Conflicts Forum’s Weekly Comment 1- 8 November 2013

Conflicts Forum

As an appeal against a Court ruling imposing a complete ban on the Muslim Brotherhood, and requiring the seizure of its assets, was overturned this Wednesday, and as President Morsi in this same week stood in the dock facing charges that carry the possibility of a death sentence – an important chapter in the history book of the Sunni Islamic movement (or political Islam) has been slammed shut.  It may be imagined that the MB’s woes are but one single strand snapped within the elaborate fabric of Islam, and that ancient institutions such as Al-Ahzar march on; but the implications of the violent overthrow of the Muslim Brotherhood go far deeper:  It touches on the wider nexus that goes to form Sunni identity itself – how Muslims, both observant and ‘secular’, will come to ‘see’ themselves:  Will Islam in consequence be secularized, to fit with our materialist age, or will these events provoke a possibly violent response, or even re-capture to Islam some of its historic legacy – but in contemporary form?

Not only has a global mainstream Sunni movement seen its whole strategy of ‘permeating’ legitimately its vision of an Islamicate society into power implode, but the constellation of events accompanying it has possibly torn down with it Saudi Arabia’s hubristic claim to lead the Sunni world (pitting the al-Saud in a new war of bitter attrition against major Sunni Islamist clusters over which it had claimed a self-appointed ‘authority’ as the leader of Sunni Islam).  This event seems too, to be set to blow fresh winds across the embers of the old animosities still smoldering on between ‘nationalised’ (i.e. bureaucratically controlled ‘state’ Islam in Egypt), and the Islamic movement – as the continuing violent student protests on the Al-Azhar campus attest.  Given the broader hatreds that are tearing Egyptian society apart, what happens now to populist Islam – still a major constituency, especially amongst the poor?  Why should populist Islam not – at least in part – disintegrate and degenerate into the literalist, violent, aggrieved, xenophobic patchwork of jihadist movements – such as we now observe in Syria?  It may well do so.

Until now, the region saw itself configured along the divide of a ‘moderate Sunni axis’ versus a Shi’i ‘arc’. And the MB construed itself within such a framework – it was a part of ‘moderate’ Sunni Islam.  From the perspective of the MB too, they had acquired the position of Wali al Amr, that is to say, they had been vested with legitimate authority in Egypt and therefore rightly should command the allegiance of Egyptian Muslims. But instead, they were illegally overthrown at the instigation of the very power whose sole legitimacy hangs on the principle of Wali al-Amr  –  the al-Saud.  The paradox has been sufficiently severe to throw not just the Brotherhood into disarray but much of Salafism too, of which Wahhabism is one orientation within it.  Many Salafists in Egypt and beyond concur that the MB was indeed rightly Wali al-Amr – and Islamically was wronged by being deposed.

In brief, the MB ‘model’ of Islamism may well have imploded, and now stands in need of re-conception, but so too has Saudi standing as the upholder of Sunni Islam become the ‘collateral damage’ to its assault on the Brothers.  The tensions set up by the al-Saud directly inciting a westernized, secular government (in Egypt) to kill, imprison and crush Islamists has fractured Sunni Islam much more widely than the Brotherhood alone.  Many Salafists in Egypt and beyond, not surprisingly, are siding with the MB in seeing the Saudi inspired assault by Sisi as an attack – not just on the Muslim Brothers– but on Islam itself.

But if Saudi Arabia has been the detonator which has imploded both the MB model’ (and by extension its own mainstream Salafist ‘model’ which is founded in the same political theorising related to the practice of ‘the pious Muslim forebearers’, or Salaf), Saudi Arabia cannot be held wholly responsible for the present disarray and schism within Sunni Islam.  The seeds of this were sown much earlier, though Saudi Arabia certainly has exacerbated the trend towards Islamic exteriority – the quest for power and material ‘this worldiness’ in Sunni Islam.

One scholar of Islam, Dr Faisal Devji, has made the apparently counter-intuitive point that political Islam, far from being the assertive political manifestation that is claimed for it, from the outset has suffered from the flaw rather of never being political enough – that is, of not being truly political, at least in terms of the expectations raised by it. Seyed Mawdudi (b 1907) for example, had as his primary aim the rolling-back of what he saw as the encroachments of western intellectual hegemony over that which he considered to be the preserve of Islam.  His work was not intended as the founding of a new political ‘idea’.  His works contained no political theory, though Mawdudi did touch on Leninist ideas.  But, then after the Turkish abolition of the Caliph and the Umma in Attaturk’s secularisation project of the 1920s (thus symbolically abolishing Sunni power), and at a moment when Islam was in distress, it began to evolve the notion of the Salaf as a political ‘project’, and not merely as a source of religious emulation.  This was the global era of ‘big’ ideas: nationalism, the nation-state, socialism and Baathism.  And Islam needed to be recast  in a way that seemed to answer to the ethos of the age, as well as to the young who were drifting away from Islam towards socialism. It was at this point that Islamism became ‘populist’ in its thrust to recover the youth that the friction with al-Azhar began. It was only during the later period (the 60s and 70s) that Salafism was given the intellectual polish (ironically by the Muslim Brothers then in exile in Saudi Arabia) which was to give to it the academic respectability in the Islamic world which until then it had lacked.

