Art by Yousef Amairi

Art by Yousef Amairi
the struggle continues

January 06, 2014

Wahhabis, the Brotherhood and the Empire: Syria and the Limits of Political Islam (1/2), By Tim Anderson,19 August 2013


Paper at the ‘Competing Visions in the Muslim World’ conference, University of Sydney, 14-16 August 2013


Religious identity can unite communities but rarely nations, let alone regions. The limits of ‘Political Islam’ as a nation building and developmental force in the Middle East cannot be assessed theoretically, or through an appeal to the finest elements of Islamic culture and civilisation. The reason for this is that the phenomenon is a particular historical one. The Saudi current of Wahhabism and the broader political movement represented by the Muslim Brotherhood dominate Political Islam in the Middle East, as also the ‘revolution’ in Syria. Yet Wahhabism is tightly linked to a semi-feudal network of Gulf monarchies, deeply undemocratic and socially backward but with almost limitless oil wealth. For its part, the Muslim Brotherhood, a wider movement but increasingly dependent on Wahhabi finance, has a history of jealous competition with secular nationalism. From failures in this competition and reinforced by its Wahhabi links, the Brotherhood has developed increased reliance on Salafi-sectarian views. Yet while Islam is extremely popular in the region, Salafi-sectarianism is not.

To make matters worse, the sectarian currents have been repeatedly enlisted by foreign powers to divide and weaken the peoples of the region. The conflict in Syria is just the latest example of this. So the central question of this paper is: ‘What does the Syrian conflict tell us about the limits of Political Islam in the Middle East?’ It is argued that strong, unified states are necessary to build stable nations, while fostering human development. Further, autonomous regional stability and solidarity are necessary to successfully resist intervention and destabilisation by outside powers. Yet the history of big power–Islamist collaboration serves to emphasise Political Islam’s limits in state building and human development. By way of contrast, pluralist integration in Latin America is showing relative success in managing external destabilisation and in fostering a renewal of ‘south-south’ cooperation. This comparison with the fragmented Arab and Muslim states bolsters the argument that secular integration is needed for a strong and independent region.




The Saudi current of Wahhabism and the broader political movement represented by the Muslim Brotherhood have come to dominate Political Islam in the Middle East, and this can be seen in the 2011 Islamist insurrection in Syria, erroneously called a ‘revolution’. If an Islamist regime were to replace the secular Ba’athist regime in Syria, it would represent a substantial realignment of forces. But what sort of future does this Political Islam offer, in terms of stability, regional solidarity and human development?

Wahhabism is based on a semi-feudal network of Gulf monarchies, while the Muslim Brotherhood has its own history of jealous competition with secular nationalism. It has developed Salafi-sectarian views and this limits its popularity in the generally tolerant Arab and Muslim world. Aggravating this weakness, both Wahhabism and the Brotherhood have long histories of collaboration with the big powers, against their domestic opponents. This poses further questions about their capacity to contribute to regional stability, neighbourly cooperation and human development. In this sense, the Political Islam of the region is a compromised project; but how compromised? Answers cannot be found in idealised versions of Political Islam, but rather must be sought in the particular formative histories of the region, up to and including the Syrian conflict.

This paper therefore asks the question: ‘What does the Syrian conflict tell us about the limits of Political Islam in the Middle East?’ It begins by considering some of the key historical features of Wahhabism and the Muslim Brotherhood, particularly in relation to political and social development, up to and including their deployment in the Syrian conflict. It then contrasts this with the human development needs of postcolonial states, adding a comparison on the value of regional integration in Latin America. A key consideration in this comparison is how to best manage destabilisation by foreign powers, and how to best foster genuine regional cooperation.

1. Imperialism, Wahhabis and the Muslim Brotherhood

A lot might be said about the philosophical currents which bear on Political Islam in the Middle East, but I suggest this idealistic complexity cannot really help us understand the phenomenon. It has been formed by and remains rooted in some quite particular historical experience. Nevertheless, a little background on Islamic values is useful.

