Towards a new Arab cultural revolution

Alastair Crooke

Originally posted on Asia Times Online, 12 June 2012

The “Awakening” is taking a turn, very different to the excitement and promise with which it was hailed at the outset. Sired from an initial, broad popular impulse, it is becoming increasingly understood, and feared, as a nascent counter-revolutionary “cultural revolution” – a re-culturation of the region in the direction of a prescriptive canon that is emptying out those early high expectations, and which makes a mockery of the West’s continuing characterization of it as somehow a project of reform and democracy.

Instead of yielding hope, its subsequent metamorphosis now gives rise to a mood of uncertainty and desperation – particularly among what are increasingly termed “‘the minorities” – the non-Sunnis, in other words. This chill of apprehension takes its grip from certain Gulf States’ fervor for the restitution of a Sunni regional primacy – even, perhaps, of hegemony – to be attained through fanning rising Sunni militancy [1] and Salafist acculturation.

At least seven Middle Eastern states are now beset by bitter, and increasingly violent, power struggles; states such as Lebanon, Egypt, Libya, Bahrain and Yemen are dismantling. Western states no longer trouble to conceal their aim of regime change in Syria, following Libya and the “non-regime-change” change in Yemen.

The region already exists in a state of low intensity war: Saudi Arabia and Qatar, bolstered by Turkey and the West, seem ready to stop at nothing to violently overthrow a fellow Arab head of state, President Bashar al-Assad – and to do whatever they can to hurt Iran.

Iranians increasingly interpret Saudi Arabia’s mood as a hungering for war; and Gulf statements do often have that edge of hysteria and aggression: a recent editorial in the Saudi-owned al-Hayat stated: “The climate in the GCC [Gulf Cooperation Council] indicates that matters are heading towards a GCC-Iranian-Russian confrontation on Syrian soil, similar to what took place in Afghanistan during the Cold War. To be sure, the decision has been taken to overthrow the Syrian regime, seeing as it is vital to the regional influence and hegemony of the Islamic Republic of Iran.” [2]

What genuine popular impulse there was at the outset of the “Awakening” has now been subsumed and absorbed into three major political projects associated with this push to reassert primacy: a Muslim Brotherhood project, a Saudi-Qatari-Salafist project, and a militant Salafist project. No one really knows the nature of the Brotherhood project, whether it is that of a sect, or if it is truly mainstream [3]; and this opacity is giving rise to real fears.

At times, the Brotherhood presents a pragmatic, even an uncomfortably accomodationist, face to the world, but other voices from the movement, more discretely evoke the air of something akin to the rhetoric of literal, intolerant and hegemonic Salafism. What is clear however is that the Brotherhood tone everywhere is increasingly one of militant sectarian grievance. And the shrill of this is heard plainly from Syria.

The joint Saudi-Salafist project was conceived as a direct counter to the Brotherhood project: the Saudi aim in liberally funding and supporting Saudi-orientated Salafists throughout the region has been precisely to contain and counter the influence of the Brotherhood [4] (eg in Egypt) and to undermine this strand of reformist Islamism, which is seen to constitute an existential threat to Gulf state autocracy: a reformism that precisely threatens the authority of those absolute monarchs.

Qatar pursues a somewhat different line to Saudi Arabia. Whilst it too is firing-up, arming and funding militant Sunni movements [5], it is not so much attempting to contain and circumscribe the Brotherhood, Saudi-style, but rather to co-opt it with money; and to align it into the Saudi-Qatari aspiration for a Sunni power block that can contain Iran.

Plainly the Brotherhood needs Gulf funding to pursue its aim of acquiring the prime seat at the region’s table of power; and therefore the more explicitly sectarian, aggrieved discourse from the Brotherhood perhaps is a case of “he who pays the piper” … Qatar and Saudi Arabia are both Wahhabi Salafist states.

The third “project”, also highly funded and armed by Saudi Arabia and Qatar – uncompromising Sunni radicalism – forms the vanguard of this new “Cultural Revolution”: It aims however not to contain, but simply to displace traditional Sunnism with the culture of Salafism. Unlike the Brotherhood, this element, whose influence is growing exponentially – thanks to a flood of Gulf dollars – has no political ambitions within the nation-state, per se.

