EL PUZLE ISLÁMICO: Batallas internas en el islam político

Published in Spanish in Vanguardia Dossier, July/Sept 2014

Islamic society and politics in the Middle East are riven by two schisms today that have produced violent instability that is set to continue until a critical moment, such as the fall of a regime such as that in Iran or Saudi Arabia, or a historical compromise between the two. It would be hard to choose one as more unlikely than the other in the current situation. Both conflicts are products of the past generation and though they have developed separately it is possible to see a link between them if we consider the Islamic Republic in Iran as a Shi’ite mirror image of the political Islam that the Brotherhood and movements such as Ennahda, Hamas, Islah are representative of within a Sunni framework.

The sectarian schism, while of ancient pedigree, evolved in an entirely new fashion after the Iran revolution. Iran instrumentalized Shi’ism in a movement of anti-Western anti-imperialist rebellion across the region. Shi’ism became the language of opposition in Bahrain, Saudi Arabia’s Eastern Province and Lebanon, and in some of those states and other territories where Shi’ites were numerically strong regimes shifted domestic policies and legitimization narratives partly to counter the threat: Shia clerics were persecuted in Iraq and Al Saud ceded more ground to the Wahhabi religious establishment. Following the empowerment of Shia in Iraq following the US-led invasion of 2003, the Saudi regime instrumentalized sectarianism itself, a Sunni hatred for the Shi’ite, driven by a renewed fear of Iranian power, and setting in motion a chain of events that led to today’s violent polarization.

Saudi Arabia has for some 250 years been the locus of anti-Shi’ite ideology through its Wahhabi Islam, whose totalitarian religious discourse has often been directed against other Muslims or non-Muslims. In the late 1990s the kingdom softened its position somewhat, as fear of Iranian expansionism diminished. The language of anti-Shi’ism across the world of Sunni Islam over the past decade, however, has shifted towards the Wahhabi discourse: long labelled ‘ajam (non-Arab, Persian) in Arab countries to indicate a purported outsider status, they became al-rafida, the rejectionists.[1]

The sectarianism unleashed since 2003 has worsened with the Arab uprisings as governments loosen their control of hate speech on Arabic television.[2] A survey by BBC Arabic television found that of 120 religious channels, 20 are overtly sectarian. Most are carried on Egypt’s Nilesat, but the operator has weak regulatory mechanisms. The worst offenders include the anti-Sunni Anwar 2, Fadak and Ahl Ul-Bait, and the anti-Shi’ite Safa, Wesal and Wesal Farsi (aimed at Iran). Ownership of these channels is hard to pin down, but they operate in locations including Egypt, Iraq, the UK, the United States and Saudi Arabia. Sectarianism has emerged in places where it hardly existed before: four Shia were lynched in Egypt in 2014 including a preacher who had engaged in television hate speech himself.

Iranian expansionism under the Ahmadinejad presidency signalled an alarming rise in anti-Western politics for Al Saud, traditionally a critical facilitator of US policy in the region. Shia Islamists’ victory at the ballot box in Iraq caused a seismic shift in regional geopolitics. Iran became a backer of not just Hizbullah in Lebanon, but Hamas in Gaza and the Iraqi government and independent actors in Iraq such as clerics and militias. Saudi paranoia was at a high during the 2006 Israeli war with Hizbullah, when foreign minister Saud al-Faisal convened a panicked meeting with the US ambassador to demand action against a feared “full victory” for the populist group.[3]

Al Saud’s inability to check Iranian power strikes at the legitimacy of a regime whose alliance with Wahhabism requires it to demonstrate ideological hegemony in Arab and Islamic politics. Al Saud have been able to follow a pro-Western foreign policy because they assured Wahhabism control of the public sphere inside the country and challenged Shi’ite Islamism’s claims to domination outside. Iran’s impending rapprochement with the West, however, demolishes both arguments. This raises questions in turn about the Riyadh government’s ability to ever strike a deal with Tehran, the blow to its prestige being too dangerous to absorb.

