Political Islam in its diverse expressions—the Wahhabi state order in Saudi Arabia, the Muslim Brotherhood, and Jehad—has dominated West Asian politics for over four decades, usually with its votaries being in harsh competition with each other.
Islam as a political influence in contemporary times first made itself felt in the late 1960s, when the defeat of the Egyptian and Syrian armies in 1967 shifted the pendulum of regional influence from the secular Arab republics in favour of the monarchies, led by Saudi Arabia, which were anchored in Islam. The kingdom lost no time in asserting its leadership of the Arab and Islamic worlds by convening the summit of Islamic countries in Rabat in 1969 and then institutionalising the Islamic conclave through the Jeddah-based Organisation of the Islamic Conference (OIC) in 1972.
Global jehad in Afghanistan
Outside state control, some Arab intellectuals in the 1960s also used the principles and values of Islam to develop a radical ideology of resistance to confront the perceived enemies of the faith and its followers—the tyrannical regimes in the region and the western powers that kept them in place with political, economic, and military support.
The state-sponsored Islamic assembly and the reflections of intellectuals found fertile space in Afghanistan in 1979, where the state and the radical thinker collaborated to mobilise a “global jehad” against the Soviet Union, that was espousing a “godless” ideology in a Muslim country.
This jehad, the first in the 20th century after the one declared by the Ottoman sultan in 1914, was organised by three states which were allies in the Cold War—the United States, Saudi Arabia, and Pakistan—who funded, indoctrinated, armed, trained and gave battlefield experience to several thousand Muslim youth from almost all Muslim countries and communities. States in West Asia and beyond vied with each other to send holy warriors to this battlefield where faith contended with godlessness. The jehad obtained logistical support from Osama bin Laden, who belonged to one of Saudi Arabia’s premier business families; in 1988, he named his organisation Al Qaeda.
This state-sponsored global jehad in Afghanistan had unintended consequences. The jehadis viewed the withdrawal of Soviet forces in 1989 as a God-given victory, the first major success of Muslim arms against a western power in several centuries. Afghanistan thus laid the foundations of transnational jehad and launched it against state powers, both near and far, that were the enemies of the faith, the rulers in West Asia and their foreign sponsors.
The jehad in Afghanistan placed political Islam at the heart of West Asian politics for the next 40 years.
Expressions of political Islam
Political Islam or Islamism are terms that emerged only in the last few decades to describe the doctrines and tenets of Islam that are used by their votaries to shape an Islamic political order. All votaries of political Islam assert that the principles of Islam, as understood by them, are drawn from the “golden age” of the faith—the period of the holy prophet and his companions. This period is referred to as the age of the Salaf al-Salih, the “pious ancestors”, usually referring to the first three generations of Muslims.
By drawing on the Koran and what the prophet said and did during this period (Hadith or ‘Traditions’), as also commentaries on these sources by later scholars, Islamists believe that an ideal Muslim society can be recreated in modern times. Hence, Islamism is also referred to as “Salafism”. However, though Islamists go back to the same sources of Islam, the meanings they draw from them are very different. Present-day political Islam thus has three main expressions: quietist Islamism, activist Islamism, and radical Islamism.
Quietist Islamism is the purist strand in political Islam. Its adherents insist on a deep study of Islam’s primary sources and mastery of the true teachings of the faith. In the political area, they enjoin obedience to the ruler, even one who is tyrannical; they reject open rebellion and advocate instead quiet advice to the ruler. This approach to Islamism is best reflected in the use of the Wahhabi doctrine as the foundational source of Saudi state order in which political authority reposes in the ruler who is responsible for the security and welfare of his citizens. In turn, the latter owe him unquestioning loyalty and obedience.
Activist Islamism is reflected in the ideology of the Muslim Brotherhood. This organisation was set up in Egypt in 1928 by the scholar Hasan al-Banna to counter the influence of western culture that was dominant in the Muslim world. Al-Banna saw his mission as upholding the values and principles of Islam in an environment suffused with western laws and norms. He called for a “return to Islam”, an Islam that, in his view, was “a faith and a ritual, a nation and a nationality, a religion and a state, spirit and deed, holy text and sword”.
