Secularism and Islamism in the Arab World

Secularism in the political leadership in the Arab world has had a very short life-span if put into historical context. It became a dominant political current for a few decades in the latter half of the twentieth century, and today is seeing a near complete collapse in political movements struggling for independence and development in the region. Different Islamic leaders have been the main political inspiration for Arabs in their liberation movements. Salahuddin al-Ayoub, more popularly known as Saladin, who liberated Jerusalem from the Crusaders in the twelfth century is probably the Islamic leader most widely known outside of the region. Saladin’s legacy remains a profound source of inspiration for Arabs, especially so for radical Islamists who not only see the parallels with today’s military invasions and occupations, but directly employ this history in their political agitation in their fight against what they consider as the modern-day Crusaders. More recently, Political Islam was at the forefront of the fight against colonialism in the twentieth century. There are examples of movements and leaders from every Arab country, but some of the more well-known include Sheikh Izz al-Din Qassam, after who Hamas have named their armed wing. Sheikh Al-Qassam was killed by the British colonialists in Palestine in an armed confrontation; his death sparked what some call the First Palestinian Intifada from 1936 to ‘39. In Iraq, Shia Islamists united with their Sunni counterparts against the British colonialists in 1920, a popular uprising from which one of biggest present-day Iraqi Islamist insurgent groups, the ‘Brigades of the 1920 Revolution,’ takes their name. Shia Islamism in Iraq can also be linked to the emergence of the Lebanese Hezbollah. Shia Islamist scholars such as Fadlallah, a prominent radical Shia scholar based in Lebanon who has close ties to Hezbollah, were mmigrants to Lebanon from the religious centres of Iraq and Iran. On a theoretical level, it has been the ideas of Muhammad Abdu and Al-Afghani in the nineteenth century, and further back to Ibn-Tammiyah from the fourteenth century who have been some of the most important contributors to Islamist ideology.

While one can trace back the influences on modern Islamism from the region’s own history, making it an integral part of the political identity of the people and their struggles, in contrast it was the cultural and political influences from outside of the region, in Europe, that influenced modern secular Arab nationalism. The founding father of modern secular Arab nationalism was Syrian Sati al-Husri, who was inspired by French republicanism and nineteenth century German nationalism. Arab nationalism became the ascendant political force in the post Second World War period.

Like the rest of the ‘Third World’, the post Second World War period saw the increasing strength of secular and left-wing nationalist currents in the region, inspired by the example of the independence and social development of the Socialist Bloc in the face of neocolonial hostility. The direct or indirect support from the USSR, East European socialist countries and China, to radical Third World movements also played a major role in their growth.

It was the preeminent secular Arab nationalist Gamal Abdel Nasser of Egypt whose nationalization of the Suez Canal signalled the pinnacle of the modern Arab renaissance. This in turn brought about an unprecedented atmosphere of Arab confidence that invigorated various trends of Arab nationalism, a period in which branches of the Arab nationalist and socialist Ba’ath Party came to power in Syria and Iraq. The Arab National Movement, mainly based in Beirut, developed into various left-wing forces such as the Marxist Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) who put the largely unknown tragedy that befell the Palestinian people onto the world agenda by being the first Arab armed group to hijack passenger airplanes. And of course Yasser Arafat’s secular and left nationalist Fatah led the Palestinian national revolution by the late 1960s.

In this same period, Islamist forces had also been gaining momentum and were often in the ranks of the independence movements. Those inside and outside of the region with vested interests in opposing the anti-imperialist leftist and nationalist surge supported sections of political Islam that were in opposition to the secularists. In the light of the complex interaction between the two political movements, this relationship is all too often over-simplified. In Algeria the FLN was an Islamist nationalist movement as much as one inspired by the ideas of Fanon, Mao and Che Guevara, although the Islamist current was purged shortly after independence. Many of the original Fatah leadership (including Arafat by his own claims) belonged to the movement to which Hamas is the ‘Palestinian branch’: the Muslim Brotherhood or ‘Ikhwan Muslimeen’, a major force of mass radical anti-imperialism after World War Two with branches throughout the Arab world. The Ikhwan was strongest in Egypt, the home of its founder Hassan al-Banna. Another Egyptian leader of the Ikhwan after Hassan al-Banna’s death, Sayyid Qutb, was possibly modern political Islam’s greatest strategist and thinker. He was executed by Nasser’s regime in 1966 after being accused of plotting to overthrow the state. Initially Nasser’s Free Officers and the Ikhwan were allies in the struggle against the British, before Nasser’s regime conducted a massive repression against the movement, jailing and cruelly torturing many of their activists. A fact little known outside of the region is that the Palestinian Ikhwan also played a major role in the resistance against the establishment of Israel in Palestine in the late 1940s.

