Where the hell did political Islam come from?

Contrary to some true Islamophobic believers, politics and Islam have not always gone hand in hand.  Under the Ottoman Empire, most Muslim territories were going the same way as Christian Europe – faithful but modernizing, scientific but not atheistic.  Up until the 1950s, the difference in religious participation between Europeans and Muslims wasn’t that much.  Both went to their places of worship as often as they had to.  Both did not consider science as a cancellation of their faith.  Both wanted leaders who shared their common beliefs.

But something happened along the line there.  Why is there no political Christian movement akin to the Muslim Brotherhood trying to run things in the West?  Why is there no Christian equivalent of al-Qaeda, a worldwide terror organization seeking to recapture the days of the Gospel?

From the ashes of empire

Catholics have the pope; Sunni Muslims once had the caliph.  For a long time, the Ottoman sultans held that title as a binder between their disparate territories.  After World War I, however, as Turkish nationalists and secularists started to gain power, the title was seen as dangerous to their modernizing vision.  It was, after all, hero-worshipping the past that had been partly responsible for the Ottoman losses in World War I.  So the Turks abolished the title as they made way for a secular state.

Imagine Italy doing that to the pope.  You’d get a reaction.

English: Map showing the territories of the Ot...
Ottoman Empire in 1914.  Once united, now broken. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

A movement called the Khilafats was among the first pan-Islamic movements out there seeking to restore lost glory.  Mostly based in British India, at first they wanted to preserve the caliphate and then, when it was abolished, restore it.  The British had no time for their nonsense and they were dispersed as a movement by 1924.

But they’d set a precedent.  The loss of the caliphate was a shock to many educated Muslims, who had to wonder why God would allow something like that to happen.

Country first

Anti-colonial movements drew on religion as a way to evict the British and French.  But it always came second fiddle to nationalism.  Especially since most of the colonies were religiously mixed, political Islam didn’t get much traction because to do so would spark the kinds of religious wars we’ve seen in Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon.

Gamal Abdul Nasser and Mustafa Kemal Ataturk were two Muslim men who put country far above God.  Both sought legitimacy by building nation-states similar to Europe, hoping that by doing so they could finally compete with the big powers in the West.  Kemal’s Turkish nationalism was never seriously challenged; alas, Abdul Nasser wasn’t nearly so lucky.

Arab nationalism was shattered by two seminal events – the failure of Abdul Nasser’s union between Syria and Egypt in 1963 and the 1967 Six Day War.  In the former, Arabs learned that even places that supposedly wanted to be united couldn’t manage it.  In the latter, Arabs learned their militaries were horrifically inferior to Western power.  Nationalism had not united Muslims nor destroyed its supposed enemies.

Praying hard

In the meantime, other movements were in the shadows, offering a different solution to the seeming powerlessness of Muslim countries.  The Muslim Brotherhood started in Egypt in the 1920s, but gained little traction until after Abdul Nasser’s defeat in 1967.  To many Muslim intellectuals, the problem was not that their societies hadn’t emulated the West enough; it was that they’d emulated it too much.  Sayyid Qutb, the Egyptian writer and Muslim Brother whose theories would go on to inspire al Qaeda, went hardcore after visiting America in the 1940s and, after seeing all that sex and racism, went home determined to make sure nothing like that happened in Egypt.

Enter the Saudis

This kind of thinking was still mainstream in the Arabian Peninsula, which, by the 1950s, was just starting to emerge from its thousands of years of total isolation.  There, where Bedouin societies had convinced themselves of the superiority of both their religion and culture, many political Islamists found sanctuary as nationalist dictators back home cracked down.  Muslim Brothers fled to Saudi Arabia, grew beards, and started dressing like the locals.  They bought the propaganda that the Saudi way of life was closest to the actual Prophet Mohammed’s.

English: (Islam_Is_The_Solution.jpg) arabic lo...
“Islam is the solution” – the Muslim Brotherhood’s creed.  Note there’s no stance on taxes. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

With Saudi cash, the Muslim Brothers and those like them went out and set up schools, radio stations, magazines, and newspapers, all with the aim to convert the rest of Islam to what was essentially a Saudi way of life.

Going backwards

As the message got out, variant forms of Islam started to be suppressed or wiped out.  A push to create a “true” form of “pure” Islam crowded out local forms.  To be a good Muslim, one should essentially look like and act like a Saudi from the 1950s.  But for most of the 1960s and 70s, these groups didn’t get much traction, and some rather imaginative retelling of the 1973 Arab-Israeli war managed to give nationalism a shot in the arm.  But then 1979 happened.