As the Brotherhood gathered large numbers of followers in Egypt, it alarmed the monarchy and the later republican leaders Gamal Abdel Nasser, Anwar Sadat, and Hosni Mubarak, who saw it as a political threat. For most of the last century it was banned; its members functioned underground and provided services at the grassroots level. The Brotherhood also had ideological affiliates in several Arab countries, though most functioned independently of the organisation in Egypt.
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From the 1980s, a set of younger Brotherhood members in different Arab countries began to marry the principles of Islam with those of parliamentary democracy by drawing on their understanding of Islamic sources. They gave central place to the concept of masalaha (public welfare) and drew from the traditional Islamic principles of shura (consultation), adl (justice), karama (dignity), the democratic concepts of religious freedom, equality, pluralism, and accountability of the ruler.
The first modern intellectual forays into the area of radical Islam occurred in the mid-20th century when the Indian intellectual and political leader Maulana Abul Ala Maududi and the Egyptian scholar Sayyid Qutb prioritised jehad as the instrument to protect Islam from its enemies and establish God’s order on earth. Sayyid Qutb called for “an all-embracing and total revolution” to replace the regimes of repression, incarceration and torture with a “God-centred society”. Neither saw any scope for compromise with God’s enemies.
The influence of these expressions of political Islam on West Asian politics is examined in the following paragraphs.
Wahhabism shapes the Saudi state
The first Saudi state, set up in Najd in central Arabia in the mid-18th century, adopted the tenets of Islam as preached by the cleric Sheikh Mohammed ibn Abdul Wahhab as its foundational doctrine, the result of a covenant between the cleric and Mohammed ibn Saud, the ruler of Dirriyah.
This affiliation between doctrine and state continued into the 20th century, when the third state was set up by King Abdulaziz in 1932 as the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. It conferred a unique faith-based legitimacy to the ruling order, distinguishing it from other claimants to power. The tenets of Islam propagated by Mohammed ibn Abdul Wahhab, loosely referred to as Wahhabism, reflect the most narrow, rigid and demanding understanding of Islam.
The arrangement in the modern Saudi state was that the Wahhabi clerics would enjoy untrammelled influence in the areas of education, the judiciary, and social and cultural matters, and in turn they would give doctrinal support to the political and economic policies of the rulers.
This novel arrangement enforced the most rigid norms of public conduct—modest attire for women, restrictions on the free movement of women (including a ban on women driving), and gender segregation. While justified as having been drawn from Islam’s core tenets, they were an effective instrument of coercion with the ruling authoritarian order.
Throughout this period, Saudi Arabia was also in the vanguard in propagating its brand of Islam in different parts of the world, with generous funding for mosques, clerics, education, scholarships, etc. This provided the kingdom with a solid base of support in different countries.
Saudi Arabia abandons Wahhabism
Last year, on January 27, the Saudi ruler King Salman bin Abdulaziz issued a royal decree declaring February 22 as the country’s “Founding Day”, i.e., the day on which his ancestor Mohammed ibn Saud had founded the first Saudi state. A logo was also published to commemorate this day; it had four symbols: dates, representing growth and generosity; the majlis council, signifying unity and social and cultural harmony; an Arabian horse, representing courage and chivalry; and a market, reflecting economic activity, openness, and diversity. Religion was left out of this national symbol.
The “Founding Day” overturned the central founding narrative of the Saudi state: until then, the national narrative had asserted that the first Saudi state came into being in 1744, following a “covenant” between Mohammed ibn Saud and the cleric Sheikh Mohammed ibn Abdul Wahhab. Now, the foundation of the state has been pushed back 27 years, even as the significance of the affiliation of the state with Wahhabism has been excluded from the national narrative.
This shift away from Wahhabism had begun some years earlier when, from 2018, the crown prince had liberalised social norms in his country, doing away with gender segregation, the hijab, and restrictions on women driving, and allowing cinema, music, and other public shows for mixed audiences. The ulema, who had earlier enforced social restrictions in the name of Islam, now rushed to assert that these royally-ordained relaxations were not prohibited by Islamic tenets.
