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Beyond 1979: The roots of Islamism in the modern Arab world

Bism Allah Al-Rahman Al-Rahim

ISLAMISM AND CONSERVATISM IN ARAB POLITICS

Particularly since 2001, it has become a staple to see discussion on political Islam in the Muslim world described in negativist terms—that is to say, Islamism has only come about because other, more secularist, ideologies either failed or were failed and the blind masses swung in another direction. This article will, focusing on much of the Arab-majority world, attempt to address that gross, misleading distortion. (See this utterly incorrect extract from a Patrick Cockburn rag for an example: https://twitter.com/BenjaminNorton/status/769605965851295744)

The heyday of Arab socialism around 1960, with Gamal Nasser thundering from balconies to rapturous crowds and Voice of the Arabs broadcasting Cairo propaganda to millions of Arabs, is well known. This is often contrasted, by people across the political spectrum, with the contemporary rise of Islamism in the Muslim, including Arab, world. An especially popular theme has been to put this rise of Islamism down to external factors—whether the influence of reactionary Saudi propaganda, the Iranian revolution, the trauma after repeated defeats to Israel, or other factors. While these factors have undoubtedly played a partial role, this explanation is over-simplified to the point of outright distortion and misses the critical factor of early politics in the Arab (and more broadly the Muslim, but let’s concentrate on the Arab world for now) world.

As is well-known, the Ottoman Sultanate’s collapse led to a colonization and partition of the Middle East into French and British mandates. While the Sharif family, led by Hussein bin Ali and his sons Abdallah I, Ali, and Faisal I, had been promised the rule of the Arab majority world instead of the Turkish Ottomans, they instead came second to British-French negotiations. The result was that Britain took Palestine, Jordan, and Iraq in addition to their Egyptian protectorate, while France took Syria and Lebanon (Syria, Jordan, Lebanon and Palestine having been carved out of the historical “Sham”—that is, Levant or greater Syria—region). Saudi Arabia, originally also meant as a part of the Sharifs’ territory, was instead conquered by the British Empire’s secondary ally there, Abdul-Aziz Ibn Saud. Yemen and Oman were ruled by conservative monarchies based on Zaidi Islam and Ibadi Islam respectively, while the eastern Gulf was a conglomerate of tiny statelets ruled by local sheikhs.

Rule by these foreign powers was, of course, immediately opposed. Faisal I bin Hussein tried to protect the prized Damascus from France, but was routed and sought assistance from the British Empire, who had meanwhile been stunned by a ferocious revolt in Iraq. The solution was to place Faisal as Iraq’s king, a strongly dependent British client much along the same lines as Egypt’s monarchy. In Transjordan, Faisal’s brother Abdallah I assumed the same title; perhaps the Sharif family envisioned a confederation of dynastic principalities in much the same way as many rulers of the Middle East prior to the Ottomans and Mamluks had done. Of course, even as they depended on British support, Faisal and especially Abdallah never gave up the idea of retaking Syria. As such, the borders within which the Arab states were confined were always resented.

Various local forces, such as southern Syria’s Druze sect and northern Iraq’s Kurds, continued to give France and Britain trouble. In the occupied interior, however, the rise of a peculiarly anti-British, autonomist nationalism was brewing. Its early proponents were mostly either intellectuals or ideologues who opposed foreign rule on principle, or notables of local elite families who had lost their longstanding influence. In the former category we can also include religiously motivated preachers, such as Egypt’s Hasan Banna, Syria-Palestine’s Izzaddin Qassam, and Iraq’s Mahdi Khalisi, who preached resistance to the foreign occupation. A third category gradually emerged, which constituted soldiers in the new Arab armies, who also resented foreign control. Of course, there was considerable overlap between these categories.