In gist, this new Islamist ‘project’ focused on giving Muslims a ‘political identity’ in a very externalised form (the wearing of Islamic dress, public signs of piety, etc.) – a stylised political identity that in itself was originally a western political notion, of course.  Political Islam also incrementally adopted a very externalized doctrine, with an emphasis on attaining political power.  Religiosity, for example, was held to spring from social and political activism rather from human inner transformation.  All these shifts effectively severed Sunni Islam from its historic discourses, and gave to it a form of ‘this world’ utopianism – again a largely secular western notion – though now founded on a supposedly ideal community of the early Muslim adherents.  Sunni Islam gave up ‘interiority’ and embraced a utopian quest to replicate – in some way, and in today’s complex world –  an idealized (and somewhat imaginary) society.

It was this utopian vision that crashed in Egypt.  It was not enough, it is now clear, to suggest that if Egyptians simply were to follow the example of the Salaf, all their many problems would disappear – erased in the emergent utopian sentiment of a new order. In short, the MB was not political enough. It was hungry for power, but had not theorized the political, or become truly political. The utopia imploded.  So what comes next?  What has already occurred is that the MB leadership has been severed from the street — the movement has gone underground, and more seriously, it seems that its basic popular structure – the building blocks of the movement – local groups of seven members known as usras – are under pressure, and in some cases are disintegrating.

Fairly clearly, after its flirtation with political power and its ignominious ending, many young Muslims (MB and Salafists) are saying to their leaders, ‘we told you so – this was never going to be permitted: The lesson is that we must burn the system before it can be truly reformed’. In short, their analysis is that the MB, far from being too exclusionary of others, rather were too accommodating of the ‘deep state’ and the generals.  Their leaders naively imagined that the remnants of deep state could be somehow won over, and co-opted. The lesson then for many young Muslims is that power must be ‘taken’ – and then ruthlessly held.  In short, we may expect to see the emergence of more violent disparate movements committed to the jihadist policies of destroying the nation-state in order to establish ‘foothold’ emirates.

Some Mulsim Brothers, more likely the more recent influx of ‘businessmen-Brothers’, may simply cross over into full-flower secularism, but their influence may be small as the ‘secular-Islamism’ of Erdogan and the AKP which based itself on the belief that in espousing liberal-market economics, an Islamist government might inoculate itself against western intervention to displace them from power, has also lost its standing in the Arab world.

Interestingly, however a number of Islamist thinkers recently have been pointing to a very different conclusion to be drawn from the Egyptian experience: they point precisely to the basic contradiction inherent in an overly externalised Sunni Islam, which has lost, and may never be able to replace, the inner life (as Imam Khomeini successfully did for Shi’i Islam). They call for a re-balancing, and hint that in the longer term Sunni Islam must rediscover its interiority – and that this must be understood as the principle lesson of Egypt.

The bigger point here is the present, fractious disarray within Sunni Islam with its fault lines now cutting into the sect, and slicing it, Sunni from Sunni: Islamic ‘seculars’ versus Islamists, jihadists versus non-jihadist Muslims, ‘nationalized’ Islam versus populist Islam, the countryside versus the urban élite. No longer does the old sectarian frontier bisecting between the Sunnah and the Shia replicate the wider political and intellectual disarray into which the region has fallen: all the so-called Sunni political ‘models’ for the region (Turkish, Gulf, Egyptian, etc. have been found wanting politically and economically under the stress-test of the Arab upheaval).  And similarly, at the strategic political level, the implosion of the Carter doctrine and the flagging of western will, is now splintering the ‘axis’ of moderate Sunni states – who were precisely configured around the now flagging unipolar power.

As former US Ambassador Chas Freeman has noted, “The simple world of colonial and superpower rivalries is long vanished. The notion that one is either ‘with us or against us’ has lost all resonance in the modern Middle East. No government in the region is prepared now to entrust its future to foreigners, still less to a single foreign power. So the role of great external powers in the region is becoming variable, complex, dynamic, and asymmetric rather than comprehensive, exclusive, static, or uniform.”  It is precisely here that Saudi Arabia feels so vulnerable: from being quite comfortable in the un-demanding role of kingpin to the ‘axis’ configured in polar opposition to the Shi’a ‘arc’, it now finds itself adrift in a variable, complex, dynamic and asymmetric new world.

Some suggest that neo-nationalism will be that which will fill this unnerving void. Perhaps. But if Egypt is their evidence for a nationalist revival, then it is not convincing.  On what principles will the new Arab nationalism be founded?  The original socialism on which it was built is no longer available.  Neo-liberalism has not been a success in the Middle East. What would be the vision that underpins this nationalism?  Or, will it be no more than a personality-cult masquerading as nationalism?

In Egypt, in which events will be crucial to the shaping of the region’s future, developments look increasingly like an outbreak of class-war, Pinochet-style, that is unfolding, rather than some new national project. Tolerance everywhere is in retreat. The upper bourgeois and monied classes (mostly assertively secular) cleave to their strongman idol, whom they adore with as much fervor as they despise and revile those subversive ‘communists’ (cf Latin America) or the ‘terrorists’ (cf the MB in Egypt) of the lower orders.  Friday sermons, the appointment of mosque imams and religion is to be controlled by the state apparatus (see here) – And already Pinochet-like, the rumours of the ‘disappeared’ amongst the now reviled Egyptian ‘sub-class’ are rife.  We now also hear stories of disaffection amongst the lower ranks in the army and of intimations of coups to follow the coup. Who knows?


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