The 1967 defeat of Nasser and the Arab armies by Israel can now clearly be seen as the beginning of the decline in leadership of the secular forces. As soon as the left nationalists in the Middle East gained power, their leadership in the struggle against Zionism and neocolonialism began to wane. While much of the 1970s saw struggles being conducted and led by left nationalist forces, this decade also witnessed a qualitative shift in favour of radical Islamism. The Arab people were incensed when the Arab Republic of Egypt under President Sadat sued for peace with Israel, giving the Ikhwan and other more radical Islamists a greater hearing from the masses. The event which contributed to the growth of the Islamists more than any other was the overthrow by Islamists of the West’s strongest ally in the region after Israel — Iran under the Shah — which was up to then ‘an island of stability’ according to former US president, Jimmy Carter.

The two most important manifestations of the growth of radical Islamist movements in the 1980s were the Lebanese Hezbollah which was directly assisted in military training and infrastructure by the Pasdaran, an Iranian military force, and Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ). Both movements saw Iran as their chief inspiration.

PIJ were the first openly Islamist movement to conduct armed struggle against the Israeli occupation in the early 1980s, and the first movement in the Sunni community to use the controversial tactic of kamikaze attacks. At the same time the Palestinian Ikhwan were involved in building up a network of charitable and religious organizations that were invaluable social institutions to the lives of many Palestinians, especially in Gaza. The Ikhwan established the Islamic University in Gaza in the late 1970s, the construction of such a centre of learning, debate and activity constituted a big step forward for them and forged a new generation of Islamist educated youth. Nevertheless, PIJ was a challenge to the Palestinian Ikhwan as it was the only Islamist armed resistance to Israel at the time. This meant that many young Ikhwan members either joined PIJ or put pressure on their leadership to develop and implement a militant strategy for the Palestinian revolution. The fact that one of the most charismatic and astute ideologues of the Palestinian Ikhwan, Fathi Shiqaqi, had split and formed PIJ, must have added to the Palestinian Ikhwan’s image at the time as a movement unable and unwilling to address the challenges of the Palestinian liberation struggle. This possibly speeded up preparations of Sheikh Yassin and other leaders of the Palestinian Ikhwan for armed struggle which came to fruition with the establishment of the Harakat Moqawama al-Islamiyya — the ‘Islamic Resistance Movement’ or Hamas — on the second day of the Palestinian Intifada in 1987. The initial document that Hamas issued in 1988, ‘The Charter’, is problematic as it gives credence to the fabricated Protocols of the Elders of Zion. It has to be borne in mind that this anti-Semitic document has wide currency across much of the political spectrum in the region due to the West’s support for Israeli settler-colonialism, and the feeling of powerlessness amongst the masses in the face of Israeli aggression. Hamas issued various subsequent communiqués which give a more accurate exposition as to their ideology, strategy and tactics.

The PLO claim that the 1987 Intifada was led by them, and that they were the ‘sole legitimate representatives of the Palestinian people’. Nevertheless, it has been argued by Dr Azzam Tamimi in his new book on Hamas, Unwritten Chapters, that the PLO’s jealous guarding of their claim to leadership may have been partly due to Hamas playing a major role in the Intifada and challenging the PLO’s claim to leadership.

In an ironic twist of history it was the Western and Chinese-supported Afghan mujahideen who fought against the Soviet army and pro-Soviet government in Afghanistan that gave further impetus to the development of modern militant Islamism which was soon to become a powerful force against neocolonialism in the region. The Afghan jihad allowed militants to overcome the rivalry between different groups that existed along national and ethnic lines. Overcoming these divisions and forging pan-Arab and pan-Islamist unity were some of the main strategies of Bin Laden and Zawahiri in the construction of their organization that was to become the violent ‘World Islamic Front for Jihad against Crusaders and Jews,’ commonly known as Al-Qaeda, meaning ‘The Base’, formed in 1998. Initially for Bin Laden, Zawahiri and others, Afghanistan was the base for international jihad, today it is mainly Iraq.

