Islam in the Arab Upheaval
Aiello: Do you see the outcome of the Egyptian elections (parliamentary and presidential) as surprising, or as predictable? Do you think that it signals long-term Islamist political leadership in Egypt, or could developments be different after future elections?
Schwartz: The election outcomes in Egypt were not surprising to those informed about the situation there; if free elections were held in 2005 we would have expected the same thing to occur. The election results in Morocco and Tunisia were a little more surprising. As far as the future, however – it is impossible to predict. But in my view, Egypt's role in the overall direction of Muslim politics is not as important as many think. Iran, the Hijaz region of Arabia (with Mecca and Medina) and Turkey are all more influential in the long-term geopolitical destiny of the region.
Clearly, the broader process of political change itself is not predictable, as shown by the way that the "revolutions" of the "Arab Spring" shocked almost everyone. But I believe the application of the word "revolution" is wrong. These were not chapters in a regional revolution, but a breakdown caused by the global financial crisis. Revolutions in the proper sense would have occurred when the rulers were incapable of governing in the old way, people were unwilling to live or be ruled in the old way, and a new system of social relationships was emerging to replace the old one. That was not that case in the "Arab Spring." Instead, I perceive it as a "crash" of the old system because of the impact of the global financial crisis on the Arab world. There is no new order rising, but simply an old order which has collapsed. Islamist ideology, as represented by the Muslim Brotherhood, does not represent a new social order, but a reactionary fantasy of return to a "pure" Islamic past.
Aiello: What do the Arab Spring and Islamist electoral success mean for liberal democratic values and rights in the future? Which Middle Eastern countries that have experienced political change are most likely to be dominated by Islamist parties and which are more likely to be secular and/or ethnic/tribal?
Schwartz: It hasn't been all Islamist political success – look at Libya, for example. The Libyan exception – defeat of the Muslim Brotherhood at the polls – has been treated by some commentators as irrelevant, but is the main source of hope now for Arabs and other Muslims who oppose Islamist dominance. The overall series of episodes should really have been called the "Islamic Spring," not the "Arab Spring." Iran is in a stalemate today between its clerical rulers and its domestic political opposition. Don't look at Egypt, where the Muslim Brotherhood existed as the main opposition for decades, or Tunisia where the Brotherhood was artificially boosted by Turkish and other foreign elements, including academics in Western departments of Middle East Studies. The countries you really should look at are Iran, Saudi Arabia and Turkey. These are the countries that have already experienced Islamist governance; if and when a political shakeup occurs in those countries, they won't be installing new, "more" Islamist regimes.
The challenge for liberal democratic values in some of the countries which have experienced change is that the process reversed the usual order. You can't have a revolution and establish a liberal democratic regime immediately. First there needs to be a civil society present, prior to the revolution. The Arab countries needed to create civil society before overthrowing those regimes.
Iran has a civil society sector; it's simply repressed by the government. Turkey has had one for a century. Saudi Arabia is now beginning to develop one. These will be the most influential players, and pieces are falling into place for sustainable political changes to occur there. In the meantime, above all, it is necessary to strengthen civil society and protection of women, Christians, and moderate Muslims, including spiritual Sufis, in countries where Islamists have taken power. And first, to bring an end to the bloodshed in Syria.
Aiello: What are the similarities and differences between political Islam groups (from the Council on American-Islamic Relations [CAIR] to the Muslim Brotherhood [MB]) and jihadi groups? Are there better labels or distinctions to be used? How might Islamist parties/movements in different countries differ based on demographics and domestic issues?
Schwartz: I dislike the way the term "political Islam" is applied as a synonym for radical Islam. "Political Islam" doesn't really mean anything. Anti-radical Islam, such as we in the Center for Islamic Pluralism support, can also be accurately referred to as "political Islam." We are political, but anti-radical. That is, we are conventional, traditional, spiritual, and moderate Muslims. There are also parties representing Muslim communities in political life without trying to create [an Islamic] state, in countries as diverse as Bosnia-Hercegovina and Bangladesh.
The general Islamist movement, as I previously noted, calls for a "reactionary utopia"— a return to their vision of the Islam of Muhammad, his companions, and his early successors. This conception is an 18th century invention. The Muslim Brotherhood tends to get more attention and exposure in the West because Hamas is their Palestinian branch, and now because of the electoral victories in Tunisia, Morocco, and Egypt. This is an error in perception; it underplays the role that other Islamist movements play and conflates groups that have nuanced distinctions. For example, the idea that Osama Bin Laden became radicalized by reading Sayyid Qutb is inane. Bin Laden was a Wahhabi, raised on Wahhabi education and propaganda in the Wahhabi kingdom of Saudi Arabia. He didn't need to read Qutb to become radicalized.
