Post Tagged ‘ISIS’

            In the Arab world there are broadly two big competing ideologies, Arab nationalism or Arabism and political Islam or Islamism. These ideologies appeared most publicly when the Ottoman Empire began to lose its hold on the Middle East to European powers during the beginning of the twentieth century (Al Jazeera, 2008). After the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, Great Britain and France divided the Middle East into spheres of British and French influence. This colonial division, known as the Sykes Picot Agreement is still considered one of the main reasons for conflict in the Middle East nowadays. The Arabs had no say about this post-war partition of their lands. This unnatural emergence of the modern state in the Middle East left the Arab world ‘struggling between a widely held ideal of Arab unity and a reality of nation-state nationalism reinforced by nationalists struggles for independence’ (Rogan, 2016, p. 39). The ideal of Arab unity can be separated in two supra-state identities, Arab nationalism and political Islam. Both ideologies are based on identity, which means that it defines itself against the ‘other’ (Hinnebusch, 2016, p. 155).
Arab nationalism emphasized the historical and cultural affinity of all Arabic-speaking peoples. The most important goals of Arab nationalism are the unity of the Arab peoples and the fighting of Western colonialism. Pan-Arab nationalism was the leading ideology in the Arab world with the president of Egypt, Gamal Abd al-Nasser, as the leading exponent (Mandaville, 2016, p. 181). Political Islam emerged in the same time as Arab nationalism, on the one hand as an answer to Western colonialism and imperialism and on the other hand as  an ideological critique of the secular nation state in the Middle East (Mandaville, 2016, p. 177). The idea is to create unity on basis of the Islamic umma, the Islamic community. Political Islam has also its roots in Egypt, with the founding of the Muslim Brotherhood in 1928 by Hassan al-Banna (Mandaville, 2016, p. 181). After the Arab uprisings in 2011 a lot has changed in the Middle East and there is still a lot happening in the region. The nation state is under fire and several groups call for unity. The question is if this unity is more likely to be found in the Arab identity or in the Islamic identity.
In this essay I analyze which of these ideologies is the most potent force in the future. I first give a brief overview of the history of Arab nationalism. Then I do the same for political Islam. After that I make an analysis which ideology is most potent, based on recent developments like the Arab uprisings. In the end I conclude that political Islam is a more potent force than Arab nationalism, maybe not in its radical form but more in its ‘pragmatist’ form.

Arab Nationalism
                      According to the leading theorist of Arab nationalism, Sati al-Husri, Arab identity is the combination of the Arabic language and the sharing of a collective history:

Every person who speaks Arabic is an Arab. Everyone who is affiliated with these people is an Arab. If he does not know this or if he does not cherish his Arabism, then we must study the reasons for his position. It may be the result of ignorance – then we must teach him the truth. It may be because he is unaware or deceived – then we must awaken him and reassure him. It may be a result of selfishness – then we must work to limit his selfishness (Cleveland, 1971, p.127).