Saudi policy on Bahrain reflects this dilemma. Bahrain’s population have been in long conflict with the Al Khalifa family which managed to confirm and legitimize its grip on power via the opportunity of colonial power Britain. A weak agreement at independence in 1971 on power sharing via an elected parliament collapsed within three years as the dynasty shelved the constitution. But by the time the island emerged from its authoritarian hibernation with Hamad bin Isa’s reforms since 1999, an opposition dominated in the 1970s by the secular Left had been supplanted almost entirely by Shi’ite Islamists, largely represented by the Wefaq party.

Opposition supporters made some public use of some Shi’ite slogans and imagery in campaigning in the early 2000s (pictures of Khomeini, Khameini and Nasrallah), but faced a Saudi-Bahraini regime onslaught after the Arab Spring protests of 2011 demonizing them as warriors for a Shi’ite Islamist state allied to Iran, like Iraq. For Al Saud, this propaganda war is about pushing back Iranian influence, democratic rule and Shi’ite empowerment spreading to its restive Eastern Province.

In Kuwait, where democratic institutions are more sophisticated than elsewhere in the Gulf, Saudi Arabia is anxious to be make sure that the ruling Al Sabah family do not grant the elected parliament to power to choose the prime minister who in turn would nominate his own cabinet. Though Shia form some 30 percent of the population they are largely a commercial class with close ties to Al Sabah and are less important as an electoral force than socio-political categories such as Sunni Islamists, both Salafi and Muslim Brotherhood, and divisions between Bedouin tribes and urban segments. While sectarianism has been less prevalent inside Kuwaiti society itself, Kuwait has been prime ground for promoting sectarianism elsewhere: businessman Khaled al-Osaimi is behind Safa TV, Shi’ite cleric Yasser Habib runs Fadak TV in the UK, and Kuwaitis (as with Saudis and Qataris) have been major contributors to the jihadi cause in Syria.

In Lebanon, despite Hizbullah’s move into the political sphere since 1992 and role in government from 2005, Sunni-Shi’ite sectarianism was instrumentalized in two stages, following the 2006 war and Hizbullah’s support for the Assad government in Syria in the face of protests-turned-insurrection from 2011. Salafism grew as a phenomenon among the Sunni population while jihadist groups such as Fath al-Islam established a foothold, including in Palestinian refugee camps such as Nahr al-Barid. Saudi backing for this development was suggested by the large presence of Saudis, some of whom had fought in Iraq, among Fath al-Islam, a fact which came to embarrass Riyadh in 2007 when the Lebanese army fought the group.[4]

The Syrian conflict brought jihadi Salafism into the open in Lebanon. In revenge for Hizbullah’s support for Assad, Sunni militants targeted Shi’ite and Iranian interests in 2013 with suicide attacks and the death in custody in January this year of Majid al-Majid, a Saudi who had become head of the Abdullah Azzam Brigades, highlighted Saudi implication in the sectarianization of Lebanon. Majid was believed to have fought in Iraq after the 2003 invasion, then moved to Syria and Lebanon, where he was involved with Fath al-Islam. In other words, he was the archetypal product of Saudi deployment of jihadi Salafism in Iraq, Syria and Lebanon post-2003 to contest the Iranian and Shi’ite sphere of influence.

The conflict in Syria has, then, been framed in starkly sectarian terms by its Gulf backers. Saudi media discourse has presented this as a war against a deviant religious alliance between Shia and Alawis, Assad’s confessional background and the base of his ruling clique, and Hizbullah and the Assad regime have presented their enemy as religious extremists, denouncing them as takfiri, or those who declare other Muslims apostate, as Saudi Wahhabism does. On the other side, Shi’ite fighters have poured into Syria from Lebanon and Iraq to defend a strategic position outlined by political leaders, yet using the language of Shi’ism. They counter the rafidi insult with nasibi, indicating those who seized control of the early Islamic community.