In shunning foreign domination, a number of ideologies emerged. These included a right-wing nationalism, which called for an advanced Arab state free of foreign domination, much along the lines of Germany and Turkey; as such, it had a rather far-right extremist fringe as well and, since Germany was a rival to the hated occupiers, even some indirect Nazi influence. They also included socialism and Marxism, which was seen as a way to both share wealth and industrialize the state towards the much-vaunted ideal of progress; this had a communist-influenced fringe, but communism was not very popular because of its openly atheist tendency. Again, Marxism also appeared to give an alternative to Britain and France. They included a “state-nationalist”, or watania, ideology as opposed to a pan-Arab qaumia ideology; this was often, but not always, favoured by people of non-Arab background, such as the considerable body of Circassians, Turkmen and Kurds that inhabit the Middle East. (It should be noted that early Arab nationalism, except for the far-right, was not necessarily opposed to these minorities, but took their status as societal if not racial Arabs as a given.) Finally there was a “liberal”, economically conservative Arab nationalism, exemplified by the landowning families: they wanted to be free of foreign domination, but they also accepted Western ideas of governance and society and were generally favorable towards an independent friendship with the West. This was typified by the Sharifs who ruled Iraq and Jordan, as well as in particular Nuri Saeed, their longtime military lieutenant who was a key ally of British interests in the region for forty years and who often served as prime minister.

Though it has until recently received much less attention, the ideology of Islamism was already widespread by 1940, a decade after Banna had founded the Muslim Brethren in Egypt and by which time a classically “Islamist” rural revolt had already occurred in Palestine. The localized networks of these groups—the Muslim Brethren maintained a widespread informal network, which included both armed and political activity but also charity and other such services, while Qassam mobilized at the Levantine countryside nearly independently of the urban elite—and the general appeal of a pietistic Islamic pretext were both key to understanding the spread of Islamism. Nor was it exclusive to other patriotic or nationalist forces; quite the contrary. Since the history of Arab fortunes closely entwined with Islam, Arab nationalists—particularly rightist nationalists—at least gave lip service to the role and prestige of Islam; few among them were outright secularists even if they were personally irreligious. A figure like Amin Husaini, the infamous mufti of Jerusalem during the 1940s, exemplifies the crossover between Islamism and rightist Arab nationalism.
Because of the opportunities afforded to armed forces, it was the various army officers who struck the earliest blows. A case in point was Bakr Sidqi, who had become famous—indeed, celebrated—in Iraq when he massacred an Assyrian settlement, both fighters and civilians, in 1935. The Assyrians, who were privileged by the British in much the same way as the Alawites were privileged by the French, had formed an armed paramilitary which was loathed by many Iraqis as the symbol of foreign domination. Therefore Sidqi’s exploit propelled him to fame, and he used this the next year to mount a coup alongside the civilian statesman Hikmat Sulaiman. The Turk Sulaiman, whose brother Mahmoud Jaudat had been an Ottoman officer who played an important role in the 1908 coup against sultan Abdul-Hameed II bin Abdul-Majeed, and the Kurd Sidqi were hardly Arab nationalists: they exemplified the watani tendency and wanted to turn Iraq into a modern centralized republic along the lines of neighbouring Turkey.

A year later, however, Sidqi was murdered in a conspiracy planned by a group of midranked officers whose ringleaders adhered to a mixture of rightist pan-Arabism and Islamism. Their most famous member was Salahuddin Sabbagh, who led an influential group of four colonels that the British nicknamed the “Golden Square”; as well as Sabbagh, they included Mahmoud Salman, Kamal Shabib, and Fahmi Saeed. Sabbagh, a fervent ideologue, declared that as a Muslim, he could not accept British rule of a Muslim country; as an Arab, he could not do the same, and he was particularly opposed to British rule in Palestine, which he emphasized was part of the Muslim-Arab nation. Substitute America or Russia for Britain, and such a statement (as Ibrahim Marashi points out in Iraq’s Armed Forces: An Analytical History) is indistinguishable from modern-day Islamists in the Arab world (Eliezer Beeri, in Army Officers in Arab Politics and Society, claims that Sabbagh was a specifically racialist Arab nationalist, but there is little to back this up and one of his collaborators, Baghdad commandant Amin Zaki, was a Kurd whom Sabbagh hailed for devotion to the “Arab cause”).