By the late 1980s, the popularity of Islamism and the Islamist movement was such that the hitherto secular Arab nationalist Saddam Hussein, like Muammar Qaddafi before him, started to formally synthesise Islamism with Iraqi and Arab nationalist ideas into the social and political fabric of Iraq. The most outwardly visible example of this was adding ‘Allah u Ahkbar’ — Allah is the greatest — to the Iraqi flag during the war against Iraq in 1990. Saddam Hussein initiated a massive mosque building program, and attempted to co-opt the Islamic revival that was taking place into the Ba’athist strategy of positioning Iraq as the vanguard Arab nation resisting
neocolonialism. Saddam Hussein may have chiefly been responsible in contributing to today’s synthesis of radical Arabism and Islamism, a view advanced by Jerry Long in his book, Saddam’s War of Words. The 1990 war against Iraq saw for the first time a unity between left-wing, nationalist and Islamist forces in the region and beyond against Western aggression.

The United States’ establishment of large military bases in Saudi Arabia during the campaign against Iraq fundamentally shifted the position of many Islamists who hitherto had been allied with the US against nationalists in the region. These Islamists, Osama Bin Laden being the most well-known amongst them, could not sit idly by and see the Islamic lands of Iraq and Saudi Arabia occupied by the US. This was compounded by a realisation amongst some Islamists that the US and Britain were not going to allow them to use their own oil wealth for the benefit of their own countries. Western oil exploitation was going to mean that the only natural wealth of the Gulf — oil — was going to run out in the next four decades or so, and that they had to fight to wrest control of their own oil from the West before they were left with nothing. These political shifts culminated in the establishment of Al-Qaeda and many other organizations that share their military vanguardist outlook, and many more yet that share their political aims of an Arab world free from Western domination.

Today, one sees the shift from secular nationalism to Islamism nearing the final stages of completion. Ghaith Abdul-Ahad writing for The Guardian on June 12, 2007, from Palestinian refugee camps in Lebanon vividly described this transition, contrasting the “ailing, ill-equipped and ill-fed fighters of the old secular factions” and “muscular, bearded and well-equipped jihadis” funded through the network of Islamist organisations that spans the Middle East, and describing the migration of Palestinian radicals, both young and middle-aged, from the former Marxist camp to the Islamist. As one Marxist in his 50s told Abdul-Ahad, “I have never lost my political compass. Wherever the Americans and the Israelis are, I am on the other side. So if Hezbollah and the Iranians and the Islamists are against the Americans now, so I am an Islamist.” Highlighting the continuities between armed secular groups of times gone by with that of armed Islamist groups of today, a PFLP leader explains to Abdul-Ahad that “most of those jihadis were once fighters with us and other Palestinian factions … if you come to me and give me $100,000, I will split from the PFLP and form the PFLP: Believers’ Army. It’s so easy.” Another secular leader explains of the hopelessness and anger at their position which drives these wretched youth of the Arab world to militancy: “we have young men who have nothing, no hope of a nation, no hope for the right of refugees to return, nothing but the two streets of the camp. With this situation I wouldn’t be surprised if half the camp becomes jihadis.”

Islamists have always been at the forefront of the struggle against colonialism and neocolonialism in the Middle East since the times of the Crusades. Most academics, policymakers and those who support the independence and development of the Arab world have some knowledge of the post Second World War period when Islamist movements were
supported by those who saw them as a counterweight to the secular anti-imperialist movements of various Arab nationalists and Marxist trends. Further study and reflection on the contemporary history of the Arab world may on the other hand lead to a more nuanced understanding of this relationship, rather than labeling one side ‘reactionaries’ and the other ‘progressives’. Perhaps it is time to move away from this outdated and problematic terminology. Islamists see themselves at least as equals to the radical secularists if not the rightful owners to the leadership of the national and social liberation struggle. The end of the strife between the Islamists and what remains of the secularists in the anti-imperialist struggle, is not just attributable to the weakness of the secularists but is a sign of the strength of the independence movements in the Arab world. Furthermore, the Islamists’ leadership in this struggle — such as that of the Iraqi resistance — lacking support that the secularists enjoyed from the Socialist Bloc, is indicative of the strength of their ideology’s roots in the history, culture and identity of the masses in the region.

