By Robin Lamb
Robin Lamb argues that the appeal of political Islam has severly diminished in most countries, but what comes next may not be any better.
This chapter first appeared as blog on the Royal Society for Asian Affair’s website. It will appear in the e-book ‘The Future of the Middle East’ co-produced by Global Policy and Arab Digest, and edited by Hugh Miles and Alastair Newton.
Political Islam has dominated political doctrine in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) for the last forty years. But jihadi violence has contaminated its image (but not the faith of most Muslims) and regional support across the Middle East and North Africa is receding in the face of recent experience. If political Islam has not run its course, it is diminished. Its alternative in most regional perceptions is not democracy but autocracy, including military regimes.
The leap in oil prices and revenues during the 1970s transformed the status and influence of traditional Sunni monarchies in the Arabian Peninsula and the Gulf. Among other effects, it generated funding for the spread of Saudi Arabia’s strict and exclusivist brand of Islam across the Muslim world and beyond.
At the end of the decade, the 1979 Islamic Revolution in Iran underlined the resurgence of Islam as a political force . The conclusion drawn by Western governments was that political Islam was a key factor in the region and had to be accommodated. This assessment was reinforced in the UK by the imperative of respecting the beliefs of British Muslims in a multicultural society.
Aside from the Gulf states, Morocco and Jordan, early C20th Arab attempts to assert national identity through monarchies presiding over parliaments gave way in the 1950s and 1960s to secular military/security regimes legitimized by Arab nationalism, socialist policies and fake democratic institutions. But first monarchies and then republics failed to deliver economic, social and, in the confrontation with Israel, national satisfaction.
Moreover, both parliamentary democracy and socialism were imported ideologies which did not fit easily with the region’s political, economic and (for some) religious traditions. Islam in contrast is home-grown, has a history of past military and intellectual superiority and offers lessons (but rarely uniform paradigms) for government, economy and society as well as personal belief.
The Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in December 1979 followed hard on the heels of the Iranian Revolution and presented the Islamic world with the prospect of another invasion of a Muslim country by an external power.
Among other consequences, the invasion attracted foreign fighters from across the Muslim world and in due course enabled Osama Bin Laden, in 1988, to create Al Qaida (AQ).
In 1991, a military coup in Algeria frustrated the election of an Islamist government and precipitated a lengthy civil war pitting Islamist irregulars against a military regime. This reinforced perceptions of the power of political Islam, further strengthened by massive growth in political support in Egypt for the Muslim Brotherhood (buoyed by well-funded social welfare programmes) which professed a non-violent, democratic approach to its relationship with government and Western society.
In this it departed from the jihadist ideology developed by Pakistani theologian Abul Ala al Maududi (d.1979) and the MB’s own former ideologue Sayyid Qutb (d.1966). It also set itself at odds with AQ and other jihadist organisations, such as the Gama’at Islamiyya and Takfir wa’l Higra, and attracted their contempt.
AQ’s series of spectacular terrorist atrocities culminating in the 9/11 (2001) destruction of the World Trade Centre’s Twin Towers in New York underlined the importance to policy makers of identifying representatives of political Islam offering adherents an alternative to jihad and willing to cooperate with regional governments and external powers.
This combined with recognition of the need to avoid feeding into the AQ narrative or giving offence to Muslim populations susceptible to radicalization. The continued presence of US forces in Saudi Arabia after the liberation of Kuwait in 1991 did both which led to the eventual agreed removal of US forces from Saudi Arabia to Qatar in 2003.
Support for political Islam and jihadism has drawn strength from broader hostility to the West engendered by religious, social and cultural dissonance. This has included divergences on religion and its role in society, the norms of social behaviour (confusing some Muslim observers who accuse the West of immorality), the relationship between government and people, freedom of speech and association and the treatment of women.
Politically, the Arab world has been offended by past colonial occupations and since the mid C20th by the absence of successful international action to protect the Palestinians from the existential threat posed by Israel to their aspirations to nation and statehood.
More recently, the 2003 invasion of Iraq and international military action against the Taliban in Afghanistan have fed a single narrative myth alleging uninterrupted Western hostility to Islam dating back to the Crusades (1096-1272 AD).