Four years later, during the heat of the Second World War, the Golden Square, in concert with mufti Amin Husaini from Jerusalem, Baghdad commandant Amin Zaki, and civilian statesman Rashid Ali, toppled the Sharif monarchy in a coup meant to coordinate with Germany against Britain. Amin Husaini, as Zionist authors never tire of reminding us, was an ally of Hitler against their common enemy, Britain. The coup was swiftly crushed in a British invasion where the Golden Square fell apart and was slain, with the exception of Sabbagh who escaped to Turkey for a decade.
Iraq was not the only theatre where Islamists and other anti-British forces collaborated. In Egypt, a daring but rather foolhardy conspiracy was hatched to impede the British campaign in North Africa. It included both members of the far-right Egyptian Youth group, including Anwar Sadat, and Islamists in the army, such as Abdel-Raouf Abdel-Munim. Abdel-Raouf is an especially cogent character here because he was both a Muslim Brethren member and a founder of the future Free Officers movement, a quintessentially nationalist movement. Even Gamal Nasser, the modern emblem of secular Arabism and a future persecutor of the Muslim Brethren, briefly joined up with the Brethren and trained their members.

In the tumultous years that followed the Second World War, the Islamists were a key, if not the key, component of anti-British agitation in Egypt, and Arab independence as a whole. During the war in Palestine, one segment of the Egyptian force was composed of Muslim Brethren volunteers led by Ahmed Abdel-Aziz, an upper-class officer martyred in the field and later described by Arab nationalists in Nasser’s period as a role model. The Muslim Brethren militia formed an important force in the Negev campaigns during that war; their leader, Kamel Sharif, maintained good ties with the Egyptian and Jordanian armies. The founder of the Arab League, Abdel-Rahman Azzam, was a close friend of Muslim Brethren leader Hasan Banna, typifying the close connection between early Arab nationalists and Islamists. The restless Jerusalem mufti Amin Husaini was, again, a key figure, and his cousin Abdul-Qadir Husaini—the celebrated leader of the siege of Jerusalem who was martyred in May 1948 after he was stranded at Qastal with plummeting ammunition—led the Jihad Muqaddas (Holy Jihad) army, made up of local volunteers waging jihad for the holy land. A more prototypically Islamist segment can hardly be imagined.

In spite of the contribution at Palestine, the Muslim Brethren were, under British pressure, blacklisted in Egypt before the war was over. Egypt’s prime minister Mahmoud Nuqrashy specifically banned them en route a generally autocratic campaign, and he was soon murdered by a stray Brethren member named Abdel-Maguid Hassan. Though Hasan Banna condemned the murder as un-Islamic and inexcusable, Nuqrashy’s successor Ibrahim Abdel-Hady only doubled down on the crackdown, which included the murder of Banna and the ban on the Brethren for the rest of the monarchic period. Several Brethren members were tried, and even though the Egyptian field commander in Palestine, Fouad Sadek, vouched for them, the government was unrelenting. The Brethren fled to ground, and their armed wing, led by Saleh Ashmawi, engaged in sabotage activities against the British army. It was at this point that Brethren activity in the army became especially frenetic. As mentioned, Abdel-Raouf Abdel-Munim was a founding Free Officer; other early and important Free Officers who were onetime or remained Brethren members included Sadat, Hassan Ibrahim, Kamaleddin Hussein, Rashad Mehanna, and even Nasser himself. Apart from Abdel-Munim, who Nasser purged, each of them was a member of the Free Officers’ junta after the July 1952 coup.