This new Saudi approach serves a dual purpose: one, it deepens the ties of the crown prince with the youth of his country, who rejoice in their new liberal environment and associate it with their prince. And, two, by removing faith from the national discourse, it helps to further stigmatise the Brotherhood. Thus, the Saudi Minister of Islamic Affairs has explained that these new norms reflect “a moderate nation that rejects extremism”. As Yasmine Farouk and Nathan Brown have explained, in the Saudi perspective, “the fight against extremism, so-called deviance, and terrorism is equated with the fight against the Muslim Brotherhood”.
Muslim Brotherhood in power
Islamist parties affiliated with Brotherhood ideology were described initially as the success story of the Arab Spring. In Tunisia, where the uprisings had started in December 2010, the Islamist Ennahda party, banned in the country earlier and its leaders exiled, obtained 37 percent of the popular vote in elections in 2011 and formed the government. Later, in 2016, Ennahda shed its Islamist identity and declared itself an ‘Islamic Democratic’ party, on the lines of the Christian Democratic parties in Europe.
In Egypt, as noted above, at the end of the last century, Brotherhood intellectuals had attempted to infuse their organisation with modern ideas relating to democracy. However, in the early 2000s, actual authority in the organisation was vested in traditional scholars who, in the words of a disgruntled Brotherhood member, adhered to “an old-fashioned, dated, rigid, shallow and monotonous ideology”.
Not surprisingly, despite electoral successes, they were ill-prepared for the challenges of free elections and governance thrown up by the Arab Spring uprisings in Egypt that led to the fall of Hosni Mubarak in February 2011. In the wake of the uprisings, the Brotherhood was legalised and formed a party, the Freedom and Justice Party. Being the best-organised political movement in the country, the party won 42 percent of the assembly seats in elections in 2011-12, and then its candidate, Mohammed Morsi, won the presidential elections by a narrow margin.
However, in power in 2012-13, the Brotherhood displayed political inexperience and naivete throughout its tenure, opening itself to being blamed for all the nation’s longstanding shortcomings. It is now also known that two Gulf states, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE), funded the widespread anti-Morsi demonstrations across Egypt that led to the military takeover on July 3, 2013 by the former Defence Minister General Abdel Fatah el-Sisi.
The armed forces then made it clear they would not accommodate any dissent by killing several hundred Brotherhood members at Raba’a Square in Cairo in August. Over 60,000 persons, mostly Brotherhood members, were imprisoned; former president Morsi died in jail in June 2019. Nader Hashemi has written that “state repression in Egypt today far exceeds the darkest days of dictatorial rule under Hosni Mubarak”.
Gulf monarchies against activist Islamism
The two Gulf monarchies view the Brotherhood, which espouses an ideology that integrates Islamic principles with modern democracy as an existential threat to their “quietist” political order. Hence, from the perspective of the monarchies, the Morsi government had to be unseated while it was still inexperienced politically, making mistakes and alienating the people. It was feared that if the government remained in power for another couple of years, it would get a grip on governance issues, shed some of its doctrinal rigidities, and build its own support base.
Saudi Arabia and the UAE have also played the lead role in undermining Tunisia’s brief experiment with democracy. Here, the bete noire was the Islamist Ennahda, despite the party having learnt from the Egyptian experience to play down the Islamic part of its ideology. To combat Ennahda, the two monarchies started funding the secular, nationalist and anti-Islamist party Nidaa Tounes from 2014. The electoral gains it obtained in the 2014 elections eroded Ennahda’s vote base and enabled it to form a coalition government with Ennahda. However, this consensus between Islamist and liberal parties did not make for quick decision-making or reform.