Syria has been the one issue where the narratives of political Islam and sectarian schism have aligned. Before he was removed from office last year, the Brotherhood president Mohammed Morsi had sought to effect an alliance between Salafism and the Brotherhood with Syria using Syria as the spur. A conference was held in a large Cairo sports stadium in June last year in which Saudi and Egyptian Salafi figures joined forces with Brotherhood Islamists in calling for jihad in Syria.

It was a short-lived and perhaps impossible union, however. As ideological trends, political Islam and Salafism are rivals, though the differences between the two only really took tangible form since the 1970s when the Brotherhood shifted towards electoral politics, posing problems for the prime sponsor of Salafism, the Saudi state, which banked on its political quietism and absolute loyalty to the ruler. It was these qualities which endeared Salafism to former Yemeni president Ali Abdullah Saleh, who allowed Saudi Salafism to grow in influence as a bulwark against various opponents. Since the advent of the Arab uprisings both trends have shifted positions: the Brotherhood found itself unshackled in the Egyptian political scene with a clear path to government, while the Salafi movement in Egypt opted to enter the arena for fear of losing ground as a consequence.

With ties to Saudi Arabia, the Salafis served Saudi aims in out-manoeuvring the Brotherhood. Building on its close ties to the security and military apparatus throughout Morsi’s troubled year in office the Salafi Nour party offered Islamist cover for his removal as it sought to establish itself as the official voice of Islamism in Egypt, pliant, marginal and unchallenging. Signs of Saudi approval of such a shift came in commentaries by regime writers.[5]

For Saudi Arabia, which brands itself as the true Sharia state, the Brotherhood and the plethora of movements like it are a challenge in their favouring of electoral politics, anti-imperialist populism and use of an Islamic frame of reference. The demise in Saudi relations with the Brotherhood since the 1970s when the movement’s cadres were welcomed in many Gulf sheikhdoms: successes in Egypt’s 1984 election in an alliance with the Wafd party, the Brotherhood’s opposition to the US military mobilization to oust Iraqi troops from Kuwait (using Saudi territory), Mubarak’s admonitions from 1994 that the Brotherhood was the ideological source of Islamist violence in Egypt, and the Brotherhood’s entry into a liberated political arena in post-uprising Egypt.

In 2005 Washington instigated a clear shift in its position towards the Brotherhood, which to that point had been associated with anti-Westernism, Hamas, and a generalized media discourse of the Islamist bogeyman. Under pressure from the Bush administration’s post-Iraq project for democracy in the “greater Middle East”, the Mubarak regime eased up on vote-rigging in the first round of parliamentary elections that year, leading to an impressive result for Brotherhood candidates – so impressive that rigging was quickly reinstituted for the second and third rounds. So 2011 was a concatenation of circumstances for regimes like that of Al Saud: political Islam uses electoral politics to take control of government, inspiring the Islamist centre – an unquestionable majority – at home, and all with American blessing.

One Gulf country that never shifted its position on the Brotherhood was Qatar. Since Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa came to power in a coup against his father in 1995, and continuing with his son Tamim who he stepped down in favour of last year, Qatar has developed its ties to the Brotherhood and other groups under the aegis of Islam. It has done so for a number of reasons: to counterbalance its indigenous class of Wahhabi clerics who looked to Saudi Arabia for guidance thus perpetrating traditional obeisance to Saudi leadership, to moderate social conservatism and thus enable urban development plans, and a belief in the Islamist movements as representative of the middle ground in Arab politics.

