Two forms of political Islam compete in the wider Middle East
“I will pay whoever kills the makers of this video $100,000. If someone else makes other blasphemous material in the future, I will also pay his killers $100,000.”
These words were uttered not by a firebrand cleric but by a cabinet minister in Pakistan,Ghulam Ahmad Bilour, pushing the reaction to a provocative film (vacuously) satirical of the Prophet Muhammad, to even more absurd levels.
We witnessed something different altogether on the same weekend in Libya.Two weeks ago, anti-film protests in Benghazi, combined with what is now regarded as a co-ordinated terrorist attack, led to the death of the U.S. ambassador to Libya, other state department personnel, and Libyan security forces. On Friday, we witnessed tens of thousands of ordinary Libyans march to the central al-kish square in the same city, chanting, “No to terror, no to Al Qaeda,” eventually overrunning the bases of groups suspected of being complicit in the earlier attack.
Following the Arab revolutions of 2011, Islam has forcefully entered the public square, and as political forces jockey for power, we are witnessing a growing duel between radical rejectionists and groups favouring more inclusive engagement. If the former gain the upper hand in this battle, which differs country-to-country, it could plunge the wider Middle East into a decade of darkness.
With the revolutions in Libya, Tunisia, Egypt and Yemen, we have seen secular autocrats swept from power and Islamist forces come to the forefront. The participation by religious parties in the democratic arena has led to the mainstreaming of political Islam in the Arab world. The rise of well-known groups such as the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and Al Nahda in Tunisia to power, however, has been accompanied by the emergence of a new political force — salafists who adhere to a very puritanical interpretation of Islam.
The political salafists have tried to brand themselves as true defenders of the faith in opposition to so-called “moderate” Islamists. In effect, they are trying to out-Islam their opponents. While previously the salafist movement had only a limited political role and the more extreme of their members were part of the wider jihadi movement that includes Al Qaeda, today they are asserting themselves in the mainstream, given the new environment. While just emerging in the Arab world, it is a trend that countries like Pakistan have been dealing with for the past several years.
Despite their ability to mobilize in numbers and vitriol, the salafists appear to be in the minority, as witnessed in recent election results across the Arab world. The majority, however, has not coalesced around a coherent ideology that can provide an alternative vision for progress and development. The Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, while trying to be pragmatic, has been muddled in its message since the initial anti-film protests — even its own slogan limits debate: “Islam is the solution.” Thus the outpouring of demonstrations on Friday in Libya trying to reclaim the public space from more radical fringes could be the exception rather than the trend.
We are, therefore, at a dangerous crossroads throughout the Middle East, North Africa and into South Asia, where given this political vacuum, radical salafists are trying to take over the public square, if not by numbers than by default. Moreover, certain interests in the Gulf are pushing these groups, which for them are preferable to more moderate Islamists forces that are seen as threatening to their regional legitimacy. This strength, combined with the growing neo-Islamic McCarthyism practised by the salafist political forces could mean that the silent majority is definitively silenced for the foreseeable future.
There is no easy way out, and the situation within each country is different. If the current crisis is viewed through the prism of a provocative film and an offended Muslim public, we are missing the broader political implications. In effect, we are seeing a shift from the post-Sept. 11 decade fight of Al Qaeda versus autocratic regimes in the region, to the people versus the populists. The film has only served as the pretext for what is now termed the ‘outrage industry’ that fuels radicals in so many Muslim countries.
If the current situation is to change, it will only happen if forces, within and outside the Muslim world, empower the marginalized majority that is seeking to define a more inclusive and pluralistic future.