The coup, led by Nasser in concert with a celebrated, respected senior officer Mohamed Naguib, ousted the monarchy for good. It also led to a struggle for power between various coupmakers. The popular artillery officer Rashad Mehanna, who was assigned to the symbolic but powerless position of regent early on, was an Islamist leader whose artillery lieutenants, Fathullah Rifaat and Mohsen Abdel-Khaliq, mutinied against Nasser in December 1952. More pressing was the conflict between Naguib, an old-fashioned gentleman with basically traditional instincts who wanted to transition to parliament rule, and Nasser, who wanted to maintain a personalized dictatorship capable of single-mindedly developing Egypt. Naguib’s generally conservative, Islamist-friendly politics can be seen in the fact that he commissioned Abdel-Razzaq Sanhury, a renowned legalist, to codify sharia into state law—something that Islamists to the current day yearn for, and for less than which current-day statesmen like Recep Erdogan have been branded “radical Islamists”. Sanhury also served as Naguib’s liaison with the Muslim Brethren, whose deputy Abdel-Qader Ouda organized mass rallies in Naguib’s favour when he came into conflict with Nasser. The Islamists were not alone here—the various political parties, including communists and liberals, backed Naguib because of Nasser’s hostility towards them—but their role was decisive in ensuring that Nasser’s attempt to purge Naguib in February 1954 failed, because they organized the gigantic protests that forced Nasser to back down.

Nasser spent the summer of 1954 trying to win over the Brethren and split their forces, his wily spymaster Salah Nasser adopting a carrot-stick policy. In October 1954, the penny dropped when a Muslim Brethren officer, Mahmoud Abdel-Latif, tried with spectacular incompetence to murder Nasser at a speech in Alexandria. He missed nine shots at point-blank range—leading to disquieted allegations that it was a staged attempt—and Nasser’s bravado in the face of danger was sufficient to entirely turn the popular tide in his favour. Armed with both a popular mandate and dictatorial force, he banned the Brethren and imprisoned thousands, executing their second-in-command Ouda in spite of a belated plea for reconciliation from jail. Naguib, disgusted with the Brethren’s naivete, was himself arrested a month later for his links to the Islamists and spent the last decade of his life under house arrest. The remainder of the Brethren escaped to neutral or conservative countries like Saudi Arabia, where they were welcomed by the pietistic crown-prince Faisal bin Abdul-Aziz and were tainted with a repute for reactionism that was spectacularly unfair given their contribution to Egypt’s revolution. (It is notable that even at this time, Muslim Brethren cells led by Fathi Shaqi remained active in Ghazza alongside the famous Egyptian field commander Mustafa Hafez; among their members were Yasser Arafat and Salah Khalil, later leaders of the more secularist Fatah faction).

While Egypt provided the most concerted and spectacular case of Islamists in and out of power, sympathetic sentiments continued to smoulder across the Arab-majority world. The Algerian independence movement’s earliest champions were classic Islamists: Abdelhamid Ben Badis, Messali Hadj, Malek Bennabi and Bashir Ibrahimi, who had agitated for Algerian independence on the basis of its Islamic obligation and character since the 1920s, long preceding both liberal and socialist approaches to Algerian patriotism. The monarchy of North Yemen had been basically the Zaidi version of a caliphate, and even the Egypt-backed republican forces that fought them during the 1960s proclaimed an Islamic republic, and included large numbers of pietistic, socially conservative lower-class Yemeni members whose “backwards” bumptiousness frustrated Nasser no end (“you see,” he once spat in disgust to Nikita Khrushchev after meeting the republican leader Abdullah Sallal, “what I have to deal with?”). It is important to note that, despite his internal hostility to Islamism, Nasser presented the image of an Islam-friendly alternative to communism abroad. This was illustrated in both his relations with the United States, whose leader Dwight Eisenhower bailed him out of a military defeat against Israel, Britain and France in 1956 for fear of a communist takeover, as well as Syria and Iraq.

The middle 1950s were a tumultous time in Syrian politics, as it was courted by both East and West and as ideologues of all stripes bickered and competed in its relatively open political space. The exaggerated spectre of an imminent communist takeover, entertained by both the United States and by local actors, led to a concerted effort to integrate Syria with Egypt in a pan-Arab alliance. Pan-Arabism was by now firmly in vogue, with Nasser the toast of the Arab world after his political triumph over Israel, Britain and France. On the other hand, Syrian actors of all stripes were apprehensive of communist influence, which was never great but which was sufficiently feared for a wide number of them, both officers and statesmen, to invite Nasser to merge Syria with Egypt in February 1958. Because of both Nasser’s popularity and the fear of communism, this was greeted with enormous enthusiasm in both Egypt and Syria. The Sharif monarchs of Iraq and Jordan—whose call for an Arab union, only one ruled by themselves and not a republican dictator, preceded that of most other Arab movements—responded with a British-sponsored federation, but this never really caught on and soon collapsed. Jordan’s young ruler Hussein bin Talal navigated this crisis skilfully and without harm; on the other hand, his cousins in Iraq were swept away.