Islam is strongly community oriented and socially inclusive, recognising plurality and urging tolerance. The Holy Quran stresses mercy and abjures abuse of other groups (Quran 49:11), while urging cooperation amongst diverse groups of believers (Quran 5:69, 5:48). However there is no centralised authority and small but influential sectarian variants have developed, over the centuries. Despite this, tolerance and ‘secularism’, in the sense of political governance not tied to particular religious doctrine, have been widespread in the Middle East. Baktiari and Norton (2005) cite contemporary and influential Egyptian, Syrian and Iranian writers who, in different ways, promote tolerance and diversity, without renouncing Islamic identity. Yet the Syrian writer Muhammed Shahrur equates the ‘caliphate’ of the Ottoman Empire as a ‘despotism’ which Mustafa Kemal Ataturk managed to overthrow (Baktiari and Norton 2005: 39).

The issue is not one of Islamic values. Carroll pointed out that, while Islam is ‘one of the most powerful sources of Arab political identities’, its impact on political community formation depends on particular ‘geopolitical conditions’ (Carroll 1986: 186). Similarly, Ayoob has written of Islamism as ‘a political ideology and not a theological construct’. It varies from region to region, depending on the social environment and external forces (Ayoob 1979: 535).

While the history and social environment of Islamism varies considerably, the Middle East does have some common ‘external forces’. First amongst these is the role of the hegemonic powers, including former colonial powers. The last century has seen constant engagement by these powers, in concerted efforts to dominate the oil and gas rich region. Big power support for the state of Israel is another conditioning factor. Ayoob points out: ‘unless the contribution of these critical external factors to the growth in Islamism’s popular appeal is recognised, it will not be possible fully to comprehend this phenomenon’ (Ayoob 2005: 960-961).

Except for the Iranian variant, ‘Political Islam’ as developed in the Middle East revolves around two minor but influential currents: Wahhabism and the Muslim Brotherhood. These two, and their role in Syria, will be the main focus of this paper. The Islamism developed in contemporary Iran has two important historical differences. In the first place, Iran’s secular nationalism was effectively crushed by a US backed coup in the 1950s, and by the subsequent quarter century of repression under the Shah, a dictatorial monarch. US-backed dictatorship, mixed with western consumerism, was thus the experience of a full generation. Resistance was organised through the mosques and Islamic conceptualisation was central to the expulsion of the Shah and of US influence. The Islamic Republic of Iran thus developed as a popular anti-imperial force (see Ayoob 1979: 543), unlike the Muslim Brotherhood which has drawn on foreign assistance in attempts to depose an indigenous secular nationalism.

Both Egypt and Syria have built and maintain, to this day, secular nationalist regimes with strong traditions of anti-imperialism. A collaboration between the Egyptian Government and the US and Israel began in the late 1970s, while Syria maintained its independence. The current alliance between Iran and Syria has much to do with that common anti-imperialism. It is hardly a coincidence that these two are the only countries of the region not to host US military bases, and are thus both subject to intense ‘regime change’ pressures. Iran’s second distinction is in having an overwhelming majority (around 95%) of Shia Muslims. So while apostasy is a contentious issue in Iran’s Islamic Republic, it can be seen from a more relaxed position at home, along with a sensitivity to the position of Shia minorities in regional countries such as Pakistan, Afghanistan, Lebanon, Syria and Egypt. There seems no real Iranian Shia equivalent of the Wahhabi-Salafi doctrine of ‘takfir’, where people may be denounced and attacked simply for having a different faith.

For the above reasons, I suggest, a different set of considerations must apply when considering Islamism in Iran. On the other hand, a common Salafi network exists in Egypt, Palestine, Jordan, Lebanon, Syria and many of the Gulf states, coordinated for almost a century by a political group known as the Muslim Brotherhood (Ikhwan: the brothers). Because this network does indeed represent an intolerant Salafi current within Sunni Islam, it links with the Saudi current of Wahhabism and has been engaged in big power collaboration for most of its existence. As the relationship between western hegemony and the most intolerant of Muslim sects may not at first glance seem apparent, a little history is called for.