The presidential elections of 2019 brought Kais Saied, an academic with no political background, to power as President. He immediately expressed his unhappiness with the paralysed political system and his “disgust” at the pervasive corruption among national assembly members, referring to them as “monsters” and “birds of prey”. In July 2021, the President initiated the end of Tunisia’s democratic order by dissolving the assembly and assuming full powers. In August 2022, he got the Constitution amended to enshrine presidential authority.
Gulf and Egyptian media have celebrated Saied’s constitutional coup as a defeat of political Islam precisely because, as Sarah Yerkes has noted, “Ennahda proved that political Islam could be compatible with democracy”.
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The most serious intervention of the two Gulf monarchies and Egypt has been in Sudan. Omar al-Bashir, Sudan’s President from 1989, was believed to have Islamist leanings, with close ties to Qatar. Saudi Arabia and the UAE attempted to win him over with generous development assistance. But when the two countries initiated the blockade of Qatar from June 2017, it seemed that al-Bashir still retained his links with Qatar.
Hence, in April 2019, they supported the military officers who brought him down—Army chief General Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, and the head of the paramilitary Rapid Support Forces, General Mohammed Hamdan Dagalo. After the coup, several figures associated with the Brotherhood were arrested. Later, the two monarchies helped to end Sudan’s first experiment with democracy by backing a military coup against the civilian Prime Minister in October 2021.
But matters have not progressed as the monarchies had planned: their two military proteges fell out in April 2023 and have plunged Sudan in a bloody and destructive civil conflict.
The UAE and Egypt have also been actively involved in the civil conflict in Libya in order to ensure that the Islamist elements that dominate the administration in Tripoli do not take over the country, and have supported the administration in Tobruk. In 2019, they backed a military effort to end the Tripoli administration; after it failed, the political stalemate in the country continues to this day.
Political Islam, as represented by the Muslim Brotherhood, now seems to have reached its lowest point. The movement has all but collapsed in Egypt; an observer has described it as “very disrupted, with no organised activities and no real chains of command”. Several of its younger members have become harsh critics of their leaders for remaining dogmatic and ill-prepared to learn from their past mistakes. Its enemies, Egypt and the two Gulf monarchies, have identified it with extremism and violence—the “gateway drug” or “conveyor belt” towards radicalism, represented by Al Qaeda or the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS).
- Political Islam or Islamism are terms used to describe the doctrines and tenets of Islam that are used by their votaries to shape an Islamic political order.
- Political Islam in its diverse expressions—the Wahhabi state order in Saudi Arabia, the Muslim Brotherhood, and Jehad—has dominated West Asian politics for over four decades.
- With all the above three in retreat in West Asia, are we looking at a post-Islamist order in the region?
The scourge of jehad
The most dramatic and the most controversial expression of political Islam has been jehad. The wanton violence and cruelty of its two transnational organisations, Al Qaeda and the Islamic State, has been seen by people across the world on television screens over the last several years. Not surprisingly, jehadi violence has come to be conflated not just with political Islam but with Islam itself and has fed a frenzied Islamophobia in several countries.
As the Soviets withdrew from Afghanistan in 1989, Osama bin Laden now saw confrontation with the ‘far enemy’, the US, as his God-given mission. This came to fruition in the attacks on the American homeland on September 11, 2001. Later, in the face of US counter-attacks, Al Qaeda and their Taliban partners found sanctuary in different parts of Pakistan.
In Pakistan, Al Qaeda, earlier a tightly-controlled centralised organisation, restructured itself: it now had a number of local affiliates in different parts of West Asia and North Africa—Iraq, Yemen, Somalia, southern Algeria, Mali, and Nigeria—which, while sharing the ideological zeal of ‘Al Qaeda Central’, were largely autonomous in terms of their operations. They carried out several heinous attacks in the 2000s in different parts of the world.
Osama bin Laden was killed in May 2011 by an American special forces team. The leadership of Al Qaeda then went to his long-term associate, Ayman al-Zawahiri, who was also the principal ideologue of the organisation.
But Al Qaeda was soon over-shadowed by a new transnational scourge, the ISIS. President Obama said in 2015 that ISIS “grew out of our invasion [of Iraq in 2003], which is an example of unintended consequences”.