In July 1958, a loosely organized “Free Officers” group in Iraq mutinied, with mass support from the Iraqi citizens, and bloodily overthrew the monarchy, whose remnants were killed by firing squad. Nuri Saeed—the long-derided epitome of pro-Western treachery—was captured, lynched and his corpse, like that of Iraqi regent Abdulelah bin Ali, mauled and dragged through the streets. The coup’s military leaders were Abdul-Karim Qasim and Abdul-Salam Arif. It had been a long time coming; we have seen the Iraqi officer corps mutiny in the 1930s and 1940s already, and the Iraqi regime’s closeness to Britain—especially in the aftermath of Britain’s 1956 attack on Egypt—stamped out whatever support it retained outside the political elite. Free Officer cells had been founded by Rifaat Sirri as early as 1956, during that same war.

Rifaat Sirri, Abdul-Salam Arif, and their close collaborators, Abdul-Wahhab Shawwaf and Nazim Tabaqchali, exemplify the close relationship between proto-Islamism and rightist Arab nationalism at the time. Each of them described and interpreted their pan-Arab sentiments in exactly the same Islamically based way as Salahuddin Sabbagh had in 1941 and as a modern Islamist may. With the exception of Rifaat, each of them was the son of an Islamic leader—Shawwaf’s father was the mufti of Baghdad—and each of them was opposed not only to the pro-West monarchy but also the apparently atheistic communists. Unlike Syria and Egypt, communism had a real street power in Iraq, principally among lower-class Shias and certain intellectuals, and they organized huge rallies and kept militias that dwarfed their competitors. The threat of a communist takeover in Iraq was not as far-fetched as Syria or Egypt. To pietistic officers such as this segment of the Free Officers, a union with the Egypt-Syria federation offered not only a stepping stone towards Arab-Islamic unity but also a bulwark against communism. In short, their enthusiasm for the secular Arabist Nasser, whose secularism was at any rate not well known outside Egypt, derived from the same sort of conservative pietistic concerns that any Islamist may have.

Abdul-Karim Qasim, the new dictator of Iraq, had other ideas. He was not affiliated to any ideologies, including communism—indeed, he was publicly respectful of religion, proclaimed the Iraqi people to be “Allah’s party”, and changed his official title, “The Unique Leader”, at the insistence of a cleric who claimed that unique rulership belonged only to Allah. What Qasim did believe in was the sort of watani Iraqi nationalism that had characterized Bakr Sidqi, to whom he had distant familial links. It has also been speculated that Qasim’s background—his family was half Kurd and half Shia—predisposed him against the Arab unionism project, which was dominated by Sunni Arab officers. From the start, Qasim was unwilling to align Iraq with the Egypt-Syria union. Because most of his fellow officers did not share this reluctance, he turned to the communists, who had some officer followers and who also possessed a massive militia.

Qasim’s lieutenants, most notably his once-loyal second-in-command Abdul-Salam Arif, remonstrated with him to no avail, and they may have tried even to murder him. At any rate, Qasim remained unmoved, and purged the agitated Arif from the leadership. This led to a conspiracy between the influential Rifaat Sirri, so long active in the Arab nationalist underground, as well as Tabaqchali, the army’s northern commander, and Shawwaf, the Mosul garrison commandant. Mosul was a hotbed of conservative Sunni nationalism of precisely the sort that resented Qasim’s leftward shifts. The conspirators had already contacted Rashid Ali, the restless right-wing Arab nationalist leader who had led the 1941 revolt with the Golden Square.