There is a triangle of Saudi-based Wahhabi funding, Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood literature and South Asian functionaries. The Wahhabi theological corpus is too difficult, and is not suited for most people to read; Brotherhood material is much more aimed at the ordinary Muslim. Saudi Wahhabis have financed groups and networks administered, mainly, by South Asian Muslims in the U.S., Canada, and Britain, and distribution of literature produced by the Brotherhood. A number of different front groups operate in the U.S.: the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), the Islamic Society of North America (ISNA), the Muslim Students Association of the U.S. and Canada (MSA). In all of them Saudi money, South Asian fundamentalist and jihadist functionaries, and Muslim Brotherhood literature triangulate. The Islamic Circle of North America (ICNA) represents a slightly different case, in that it is a front group for the Mawdudist jihadis of Jamaat-e Islami in South Asia. But the triangular relationship should be perceived correctly: Saudi financing (by individuals, not the current Saudi government) at the apex, administered by South Asian functionaries, and distributing Muslim Brotherhood literature. Neither the South Asian radicals nor the Muslim Brotherhood possess the assets available to the Saudis to spread Wahhabism globally.
Pan-Islamic movements have different forms and manifestations, but naturally they also have commonalities and overlap with one another; as pan-Islamic movements, they seek to lead the entire Ummah. I recognize six distinct forms: 1. Saudi Wahhabism, 2. Deobandi fundamentalism in South Asia, inspiring the Taliban, 3. Mawdudist jihadism, also in South Asia, with some historical differences between them and the Deobandis, 4. Khomeinism, 5. the Muslim Brotherhood, and 6. Turkish neo-fundamentalism as represented by Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and the so-called Justice and Development party, known as the AKP. The AKP maintains an alliance with the Muslim Brotherhood but there are obstacles to a closer Turkish-Arab Islamist relationship that Erdoğan has seemed not to have anticipated.
Qatar is Wahhabi but it is manifested differently from Saudi Wahhabism in that Qatar is a smaller and more cosmopolitan society. Everywhere else, however, Wahhabism is simply a copy or import of the Saudi ideology. The Saudi Wahhabi movement includes internal differences and fissures. South Asian Deobandis are similar to Wahhabis, but claim not to be opposed to Sufi mysticism. Both Deobandis and Mawdudists seek the establishment of an Islamic state, while Saudi Wahhabis leave the state in the hands of the royal family. Khomeini owed much to the writings of Mawdudi. Unlike Mawdudi, however, Khomeini did not claim Islamic precedents, but said his system for clerical rule, or "governance by the jurisprudents," was derived from Platonic philosophy and the idea of the "philosopher king." [Khomeinist] Iran was the first Muslim country in history to be ruled by clerics. In the historical Islamic empires, clerics advised the rulers, who were typically military. There are some exceptions, in which charismatic spiritual leaders created Islamic states, but they did not install the clerics as representatives of the state in political matters.
All other groups borrow concepts, ideas and tactics from these six. There is nothing new produced by Islamist groups in Timbuktu, in Nigeria, in Indonesia, etc., simply modified forms of the aforementioned groups. The AKP in Turkey, for example, is, as I noted, affiliated discreetly with the Muslim Brotherhood (although when the Turks tried to advise the Egyptian MB after the fall of Mubarak, their offer was rebuffed).
Aiello: Which groups (women, religious minorities, ethnic minorities, etc.) are at most at risk from Islamism in the Middle East?
Schwartz: This depends on the country. In Morocco, despite political gains by Islamists, the King enjoys popular support and his moderate position cannot be bypassed. In the Arab Gulf countries the situation is mostly stable. There is a certain degree of friction with the Shia populations in Saudi Arabia and Bahrain, but that is aggravated by Iranian propaganda and incitement. In general, Saudi King Abdullah has continued on a gradual reformist course. In Turkey, there is serious concern for all of these groups – women, ethnic and religious minorities. In Syria, due to the protracted conflict, there is now a legitimate concern for the welfare of the Alawites, Kurds and possibly the Christians, in the event that the regime falls; but in the meantime the main element of the population at risk consists of the Sunni majority, massacred by the army and mercenaries of Bashar Al-Assad. In Iraq and Yemen, the safety of all three types of minorities is a serious issue; the reprehensible imposition of FGM (female genital mutilation) is of particular concern among the Iraqi Kurds.