Sukant Chandan is London-based freelance journalist and political analyst. He runs two blogs, one of which is O.U.R.A.I.M. He can be contacted at: Read other articles by Sukant, or visit Sukant's website.

10 comments on this article so far ...

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  1. jaime said on October 10th, 2007 at 8:57am #

    This is one of the most thoughtful articles I’m seen here in a long time.
    However There are one or two alarming problems that have accompanied the paradigm shift to Fundamental Islamist from semi-secular societies in Lebanon, the Palestinian areas and elsewhere.

    Using Gaza as an example, the shift to radical Islamist reduced corruption and encouraged dignity and social cohesion. However this came at the price of social freedom and diminished skills and attitudes for dealing both with their own internal economy and the outside world as well.

  2. sk said on October 10th, 2007 at 5:20pm #

    FYI, an interesting conversation with a man who has been studying Islamic cultures for decades (video here).

  3. Mike McNiven said on October 11th, 2007 at 1:07am #

    Secularism (progressives) and Islamism (reactionaries) in non-Arab Iran:

  4. AJ Nasreddin said on October 16th, 2007 at 8:05am #

    One point the author misses – most common people, the ones who don’t get to travel or live abroad, see the western secular way of life as bullshit – a means to keep the big political guys on top rich and living well. In a broader context, democracy, republicanism, marxism, etc. in the Middle East is in reality nothing more than top dog gets all.

    At least in Islam there are limits to what the leaders can do – as well as responsibilities to the people, which means the people have rights.

    Western political philosophies are written by people and rewritten by people to suit their needs. Most everyone in the Middle East watches American TV and laughs at Americans for not seeing Bush for what he is – a dictator wannabe – and maybe in the near future, a dictator. With Bush, no one believes in democracy or the “American Way.” Where is that “fredom and justice for all” anyways? It aint any where the American military is.

    If you want democracy, get a new spokesperson.

    As far as Islam – it says people have dignity and the right to it – it’s something Muslims are ready to die for.

  5. gerald spezio said on October 16th, 2007 at 11:32am #

    sk, thank you for a great referral.
    Tarig Ali is an especially handsome and classy fellow on video.

    Mike, I would question the “objectivity” of your CNN viddy.
    The probability of it being another routine spook plant is very high..

    The purported demonstrations in Iran in opposition to Ahmadinejad are significantly CIA engineered.

  6. DrMohamed Galal said on October 19th, 2007 at 8:10am #

    it is a good and objective article

  7. DrMohamed Galal said on October 19th, 2007 at 8:15am #

    It is an objective and good article though the issue is very complicated as islamist movements cashed on the islamic sentiments of the people and muslim sufferings at the hands of imperialist powers as well as the corruption of the secular regimes and the failure of the elites who towed the line of despotic military regimes

  8. Mike McNiven said on October 21st, 2007 at 12:28am #

    Dr.Galal, what kind of Dr. are you? Definitely you are a person with a certificate and without educattion! No doubt about it! Islamism is a form of totalitarianism of fascist type: unlimited private propertyfor the rich, despotic, structured violence, lack of personal freedom, lack of free press, lack of due process, lack of peoples’ parliament, lack of multi-party system, lack of equal rights for women, non-believers, Christians, Jews,… Have you no soul? Between Islam and Islamism there is a world of difference! (like the difference between Jesus and the Vatican!)

  9. Shabnam said on October 21st, 2007 at 8:34pm #

    To reader of this site:

    Mike McNiven is a pro Israel, Pro Zionist and Anti Iran Propagandist who uses this site to link to the same article “Congressman Kucinich Must Find a Better Role Model than Bob Ney” that has posted many times in the past few months. Mike McNiven is a propagandist who Jamie, the rabbit Zionist, thanks him many times for his rubbish opinion.
    This article is written by an Iranian charlatan who spreads lies about “Iran Lobby” and portraits those who criticizing Bush administration for his fascist policy on Iran which is a Zionist policy, part of “Iran Lobby”. Please read a few lines from the article that McNiven gives a link to:
    “An alarming resemblance exists between Ney’s advocacy of Tehran over the past decade and Congressman Dennis Kucinich’s (D-Ohio) advocacy of Tehran now. On August 1, 2007, Baztab, the Farsi language web site controlled by the former commander of the revolutionary guards, wrote an article about Kucinich’s “lonely battle” in opposition to sanction efforts against the Iranian regime.4
    Kucinich and Ney’s support of Tehran’s ayatollahs is quite similar in method and substance. They both call for engagement with mullahs; They both vehemently fight against any type of sanction against the mullahs; They both oppose human right statements against Iran by the congress; They both associate with the same known mullahs’ proxies in the US; And they both side with Iran when it comes to Iran’s anti Israeli rhetoric.”