In the spring of 1959, Shawwaf mutinied at Mosul, but Rifaat and Tabaqchali were quickly detained and could not mount their planned mutinies in Baghdad and Kirkuk respectively. After a bloody battle—where not only rightist Arab nationalists, but also Arab tribesmen, collided with not only leftist loyalists but also Kurdish militiamen—Shawwaf was slain and the mutiny crushed. His corpse was buried in Damascus, where Nasser’s propaganda machine had long waged a relentless war on Qasim. Rifaat, Arif, Tabaqchali and Rashid were grilled at the public court that Qasim had set up, which was led by his bombastic cousin Fadil Mihdawi. They specifically cited hostility to the foreign creed of communism as their motivation. Qasim, who as dictator usually exercised his privilege to pardon inmates from execution, unusually upheld the sentence for Rifaat and Tabaqchali. Meanwhile he also had to remonstrate with his uncontrollable communist allies, who in concert with Kurdish militiamen had run riot in Kirkuk and massacred a large number of rightists, Arabs, and Turkmens. The episode again underlines the large current of rightist, conservative, and Islamically oriented sentiment that remained in Iraq’s officer class.

The Egypt-Syria union imploded two years later; it had been dominated by Nasser’s arrogant deputy Abdel-Hakim Amer and his ruthless Syrian lieutenant Abdul-Hamid Sarraj, and set up in Syria the sort of hitherto unknown security apparatus that had been founded in Egypt from 1954. It had attempted to impose the Egyptian style of centralized rule on the always decentralized Syrian landscape. It had also broken the backs of the traditional landowning families that had long dominated politics; in their place came generally left-leaning officers, often from minority sects and religions. What had probably clinched the deal was Nasser’s mass nationalization of Syria’s commerce, which alienated the wealthy merchant class and a significant body of rightist or independent officers outright. Even former supporters of Nasser were disillusioned; most notable were the Baath party, a vaguely “Arab socialist” party that had originally enthusiastically supported Nasser but chafed at his domination. Like Nasser, the Baath had been viewed benignly by the United States as a basically containable alternative to communism. They established a number of cells in the officer corps of both Iraq and Syria. They had basically the same attractions as Nasser’s pan-Arab socialism, but they were spectacularly prone to division over the pettiest matters and dominated by the personalities of their leaders.

In September 1961, a very loose coalition of officers led by Abdul-Karim Nihlawi mounted a coup that dissolved the Egypt-Syria union. A series of behind-the-scenes power struggles, coups, and mutinies ensued as the remaining forces in Syria wrestled for domination. Next to the chaotic Syrian scene, Qasim seemed perfectly secure. But in February 1963, he was ousted and bloodily murdered by an alliance of the rightwing officers, led by Abdul-Salam Arif who he had pardoned himself, and the Baath officers, led by Hasan Bakr. The next month Syria’s Baath, also aligned with non-Baathist officers like Ziad Hariri and Rashid Qutaini, seized power from the tottering rightist government. In both cases, the Baathists established brutal paramilitaries, especially Iraq where they ran riot that summer and dominated the still-weak regime of Arif. In November 1963, however, the Iraqi Baath’s thuggish paramilitary commanders, Mundhir Windawi and Ali Saadi, fell out with the more cautious Bakr, and in the ensuing confusion Abdul-Salam Arif and his brother Abdul-Rahman successfully ousted them from Iraq, banning the party and decrying it—in another nod to the conservative pietistic background that had bred them—as a secular party.

In spite of his earlier support for Nasser, which had led him so enthusiastically into the coups, Abdul-Salam Arif’s enthusiasm cooled as he realized, like Qasim, that Iraq’s landscape was very different to Egypt’s. He also likely had religious concerns in mind; this was a period where Nasser was especially brutal towards the Islamists, and Arif, the pietistic scion of an Islamic preacher’s family, was moved to personally request that Nasser release the noted Islamist ideologue Sayyid Qutb, towards whom the Arif brothers were quite sympathetic. The Arifs’ only civilian prime minister was Abdul-Rahman Bazzaz (1965-66), an Islamist technocrat-cum-theoretician who espoused an Islamic identification rather than specifically Arab, subjected Arab union to Islamic union, and who was as a result more conciliatory towards the rebellious Kurds in the north. The Arifs were obviously taken by him, and were only forced to remove him after the pro-Egypt Nasserites mutinied.

