Islamists, judging by the use of the term in the global press, is a simplified way of referring to all Muslim groups seeking some form of Islamic rule in the Middle East.
Like most simplistic expressions, “Islamist,” is laden with hidden traps.
The first Islamist trap is believing that all Muslim groups seeking some form of Islamic rule in the Middle East are of one mind and body.
They are not.
The second Islamist trap is assuming that all groups seeking some form of Islamist rule are inherently hostile to the interests of the United States and its allies.
Some are, and some are not.
The third Islamist trap is thinking that the US and its allies can stop the Islamist surge now sweeping the Middle East by diplomacy, sanctions, and covert action.
The verdict on this supposition has yet to be rendered, but the outlook is not promising.
The fourth and most lethal Islamist trap is the belief that force alone can stop the Islamists.
Iraq and Afghanistan suggest otherwise.
The dangers of assuming that all Islamists are the same is easily illustrated by a brief review of the four main Sunni Islamist groups competing for control of the Middle East.
The most liberal of the four main Islamist groups is Islam Lite, the sarcastic Turkish nickname for the Justice and Development Party that has ruled Turkey within a secular framework for more than a decade.
Islam Lite, the most forward looking of the four Islamic groups, has built Turkey into the world’s seventeenth largest economy, consolidated Turkish democracy, brought Turkey to the doorstep of membership in the European Union, reaffirmed Turkey’s membership in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and established Turkey as the dominant Muslim power in the Middle East and beyond.
This is not to deny that the Justice and Development Party does have an Islamic agenda that seeks to create a more Islamic state in Turkey and the Arab world.
At the domestic level, the Justice and Development Party has implemented sweeping Islamic reforms that promote veiling of women, prayer in schools, and other Islamic practices outlawed by Turkey’s revolutionary leaders in the aftermath of World War I.
While these Islamic reforms are hardly earth shaking, seculars worry that they are but the first step in the Party’s much deeper Islamic agenda.
At the regional and international levels, the Justice and Development Party’s Islamic agenda includes support for Muslim Brotherhood rule in Egypt, Tunisia, and the Gaza Strip. It also calls for an independent Palestinian state in the Occupied Territories. All have soured Turkey’s relations with Israel, but war between the two former allies is not in the picture.
Partnership with the US and EU is an essential component of Islam Lite. Subservience is not.
Some observers accuse Turkey of using Islam to extend its regional influence. The Israelis, on the other hand, worry that Turkey will use its military power to extend its Islamic reach.
While neither thought can be discounted, the Islamic Lite model practiced in Turkey does demonstrate that moderate Islamic rule is compatible with democracy and development. Much like Turkey itself, the Justice and Development Party provides an avenue for cooperation and dialogue between the West and Muslim groups throughout the Middle East.
Things, however, may not be as simple as they seem. The Turkish model is deeply rooted in Turkish history and culture and may not be exportable to either the Arab world or the Islamic regions of Central Asia.
Also problematic is the weakness of Islamic Lite groups in other areas of the Middle East. All, with rare exceptions, lack a firm organizational network and their popular support base pales in comparison to those of the Muslim Brotherhood and even the more extremist Salafis.
The Muslim Brotherhood
Next in the hierarchy of religious extremism comes the Muslim Brotherhood, the world’s largest and most powerful Islamic organization.
The Brotherhood now rules in Egypt and Tunisia and exercises profound influence throughout the region. The name may differ from place to place, but they are all Brotherhood offshoots.
The odds are that it will control most of the Arab Middle East by the end of the decade.
The foundation of the Brotherhood’s success is a vision of Islam that promises Islamic morality, modernity, welfare, honesty, capitalism, stability, and development in a single and seductive package. It is this seductive package that has enabled the Brotherhood to capture the center of the Sunni Islamic community.
Popular support, in turn, is bolstered by an organizational structure that spans the globe. In contrast to Turkey’s Justice and Development Party which is overwhelmingly focused on Turkey, the Muslim Brotherhood is first and foremost a Muslim organization that places Islam above nationalism. Egypt is the headquarters of the Brotherhood, but its goal is a Middle East dominated by moderate Muslim rule. Brotherhood dominance in one country is used to strengthen Brotherhood influence in others.
In sum, the Brotherhood possesses a forward looking agenda that includes democracy and development within an Islamic framework. This differs markedly from the Turkish Lite model which is willing to pursue democracy and development within a secular framework. The Brotherhood is willing to cooperate with the US and the EU, but only on terms that advance its Islamic agenda. This, too, differs from a Turkish model that places Turkey’s national interests above Islamic interest.
The Brotherhood, in common with the Islamic Lite model, pursues its Islamic agenda in a patient and pragmatic manner that avoids violence if possible. This said, the Brotherhood is more directly involved in supporting Hamas and other affiliated Islamic movements than the Turkish Justice and Development Party. While the Turks exert diplomatic pressure on Israel to ease its efforts to crush the Hamas rulers of the Gaza Strip, the Muslim Brotherhood offers hands on support to Hamas. It is not a combatant, having upheld Egypt’s peace treaty with Israel, but neither is it without blood on its hands.
The West is not anxious to deal with the Brotherhood, but it may have little choice in the matter. If elections are held in the Arab world, the Brotherhood will either win the elections or possess so much power that it can prevent any other group from ruling effectively.