    Mike McNiven, A Zionist pro Israel who has disguised himself as pro Iranian people brings videos made by the monarchists, puppet of the Zionists who are cooperating with the fifth columnists, the Zionists, to help them to take power in Iran. People like Michael Ledeen and Kenneth Timmerman are part of Zionists who are working towards this goal, to bring the Shah’s family back who serves Israel.
    Hassan Daioleslam, the writer of this article which is given by Mike McNiven, the Zionist, attacking both Bob Ney and Kucinich as “Iran Lobby” and saying that both Kucinich and Ney do not want sanction against Iranian people to strangulate their economy and kill more children so they may be forced to transfer the power to puppet of the Zionist that Mike McNiven represents.
    Please expose the Zionists who are sent to progressive sites to preach and spread anti Iranian people propaganda and harm the fragile movement of Anti Zionist so they can kill more Iranian children like Iraqi children to smoothen the path for further action.
    Shame on the disguised Zionist. We will not going to be silent and will expose them every time the smell is too strong to be tolerated.

  10. Mike McNiven said on October 24th, 2007 at 1:11am #

    A message for Shabnam:

    “reza said on October 22nd, 2007 at 5:48 pm
    People with little logic require a lot of noise, baseless accusations and outright shameless lies to push aside reason.

    You can sholooqhesh koni all you want, Shabnam, but you’re making yourself dizzy, without persuading anyone. But, then again, maybe you are paid to storm the barn; so, if it’s paying your bills, keep rocking, sister!

    Intelligent socialists don’t find it necessary to remind everybody that they are anti-imperialists/anti-Zionists with every thing they utter, nor with every dump they take. It’s taken for granted. But, since I have affection for disabled people, for those who like to act blind and willfully deaf, my anti-imperialist stance was clearly stated.

    The noise-makers, however, don’t like to learn that Iranian people’s fight for democracy is, and must be, as has always been, and will be, for the foreseeable future, simultaneously a fight against imperialism. We, the people of the Third World, are in the same position as are African Americans; their fight too is simultaneously against colonialism/racism and for justice and true democracy, in the belly of the beast. One fight cannot be separated from the other. It is the same for us, and it is an ongoing struggle. Imperialism/colonialism don’t take breaks.

    As to the question of imperialists using the nuclear issue as an excuse to attack Iran … If imperialists want to attack, they’ll attack us. It has NOTHING to do with the nukes (that too is stated clearly in the article). They didn’t attack us in 1953 (when they overthrew our democratically elected government) because we had nukes; they attacked us for different reasons (and NOT because Mossadegh was a commie-lover). They didn’t attack Vietnam because they had nukes. They don’t attack and savage the Palestinians daily for the past sixty years because they have nukes. WAKE UP!!

    So, when they attack us in Iran, what are they going to hit first? WAKE UP!!

    Believe me, when the enemy has TEN THOUSAND nuclear warheads, having a few is no deterrent. Like Chirac said, even if a few are launched, within minutes Tehran’d be bombed back to the Stone Age. And nobody’s that stupid; least of all the mullahs. But, if there’s a live nuclear power plant (way down south, mind you, away from the seat of power), all the enemy has to do is drop a mini-nuke and let all hell loose.

    What we DON’T want, under any conditions __ just as the government in Iran should not want this either __ is a glowing radioactive zone stretching for hundreds of miles.

    Those who prefer to make believe (that imperialists need legitimate excuses to attack us lesser peoples) forget that imperialism NEVER LEAVES. We are ALWAYS under attack. Imperialism, when we are friendly to it and welcoming, attacks our livelihoods through its beloved corporations; something, I believe, the proponents of a ‘normalization’ actually wish for; meaning, they like it if imperialists should ‘normalize’ relations and allow ‘investments’ for ‘development’; nothing to do with looting the national goods of the Iranians; but, the ‘nice way’!
    Now, who’s the pro-imperialist?
    Make all the noise you want. Noise doesn’t change reality.”