The ISIS was the product of the disruptions deliberately effected in the Iraqi political order by the US military assault in 2003 and its subsequent occupation of the country. The privileging of Iraq’s Shia community by the US occupation as part of divide-and-rule policies gave rise to the first jehadi organisation in the country, the ‘Al Qaeda in Iraq’, under the zealot Abu Musab Zarqawi. In 2007, it evolved to become the Islamic State of Iraq, and in 2013, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, when Iraq’s jehadis crossed the border and joined the anti-Assad conflict.
Between 2014 and 2016, under Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the ISIS set up a ‘caliphate’ across Iraq and Syria through a campaign of horrific violence that helped create a proto-state the size of Britain, with a population of 6-9 million and a standing army of 200,000. It had a treasury of several million dollars from oil sales and ransom, making it the wealthiest extremist organisation in the world. The ISIS attracted thousands of Muslim youths to join its cadres by imbuing them, in Gerges’ words, with “a greater purpose in life: to be part of a historical mission to restore Islamic unity and help bring about redemption and salvation”. This also provided ISIS with several suicide bombers, hundreds of whom carried out “martyrdom operations”.
The ISIS projected itself as a rival of Al Qaeda in terms of ideology and operations. Crucially, while Al Qaeda continued to focus on the ‘far enemy’, al-Baghdadi now focussed on the ‘near enemy’, prioritising the politics of identity, particularly sectarian identity. Al-Baghdadi followed in Zarqawi’s footsteps by wreaking extraordinary violence on the Shia in Iraq.
Jehad in retreat
Ayman al-Zawahiri was killed in a US missile attack on his residence in Kabul on July 31, 2022. During his decade-long leadership of Al Qaeda, the organisation went into a steady decline. As Daniel Byman has noted, despite sporadic attacks by some affiliates, the core group did not conduct any spectacular attacks on western targets. Cole Bunzel says Zawahiri left behind “an organisation in disarray”.
The ISIS fared no better. Under US guidance, the ISIS steadily lost territory in Iraq to well-trained Iraqi armed forces during 2015-17. Mosul was retaken in July 2017; in December 2017, Iraqi Prime Minister Haidar al-Abadi announced the end of the war.
In Syria, the US mobilised the largely Kurdish Syrian Defence Forces (SDF) and retook the major towns under ISIS control—Manbij in 2016, Raqqa in 2017, and the last stronghold, Baghouz, in 2019. Al-Baghdadi committed suicide in October 2019 when he was confronted by US forces at Barisha, in Syria’s Idlib province.
The outlook for transnational jehad is bleak. Though Zawahiri was residing in Kabul, there is no evidence that the Taliban have allowed Al Qaeda to set a substantial presence in the country; Bunzel quotes a UN team as saying in July 2022 that the Taliban “had prohibited Al Qaeda from plotting external attacks from Afghan soil”, while in August last year an American official said that Al Qaeda had only a dozen core members in Afghanistan.
The ISIS, on its part, has been reduced to a few stragglers in Iraq and Syria who carry out sporadic acts of violence, but pose no threat outside the two neighbouring countries. The ‘Islamic State–Khorasan’ in Afghanistan, despite its name, draws the bulk of its members from Afghanistan and Pakistan. They do carry out attacks in different parts of Afghanistan, but are the enemies of the Taliban and there are frequent reports of fighting between them.
The principal source of jehadi violence in western countries is “lone wolf” attacks by self-radicalised individuals who do not seem to have any links with extremist organisations. Recent attacks have included: stabbings in London and Reading in the United Kingdom; Paris, Conflans-Sainte-Honorine, and Nice in France; and Dresden in Germany; there have been shootings by Islamic extremists in different parts of the US.
The principal area of organised jehadi operations today is sub-Saharan Africa; this includes: Somalia; the territory that links Mali, Niger, and Burkina Faso; and the area around Lake Chad and northeast Nigeria. While militant groups in these territories function in the name of Islam, their support base emerges from local grievances relating to poor or non-existent governance and the failure of governments to deliver services and economic opportunities. None of them has the capacity or the interest to launch attacks outside their immediate domain.