The founding of Arabism was the work of Arab intellectuals, using shared values and threats against the ‘other’ – the non-Arab states and imperialism (Hinnebusch, 2016. P. 157). Arab nationalism already emerged in the Ottoman Empire, against Turkification and Zionism. The rise of Arabism in the Ottoman Empire, called the Arab awakening, had two sources. First there were the minorities of Arab speaking Christians who transformed Arabic into a modern language. Second there was the Muslim elite emphasizing on the greatness of the Arabs resided in their privileged understanding of Islam (Kramer, 1993, p. 175-176). The Ottomans tolerated Jewish immigration because they believed it would benefit the empire, this policy united the Arabs in their criticism. Yet, as long as the Ottoman Empire lasted, the Arab nationalist movement was marginal.
After the first world war there were two commitments that played an important role in the rise of Arabism. First the Sykes-Picot agreement, that divided the Middle East into spheres of French and British influence. Second the Balfour Declaration, that promised the Jews a home in Palestine. The Arab nationalists felt a deep grievance towards the French and the British for this and Arabism began to redefine itself as a reaction towards Western imperialism (Kramer, 1993, p 178-179). Arabism gained popularity from the 1930’s and got an extra dimension in 1948 with the declaration of the state Israel. The war in Palestine showed the Arabs that they were weak and that there was a revolution necessary to strengthen the Arab peoples. This Arab revolution knows two movements, on the one hand Nasserism and on the other hand Ba’athism. Nasserism or pan-Arabism came up with the rise of the Egyptian colonel Gamal Abdel Nasser. Nasser became a hero in the Arab world after his victory in the Suez Crisis. He came into power and combined a socialist agenda with the idea of Arab unity. Nasser saw Egypt as the bridge to Arab nationalism, connecting the Arabs of Asia and Africa (Kramer, 1993, p. 185). Ba’athism can be seen as a more stringent ideology, its founders were intellectuals from Syria. Ba’ath means literally resurrection, the resurrection of the Arab unity. They called themselves revolutionaries and wanted a single Arab state in which socialism was a necessity. The Ba’ath came to power in Syria and Iraq through military coups and installed there military dictatorship with the slogan: ‘unity, freedom, socialism’ (Kramer, 1993, p. 186).
From 1950 till 1970 Arab nationalism was the hegemonic ideology in most Arab states with the emergence of the United Arab Republic (UAR) in 1958 as its zenith (Hinnebusch, 2016, p. 158). This ‘marriage’ between Nasser’s Egypt and Ba’ath’s Syria turned into a struggle between both Arab nationalists camps and collapsed in 1961. The collapse was a beginning of a long slide of Arab nationalism. In 1967 the Arabs got defeated by Israel in six days, this defeat can be seen as the ‘Waterloo of pan-Arabism’. The Arabs expected to be stronger than in 1948, but this war showed them that they only had become weaker (Kramer, 1993, p. 187-188). This realization gave rise to another ideology, namely political Islam.

Political Islam
            Political Islam and Arab nationalism can be seen as rivals, although they have shared causes like anti-imperialism and the struggle over Palestine (Hinnebusch, 2016, p. 158). Peter Mandaville, a leading scholar in Political Islam defines Islamism as ‘an aspiration to institute a political order that reflects the norms of Islam, and the shari’ah more specifically’ (Mandaville, 2007, p. 239). He makes a distinction between Islamism and radical Islamism. Islamists seek to implement an Islamic political order and they try to do so within the modern state system, so often they are using democracy to reach their goal. Sometimes these groups emphasize on violent resistance, but their goals are defined in national liberation and Islamism within a single state. Radical Islamists reject the modern sovereign nation state and seek to establish a pan-Islamic polity or caliphate. In order to establish this, the violent struggle or jihad is the primary method (Mandaville, 2007, p. 237).
The Ikhwan al Muslimine or Muslim Brotherhood, which was founded in 1928 by Hassan al-Banna, can be seen as the prototype of all modern Islamist movements (Mandaville, 2016, p. 181). The goal of the Brotherhood is the Islamization of the society in a political way. Sayyid Qutb, their most important ideologist made a brief account of the ideology of the Muslim Brotherhood in 5 slogans (Qutb, 1964, p. 260).

Allah is our goal,

The Messenger is our example,

The Qur’an is our constitution,

Jihad is our way,

And Martyrdom is our desire.

In the beginning the brotherhood was a quietist organization that didn’t use violence, but that changed under the leadership of Sayyid Qutb in the 1960’s. Qutb was convinced that Egypt under Nasser was under threat of losing its Islamic identity through Western influence. He called this jahiliyyah, which refers to pre-Islamic times when there was ignorance. The only answer for him to this Westernization was an Islamic state,  a legal system based on shari’a. It was clear for him that the Nasser regime had to go and violence was the way to achieve that. Qutb got arrested and executed by the Egyptian regime for his anti-regime ideology, but his ideas lived on. Many other key ideologues got arrested and the Brotherhood was been driven underground (Mandaville, 2007, p. 240-242). The Muslim Brotherhood is most associated with Egypt but it has a broad ideology with movements in Pakistan, Turkey, Malaysia and Indonesia (Mandaville, 2016, p. 181-182). Islamist organizations as the Muslim Brotherhood use only violence when they see no other option and they do it usually only on a national scale. The Muslim Brotherhood tries to gain power via electoral means which is been quite successful in recent times.
The so-called radical Islamists are different in two ways. They are politically radical because they reject the system of nation-states and want to replace that with a caliphate. Also their method is radical because they try to reach their goals mainly – or only – by the use of violent struggle (jihad). The legacy of Sayyid Qutb made several more militant factions of the Muslim Brotherhood depart and form jihadist groups. These groups didn’t agree with the Brotherhood’s commitment to political quietism and saw themselves as the inheritors of Qutb’s legacy of active struggle (Mandaville, 2007, p. 241).
Geopolitics plays an important role in the emergence of the global jihadi movement. During the Soviet war in Afghanistan (1979-89) mujahideen fighters fought a guerilla war against the Soviets. The war was framed as a jihad against the atheists and soon other radical Islamists joined the fight (Mandaville, 2007, p 242).. The diversity of countries of origin where the fighters came from gave them the feeling they were fighting for a Muslim cause. When the war was over these fighters went to their homeland and spread their radical ideas. As David Cook puts it:

The battlefield of Afghanistan was the religious and social incubator for global radical Islam in that it established contacts among a wide variety of radicals from Muslim antigovernmental and resistance movements and fused them together (Mandaville, 2007, p. 242).

One of the founders within this mujahideen movement was Abdullah Azzam, a Palestinian member of the Muslim Brotherhood. Azzam putted even more emphasis on waging jihad than Qutb did, and played a big role in shaping Usama bin Laden’s worldview. Bin Laden was a rich Saudi citizen who quickly developed a reputation as a dedicated fighter in Afghanistan. Together with the Egyptian Islamist Ayman al-Zawahiri he founded Al-Qaeda (The Base) in the period around the end of the Afghan war (Mandaville, 2007, p. 244). After the war the emphasis of the jihadi’s began to swift from the near enemy to the far enemy. Zawahiri reinterpreted Qutb’s concept of jahiliyya, and saw the whole world as ignorant which means jihad must be fought in all places. With the possibilities of transnational communication and travel in a globalizing world a global jihad was born (Mandaville, 2007, p. 254). Al-Qaeda was in the early 2000’s most ‘successful’, with big attacks in Bali, Madrid and London. The far most dramatic and important in its consequences were the September 11, 2001 attacks on New York and Washington D.C. (Mandaville, 2007, p. 237).

