Something Curious is Happening to Sunni Islam

Alastair Crooke

This article is republished with the permission of Al-Akhbar English 

Something very interesting is happening within Sunni political Islam. As its religiosity increasingly becomes an externalized, very visible, almost secularized outer projection – one associated, on the one hand, with public social good works; and, on the other, with an emphasis on the external aspect of texts, law, and its collectivized manifestation of Islamic ‘identity’ (for example in the wearing of Islamic dress and public display of piety) – it may appear that movements such as the Muslim Brotherhood are placing themselves increasingly at odds with secular modernity. This has become almost axiomatic in the western understanding of what is happening in the Middle East today.

But on closer examination, however, this axiom turns out to be quite wrong. Quietly, almost unnoticed, mainstream Sunni Islamism has been, over the years, preparing – not some withdrawal from secular modernity into some inner sanctum – but its Islamist takeover, as the means to establish a new, pan-national, social sphere: an umma (a global ‘nation’ of believers) grounded in the social media of the Internet era, that ultimately will bring to fruition the notion of a modern Islamic state, in Muslim majority societies.

To this end, the Brotherhood and its allied movements have been doing things that might surprise westerners. They have been de-ideologizing Islam: that is to say, the Brothers have been unobtrusively, but deliberately, de-linking from Islam’s intellectual tradition, by creating in its stead, an undefined, ambiguous, non-doctrinal ideological framework. And they have been using this de-ideologized, essentially social framework as the umbrella by which pragmatic, frankly secular initiatives have been pursued – with an eye to their non-doctrinal socioeconomic ends, and as the best route for the achieving of secular power.

This Sunni current is, unlike its Shia and Sufi counterparts, quite plainly severing itself from what we might call ‘interiority’, from an actualized knowledge arising from within the human, in favor of mounting an externalized Islam of collective political action, in which mainly secularly-educated Islamists are proud to appropriate the ‘tools of modernity’ for their purpose in creating a new Islamic social sphere.

Indeed, mainstream Sunni Islamism increasingly is defining itself – not in opposition to western modernity – but to Shiism. It is by this means opening the path to the West; at the same time that it has linked itself in terms of its religiosity to an attenuated cluster of Islamic symbols associated with Salafism (emulation of the Salaf – those pious Muslims who formed the early communities associated with the Prophet and the first four Caliphs). And here is the paradox: Sunni Islamism is at once appropriating elements of modernity, but at the same time its intellectual closening to Salafism goes unremarked.

In the Arab ‘awakening’, we have heard much from Sunni Islam about worldly power politics, but almost nothing about any metaphysical meanings to the awakening. In this, the awakening stands in marked contrast to the 1979 Iranian Revolution, which reached out, to give the Iranian people a metaphysical explanation for their suffering (every day is Ashura) and a direction: clearing out their own inner abode for a return of al-Mahdi, the symbol of justice). The Sunni awakening – so far – rests almost entirely on externalities – on matters of political power and achieving power.

By interiority, I mean the notion in Islam that the world cannot be truly experienced or known solely through the condition of the outwardness of objects; but rather, by virtue of interiority – which is to say that invisible world of forces, of pattern and meaning which shapes our visible world – there exists an inner dimension to the world (and our psyche) which humans need to enter, in order to know themselves and to understand their relationship to the world more fully. One of the most powerful insights in Islam has been the requirement to keep these tensions between inner and outer in harmony, for in the traditional Islamic vision, they co-constitute totality, no less.

The question then, is to where this experiment in externalized Islam will lead: It has already led the Brothers to office in some states – notably Egypt and is consolidating its hold in Turkey. Sunni Islamism now has achieved a certain secular power, and may add yet further to its holdings. But will it become the slippery slope leading more Muslims toward a ‘secularized Islam’ for which the West fervently hopes: A secular structure to life and the state, with metaphysics shooed from the public sphere, and attenuated down to private, discreetly articulated speculation?

Or, will Sunni Islam respond to the inevitable reverses, and the likely retreat of popular consent, inherent in any managing of complex, contemporary societies, by sliding increasingly towards a more Salafi authoritarian hue, to the more authoritarian worldview of their current Gulf sponsors (a recent Pew poll suggested that 61% of Egyptians would now favor a Saudi style of governance for Egypt)? The Brotherhood is ideologically closer in sentiment to Salafism than many might assume. Or, will this particular experiment simply fizzle out, to be replaced by another? In short, is the western postulate that entry to governance somehow leads to ‘moderation’, likely to be borne out in this particular instance?