The salafis are exceptionally conservative Muslims who believe that the Koran and Sunna (sayings and actions of the Prophet Mohammed) should be followed to the letter. This includes accepting the rule of tyrants as the will of God. God will judge the kings and tyrants when the time comes, but that is his call and not theirs. The salafis also feel honor bound to force other Muslims to accept their most restrictive vision of Islam. In the salafi view, humans are too venal to follow the true path of Islam unless all vestiges of temptation are removed from society. This includes the temptations of the flesh and requires the full veiling of women. In cases of rape, women are condemned for provocation.
The Wahhabi doctrine of Saudi Arabia and most areas of the Gulf is salafi to the core. The senior Wahhabi clerics are part of the ruling elite in Saudi Arabia and control both the religious police and the education system. They also play a key role in the Saudi security system by justifying the rule of the Saudi monarchy as the will of God. The Gulf monarchies cannot rule without them.
While dominant in the Gulf, diverse salafi groups are emerging as a major force in Egypt and Tunisia, two of the most westernized countries in the Arab world. The first free parliamentary elections in Egypt saw the salafis capture about 25% of the vote in comparison to the Brotherhood’s 40%. When you add the Islamic Lite votes to the total, the Islamists garnered some 70% of the popular vote. Subtract the Christian vote, and the Islamists garnered close to 80% of the Muslim vote. The election campaign was bitter, but when the Brotherhood emerged as the Islamist candidate in the run-off elections, they were supported by both the salafi and the Islam Lite groups. Both are now involved in a bitter struggle to pull the Brotherhood in their respective directions.
As things currently stand, the Salafis are a powerful, backward looking group whose global reach, supported by Saudi oil wealth, preaches virulent anti-Americanism. Unlike the Brotherhood, the salafis are neither patient nor pragmatic. They don’t rebel against Muslim leaders, but they are active supporters of violent attacks against the US and its allies. Salafi supporters in Egypt and Tunisia have also been involved in violent acts against Christian and secular organizations whom they view as a threat to Islam.
These attacks are also designed to force a conflict between the reigning Brotherhood regimes and secular groups in these westernized countries. Nationality doesn’t matter, neither does reality. Faith will assure the return of a Sunni theocracy modeled on the 7th century Arabia. Shia need not apply. In the meantime, the salafi will do everything in their power to force Muslim societies to live according of Islamic law. The Muslim Brothers are flaming liberal by comparison. It is vital that the West keep the Muslim Brotherhood on the moderate track and avoid pushing them into the salafi camp.
The Salafis, in turn, give way to the jihadists intent on cleansing society by violence. Nothing else will do. Symbolized by bin Laden and al-Qaeda, the jihadists differ from the mainline Salafis in three key ways. First, they have arrogated unto themselves the right to excommunicate Muslim leaders by declaring them to be kafirs or non-believers. Most salafis deem excommunication to be the right of God unless individuals denounce their belief in God and refuse to accept the Prophet Mohammed as his Messenger. Second, by excommunicating political leaders for their cooperation with the US, the jihadists are absolved from Koranic scriptures requiring them to support their ruling tyrants and kings. Rebellion and assassination await. Finally, it is not enough for the jihadists to impose strict Islamic law on society. All Muslims societies, in their view, have been so corrupted by their association with the West that they must be totally destroyed and rebuilt in a purely Islamic framework. The only way to achieve this goal, from the jihadist perspective, is violence. There is no scope for pragmatism. Bin Laden is gone and al-Qaeda has been weakened, but the jihadists have simply decentralized into a multitude of localized groups intent on terror. When one is crushed, others evolve to fill the gap.
Traps and consequences
The trap of viewing the main Islamist groups as a cohesive force deprives the West of much needed flexibility in dealing with the competing Islamic movements most likely to dominate the Middle East during the coming decade.
Turkey’s Islamic Lite is compatible with the stability and development of the Middle East, but the jihadists are not.
The Muslim Brotherhood could go either way, while the salafis, ardent supporters of retrogressive extremism, are sheltered by their ties to the Saudi monarchy. You can’t have one without the other.
The jihadists are a clear and present danger to everybody. This, of itself, provides a basis for cooperation between the West and the more moderate Islamic organizations.
The trap of viewing the main Islamists groups as being of one mind and body sets the stage for believing that all Islamist groups pose an imminent danger to the US and its allies. How could it be otherwise when Islamic Lite is painted with the brush of the jihadists?
The battle lines for an inevitable conflict between Islam and the West have been drawn. Panic and islamophobia soar. So does anti-Americanism in the Islamic world. All that remains is a fuse.
The drawing of battle lines, in turn, unleashes the trap of urgency. Something has to be done, but what?
Iraq and Afghanistan have dulled the West’s taste for drawn out guerilla wars. As former Secretary of Defense Gates framed the issue, “Any future defense secretary who advises the president to again send a big American land army to Asia or into the Middle East or Africa should have his head examined.”
This sets the stage for an endless series of sanctions, covert actions, and drone strikes which stoke extremism, anti-Americanism and, eventually, a new explosion.
With a continued western failure to recognize the complexities and differences of Islamic groups, we will see the continued failure of western Middle East policies.