The radicalising effect on some Muslims living in Western societies, including young people born and bred in Western countries (but faced with the complexity of reconciling competing cultures as they mature), has been widely reported.
But the Arab Spring of 2011 was notoriously instigated not by Islamist movements but by young people rebelling against repressive regimes. They were motivated by the urge to protest illiberal policies and the absence of economic and employment prospects. But experienced, organized and well-funded Islamist organizations were able to exploit events and fill a vacuum of revolutionary leadership.
In Egypt, the Muslim Brotherhood won power by constitutional means – but failed to follow Turkish President Erdogan’s (then) example of delivering stability, security, control of the military establishment and economic growth before (as now) pursuing an autocratic Islamist agenda.
In contrast to the Algerian experience, the military coup which overthrew the MB in 2013 was therefore widely supported, obtained electoral endorsement and has been able to repress the Brotherhood without arousing serious popular opposition. The Egyptian government faces a security challenge from jihadi groups but not an existential threat.
In Libya, the Muslim Brotherhood and its local analogues did not even get as far as electoral success. Elections were held but Islamist candidates were roundly beaten.
They might have expected to do better: before 2011, Libyans provided a disproportionate number of recruits to AQ and the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group (LIFG) was one of the leading forces arrayed against the Qaddafi regime.
In the event, although rejected by the electorate, they used their organizational and military strength, determination and battle experience to subvert the result of a succession of elections and impose their will on elected parliaments. But while they could, and did, help frustrate efforts to build a new Libya, they could not assert national control against the strength of opinion and the array of militias ranged against them.
UK and international policy in Libya has been to promote a reconciliation involving all factions to reduce the risk that excluding one could cause the collapse of the political process.
Thirty years of accommodation with political Islam and Libya’s story since 2011 have favoured inclusivity. But total inclusivity may now inhibit a successful political process if it gives any veto to Libyan organisations and individuals seen by the rest of the population as having placed political Islam ahead of their more secular and quotidian political and economic aspirations.
In short, the Egyptians have experienced a Muslim Brotherhood government and did not like it. The Libyans never wanted one and have seen the damage the imposition of political Islam by force can do to their own hopes and prospects.
But the Egyptians and Libyans are not the only Muslims to have blanched at regional examples of what political Islam in its extreme form can mean.
The atrocities committed by the ‘Islamic State’ in Iraq and Syria (Daesh to give it its – rare – Arabic acronym) have traumatized the people of both countries and caused revulsion among governments and peoples across the region. The Muslim Brotherhood, which had seemed to Western governments – and some Arabs – to be a moderate organization they could work with, has been tarred by association and by its failure in government. It is now one of the targets of the Saudi-led campaign against Qatar and seems to have few champions.
If Mao saw the revolutionary as a fish in a sea of sympathetic (or enforced) support, jihadism floats on a lake fed by a number of tributaries – doctrinal, financial and fanatical – without which it would dry out. Few of the parties involved in the dispute around Qatar’s foreign and information policy can claim not to have fed that lake in one way or another.
They may exercise plausible deniability. Saudi Arabia may argue that the law of unintended consequences applied when they spread a theology that excoriated fitna (religious discord) and thought itself politically quietist (but is essentially takfiri);
Egypt may point out that jihadi doctrine was developed by a political dissident but Sayyid Qutb’s organisation was later rehabilitated and long tolerated; several Gulf countries may claim that funding was provided by private individuals including ruling family members who held no government position but formal and informal state controls failed to stem the flow of substantial funds.
In short, the roots of political Islam are more complex than the perceived misbehaviour of a single actor. But the experience of desolation inflicted by the jihadi extreme has driven most Arab governments and peoples to reject political Islam (but not their Muslim faith) and the risks of parliamentary democracy in favour of the security of military and traditional autocracy. This needs to be taken into account by Western governments in their interactions with the Arab world.
Robin Lamb was formerly British Ambassador to Bahrain and is now the executive director of LBBC. He is also a member of the Council of the RSAA.