One recent book that gives us some indirect insight into the important and intriguing shift underway on Sunni Islamism is Sara Roy’s Hamas and Civil Society in Gaza (Princeton University Press, Princeton and Oxford, 2011). The book is not intended as an analysis of contemporary Sunni Islam, but nonetheless, it does contain some quite iconoclastic reflections about how this experiment in Sunni Islamism has fared in Gaza. Roy’s objective simply was to challenge the dominant meme that defines Hamas only as a terrorist organization: an assumption which gives ‘cover’ to the implicit correlate that all Islamic institutions therefore must be mere adjuncts to such terrorist intent.

Sara Roy makes no bones about her distaste for Hamas’ military wing’s ‘terrorism’, and she does not conceal her secular leanings, or her background: So we may allow, perhaps, for her unduly uncompromising assessment that there never was in Palestine any appreciable support for a political agenda based in Islam; that Palestinians in her experience, are deeply secular, and that Hamas’ 2006 substantial victory at the polls, merely illustrated the failure of its political ideology (but the success of its social good works), adding that Hamas similarly failed, politically and socially, to generate any real optimism; or to bring any transformation of the popular consciousness.

But it is in respect to Islamic NGOs, that Roy gets to the meat of the issue. And here she paints an unexpected picture, one which will surprise many in the West. What she found was that Hamas-linked institutions were characterized by being extraordinarily apolitical, and frankly quite secular, at least in their programs. These are differentiated, she states, more by their flexibility, openness and tolerance, rather than by their doctrinal or political orientation. In fact, she argues, it was precisely the Islamic institutions that have been laying the foundation for civil society in Palestine more forcefully than their secular counterparts, which have been diverted from this focus by being more global and outwardly orientated.

Thus the dominant western conceptualization of Islamic social activism in Palestine as a conveyor belt carrying its largely passive human cargo toward radicalism and destructive violence “is highly oversimplified, stereotypical, and at odds with the actual facts on the ground” (Hamas and Civil Society in Gaza, p 186). Again, in another iconoclastic blow, Roy says that even the view that these institutions instil rigid doctrine is wide of the mark too: whilst all such institutions in the Hamas ambit subscribe to Islam as a ‘way of life’, their interpretation of what this might mean, Roy says, has varied widely, “encompassing a range of institutions and individuals who speak in diverse voices – not just one – and not always to each other” (Hamas and Civil Society in Gaza, p 186-187).

In fact, Roy found no real evidence of institutional links between such on-the-ground activism and the Hamas political structure; nor even an ideological preference for religion or politics in these charitable institutions’ programmatic work: Roy found rather, an approach to institutional work that was not dogmatic, or rigidly ideological, in favor of one that favored incrementalism, moderation, order and stability.

Why so? In this respect, Hamas, in common with the Brotherhood out of which it emerged, views Islam as an all encompassing system, a dynamic field of interrelated networks – a crucible in which politics, education, ethics, economic and social activity all interpenetrate – if based in Islamic values – in a way that is self-reinforcing. Thus far is standard Islamic thinking; but where the Brotherhood moved beyond this, is in positing that community or social activism conducted at the external plane, in itself, can become the moral womb of human transformation. Some may see in this, a parallel with the Puritan Christian ethos, whereby pursuing one’s mundane calling, or worldly labor in life, in itself was the path to Grace.

The Sunni perception, grounded in the hadith (sayings by the Prophet), that those Muslims who formed the first Muslim communities, ‘were living at the best of times’ has had an enduring influence in Sunni Islam, and has provided the key for the Muslim Brotherhood to construct an ideology – a notion of Islamic democracy – that on the one hand, sits well with ‘modernity’, whilst on the other remains rooted in Islam. In this vision, the first Islamic community was precisely a pluralistic civil society (rather like contemporary civil society), with its first constitution reflecting this condition, by meshing all the varied communities of Medina together in the context of one social community: the umma.

So strong has been this attachment to the significance of the first communities (that is, those associated with the first four Caliphs) that the Muslim Brotherhood evolved a notion of legislation, not as the preserve of rulership, but as the domain of society. The pivot to this notion was the ulema (scholars): The latter cleaved to society, interpreting sharia (Islamic law) and thus set the limits to the ruler, whilst effectively acting as the conveyor and advocate of popular will to the governor, since their legal opinion only carried weight from having been widely accepted in society. In this concept ‘society’ and its intellectual leaders, becomes the only fount for legitimate authority, and assumes a greater importance than government itself: it becomes the beating heart of the whole ‘state’ system.

