Progressive versus Reactionary Islam
Since Sep. 11, I often hear Americans indignantly calling for a reformed and progressive Islam even though it is unimaginable that they would call for certain changes within Judaism, for example. Thomas Friedman has called for a war "within Islam,” and has written plenty on the subject. But who cares what Thomas Friedman has to say.
Calls for reform within Islam ignore the fact that there has been a reformist and progressive Islam that dates back to the 1950s and 1960s: it was the Islam that was promoted and supported by Egypt’s Nasser regime.
Back then and for much of the Cold War, there was a civil war within Islam: Saudi Arabia and the other pro-American dictatorships of the Middle East supported and promoted a reactionary and conservative Islam defined by the standards of Wahhabism—one of the most intolerant and exclusionary religious movements in Islam.
Nasser, on the other hand, promoted a very different Islam. His was an Islam that supported gender equality and promoted women and fought obscurantism. Nasser used Egypt’s foremost religious institution, the al-Azhar, through his ally, cleric Mahmud Shaltut, to push for a reformed and enlightened Islam.
It was under Nasser that al-Azhar opened its doors to women, and ended the takfir (declaration of infidelity) of Shiites by the highest religious establishment.
Shaltut and Nasser never made the distinction between Sunnis and Shiites (it is unthinkable that Nasser would ever speak in such language given he avoided any sectarian language about Muslims and Christians). But Nasser did not have only Saudi Arabia and its wealth against him: He also had to contend with the US and Western governments.
In the service of Israel and taking into account Cold War interests, the US supported the reactionary version of Islam and the creation of Muslim organizations backed by Saudi Arabia because it was more worried about communism and leftism.
The US fought fiercely against Nasser’s progressive Islam because it was in the same camp with Saudi Arabia and other Gulf monarchies who promoted conservative values and doctrine.
It was in the context of this war between the two Islams that the violent groups emerged. Nasser marginalized and even expelled those fanatic clerics of the Muslim Brotherhood who would later inspire Al-Qa`idah and other such groups. All those reactionary clerics who did not subscribe to the progressive views and interpretations of Shaltut fled Egypt and were hosted by Gulf monarchies who hired them as educators, advisors, clerics, and TV personalities (in the case of Yusuf Al-Qaradawi in Qatar for example).
Many of those reactionary clerics were instrumental in setting up constitutions (Hasan Turabi advised several of the Gulf states) and in injecting Islamic laws (or conservative interpretations of Islamic laws) into their body politics and society.
This war went on for years, and Nasser scored big in this battle: some new republics and old ones (Libya, Syria, and Iraq) were influenced by Nasser. Even Syrian Muslim Brotherhood leader Mustafa Sibai was on the defensive and wrote a book titled “The Socialism of Islam.” The Ikhwan were made to look like apologists for a dead order. Nasser (accurately) associated that Islam with its sponsor: Saudi Arabia. It was the Islam that serves colonialism, he argued.
But Nasser died in 1970. Sadat (with an eye on Washington), released all the Islamist extremists from jail and unleashed them on Egyptian college campuses. This gave rise to the most militant clerics: people like Aymad Dhawahiri and Umar Abdurrahman. Sadat (and his Saudi allies) wanted the Islamists to go after the leftists and the Arab nationalists. Secularism was dealt a severe blow: its towering and most credible sponsor, Nasser, was dead. (Of course, Nasser could—and should—have gone further in his secular advocacy but he was constrained by virtue of the religious one-upmanship that his enemies were engaged in and by virtue of deep conservative religiosity in Egyptian society).
After the 1970s, we entered into the Saudi era and it translated into a victory for reactionary Islam. That Islam received another boost in the 1980s, when the US devoted billions and weapons to sponsor it in Afghanistan. The rest is distorted history.