            One of the consequences of 9-11 attacks was the so-called War on Terror waged by George W. Bush. In 2003 Iraq got invaded and the Ba’ath regime of Saddam Hussein collapsed. This led to a power vacuum with sectarian violence between Shias and Sunnis as a result. In these circumstances a new radical Islamist group emerged, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) (Weiss & Hassan, 2015). This group gave a new dimension to the global jihadi movement by proclaiming an actual caliphate in Iraq and Syria. The leader and caliph of the Islamic State, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi claims he is family of the prophet Mohammed. ISIS acts far more professional than Al-Qaeda, and shocks the world with horrifying beheading videos. The groups makes professional promotion videos and even a glossy in English called Dabiq, to convince Muslims all over the world to join jihad (Weiss & Hassan, 2015). Thousands of Western Muslims can’t resist the call and leave to join ISIS.
The group has a twofold strategy, on the one hand it’s building a caliphate in Iraq and Syria and on the other hand it’s training and motivating Muslims to attack in the West (The New York Times, 2016). The first strategy is not that successful anymore, after a broad coalition started to bomb ISIS targets the caliphate is declining rapidly. Now the end of the caliphate is near, it is likely that the group puts full emphasis on the second strategy. ISIS is responsible for the big attacks in Paris and Brussels, by training the ‘mastermind’ of the Attacks, Abdelhamid Abaaoud, in Syria (The New York Times, 2016). But the group also inspires so-called lone wolves to strike in the West as we have seen in Orlando and other occasions (CNN, 2016). The potency of ISIS as a real Islamic State can be considered small, they are too radical and they have made too many enemies to keep hold of a big territory. As an ideology and a threat to the West ISIS seems more potent than any radical Islamist group before, the group is capable of activating extremists all over the world and with the collapse of the caliphate many jihadists will go elsewhere. But as Mandaville puts it, ‘the popular appeal of radical Islam, particularly in its activist variant, will continue to be limited to a very small and highly extreme minority of Muslims’ (Mandaville, 2007, p. 273)
A much more potent force seems Islamism in its ‘pragmatic’ form. After the Arab uprisings in 2011 the Islamic political parties were quite successful – both classic Islamist and newly enfranchised conservative Salafis (Mandaville, 2016, p. 192). In Egypt the Muslim Brotherhood became the dominant party and in Tunesia En-Nahda. Although the success of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt was short, Mohamed Mursi had to leave after a military coup, it might be clear that the Muslim brothers still have a lot of followers. In Turkey the Justice and Development Party (AKP) is in power and in Morocco the Partie de la justice et du développement (PJD) (Mandaville, 2016, p. 191). These pragmatic Islamists use democracy to achieve power, but once they have the power they often use it to eliminate the opposition, as we have seen in Turkey after the failed coup.
Yusuf al-Qardawi, a religious scholar from Egypt and ideologue of the Muslim Brotherhood, has a weekly television show at Al Jazeera where he spread his Islamist ideas. Al-Qardawi is very popular in the Islamic world and he influences Muslims all over the world (Benyaich, 2013). The Muslim Brotherhood has also branches in Europe with Tarik Ramadan, the grandson of Hassan al-Banna, as its most famous figure. In 2008 one of the leaders of the Muslim Brotherhood, Youssef Nada, said in an Egyptian newspaper that the Muslim brotherhood counts more than 100 million people worldwide (Benyaich, 2013). We don’t know if that is true, but it is clear that the Muslim Brotherhood with its several branches is a very potent force.
Arab nationalism looks the less potent force. Nasserism died in 1970 together with the dead of the pan-Arab hero and wannabe successors as Muamar Gaddafi failed (Hinnebusch, 2016, p. 159). The Ba’ath movement lost its power in Iraq and the regime of Bashar al-Assad in Syria is likely to collapse soon. Some scholars like Abu Khalil think that Arab nationalism persists in a combination with Islamism and democracy, he calls this the new Arab ideology. He himself admits although that Islam – as a political ideology rather than as a body of theology – remains the single most popular movement in the Arab world (Abu Khalil, 1992).

               In this essay I have argued that Arab nationalism is a less potent force than political Islam. The only way Arabism can survive is by adjusting Islamism. Recent developments have shown the potency of Islamism in both its radical and its ‘pragmatic’ form. With the rise of ISIS, radical Islamism got a new dimension and their use of modern media showed that their ideology can attract more people than ever before, even in the West. Although the popular appeal of radical Islam stays relatively small, it can become or already is a major threat. The ‘pragmatist’ form of Islamism is even more potent. Islamists have a majority in many countries in the Middle East and North Africa, even in ‘modern’ countries like Turkey and Morocco. The Muslim Brotherhood has a lot of followers worldwide and can be seen as a very potent force. It is worth noting that the distinction between radical and ‘pragmatic’ Islamism is not always very clear. The Muslim Brotherhood had also some radical periods and their leading ideologue Sayyid Qutb is still a big inspiration for many radical Islamists. Political Islam is very potent and that’s something to seriously worry about.






AbuKhalil, A (1992) A New Arab Ideology: The Rejuvenation of Arab Nationalism, Middle East Journal, 46/1, Winter 1992, pp22-36

AlJazeera (February 4, 2008) The two ‘isms’ of the Middle East. Can Islamist and Arabist ideologies converge on the issue of unity?

Benyaich, B. (2013). Islam en Radicalisme bij Marokkanen in Brussel. Kessel-Lo: Bilal   Benyaich & Uitgeverij van Halewyck

Cleveland, W.L. (1971) The Making of an Arab Nationalist: Ottomanism and Arabism in the Life and Thought of Sati’ al-Husri (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1971), 127.

CNN (June 13, 2016) Orlando shooting: 49 killed, shooter pledged ISIS allegiance

Hinnebusch, R. (2016) The Politics of Identity in Middle East International Relations – in Fawcett, L. (2016) International Relations of the Middle East, Oxford University Press: Oxford – chapter 7

Kramer, M (1993) Arab Nationalism: Mistaken Identity, Daedalus, 122/3, Summer 1993, pp 171-206

Mandaville, P. (2007) Global Political Islam, Routledge: Oxford – chapter 7 and 8

Mandaville, P. (2016) Islam and International Relations in the Middle East – in Fawcett, L (2016) International Relations of the Middle East, Oxford University Press: Oxford – chapter 8

Qutb, S. (1964). Milestones.