The British were the modern experts of imperial rule, but they learned lessons from the Romans, putting divisive forces to work, at first in India, then in the Middle East. ‘Divide et empera [Divide and rule] was the old Roman motto’ wrote Lord William Elphinston in 1859, to an inquiry set up to investigate a mid-nineteenth century armed rebellion, ‘and it should be ours’ (in Desai 1948: 354). After that rebellion Sir John Lawrence reorganised the Bengal Army into a variety of ethnically diverse regiments (Mehta and Patwardhan 1942: 57). Similarly, British Secretary of State Charles Wood wrote in an 1862 letter to Governor General of India, Lord Elgin: ‘We have maintained our power in India by playing one part against the other and we must continue to do so. Do all you can, therefore, to prevent all having a common feeling’ he directed (Wood 1862; Pande 1987). This campaign of divide and rule would extend into emphasising ethnic divisions in school curricula. Secretary of State Viscount Cross wrote to the colonial Viceroy Dufferin in 1887: ‘This division of religious feeling is greatly to our advantage and I look forward for some good as a result of your Committee of Inquiry on Indian Education and on teaching material’ (in Pande 1987). After the formation of a unified anti-colonial front, the Indian National Congress, British administrators searched for ways to divide it. So Secretary of State, George Francis Hamilton, wrote to Governor General Lord Curzon: ‘If we could break the educated Hindu party [Congress] into two sections holding widely different views we should, by such a division, strengthen our position against the subtle and continuous attack which the spread of education must make upon our system of government’ (Hamilton in Curzon 1899: Sept 20). He knew the empire was unviable, against a united people.

By the early 20th century K.B. Krishna (1939) noted that ‘divide and rule’ was practised widely across the British Empire: including in Ceylon, Ireland, Palestine and Kenya. He described the fomenting of ‘communalism’ as a key element of British administrative policy toward India; yet he argued that the struggle for national independence required complete opposition to this ‘communalism’ (Desai 1948).

After World War One and the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, British administrators looked for likely divisive collaborators in the Arab world. First in their sights was the Saud family, with their highly sectarian doctrine of Wahhabism. The Saudis both horrified and fascinated the British. Winston Churchill wrote that King Ibn Saud’s Wahhabis:

‘hold it as an article of duty, as well as of faith, to kill all those who do not share their opinions and to make slaves of their wives and children. Women have been put to death in Wahhabi villages for simply appearing in the street’ (Churchill 1921).

Nevertheless, Churchill would later write: ‘my admiration for [Ibn Saud] was deep, because of his unfailing loyalty to us’ (Churchill 1953). A British Government memo from the mid-1940s noted that ‘Ibn Saud’s influence in the Middle East is very great, and it has been used consistently for a number of years in support of our policy’ (Wikeley 1945; see also Sheikh 2007: 47). When Egyptian President Nasser emerged in the 1950s as the hero of Arab nationalism (having nationalised the Suez Canal and defeated a planned British and French invasion), the USA began to take an interest in the Saudi royal family. US President Eisenhower was looking for: ‘a high class Machiavellian plan to split the Arabs and defeat the aims of our enemies [the Soviet Union] ... building up King Saud as a counterweight to Nasser’. Eisenhower said: ‘The King could be built up, possibly as a spiritual leader. Once this was accomplished, we might begin to urge his right to political leadership’ (in Curtis 2012, 62, 68). The close US-Saudi relationship, to this day, is not simply that of global power and oil supplier, but rather that of the great power with a principal political collaborator in the region, and one with a long record of sectarianism.

The other regional collaborator was less reliable but had a wider, popular network. The Muslim Brotherhood was formed by Hassan al Banna in Egypt in the 1920s. At first the Brotherhood opposed British influence. They wanted independence, but their narrow Salafist views drew them into competition with Arab nationalism, which was more inclusive and far more popular. From this competition it was soon seen that the followers of al-Banna, ‘instead of railing against non-Muslim and Western colonial or imperialist powers’, began to ‘denounce the Muslim rulers’ (Butterworth 1992: 35). The British initially tried to suppress the Muslim Brotherhood, during World War 2; but pro-British monarch King Farouk began to fund the Brotherhood in 1940. Farouk was said to have seen the Brotherhood ‘as a useful counter to the power of … the secular, nationalist Wafd Party’ (Curtis 2012: 24). In 1941 British intelligence regarded the MB as ‘the most serious danger to public security’ in Egypt (in Lia 1998: 181); yet ‘by 1942 Britain had definitely begun to finance the Brotherhood’ (Curtis 2012: 24). They sought to further divide the group. The British agreed ‘an effort would be made to create a schism in the party by exploiting any differences which might occur between Hassan al Banna and Ahmed al-Sukkari (another Brotherhood leader)’ (British Embassy Cairo, 1942).

