Barack Obama was elected as the apostle and agent of change. He hasn’t been able to bring about much change, but is now likely to get his fill dealing with it ‒ not in the US, but in the Muslim world. What has happened in Tunisia and Egypt is not some passing phenomenon. There is a wave of change surging through Muslim countries, and it is likely to ebb and flow for a long time. Obama (and his successor) are going to have their hands full coping with it. As will other powers. For this is the latest phase in the relationship between the Muslim world and the rest.
The first phase of the West’s encounter with Islam was one of conflict, from the containment (and later eradication) of Moorish Spain, to the Crusades, and then the inroads of the Ottoman Empire into Europe. The second phase was the colonial one, when Europe occupied and ruled over Muslim lands. The third began with these countries winning their freedom after the Second World War, but was characterized by Western influence (and even control) being exercised in them through dictators, monarchs and oligarchs. The fourth phase is beginning now, with the Muslim peoples rising up against these rulers and seeking to wrest power from them and their Western patrons.
The relationship of other powers to Muslims has generally followed the same pattern, but has not yet fully matured. Russia still holds some Muslim peoples in colonial subjugation, while controlling others, nominally independent, through friendly dictators. China’s Muslims are still at the colonial stage. Both Russia and China face the same challenges as those the West has already faced or is facing now.
To deal with this surge sweeping through the Muslim world, the West (and, principally, the USA) needs to understand what is behind it, where it’s coming from, where it’s going. The first point to realise is that this phenomenon is occurring throughout all the Muslim lands, though its intensity and form will differ in different countries due to their particular circumstances. However, there are certain generic factors causing this upsurge in all of them, though to varying degrees.
The major factors underlying the turmoil (actual or potential) in Muslim countries are: over-population, economic privation, large disparities in wealth between those at the top and the rest, lack of opportunity, large-scale corruption, state repression and lack of freedom, absence of governance and rule of law, and foreign dominance. Certain recent positive trends have caused these negative factors (which have prevailed for long but have recently intensified) to now acquire the potential to lead to an eruption: a preponderance of young people in the population, wide access to information through the internet and TV, and in some countries (e.g, Tunisia, Egypt, Palestine, Lebanon, Iran) lots of educated young people.
The above factors only make the ground ripe for change; what transforms that potential into an actual movement for change is the work of activists. These are of two basic types: the educated, secular-oriented young (whom we have seen appear prominently in Tunisia and Egypt), and Islamists. The former are limited to the few Muslim countries that have large numbers of educated young people, in most the agents of change are likely to be the latter. Even in the former countries, because the educated youth have no political organization (none were tolerated by the dictators), the Islamists, because of their organization and dedication, are likely to play an important role in how the change develops.
The term “Islamist” has been bandied around a lot in recent years in Western discourse ‒ in the media, academia and policy-making ‒ but without much understanding of the reality behind it. However, to deal with the change taking place in the Muslim world in any rational and coherent fashion, it is necessary to understand this phenomenon objectively, and not as it has been painted by those with vested interests (such as Muslim dictators, Israeli functionaries or neocon ideologues): as religious extremists or worse.
There is no generally accepted version of what Islamists are, or their different kinds. I shall not adopt any particular academic view of the phenomenon, but will discuss it from a perspective that makes it easier to understand developments in the Muslim world, and the role that Islamists play (or may be expected to play) in them.
Islamists are activists whose main motivating force is Islam; their aim is to improve the condition and status of Muslims, to bring them to a level appropriate for followers of this faith, a level that they believe they were at sometime in the past. There are two main types of Islamists: political and religious. Both seek inspiration from Islam’s earlier days, but they look at different aspects of that history.
Political Islamists hark back to the glory days of the Islamic empire, when Muslims were not only the principal power in the world but also had the most advanced civilization of the time. What they seek to achieve is to increase the political, economic and military power of the Muslim world, and to bring these countries closer together. They can be thought of as Islamic nationalists, with the ‘nation’ being the ummah, the worldwide Muslim community. That is why it is easy for them to work with (plain) nationalists, and vice versa. Some examples of this category are the ruling AKP party in Turkey, the Ikhwan (Muslim Brotherhood) in Egypt, and the Hizb al-Nahda (Renaissance Party) of Tunisia.
Religious Islamists derive their inspiration from the idealized “perfect” society of early Islam, and seek to recreate it through the observance of Islamic laws (shariah) and practices in their country. As such, their horizon usually does not extend beyond their own country, and they are not much interested in international or regional power dynamics. Since the laws and practices they espouse differ between various sects/schools, they are sometimes in conflict with other religious Islamists (especially sharp are the divisions between their Sunni and Shia versions). They are mainly conservative and inward looking (in contrast to political Islamists). Examples of such organizations are the various religious parties and movements in Pakistan and India, the Wahhabi movement in Saudi Arabia, and the Taliban in Afghanistan.
The concerns of these two types of Islamists are not mutually exclusive. Political Islamists accept and often adopt Islamic practices, and pay at least lip service to shariah, though, generally, their primary adherence is to Islam’s values and ideals, its ethos and culture, its spirit rather than form. That is why such Islamists of all denominations, including Shia and Sunni and even the non-practising, can easily work together towards their common goal.
Similarly, religious Islamists acknowledge the desirability of Muslim countries getting closer and becoming stronger. Within each category there can be variance among their members in the degree of importance they attach to these objectives. However, the principal goals of the two types of organizations are different, and they do not let these other (theoretically) desirable ends prejudice the pursuit of those. Consequently, they sometimes work with each other, but often engage in competition or even conflict.