It abhors conventional politics, but it is nonetheless radically political: Its aim, no less, is to displace traditional Sunnism, with the narrow, black and white, right and wrong, certitude embedded in Wahhabi Salafism – including its particular emphasis on fealty to established authority and Sharia. More radical elements go further, and envision a subsequent stage of seizing and holding of territory for the establishment of true Islamic Emirates [6] and ultimately a Kalifa.

A huge cultural and political shift is underway: the “Salafisation” of traditional Sunni Islam: the sheering-away of traditional Islam from heterogeneity, and its old established co-habitation with other sects and ethnicities. It is a narrowing-down, an introversion into a more rigid clutching to the certainties of right and wrong, and to the imposition of these “truths” on society: it is no coincidence that those movements which do seek political office, at this time, are demanding the culture and education portfolios, rather than those of justice or security. [7]

These Gulf States’ motives are plain: Qatari and Saudi dollars, coupled with the Saudi claim to be the legitimate successors to the Quraiysh (the Prophet’s tribe), is intended to steer the Sunni “stirrings” in such a way that the absolute monarchies of the Gulf acquire their “re-legitimisation”‘ and can reassert a leadership through the spread of Salafist culture – with its obeisance towards established authority: specifically the Saudi king.

Historically some of the radical Sunni recipients of Saudi financial largesse however have also proved to be some of the most violent, literalist, intolerant and dangerous groups – both to other Muslims, as well as to all those who do not hold to their particular ‘truth’. The last such substantive firing-up of such auxiliaries occurred at the time of the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan – the consequences of which are still with us decades later today.

But all these projects, whilst they may overlap in some parts, are in a fundamental way, competitors with each other. And they are all essentially “power” projects – projects intended to take power. Ultimately they will clash: Sunni on Sunni. This has already begun in the Levant – violently.

Salafism both of the Saudi, and the of radical, orientation are being fired-up in Yemen, Iraq, Syria, Lebanon [8], Egypt, north Africa, the Sahara, Nigeria, and the horn of Africa. No wonder Russia is concerned: Central Asia [9] is unlikely to prove immune either. Its leaders do recall, only too well, the impact on Russia’s backyard, of that earlier “stirring” associated with Afghanistan.

They find it difficult to understand how Europeans can again “look aside” from what is occurring for the transient domestic “pleasures” of been seen to “take-down dictators”, when this new radical stirring across the Middle East, Africa and tentatively Central Asia, is happening right on Europe’s own doorstep – just across the Mediterranean.

The evolving cultural shift has another dimension – one first pinpointed by the Turkish foreign minister more than a year ago: The “Awakening”, the minister said, marks the end of a historical chapter of the divisions imposed on Muslims by the great powers when they fragmented, and divided up the old provinces of [Sunni] Ottoman rule. Ahmet Davutoglu saw the “Awakening” principally as a “coming together” again of Muslims – an “undoing” of an historic fragmentation.

Not surprisingly, this theme of a pan-Muslim community, and the reclaiming of the Sunni sphere, is increasingly heard today. [10] Davutoglu did not mention the word umma ; or community of believers, but many now are. And it is a discourse that greatly frightens the many in the region , who do not want to be labelled or treated as “minorities”; and thus forfeit their self-identity as equal citizens – with all its eerie echoes of the Ottoman Sunni Muslim hegemony. [11]

This cultural shift toward re-imagining a wider Muslim polity (no one for now is suggesting dissolving their own nation-states, although the prime minister of Tunisia has suggested he anticipates the beginning of the Fourth Caliphate) holds important implications for the Palestinian-Israeli conflict too.

Over recent years we have heard the Israelis emphasize their demand for recognition of a specifically Jewish nation-state, rather than for an Israeli State, per se. A Jewish state that in principle would remain open to any Jew seeking to return: a creation of a Jewish umma, as it were. Now it seems we have, in the western half of the Middle East, at least, a mirror trend, asking for the re-instatement of a wider Sunni nation – representing the ‘undoing’ of the last remnants of the colonial era.

What will this mean for Palestine? Will the demand for Palestinians’ legal rights to a nation-state, be affected too by this cultural impulse towards a wider Islamic nation and polity? Will we see Palestinian rights , grounded in the nation-state concept gradually metamorphosize into a more explicit, meta-national Islamic aspiration? Will we see the struggle increasing epitomized as a primordial struggle between Jewish and Islamic religious symbols – between al-Aqsa and the Temple Mount?

It seems that both Israel and its surrounding terrain are marching in step toward language which takes them far away from the underlying, largely secular concepts by which this conflict traditionally has been conceptualized. What will be the consequence as the conflict, by its own logic, becomes a clash of religious poles?