Despite this, while Qatar has presented itself as a revolutionary force in the Arab world, it would be more appropriate to see it as another power trying to take control of a dangerous tide of change. An oil-and-gas dynasty produced by colonialism, it is in essence part of the old order. While presenting itself as a facilitator of the new, it supported the Saudi move to crush the 2011 uprising in Bahrain and then directed attention to distant areas with its funding of armed revolt in Libya and Syria. It’s worth noting that the Brotherhood has no branch in Doha: there was one but it voluntarily ended its activities in 2001. Qatari Islamists see the ruling family as a region-wide patron, not a force to be challenged. “The ceiling of people’s dreams for political participation is very low,” says Jassim Sultan, who led the Brotherhood chapter.[6]

Qatar played a critical role as facilitator of the network of Islamist movements during the Arab uprisings. Its interventions were significant at the level of media alone, with Al Jazeera offering a major platform, but went beyond that to official and unofficial financial support to Islamists in Tunisia and Egypt, through organizations like Qatar Charity or even to charities regarded as Salafi in orientation such as Ansar al-Sunna al-Mohammadiyya in Egypt. Doha’s support for the Islamists continued after the Egyptian military removed Morsi with Saudi and UAE support last year, offering refuge for fleeing Brotherhood and other Islamist leaders in the face of a ferocious crackdown that has led to some 20,000 political prisoners in Egyptian jails and nightly coverage of anti-military protests on Al Jazeera.

This has led to the worst breach in relations between countries of the Gulf Cooperation Council since the organization was founded in 1981. In March Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Bahrain withdrew their ambassadors from Doha en masse after an argument at a GCC meeting in Riyadh in which the Saudi foreign minister accused Tamim of interfering in internal affairs by continuing to promote the Brotherhood: they wanted Qatar to shut down the Brotherhood presence in Doha entirely as well as close think tanks including Brookings Doha. Having strived since 1995 to establish independence from Riyadh, Doha will not give in now.

What had tipped those countries over the edge was perhaps a Qaradawi sermon in January in which he described government in the UAE, where local and Egyptian Brotherhood sympathizers and alleged members have faced trial, as un-Islamic. After the UAE summoned the Qatari ambassador to lodge an official complaint, Qaradawi did the same again. “Did you get angry over two lines that I said? What if I had given a whole sermon about your scandals and injustices?” he said.[7] With his sermons carried on Qatari state TV, it’s impossible to imagine that Qaradawi – who has perhaps the single most influential voice in Sunni Islam – would say this without a green light.

What these conflicts reveal is Saudi nervousness over the continued opposition to the new order in Egypt, which has failed to achieve stability as protests continue and commands considerable support inside Saudi Arabia itself. Underlying sympathy for Islamism – the movement of post-colonial Islamization of society through engagement in modern participatory politics – was given a boost by the Egyptian uprising and the Brotherhood’s electoral successes, blurring Salafi and Brotherhood lines in Saudi Arabia. Many Salafi preachers, such as Mohammed al-Arify, were impressed by Egypt’s experience and demonstrated sympathy for the Islamist project, in addition to others with huge following who are well-known for their Islamist alignment, such as Salman al-Odah. Thus we see shifts within Salafism which are very disturbing for Al Saud, given their determination to hold on to the reins of power.

Having failed to bring Doha in line, Saudi Arabia has turned to pressuring Western nations to limit the Brotherhood’s reach. British officials have acknowledged that incessant Saudi prodding lay behind a decision by the UK government to launch an investigation into the activities of the group, which set up a new office in London in January. Diplomats report intense debates in European capitals right now over approaches to the Brotherhood in particular. At stake is not just the question of radicalism in Europe, and whether the Brotherhood should be seen as promoting or limiting it, but potential business with wealthy states. Thus far no Western country has supported Egyptian assertions that the Brotherhood is behind deadly attacks on army and security targets and both the United States and the European Union have publicly exhorted the Egyptian government to engage in dialogue with its Islamist opposition.