The CIA was said to have been backing the Muslim Brotherhood, while the Saudis funded it, by the end of the 1950s. The Saudis liked the Brotherhood’s ‘ultra-conservative politics and its virulent hatred of Arab communists’ (Draitser 2012). The two currents were different but found many points of convergence. While Wahhabism had begun in an openly sectarian way, the Muslim Brotherhood began as a reaction to European domination and cultural invasion (Commins 2009: 140-141). Yet both aimed to create a community of believers. Covert relations between the foreign powers, the Wahhabis and the Brotherhood set the terms for collaborations across the region.

The Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt had a history which ran from political negotiations to assassinations and sectarian attacks. The group was banned and many imprisoned under almost all regimes. In the late 1970s, when Muslim Brotherhood linked militants assassinated Egypt’s President Anwar al-Sadat, there was further repression of the group and a public debate ensued over the legitimacy of attacks on ‘apostates’. A justification of the assassination was written by Abd al-Salam Faraj, arguing that Muslims had neglected ‘at their peril’ the imperative of the holy struggle (jihad), and the battle against apostasy. In the Salafi-Takfiri tradition he argued that the violent overthrow of apostate regimes was ‘the only path to guarantee the establishment of a truly Islamic state’ (Akhavi 1992: 95). In a subsequent denunciation and fatwa against this tract, from Egypt’s leading cleric, Mufti Ali Jadd al-Haqq, the Mufti acknowledged the Quranic references relied on by Faraj but drew attention to 124 other verses ‘that counsel patience or abjuring armed conflict with the non-Muslims in a spirit of peaceful persuasion’ (Akhavi 1992: 95-97). None of this seems to have much influenced the tactics of the Brotherhood, still less the foreign powers.

By the mid-1980s Washington and London, in efforts to dislodge Soviet troops in Afghanistan, were funding the most vicious of sectarian Islamists, including many well known for atrocities against civilians. Hadji Abdul Haq, who admitted bombing a civilian aircraft in 1984, was received as a ‘freedom fighter’ in 1986 by Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan (Curtis 2012: 145). Millions in US aid went to Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, famous for throwing acid in women’s faces, skinning his opponents alive and slaughtering rival groups. Hekmatyar worked closely with Osama bin Laden and visited British officials in London in 1986 and 1988 (Keddie 2006: 118; Curtis 2012: 146). He remains linked to the US-backed Afghan regime. Saudi Osama bin Laden enjoyed US support in the 1980s but fell out with Washington over US military bases in Saudi Arabia.  He organise several attacks on US targets in the region and was suspected (but never charged) of masterminding the September 2001 terrorist attacks on New York, which killed three thousand people. Bin Laden’s 2011 obituary in the New York Times refers to: ‘Freedom fighter Osama bin Laden in 1989 … building his terrorism network, with American help’ (Zernike and Kaufman 2011).

After the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003, Washington began to speak of a ‘New Middle East’, which might be facilitated not so much by further direct invasions but by what Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice called a ‘constructive chaos’. This could generate conditions of conflict, upheaval and transformation throughout the region, allowing the United States, Britain, and Israel to redraw the map in accordance with their geo-strategic needs and objectives (Nazemroaya 2006). Consistent with this ambition, Israel mounted an abortive attack on South Lebanon, in an attempt to weaken the Iranian-allied Lebanese Shia group, Hezbollah. Saudi Arabia, obsessed by what it saw as the threat of a ‘Shia Crescent’ which could link Iran, Iraq, Syria and South Lebanon (see e.g. Khashoggi 2013), then funded Salafi groups to attack both Shia and Christian civilians in Iraq, to destabilise a likely Shia dominated regime in Baghdad (IRIN 2007). In 2007 retired US General Wesley Clarke published a memoir which revealed that, back in late 2001, there was a Pentagon plan to topple seven Middle Eastern governments in five years, ‘starting with Iraq and Syria and ending with Iran’ (Conason 2007). Regional collaborators would be important for this task.