Post-Islamism: outlook and prognosis
As all expressions of political Islam are being systematically erased from the public space across West Asia, are we looking at a post-Islamist order in the region?
In 1996, Asef Bayat, the US-based Iranian scholar, had invented the term “Post-Islamism”, which he had described as a “political and social condition where, following a phase of experimentation, the appeal, energy, and sources of legitimacy of Islamism are exhausted even among its once-ardent supporters”.
Post-Islamists, he went on say, do not abandon the role of faith in the state and society, but seek to reinterpret it. This leads to “an attempt to turn the underlying principles of Islamism on their head by emphasising rights instead of duties, plurality in place of a singular authoritative voice, historicity instead of fixed scriptures, and the future instead of the past. It wants to marry Islam with individual choice and freedom and modernity ….”
There is little doubt that we are now in a “Post-Islamist” stage in West Asian politics: while political Islam is in retreat, several attempts to set up a liberal state order have been thwarted.
The Arab Spring uprisings from 2010, impelled by the slogans “Freedom, Justice, Dignity”, had no Islamic content or inspiration even though Islamist parties, being the best organised at the time, had been the beneficiaries of these upheavals in early elections. The second set of uprisings in 2018-20, in Sudan, Algeria, Lebanon and Iraq, brought down another four leaders, but Islamism, already under pressure, had no role in those movements.
Despite these major convulsions, the region has witnessed no political change; the forces of counter-revolution have proven much too strong. In response to the Arab Spring uprisings, while the oil-rich Gulf states did proffer billions of dollars as sops to their citizens to cool their ardour for change, the mailed fist of coercion was also used extensively; the great scholar Nazih Ayubi had told us four decades ago that “the Arab state … is often violent because it is weak”. Petitioners for reform were incarcerated in Gulf monarchies. The latter, in turn, helped overturn nascent democracies in several Arab states to wipe out the whiff of activist Islamism that upheld the right of citizens to choose their governments and change them periodically.
The persistence of resistance
In response to demands for reform, most Gulf states have produced ambitious “vision” documents to prepare their countries for a post-oil future. They also seek to make their youth partners in reshaping their polities as vibrant and exciting spaces for creativity and enterprise, founded on cutting-edge technology, that will take their nations to global leadership.
This makes sense since the under-25s constitute the bulk of the populations. However, there is no place in these “visions” for any kind of political reform or popular participation in governance. The focus on the centrality of national identity, buttressed by slogans such as “Saudi Arabia is Great” or “Saudi Arabia for Saudis” has within it the sub-text of silencing all challenge and dissent. Is this sustainable?
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This author’s study of West Asian politics over the last century and a half, contained in his book West Asia at War, has revealed a persistent pattern of resistance in Arab states to domestic tyranny and external interventions. Thus, both activist and radical Islamism have been expressions of resistance as evidenced by the fight against foreign occupation in Afghanistan and Iraq and the attempts to obtain a democratic order to replace authoritarian rule in the wake of the Arab spring uprisings. Thus, political Islam, in its diverse expressions, has provided the motive force to safeguard national dignity or obtain reform in the political order, just as anti-colonial uprisings and republican revolutions had done in earlier eras.
While political Islam has exhausted its capacity to effect change and authoritarian rule appears entrenched, the Egyptian scholar, Tarek Osman, had warned in 2016 that behind the façade of stability in several West Asian polities, there was immense anger among young people about the failure of their uprisings and there would be “new waves of demonstrations and revolts” that state authorities would not be able to quell by demanding loyalty and obedience.
West Asian history suggests that the authoritarian state order will evoke popular resistance despite the prospect of harsh response, when, as Ayubi told us, “the carefully erected façade [will] crack open to reveal all manner of horrid monsters that many thought History had long since laid to rest”.
Talmiz Ahmad is a former Ambassador to Saudi Arabia, Oman, and the UAE, and holds the Ram Sathe Chair for International Studies, Symbiosis International University, Pune.
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