Due to their different goals and approaches to Islam, these two types of Islamist groups appeal to different types of adherents. The political variety attracts younger urban dwellers, generally better educated, often professionals, relatively well off, whereas religious Islamists tend to be from rural or small-town backgrounds, with lower educational and income levels, older and more conservative in outlook.
There are two other types of Islamists, who lie at either end of the spectrum. On the lower-impact side are the missionaries; their main activity is to bring people into the fold of Islam through proselytising, as well as to bring about a spiritual reformation among secular or non-practising Muslims by persuading them to become more observant of their faith (the biggest example is the Tablighi Jamaat). Their (unintended) impact is to increase the numbers of potential adherents to the other Islamist categories.
At the other end of the Islamist spectrum are the jihadis (jihad basically means “struggle”, but this term is now generally used for those who resort to violence or armed struggle in the defence (as they see it) of Islam). The modern jihadi phenomenon was, interestingly, created with the active assistance of the USA. Eager to intensify the Afghan insurrection against the 1980s Soviet occupation of their country, the US encouraged and assisted Pakistan and Saudi Arabia in converting a nationalist struggle into an Islamic jihad. Its success in ousting the ‘mighty’ Soviet empire served as incentive and model for other Islamists.
Those Islamists who take up armed struggle (jihad) do so in response to what they perceive as attacks by foreigners on Muslims or their land, or its occupation, including through the agency of local Muslim “puppets”. Such have been the jihadi attacks in Kashmir and its occupier, India, the Pashtun jihad currently under way in Afghanistan, the Taliban insurgency in Pakistan, Hamas’s campaign against Israel, etc. Even the attacks on the USA by al-Qaeda were claimed to be in response to US support for the Israeli occupation of Palestine.
Jihadis can be Islamists of either kind ‒ political or religious ‒ and, while their immediate aims relate to their struggle, their ultimate goals are those of their original category. Thus, the Taliban in both Afghanistan and Pakistan are religious Islamist jihadis, while al-Qaeda is a political jihadi organization, as is the military wing of Hamas.
To sum up, Islamists are activists whose main motivating force is Islam. The two main types of such parties or movements are political Islamists and religious Islamists. It is wrong to think of these parties as exclusively either one or the other type, rather the criterion is: which is their primary orientation? These distinctions are not academic, but have important practical implications for the policies these organizations follow, many of which affect the rest of the world. Jihadis are offshoots of one or other of these two types of Islamists, and have the same ultimate goals as their original type.
As we said earlier, to deal rationally with the change bubbling up throughout the Muslim world, the United States and the West need to understand it, especially the aims and motivations of the activists who actualise and lead it. This point is illustrated by discussing a few examples below.
The upsurge in Egypt is making headlines these days. The US has welcomed the change and lauded the young people whose actions brought it about. At the same time it is expressing anxiety as to the role the Muslim Brotherhood (the Ikhwan) might play in the future. If it is understood that the Ikhwan are political Islamists (i.e, Islamic nationalists) then it should be clear that they are not going to prove to be religious extremists. This is important because the Ikhwan are likely to play an important role, in alliance with secular nationalists, in the future of Egypt. (This same situation prevails in Tunisia with respect to al-Nahda).
In Afghanistan, the US claims that its principal goal is to prevent al-Qaeda from re-establishing a base there. Because it believes (or, at least, says) that AQ and the Taliban are linked, it is continuing its war against the latter. The fact is that these two are different types of Islamists, with differing ultimate goals. The Taliban want to re-establish their religious state in Afghanistan (or, at least, part of it), not to wage jihad outside their borders (they appear to have offered as much several times). Understanding their goals would have enabled the US to end its Afghan war while achieving its stated goal (if it had really wanted to). As it can still do today.
The problems of economic deprivation and governance that led to the Egyptian uprising have all been present in Pakistan for some time now. But it doesn’t have the secular, young, middle-class activists who triggered it there. The other main reason that Pakistan didn’t blow up before Egypt did is that its Islamists are of the religious variety. They are not interested in the issues that caused the Egyptian revolution. However, when there were some signs that the country’s blasphemy law might be amended, they shut down the country with a strike call and brought out enough people in protest to form a 2-mile long procession in a provincial metropolis, causing the government to hastily back down. The story here would have been very different if these had been political Islamists!
Iran is ruled by a (often uneasy) coalition of religious and political Islamists. The former are predominant in the clergy and the judiciary, while the latter are prominent in the presidency and government. A failure to understand this dichotomy led to the US and the West rebuffing the attempts by the moderate President Khatami to establish better relations. Similarly, the 2009 protest movement was seen as an uprising of secular youth against the religious establishment. While many of the young people were undoubtedly secular-minded, the leadership comprised political Islamists; if they had succeeded, the government would still have been an Islamist one, though more moderate.
An important development in the Muslim world took place recently in Turkey. Prime Minister Erdogan consolidated the position of his AKP party in the country, which enabled him to turn outwards. From being the sick man of Europe and the poor man knocking on Europe’s door, he brought Turkey back into the Muslim world as its leading nation. Led by political Islamists, Turkey will play an important role in the renaissance of the Muslim world. Western observers who view Turkish actions through the paradigm of the Ottoman Empire completely miss what is going on.
The changes occurring in the Muslim world, both on the surface and beneath it, are going to affect the rest of the world for quite some time to come. To deal with them sensibly and rationally it is necessary to understand the forces and the dynamics behind them. The United States, with its worldwide interests, has a lot at stake in getting it right.
© FB Ali (Feb 2011)