Whether such a system is more ‘imagined’, as some would argue, than ever truly existed, in the historical context of the violent turmoil which engulfed the first Muslim communities, is neither here nor there.  For reformist Islamism, in contrast to the rigid Salafi clinging to its unique authenticity and authority as the defining characteristic of those early communities, this notion, whether imagined or not, has become the widely accepted basis to Islamic democracy. It also underpins the conviction that to build the social sphere and its institutions, ultimately, is no less than to build the umma, and eventually, to actualize the Islamic ‘state’.

Although for the influential thinker, Sayyid Qutb, the sharia constituted such a complete system that it needed no accompanying legislature; for Hamas, it needs to be augmented by other legal systems and sources of knowledge, which include western, as well as Islamic, legal traditions and which would find their articulation through a state council, or shura.

What is so compelling in Sara Roy’s description of Hamas’ practice of constructing this social sphere, is how daawa (or Islamic Call), becomes for Hamas, the very act by which Islam is realized. That is, it becomes the enactment of the notion that religiosity can, and should be, activated through mundane, professional, effective social activism. The leaders in this sphere in Gaza were men and women, who had, for the most part, received a secular education in Egypt and the United States, and who had returned to Gaza as professionals – doctors, dentists, pharmacists and engineers.

As a group, they lacked any formal Islamic training, but realized their religiosity through a path which was rooted in the ‘doing’; in either political or social activism, in other words, it was through externality and action, rather than from any metaphysical interiority and inner knowledge, that their Islam sprang. Shia Islam similarly places an emphasis on social activism, but crucially qualifies this with the condition that it must be supplemented and germinated by individuals who precisely have achieved a transformation of their own consciousness and knowledge, and who are able then ‘lift’ the whole community to another mode of being and consciousness.

In contrast to this, Hassan Banna, who had founded the Brotherhood in 1928, had early on, rejected the very idea that it was important to meticulously study the Islamic intellectual tradition at all, beyond reading the Quran; and had even questioned the usefulness of the Islamic legal schools. This lack of religious instruction was far from being viewed within Islamist circles as a drawback: On the contrary, secular and scientific training was viewed as particularly apt in that it equipped Islamist leaders to draw on the ‘tools of modernity’, that is: to draw on secular tools, in order to interpret Islam in ways that addressed the “practical and mundane problems of Muslims”(Leila Ahmed, A Quiet Revolution, Yale University Press, 2011, p 99).

Hasan Turabi, a highly regarded, Islamist leader in Sudan, expressed this theme of disdain for expertise in the intellectual tradition, by stating that because all knowledge is divine and religious, then a chemist, an engineer, an economist or a jurist should equally be considered ulema (Islamic scholars).

What is being suggested then, in this current of Sunni thought, which reaches back from Hamas to the foundation of the Brotherhood, is that Islam be not closely defined or interpreted; but rather Islam – as such – should serve as a an open ‘framework’ for the purpose of pursuing a range of largely pragmatic, secular initiatives: “In this sense, it could be argued that Hamas was pursuing a form of secularism from  within. It was not religious or ideological purity or consistency that the Islamist social sector was pursuing overall, but the implementation of good works…where socioeconomic change was the criterion by which the Islamists were increasingly judged”, concludes Roy.

This Brotherhood’s unobtrusive ‘disassembly’ of the formal, intellectual structure of Islam, and its muster – now as a ‘virtual’ image of those early Muslim communities, having been assembled, not as an exact copy; but rather, as a composite drawn from the (best) of practices within modernity, as well as from the past – originated from the mind of the quicksilver figure of Banna.

Though initiated into a Sufi order, Banna’s chameleon-like qualities made it never easy to pin down whether he truly was Sufi or a Salafi. This opacity however was deliberate. Banna sought to create, through the Brotherhood, a ‘big tent’ Islamic nation that could ‘bury’ its theological differences behind a new ground of non-doctrinaire ‘identity’, with all its specific commitments being made to an externalized, outward piety and collective lifestyle and dress.

Opaqueness allows movements the opportunity to slither this way and that on fundamentals; and whilst the movement may still point to Banna’s Sufi antecedents as indicative of a certain ethos toward pluralism; it is clear, that in practice, the ambiguity has covered a slide in the opposite direction. The falling away of the foliage of heterogeneity and pluralism has been starkly evident in the denuded stalks of privilege and entitlement claimed by the Muslim Brothers of Syria over other opposition groups, in their conflict with the Syrian government, as confirmed by senior opposition figures.