At a practical level, the political economic program of the Muslim Brotherhood remains far from the mix of democratic and socialist ideas adopted by most Arab nationalist platforms. It was dominated by middle level merchant and landowning classes, and combined charitable relations reaching across classes. It functioned ‘like a parallel society: richer members provide poorer members with food, medicine and clothing through financial donations’ (Hansen 2012). In Egypt as in Syria it reinforced private property and private enterprise relations, consistent with the economic agenda of its occasional western patrons. Magda Kandil of the Egyptian Centre for Economic Studies said of the Egyptian Brotherhood: ‘It’s very easy to confuse their economic platform with that of the previous regime: private-led growth, free market economy, scaling down the role of government, empowering the private sector’, she says. ‘The big difference is which private sector you are talking about’ (Hansen 2012).

The Brotherhood claims to represent all Sunnis, but certainly does not. By the 1980s in Sunni-dominated Palestine, for example, the Brotherhood’s political strategy (as in Egypt) was a primary phase of transforming the Palestinians into an Islamic society, and a second stage of waging a holy struggle against Israel. This meant that nationalist Palestinians were targeted before the occupying power. Yet polls showed this strategy had less than 10% support amongst the Palestinian population, which broadly backed the PLO’s unified nationalist agenda (Shadid 1988: 677-680). Further, other Sunni Islamist groups, such as Islamic Jihad, stayed within the PLO and maintained strong relations across Sunni-Shia lines, including with Iran (Shadid 1988: 677). Israel, for its part, was well aware of this strategy and regarded such internal division as an asset. It saw that ‘any success by the Brotherhood would be at the expense of the nationalists [PLO]; consequently the latter will be weakened’. One result was that ‘the Brotherhood is treated less harshly [by the Israelis] than the nationalists’ (Shadid 1988: 674-675).

Islamists can point to opinion polls which show strong support for Islamic law in the region. Strong majorities in many countries (e.g. 74% in Egypt, 89% in the Palestinian territories) support sharia to be ‘the official law of the land’. However those same polls show similarly strong majorities supporting freedom of religion for people of other faiths. This effective anti-Salafism is said to be partly due to the idea that sharia only applies to Muslims, partly because of widely varying views of what sharia law means and partly due to differences over what role religious leaders should play in politics (Pew Research Centre 2013: 9). Strong majorities of Muslims in most countries (e.g. 67% in Egypt, 67% in Tunisia, 68% in Iraq) are concerned about extremist groups, and particularly about Islamic extremists (Pew Research Centre 2013: 11). All this suggests that Salafi-style attacks on apostates have little support amongst Muslims.

Further, the sectarianism of the Brotherhood has worried minorities - that is, all non-Sunni Muslims, Christians and others - from the beginning. Minorities in the early years, as now, felt themselves in a ‘precarious’ position in face of the Muslim Brotherhood’s discriminatory and threatening approach (Hourani 1947: 21-25).

Nevertheless, foreign powers in the Middle East have decided to make occasional alliances with the Brotherhood as it is the ‘oldest, largest and most influential Islamist organisation’. It is obvious that the Brotherhood has much ugly sectarianism but, what is thought important from the US perspective, is that ‘there is a current within the Brotherhood willing to engage with the United States’. Perhaps to make the relationship more palatable, it is argued that ‘this current … has pushed much of the Brotherhood towards moderation’ (Leiken and Brooke 2007: 107). ‘Policymakers should recognise that the Muslim Brotherhood represents a notable opportunity’. This approach speaks of ‘divide and engage’, and to adopt a ‘case by case’ approach to engagement with Brotherhood Islamists (Leiken and Brooke 2007: 121). This demonstrates the ongoing appeal of the Brotherhood to hegemonic strategy.

continued - see part II

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