishable by death. This deep hostility toward the Shia, particularly in the Syrian context, has reawakened the jihadi spirit that drew tens of thousands of Islamists to Afghanistan in the 1980s to save their Muslim brethren from the godless Soviets. The scenario is repeating itself today, but this time the evil empire is Iran, and Shia Islam is the new communism.

Such anti-Shia sentiments have spread to the most unlikely places, where neither Iran nor the local Shia Muslim community could possibly pose the slightest danger. Egypt, for example, recently saw the lynching of a Shia sheikh and his congregation in one of the ugliest displays of sectarian hatred witnessed in a country where the Shia constitute less than one percent of the population, and where Iran does not even have an embassy. Arab governments and their palace sheikhs, from the Gulf to Morocco, only add fuel to the fire by conjuring up Shia conversion campaigns or announcing the discovery of an Iranian spy ring every so often.

That is not to say the Salafis are poised to make a comeback on the wreckage of the Syrian crisis, although they have emerged with force for the first time in the Levant region, sweeping from parts of Iraq and Jordan into Syria and Lebanon. The majority of those active in Syria today tend toward the radical, al-Qaeda pole of Salafism; and despite gaining respect as motivated fighters in the opposition’s ranks, their ideology and many of their practices have not found much popular support in these new areas.

Eliminating these groups – even after defeating them militarily – has proven to be virtually impossible, as the experience of Afghanistan and Iraq have shown. In Iraq, for example, car bombs and al-Qaeda attacks took the lives of approximately a thousand people in the month of May alone, one of the highest monthly death tolls in quite some time.

As with the fascist movements that emerged in the West, it is impossible to conduct any kind of dialogue with the jihadis, for they are ideologically incapable of compromise. Their solution to society’s ills is to cleanse it by the sword, perhaps literally, as they have shown an affinity to lopping off the heads of their opponents.

Compared to their rule, the Brotherhood’s experience in Egypt will seem like a picnic, as the radical Salafis will pursue a total purification of society – perhaps not unlike Pol Pot’s reign of terror in Cambodia – in order resurrect their version of utopia. The fact that Levantine society is such a religiously and politically diverse landscape only means that the Salafi ascent to power will be that much bloodier. But even if their fortunes wane and they are soundly defeated on the battlefield, as in Iraq, it will not sap their ability to continue to cause death and mayhem for some time to come.

Bilal El-Amine is an editor at Al-Akhbar English.

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