Aiello: What is the proper theological and policy response to Islamism?
Schwartz: Like the Soviet army in the '70s, Islamist ideology is deemed (and feared) as invincible. This strength is presumed to derive from a solid grounding in Islamic thought. These are both mistakes. In reality, all forms of extremist ideology are expressions of weakness, and, most often, of ignorance of the principles and precedents they claim to embody. German Nazis did not accurately represent German national culture; Stalinism did not adhere to the precepts of the classic socialist and labor movements; radical Islam does not reflect Islamic tradition.
Jihadists seldom act because of religion; there is almost always some other motivating factor at work. I interviewed three jihadi 'defectors' in Central Asia, and their personalities matched perfectly the character types you would find involved with a Stalinist communist party. There was the brilliant, charismatic individual frustrated in his yearning to become a leader, who became involved with radical Islam because of his inability to find a stable position in the existing society; the fanatic who needed the ideology to provide a simple explanation of the world, and the rank and file type who had just wandered in as if by accident, without any deep commitment to the cause or ideology.
Under Islamic law, individuals are not supposed to wage military jihad. Military jihad can only be legitimized via a decision by an emir or authorized military commander, or by the khalifa  (recognized by the majority of the Ummah.) Radicals proclaim themselves as the "emir" of jihad without reference to Islamic law. For a khilafat to exist, it must be located in the strongest Muslim state. Saudi Arabia, Turkey and presumably many other countries would all vie for that title; determining who to recognize as the khalifa would be impossible. Iran would not support a Sunni khilafat. [Interviewee note: Iranian and other Shias believe in an imamate, not a khilafat, which Shias consider a Sunni conception.]
Moreover, jihad against non-Muslims, to spread Islam, is only lawful when the Muslim army is stronger and superior to the opposing forces. No such situation exists today anywhere.
Thus, the issue has never been that of superior theological standing for proponents of Islamism. Like many other radical movements, Islamism preys on certain personality types who can be easily manipulated. Eventually the countries and populations which have suffered from Islamism will throw off its burden and we will see that that few if any of its followers represent an Islamic outlook based on tradition and precedent.
Aiello: How can Americans and other Westerners help promote democratic values without their efforts backfiring? Will an effective response to Islamism be endogenous, exogenous, or a combination?
Schwartz: Our efforts only backfire when we are ignorant of the nature of Islam in a particularly country. Our efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan were weakened because of this problem – in Iraq by underestimating the influence of Saudi Wahhabism on the Sunnis and Iranian power among the Shia politicians, and in Afghanistan by blindness to the nature of neighboring Pakistan as a state deeply penetrated by extremists. I admit having shared these mistakes in analysis of Iraq and Afghanistan myself. The models to follow for successful Western intervention are those of Kuwait, Kosovo, and Libya; that is, to identify local forces whom we can trust. In violent crises, we need to find people we trust, and support them with arms and with strategic assistance from our air forces. Sending in our own troops who are unfamiliar with local culture and politics, while fighting is taking place, or, alternatively, keeping local figureheads as Western pawns, or backing away from "interfering" with tyrants – these are tactics that have failed in the past.
The dismantling of the clerical regime in Iran will be the first step in the fall of Islamism; this will encourage a more rapid change in Saudi Arabia's political leadership in the direction of a constitutional monarchy, and political re-secularization in Turkey. After Libya, I doubt there will be more Islamist successes. Bahrain and Yemen are currently stalemated; Bahrain has the potential to become a more democratic regime while Yemen slides further into long-term chaos. Kuwait, Qatar and the UAE have been minimally affected. Thus the Islamists will have to settle, in the so-called "Arab Spring," for their advances in Tunisia, Morocco and Egypt.
 Editor's note: This would seem to be substantiated by the fact that of the countries most affected by the Arab Spring, including all regimes which fell, none comes from the affluent Gulf Arab states, of which Bahrain has been the only one to face a somewhat serious threat.
 Ummah – [global] Islamic nation.
 Khalifa – the caliph, or leader of the caliphate (khilafat).
Related Topics: Iran, Iraq, Kosovo, Muslim Brotherhood, Muslim-Christian Relations, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Turkish Islam, Wahhabism receive the latest by email: subscribe to the free center for islamic pluralism mailing list
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