Banna’s original intent was to create a visible, outer, Islamic identity, in opposition to the secular West; an identity that would cut across all national frontiers, arch over the head of all sovereignties and leaders, and which would give to this new umma, its ground of identity. By such process, the emergent ‘nation’ would be made ready for the eventual institution of Islamic government, ruled by the laws of Sharia. Of course such ‘identity construction’ always is enacted at the plane of literal politics – It is about externalities – and stands far removed from ibn Sina’s struggle for the angel of the Self – the aspiration to uncover the ‘innate’ Self.

And it is precisely here that the quiet shift has taken place: Under the cover of the ‘big tent’ the Brotherhood has silently, but deliberately been shifting the opposing polarity: the explicit identity against which Sunni Islamism has sought to define itself. No longer an attempt to give Muslims a sense of belonging, a recovery of self-esteem and of values: up against the overwhelming paradigm of western thought; the focus of its opposing polarity has been carefully re-shaped to bring the Brotherhood to power as leaders of a Sunni regional bloc.

It is in this context that many in the region today bridle at the concept establishing a new umma. Few have problems of the umma as symbol of tawhid (the unitive view of our cosmos and being). It becomes more problematic only when the umma acquires a clear hegemonic purpose.

Thus, whilst it remains axiomatic for external observers to think of the Brothers and the Saudi Wahhabi orientation of Salafism, in particular, as antagonists. This was never true at the outset, and cannot be said to be true today, even if relations with Saudi Arabia per se are frigid. The reality is that Banna’s ‘virtual’ notion of the early community, and the Wahhabi literal mimesis of the same, are both rooted in the one and the same premise: namely, that the practices of the early community confers a legitimacy and authority that trumps the early intellectual and philosophical tradition, with all its overtones of interiority and, as significantly, its diversity of practice. In short, both orientations are essentially closer than often assumed, and their commonality lies in the fundamentalism (in the true meaning of the word), by which they view Islam.

To this end, increasingly the opposing pole to Sunni identity has slithered away from western cultural dominance, to being defined in contradistinction to those orientations of Islam that remain with the intellectual tradition, including the Sufi orders, to which Banna himself was initiated, as well as to Shiism.

There is, of course, no doubt that real tensions between the Brothers and certain Salafis do exist: the Brothers espouse social justice, and see ‘society’ as the legitimizer of authority, in marked contradistinction to the Saudi insistence on the absolutist monarchy. Yet in spite of this difference, the Brothers have in the past collaborated closely with the Wahhabis (as Salafis) in a joint endeavour – and even today the Brothers again are working in conjunction with another Wahhabist monarchy: Qatar – for the common objective of disseminating Brotherhood rule throughout the Middle East, and establishing a new hegemony, financed from billions of Qatari dollars.

The first episode of this Salafis-Brotherhood collaboration essentially dates back to the 1954 assassination attempt on President Gamal Abdul-Nasser – an attempt which the then Egyptian government said had been carried out by the Brotherhood; and which resulted in the organization being banned, its leaders arrested and many thousands of its supporters imprisoned. Persecution, imprisonment, torture, and execution of the Brotherhood continued in Egypt, with growing ferocity, through the 1950s and 1960s. During these years of persecution, many among the Brotherhood’s leadership, went into exile; significantly, many went to Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states, where they were generally welcomed.

Throughout this same period, Saudi Arabia, now profoundly at odds, even at ‘cold’ war, with Nasserist Egypt, was emerging as a new force in the region. Drawing on its gathering wealth, Saudi Arabia, in the 1950s, first began its efforts to counter and to undermine the Nasserite socialist, anti-monarchical discourse that the kingdom found so threatening, by spreading its own Wahhabi orientation of complete obeisance to traditional authority across the Muslim world.

In 1962, Saudi Arabia established the Muslim World League (Rabitat al-Alam al-Islami): the intention being to establish an ‘Islamic bloc’, in which the Brothers were represented, to stand “against Baathist regimes”(Reinhard Schulze and Gabriele Tecchiato, Muslim World League, in the Oxford Encyclopedia of the Islamic World, Oxford Islamic Studies Online). Backed by almost unlimited funds, the Saudis responded to Nasser’s socialist discourse with a barrage of rhetoric and criticism directed at him personally, and at his government – in the hope ultimately, of seeing him overthrown. In Syria, however, the Brotherhood animosity toward the Baathist government moved well beyond propaganda, and by 1964 had already flared into something like a religious war.