Rogan, E.L. (2016). The Emergence of the Middle East into the Modern State System – in Fawcet, L. (2016) International Relations of the Middle East, Oxford University Press: Oxford – chapter 2

Weiss, M. & Hassan, H. (2015) ISIS Inside the Army of Terror, Regan Arts: New York

Spoiler alert: the main reason is not colonialism or discrimination

CosfIP3WAAAhb6TIn the new edition of their glossy Dabiq ISIS is so friendly to explain us again why they hate us. I know, we’re not really interested in what ISIS tells us because we already have our own narrative: It’s basically our own fault: colonialism, discrimination, the whole foreign policy of the USA. Dude, Bush, he was such a badass. In comparison with him, Bin Laden and Al-Baghdadi are saints. So yeah, that bit of terrorism that happens to us now is the backlash we could expect, we kind of deserve it. The nice thing about this narrative is that if it’s our own fault, we should also be able to fix it. A hopeful thought. And I don’t want to ruin your day, but maybe – just maybe – we should question that thought..

The articles starts with stating that the Western narrative on jihadism, as outlined above, is wrong: ‘it is nothing more than a political act and a propaganda tool. The politicians will say it regardless of how much it stands in opposition to facts and common sense just to garner as many votes as they can for the next election cycle. The analysts and journalists will say it in order to keep themselves from becoming a target for saying something that the masses deem to be “politically incorrect.” The apostate “imams” in the West will adhere to the same tired cliché in order to avoid a backlash from the disbelieving societies in which they’ve chosen to reside. The point is, people know that it’s foolish, but they keep repeating it regardless because they’re afraid of the consequences of deviating from the script.’

To fight this false narrative ISIS gives us 6 reasons why they hate us and why they fight us in order of importance:

  1. We hate you, first and foremost, because you are disbelievers..
  2. We hate you because your secular, liberal societies permit the very things that Allah has prohibited..
  3. We hate you and wage war against you because you disbelieve in the existence of your Lord and Creator..
  4. We hate you for your crimes against Islam and wage war against you to punish you for your transgressions against our religion..
  5. We hate you for your crimes against the Muslims..
  6. We hate you for invading our lands and fight you to repel you and drive you out..

So yeah, foreign policy plays a role, but they point out very clearly that this role is secondary. They will never stop hating us, not even if we submit: ‘What’s important to understand here is that although some might argue that your foreign policies are the extent of what drives our hatred, this particular reason for hating you is secondary, hence the reason we addressed it at the end of the above list. The fact is, even if you were to stop bombing us, imprisoning us, torturing us, vilifying us, and usurping our lands, we would continue to hate you because our primary reason for hating you will not cease to exist until you embrace Islam. Even if you were to pay jizyah and live under the authority of Islam in humiliation, we would continue to hate you. No doubt, we would stop fighting you then as we would stop fighting any disbelievers who enter into a covenant with us, but we would not stop hating you.’

Sweet fellas as they are, they also point out that they terrorize us for our own good: ‘What’s equally if not more important to understand is that we fight you, not simply to punish and deter you, but to bring you true freedom in this life and salvation in the Hereafter, freedom from being enslaved to your whims and desires as well as those of your clergy and legislatures, and salvation by worshiping your Creator alone and following His messenger.’

But that would be a bit too nice to end with, so they make it very clear one more time: the only option we have is ‘soumission’.

‘So you can continue to believe that those “despicable terrorists” hate you because of your lattes and your Timberlands, and continue spending ridiculous amounts of money to try to prevail in an unwinnable war, or you can accept reality and recognize that we will never stop hating you until you embrace Islam, and will never stop fighting you until you’re ready to leave the swamp of warfare and terrorism through the exits we provide, the very exits put forth by our Lord for the People of the Scripture: Islam, jizyah, or – as a last means of fleeting respite – a temporary truce.’