Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Even Without Bin Laden, Islamism Is Far From Finished

By Bernard Haykel
This commentary was published in The Daily Star on 24/05/2011 

Many have rushed to the conclusion that the death of Osama bin Laden and the uprisings of the Arab Spring spell the end of Islamism and the dawn of a new era of democratic politics in the Arab world.

The Arab revolutions have certainly proved bin Laden wrong on a number of fronts: Regimes can be changed without resort to violence and terrorism; Arab citizens care more about individual freedom and rights than about the establishment of the Muslim Caliphate; and the demand for change does not necessarily involve hatred for the U.S. and Israel because of their alleged domination and humiliation of Muslims. Personal dignity and freedom from authoritarian brutality, like better governance and greater economic opportunity, are the demands of the people, not Al-Qaeda’s agenda. So bin Laden’s demise may spell the death of his ideology and perhaps, in time, that of his movement and its affiliates.
But political Islam or Islamism, a much broader current than Al-Qaeda, is far from extinguished. Recent developments in Tunisia, Egypt, Gaza and Jordan show this clearly. The Muslim Brotherhood is playing an important role in Egyptian politics and (to the surprise of many) has helped broker a deal between the feuding Palestinian factions of Fatah and Hamas. The predominance of Islamists in the new configurations of power is to be expected since they, whether in Tunisia, Egypt, Syria or elsewhere, have paid the heaviest price in resisting Arab authoritarianism as measured by lives lost, imprisonment, torture and exile.

And while the question still hangs as to whether the Muslim Brotherhood will adhere to democratic principles and practices, Salafists, another important and resurgent Islamist force, are making their influence felt and refuse all accommodation with democratic principles. The Salafists, who share theological beliefs with Al-Qaeda, though not its political tactics or program, have been behind rising tensions with Christians, Sufis and secularists in Egypt, the police and state in Jordan, and Hamas in Gaza.

Unlike the Muslim Brotherhood, Salafist influence is difficult to gauge because, by and large, Salafists refuse to organize into a political party or to engage in formal electoral politics. They appear nonetheless to have a sizeable following throughout the Middle East as well as considerable ideological influence.
In practical terms, the Salafists are akin to the Tea Party in the United States, in that they are doctrinarians committed to uncompromising principles about the necessary role of Islam in politics and society. And while not advocating violence, Salafist pressure and influence might prevent groups like the Muslim Brotherhood from adopting more tolerant political values and practices. Furthermore, Salafists are strongly anti-American, and like bin Laden, posit the West as an eternal enemy of Islam and Muslims. In other words, they have a radicalizing effect on politics.

The influence of the Salafists is not confined to Egypt. In Gaza, for example, Salafist power has been on the rise for a number of years, much to Hamas’s distress. When Ismail Haniyeh, the Hamas leader in Gaza, recently condemned bin Laden’s killing and praised him as a martyr of Islam, he was probably playing to his support base that is being lured by the Salafists. In Jordan, too, the Salafists have become more influential among both the Palestinian and East Bank populations. Their recent riot in Zarqa is a manifestation of this.
The Salafists may also obtain an unexpected but significant boost because of a new geo-political development in Middle Eastern politics. Saudi Arabia has effectively declared a cold war on Iran after the fall of President Hosni Mubarak in Egypt and the Feb. 14 uprising in Bahrain. Riyadh sees Iran as the great beneficiary of these events, as it was from the U.S. invasion and occupation of Iraq in 2003. The kingdom now wishes to roll back this tide while bolstering its own political legitimacy.

This impulse is bound to involve a ramping up of anti-Shiite rhetoric and activities, and the Salafists are tailor-made clients for such an agenda. Saudi Arabia is already being depicted as leading the “counter-reform” forces, reversing the momentum of the Arab spring. This remains to be seen, but what is becoming clearer is that the influence of Islamists of various kinds as well as the ramping up of the Saudi-Iranian conflict are likely to keep democratic forces at bay for some time longer.
Bernard Haykel is a professor of Near Eastern studies and director of the Institute for the Transregional Study of the Middle East, North Africa and Central Asia at Princeton University. This commentary first appeared at bitterlemons-international.org, an online newsletter.

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