The Saudi counterblast against secularist Baathism insisted vociferously that Islam, and not socialism, can form the only ground of identity among Muslims, and that Muslims should anchor their identities in political activism in Islam alone. To an important extent however, the League was only able to pursue its goals by drawing on the skills and manpower of the Brothers who had come to Saudi Arabia to escape persecution in Egypt.

It was thus often members of the Brotherhood who, backed by the League’s resources, who now oversaw a tsunami of rhetoric, disseminated through pamphlets and the media, whose broad objective was that of undermining and discrediting Egypt’s ‘irreligious’ president – much in the same manner as these two forces are today allied with Doha and Riyadh in seeking the overthrow of President Assad of Syria.

Thus present turmoil in Syria should be seen as only the latest, if by far the most violent, episode in the long war between Islamists and nationalist-secular Baathists, which dates back to the founding of the Syrian Baath party in 1947. Again today, the Brotherhood and Gulf States’ ultimate aim in Syria is the taking of power – with a reconstituted Syria becoming a key building block for a new, Sunni bloc, just as originally envisaged in the founding objectives of the Muslim World League. The main difference between now and then is the sectarian focus on President Assad as a ‘minority’ Shia, and the threat arising from a prospective Shia bloc (President Assad and the Alawites belong to a Shia orientation), led by Iran, rather than the secularism of the government, which was the issue in the 60s and 70s.

These deep roots to the present conflict in Syria – reaching back through three major episodes of Brotherhood violence: firstly, during the late 40s; secondly, in Hama in 1964; again in Hama in 1982, and now climaxing with an epic struggle to depose President Assad – inevitably must put into the question how truly committed the Brothers are to ‘big tent’ pluralism – given the deep hostility to secularism evinced by the Brotherhood in Syria over 60 years.

We see here, in this latest manifestation, the progressive shifts in the way Sunni Islamism has been defining itself: Originally this new Islamic identity – a joint effort by Saudi Arabia and the Brothers – was to be defined in terms of its polar opposition to the western paradigm; then it was in opposition to the ‘irreligious, secular socialism of Nasser’ and the Baathists; but under the influence of Saudi and Gulf sectarian rhetoric aimed at Iran, it seems that the Sunni Islamist identity increasingly is being defined in terms of an oppositional pole, which is no longer to be western secular ideology as symbolized by the Socialist Arab Republics, but simply to Shiism in the round.

When the 1973 Arab oil embargo sent oil prices into a sustained soar, Islamist scholar, Gilles Kepel has remarked, the sustained flow of petro-dollars suddenly offered the Saudis the vast means to pursue its “ancient ambition” for establishing hegemony over the Muslim world; and of spreading its Wahhabi orientation to the world (Gilles Kepel, Jihad: The Trail of Political Islam, trans. A. Roberts, Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, Mass., 2000, p 69). After 1973, the activities of the League grew exponentially: Saudi zeal now embraced the entire world. The Saudi objective, Kepel observes, was to ‘Salafize’ Islam, thereby reducing the “multiple voices within the religion” to the “single creed” of Saudi Arabia (Jihad: The Trail of Political Islam, p 70-73). In short, the aim was to limit Islam to a restricted array of symbols drawn from the early communities, which would then be invested in a solidly organized dogma and ritual, under the authority of the Saudi King.

So it was, that everywhere throughout the Muslim world, the building of mosques was accompanied by the distribution of texts and teachings promoting Salafism. The irony of this massive effort is that, as it was being disseminated across the world, so this teaching was being significantly inflected by with the teachings of Sunni Islamism, and most particularly by those of the Brotherhood, whose members were essential to the spread and advancement of Saudi Arabia’s global project. In Kepel’s words, “the Muslim Brotherhood [had] grafted their political interests onto the Saudi oil pipeline.” (Jihad: The Trail of Political Islam, p 173)

As Kepel describes it, it was largely through the Brothers resident in Saudi Arabia, working through the international organizations which they controlled on behalf of the kingdom, that the Brothers quietly carried out their own program of global expansion, whilst at the same time quietly giving the Saudi insistence on a return to the ‘purity’ of the first Salafi communities, a twist towards the primacy of ‘society’, which fitted with their own ideological need to offer people the trappings of contemporary democracy. It was a ‘twist’ however which ruthlessly undercut the interests of their employer!