Arif also attempted to publicly reconcile the Arab socialism preached by Nasser with Islam. Where Nasser’s other ally, Abdullah Sallal at Yemen, had not made any pretences to socialism and declared Yemen an Islamic republic, Arif hesitantly claimed that Iraq was economically bound to Arab socialism but morally and legally bound to Islamic law. This was a far cry from Nasser’s secularism, and another indication that the legacy of secularism—preached by Nasser, the Baath, and communists in ascending order—in the Arab nationalist sphere was neither unanimous nor uncontroversial. Not until Bakr returned at the helm of the Baath party to topple Abdul-Rahman Arif in 1968 did a secular form of Arab nationalism predominate, not without considerable force and bloodshed.

While Islamic political parties had never been a significant political force in Syria, they remained a powerful social vehicle for opposition to the Baath party. Characterized by a brutal police state, dominated as it was by minoritarian members—although its official dictator Amin Hafiz was a Sunni Muslim, his chief lieutenants were nearly exclusively Alawites, Druze, Ismailis and Christians—and governed by a more obvious secularism and leftism than Nasser, it was an obvious opponent to the Islamist parties, who were also backed by the Sunni middle class that had been hit by Baathist nationalization. In 1964 a revolt broke out at Hama—where the Islamists would be so brutally crushed during 1982—after a student was arrested for erasing Baathist slogans from the blackboard. Hafiz only quelled it with difficulty, while smaller uprisings in Aleppo and Hims were also put down. The Baath party constituted only a minority in Syria—indeed, its Marxist-leaning ideologue Yasin Hafiz erased the term “secularism” from a public copy of his private treatise, in order to make it more palatable to the Syrian masses (see Itamar Rabinovitch, Syria under the Baath 1963-66)—but it controlled the important army and security units by this time. The tensions between this paranoid, minority-dominated secularist state and the generally conservative and pietistic, Sunni-majority public were to flare up again as factors in the 1979-82 and post-2011 conflicts.

By way of conclusion we can return to Egypt, where the Islamist opposition had always been stronger and most evident. After the 1967 defeat, which forced him to purge at least part of his state apparatus, Nasser showed some more tolerance towards Islam in public spheres—at least where it could serve the government. During 1967-70, the army was given a moral commisar, Gamaleddin Mahfouz, who preached the virtues of jihad and the importance of Islam to Egyptian soldiery. Sadat, Nasser’s successor and another onetime Muslim Brethren member, continued to expand the scope for political Islam in the 1970s. Whereas the triumph of the glorious Arab nation and Arab socialism had been watchwords in the 1960s, the 1973 war in particular saw a large number of soldiers, both rank-and-file and commanders, adhere to a public pietism also reflected in the general Egyptian public (see George Gawrych’s The Albatross of Decisive Victory). One of them, the Islamist officer and field commander Abboud Zummur, organized the Islamist murder of Sadat in 1981, which was at least well-received in parts of the army who probably knew about it beforehand (see Hazem Kandil’s Soldiers, Spies, and Revolt). The popular 1980s army commander, Abdel-Halim Abu Ghazala, was also close to the Muslim Brethren and well-known for his emphasis of Islam in society, as opposed to the stoutly secularist dictator Hosni Mubarak.

The 1967 defeat and the post-1970s developments in large parts of the Muslim world may have contributed to the rise of Islamism. But they were not its cause, and Islamism as a political force, usually in opposition but sometimes in concert with rulers, had remained a significant public factor through even the age of secular Arab nationalism. Islamism was not a new invention brought about by the failure of other ideologies; rather, it was one of the most natural indigenous ideologies that had only temporarily been driven to ground.

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2 responses to “Beyond 1979: The roots of Islamism in the modern Arab world

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  2. Pingback: A SIX-DAY SHOCKER AT 50: THE ARAB WORLD AND ISRAEL’S 1967 CAMPAIGN | layyin1137

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