When the Shah fled, Iran was left wide open for the most organized group to grab power.  That turned out to be the Islamists, who outraced the communists, nationalists, and secularists for leadership.  Their revolutionary propaganda spread across the world; for the many listening Muslims, it was inspirational.  It drew on time-worn anti-colonial rhetoric, of course, but added a deeply religious component.  Iran’s government pushed the line that they were free of foreign influence because they worshipped God properly, who therefore protected them from the outside world.

English: Young Saudi Arabian woman wearing Isl...
More common than it used to be.

The formula made a huge amount of sense to plenty of people, causing waves. In 1979, Saudi suffered through the Siege of Mecca, where hardcore Islamists seized the Grand Mosque, the holiest place in Islam, butchered a bunch of people, and essentially called for a Sunni version of Iran’s revolution.  This was back in the days where communications could still be jammed; Saudi’s National Guard bombarded and then stormed the mosque with nary a television camera in sight.  The event convinced the Saudi royals that they too had to appear to be more religious if they were to retain control.

Finally, in Afghanistan, the Soviets came.  Here was an enemy political Islam relished; atheistic, thinking economics came before God, worshipping themselves rather than the true religion.  Saudi directed its own fanatics to the battle front.  The war energized millions and, as it became clear the religious warriors of Afghanistan were actually winning, convinced people as well as governments that the path towards equality with the West lay in the past.

Giving lip service

So even the secular tyrants started to put on airs of religion.  Mosque and state got more and more blurred as the dictators tried to forestall any religious uprising against them.  They also found it as a useful tool against the West, where it rapidly replaced anti-colonial language.  After his defeat in Kuwait, Saddam suddenly found God and plastered “Allah Akbar” (اللة اكبر God is Great) on the Iraqi flag.  In the 1970s, Anwar Sadat discovered he really liked reading the Qu’ran on television.  Even Gaddafi, the crazy bastard, changed the Libyan flag to pure green, green being Islam’s sacred color.

Whole generations of people grew up under these new rules.  Education became more and more religious; parents and teachers were convinced parity with Western powers, as well as social perfection, lay in the Qu’ran.

Of course, as soon as a political Muslim tried to actually run things, the dictators hung them up by their ankles and electrocuted them in a cellar.  In the Muslim Brotherhood rising in Hama in 1982, Syria’s Hafez al Assad slaughtered up to 20,000 people in order to remind everyone who was in charge.

Being the most pious guy in the room

For many, society redefined itself to valuing the most religious person in the room.  As nationalism waned, political Islam took its place.  By the 1990s, the corruption of the kings and dictators were all too apparent.  Political Islam started to fill the gaps left by these horrible little governments, setting up schools, hospitals, and mosques.  In the Gulf, oil money and a mass importation of labor allowed those societies to largely avoid big political Islamist groups.  Nevertheless, the kings and sheikhs there still struck a deal with the Islamists – run our schools, set up our mosques, but don’t fuck with us.

That brings us to today

In Egypt, one year of Islamist rule has badly damaged political Islam’s reputation.  Al-Qaeda’s psychopathic branch in Iraq essentially self-destructed the movement there.  The Gulf’s rulers are arresting, torturing, and exiling even the smallest groups of Islamists lurking in their borders.  Even Afghanistan’s Taliban are now reduced to little more than a Pushtun tribal faction, thanks to relentless drone strikes and the fact that they shoot little girls in the head for going to school.

Political Islamists are rapidly running out of oxygen.  For years, they managed to claim, plausibly, that if they got a shot at running things, they’d make the world a better place because God loves them so.  But they’ve yet to set order to any country; their rise is accompanied by war, oppression, and stagnation.  Since 1979, the tide of political Islam has risen more and more each year.  But this coup in Egypt may be a turning point.  Egypt was the start of it; it may well now be the end of it.

 Related articles

  • Doc’s Talk: Islam and Islamism (docstalk.blogspot.com)

2 thoughts on “Where the hell did political Islam come from?

  1. A great summary, thanks – and I must say I think there’s something in your conclusion. As we see in Afghanistan, there are few people left willing to defend the Taliban as anything more than a bloody gang of terrorists. The challenge now is to prevent the fragile democracy from failing the people it claims, and needs, to represent.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s