The prospects for either of these schisms easing up in the short or medium term is sadly bleak. More than 2.5 million people have fled Syria as refugees and 150,000 people have died. In Iraq violence has risen to the levels of the 2005-7 sectarian fighting and around half a million people have died overall since the invasion. In revenge for Shia supporting and benefitting from the US war and occupation, Sunni jihadists introduced the mass suicide bomb to Iraq, targeting not only those who worked for the state or occupation institutions, but Shia worshippers or shoppers simply for being Shia. Shia responded with militias and death squads. Where Shia are a minority such as in Pakistan they have suffered the same mass violence as a consequence of the ideological and political battles raging in the Arab world and Wahhabi proselytization has influenced Malaysia too.[8]

Political Islam, meanwhile, stands at a crossroads. The Brotherhood in Egypt was not the movement’s first experience in office. The FIS almost achieved power in Algeria in 1991, achieved power via the military in Sudan in 1989, have ruled Gaza since 2006, and have been in government in Morocco since 2011. Ennahda won elections in Tunisia in 2011 and agreed to a power-sharing agreement this year to stave off a fate similar to Morsi in Egypt, as Salafi violence helped sour many Tunisians to Ennahda rule. Salafis meanwhile take part in the political process in Kuwait, Bahrain and Egypt but without threatening the established order.

Since the 1970s the Islamist movement has almost in its entirety come around to accepting the principle of the democratic electoral process for organizing governance, such that this modus operandi has become one of its defining features, and it is this fact which largely explains the Saudi determination to stymie the movement. It was fashionable after the Brotherhood’s fall in Egypt to proclaim the end of Islamism, as French writers such as Olivier Roy and Gilles Kepel had suggested in the 1990s. Yet recent Gulf political manoeuvres do not speak of such a fate of irrelevance at all. The Morsi government wrestled with principles, over IMF loans and relations with Israel, but one year in power, as mismanaged as it was, is not enough to discredit an entire movement. Similarly, it’s clear that the Islamist movement has become successfully “nationalized” in its various locales, responding to national issues and framing its discourse accordingly: while the Brotherhood, under the influence of Saudi Wahhabism, still wrestles with the question of how to implement Sharia, Erdogan’s AKP can only hope to increase the space for symbols of Islamic morality in a secularized society.

In each context where conflict over sect or political Islam is found – be it Egypt, Tunisia, Syria, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, or Lebanon – there are different histories and traditions present that inform today’s diverse profiles of political contestation, but common factors influence these schisms like never before. In the era of the Arab Spring, rival wealthy but fragile authoritarian states are manipulating powerful ideologies and sentiments to protect themselves from external and internal threat. The two internal battles in Islam of today are magnified and exploited as weapons of the counter-revolution.

[1] See Fanar Haddad, “The Language of Anti-Shi’ism”, Foreign Policy, 9 August 2013, available at http://mideast.foreignpolicy.com/posts/2013/08/09/the_language_of_ anti_shiism.

[2] “Freedom to Broadcast Hate”, 19 March 2014: youtu.be/qjNBsvwcAoQ.


[3] “What is occurring is strengthening Hizbullah, not weakening it. These are the damage assessments we are getting from a wide variety of intelligence and other sources,” he said, 30 July 2006 (published by Wikileaks, 15 March 2011; http://wikileaks.org/cable/2006/07/06JEDDAH511.html).

[4] Saudi Arabia paid the Lebanese army to destroy Nahr al-Barid camp: See diplomatic cable published by Wikileaks, from 14 November 2008, http://wikileaks.org/cable/2008/11/08STATE121325.html.

[5] See Jamal Khashoggi, 20 July: “The ‘spring’ has ended, but democracy and political Islam will remain” (Arabic), Al Hayat, available at http://alhayat.com/OpinionsDetails/534186.

[6] Comments to author, March 2013.

[7] See “Kalimat Rais al-Tahrir”, Rai al-Youm, 21 February 2014; http://www.raialyoum.com/?p=55329.

[8] “Over 100 people arrested in latest crackdown on Shia Muslims”, The Malaysian Insider, 9 March 2014.

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