Of course, the Saudis recognized the dangers to themselves inherent in the Brotherhood’s manipulation; but possibly the profundity of the danger has been grasped too late. It may be too late for Saudis to stop the Muslim Brotherhood’s appropriation of the present Arab ‘awakening’ from lapping at the feet of the Gulf autocrats – in spite of today’s imprisoning by Saudi Arabia of many of these Brotherhood intellectuals, in an ironic reversal of events in the ‘50s and ‘60s. Some 26,000 political prisoners are said to be held in Saudi goals today.

Such Brotherhood ‘pragmatism’ may sound comforting to some westerners, who have consistently supported all Saudi efforts, firstly to circumscribe Nasserist ideology, and to weaken Iran. Perhaps too, what is meant when some in the West speak of the ‘awakening’ going the in ‘right’ (i.e. the West’s) direction, is that the Brotherhood’s ‘de-ideologizing’ of Islam, and its willingness to appropriate aspects of secularism, are viewed as tokens of Sunni Islam moving toward western ‘values’.

It is indeed very possible that the Brotherhood will prove to be programmatically secular – as the evidence from Hamas in Gaza strongly suggests – but the very the logic of the Brothers having centred themselves on the unique, but narrowly-conceived authority and symbolism of the Salaf, or ‘pious forbearers’, would imply a swing – not toward western values – but in totally another direction: towards an ever more rigid and inflexible interpretation of that Salafi community. It is also possible that we shall see both secularism and authoritarianism emerging together – as witness the Gulf.

But idealized, ‘social’ societies are not easy to instantiate in complex, plural, contemporary nation-states. This surely is the point that Sara Roy has been making: Despite all Hamas’s efforts, it has not apparently yielded an overwhelming desire by the people to instantiate Islamic rule in the microcosm of Gaza; and it may not work in the yet more complex macrocosm of contemporary Egypt.

And if this abstract reconstruction of Medina society as the Islamist intellectual framework, fails ‘to lift’ the Egyptian people out of their troubles sufficiently, will not the very framework, on its own terms, impel Sunni Islamism inevitably towards a grasping after that authority and purity, ever more rigidly and literally understood? Like ‘force’, if force does not work at first, the call goes out for more force: and if the ‘model’ does not work at first, so the call will go out for more ‘model’. And ultimately, Brotherhood-style, Sunni Islamism may reach the point at which it simply merges into Salafism – committed more to its authority, rather than its spirit, which is to say, that the model simply hollows out.

As the emphasis heightens on a highly structured experience that employs a very small number of approved religious symbols (the Salaf) to give articulation to an abstract purity inherited from (an idealized) distant past, little room may be left for any more immediate religious experience. The attribute of ‘purity’ after all, is not a historical reading, it is a structured edifice: The ‘partisans of Ali’ (who were to become the Shia) were there from the outset, as was the tension between interiority (batin) and exteriority (zahir).

But a more profound question however goes back to this assertion that Hamas failed to change appreciably the consciousness of the people. If Roy is right on this finding, it suggests that Brotherhood social activism, whilst valued and appreciated, and which did create a following for Hamas, yet ultimately failed to effect a transformation of human beings as a whole: It did not somehow create that immediacy of a direct, spontaneous encounter with a ‘living’ Islam, and its fuller symbolism. It did alleviate; but still, it would seem, did not provide a refuge from the anxieties, barrenness and meaningless of Gazans’ existence. Understandably, it could not ‘free them’ politically, that is to say literally; but perhaps, significantly, it could not do so metaphysically either, it seems.

The original Arab Renaissance of the late nineteenth century did try to maintain, in figures such as Jamal al-Din al-Afghani, something of a balance between the two poles of interiority and externality in Islam;  but in this recent period, the singularity of this experiment lies not just with its ad hoc appropriation of aspects of secularism, but with its attempt to re-ignite Islamic religiosity from a ground in a small number of ‘approved’ symbols, the Salaf and their texts, as substitute for an immediate, personalized religious experience.

No, it is almost as though Sunni Islamism, through that early close co-partnership with Wahhabism, has shifted in defining itself – not just in opposition to Sufism and Shiism in the round – but to interiority itself. Is this just a temporary reaction to the present Saudi tension with the Shia – the orientation which together with Sufism symbolizes interiority and will wane with time – or does this suggest a more profound dynamic at work within Sunni Islam?

Alastair Crooke was formerly a European Union mediator with Islamist movements including Hamas, and is currently director of Conflicts Forum. He is author of Resistance: The Essence of the Islamist Revolution (2009).


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