This prospect may sound gloomy to some – perhaps even a little threatening – but this is largely because the Middle East is so often approached without any real homework being done; without regard for international law; without regard for the UN charter, and without regard for the rights of nations to be themselves in their own way.

Inherently unsound and inflated Western expectations – when they implode – always have resulted in the ubiquitous call for “something to be done” which now has come to mean “something being done” through by-passing international law, sovereignty and the UN, and dictated by an Orwellian, self-selecting, “Friends of …” grouping – however disastrous the consequences of “that something” may turn out to be.

Syria has become the crucible of these external coercions; with events in Syria [12] being defined by this hugely potent deployed Gulf power for the purpose of building their “new Middle East”; rather than being defined by some over-simplistic narrative of reform versus repression, which sheers Syria away from its all-important context.

Many Syrians see the struggle now not so much as one of reform – though all Syrians want that – but now as a more primordial, elemental fight to preserve the notion of Syria itself, a deep-rooted self-identity amidst fears that touch on the most sensitive, inflamed nerves within the Islamic world. Not surprisingly for many, security now trumps reform.

Undoubtedly the region is entering a profound and turbulent struggle to define its future, and that of Islam. But this phase may not prove as defining as some may think (or hope): Whilst the Gulf has pursued its objectives a outrance, it is also vulnerable.

The Saudi king may aspire to unify the Sunni world to his vision, but he is unlikely to succeed in this way: his harsh vendetta towards Assad is not unifying the region, it is souring it; and the recourse to militant Sunnism is fomenting civil, violent struggle in many states: in the Levant, and beyond, it is already pitting Sunni against Sunni.

Syrian self-identity, as for many others in the region, was never a sectarian one, but was rooted in a belonging to one of the great nations of the region with a “model of society” which had “more religious freedom and tolerance … than in any other Arab country”. [13]

Syrians did not view themselves as primarily identified by sect. Wahhabi-style sectarian intolerance is foreign to the Levant, even to Levant Sunnism. We are already witnessing, in Egypt, for example, push-back against movements seen to be motivated primarily by considerations of sect – even from those who see themselves as Islamist. They seek not another type of strait-jacket. The question is being asked: has the Brotherhood switched from “patience” to “domination”? There is a sense now of something fundamentally lost: with this authoritarian re-culturization – where now is any real reforming, revolutionary zeal?

1. The Ottomans are back! Well, not really where they wanted to be…, Hurriyet Daily News, April 27, 2012
2. The Dangers of a Protracted Crisis in Syria, Al Arabiya English, March 3, 2012
3. The Two Faces of Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood, Der Spiegel, May 22, 2012 4. Saudi Arabia Embraces Salafism: Countering The Arab Uprising? – Analysis, Eurasia Review, Jan 13, 2012
5. Arab World: Qatar, Midwife of the new Arab world, Jerusalem Post, Jan 20, 2012
6. A Sunni Emirate in the North, Al-Akhbar English, May 18, 2012
7. The Two Faces of Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood, Der Spiegel, May 22, 2012 8. Lebanon’s Sunni Street Takes Charge, Al-Akhbar English, May 21
9. SCO struggles to counter Arab Spring, Russia & India Report, May 14, 2012
10. Questions over Arab states’ legitimacy, Gulf Times, May 23, 2012 11. Do Arabs want Turkey to lead the Arab awakening?, Hurriyet Daily News, May 1
12. Tripoli Becoming Staging Area For Jihadists en Route to Syria, Al Monitor, May 23, 2012
13. The Lebanonization of Syria, French Center for Intelligence Research, Jan 2012
Alastair Crooke is founder and director of Conflicts Forum and is a former adviser to the former European Union foreign policy chief Javier Solana from 1997–2003.


  1. Héctor wrote:

    Please, can you say me what is the meaning of “heterogeneity” in “the sheering-away of traditional Islam from heterogeneity”? I wait your answer. Thanks. Héctor – Buenos Aires

  2. Richard SM wrote:

    To Hector in Buenos Aires. The author, Alastair Crooke, has me reaching for the dictionary – and I’m British! As I understand it, and perhaps others will correct me,
    Alastair Crooke is saying the Salafists want a very clear, defined, (purer?) unequivocal form of Sunni Islam instead of it being in its present broader multi-coloured, multi-shaded state.

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