Perry Anderson and Suleiman Mourad: Islamism and the Contemporary Arab World
Perry Anderson: What explains the virulent recrudescence of antagonisms between Sunnis and Shiʿis in the Middle East today? Tensions on this scale between the two communities have not existed for many centuries. What is the contemporary dynamic behind them?
Suleiman Mourad: There are three major figures of modern Islam who were pan-Islamists: Qutb (1906–1966) in Egypt; Khomeini (1902– 1989) in Iran; and Mawdudi (1903–1979) in India–Pakistan. All three wanted Muslims to transcend their differences, in an Islamic unity capable of triumphing over the twin evils of decadent capitalism and atheistic communism. For each, Muslims were living in a time—there were eschatological overtones—when believers were being squeezed between these two rocks, forced to opt for one or the other. They pitched Islam as an alternative, but only on the condition that Muslims could unite. In the Sunni world, Mawdudi and Qutb preached pan-Islamism, but both of them died before their ideas gained any wide audience. It was the success of the Iranian Revolution in 1979 that transformed the ideological landscape. Khomeini’s original project was a grandiose pan-Islamism, uniting Shiʿis and Sunnis alike in a common battle against the two enemies of all Muslims: the USA and USSR. But once Saddam Hussein launched his attack on Iran, threatening the survival of the Islamic Republic, Khomeini was forced onto the defensive, and had to compromise his vision. Under siege at home, the unity of all believers lay out of reach. What could be achieved, however, was pan-Shiʿism. The Iranian regime opened up lines of communication to Shiʿis everywhere, sending them support—including arms, money, expertise—without any conditions. Wherever there were Shiʿis of any kind—in Yemen, in Syria, in Lebanon, in Iraq, in Bahrain—there was a tremendous flow of advice and assistance. Never before under any Shiʿi dynasty had there been this level of tolerance to all forms of Shiʿism. In the past, there had always been pressure for conversion: you should become a Twelver. Khomeinism avoided that. Zaydis, ʿAlawis, Druzes could remain who they were, without aggressive theological instructions from Iran. All that was necessary was Shiʿi solidarity. The strategy was designed to create regional support for the Iranian Revolution, which felt itself the object of Western aggression—this is a recurrent theme in modern Iranian history, from the constitutional movement of 1908– 1911 to the overthrow of Mosaddegh in 1953 and onwards. The success story of Khomeini’s policy was the emergence of Hezbollah as the most powerful force in Lebanon after 1982.
The second transformative event was the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, also in 1979. That gave perfect momentum to a pan-Islamism from the other direction, a Sunni variant. The Afghan success in driving the Red Army out of the country had an ideological impact comparable to that of the overthrow of the Shah. The Iranians showed they could defeat the West, and the Sunnis had now defeated the East: Islam can triumph over both capitalism and communism. But just as Khomeini’s pan-Islamism was forced back into a pan-Shiʿism by the Iran–Iraq war, so Sunni pan- Islamism contracted, under the pressure of the same war, into a pan-Sunnism. Saddam Hussein himself, who started out as an extremely secular leader, switched over and launched religious rhetoric to appeal for Sunni assistance once he looked like losing the war, pitching himself as a champion of Sunnism even though the majority of Iraqis were Shiʿis. Then came the Gulf War (1990–1991) and the 2003 American invasion of Iraq, which split the Sunni and Shiʿi communities in the country wider apart than they had ever been in the past, cementing the hostility between pan- Shiʿism and pan-Sunnism in the Middle East today.
To what extent does contemporary pan-Sunnism derive from the ideas of Qutb or Mawdudi?
The ideas of Mawdudi and Qutb figure to some extent in the sense that both are widely read among pan-Islamist activists, especially Sunnis. The irony is that pan-Sunnism is now a Salafi pan-Sunnism—principally the Wahhabi variant pro- claimed by the Saudi monarchy and some offshoots of it who do not anymore answer to Saudi Arabia (notably al-Qaeda and ISIS)—which has sunk roots everywhere in the Sunni world. Saudi Arabia, and to a lesser extent Qatar, stand as the champions of pan-Sunnism against Iran, the champion of pan-Shiʿism, each with its own paranoia. Kuwait and eastern Saudi Arabia have sizeable Shiʿi communities. Bahrain has a Shiʿi majority. There are many Iranians in the UAE. In Oman, the majority of the population is Ibadi, an early off- shoot of proto-Shiʿism. Zaydis are strong in Yemen. So all the way from southern Iraq, along the Gulf and round the peninsula to the lower end of the Red Sea, Saudi Arabia is ringed by a long belt of Shiʿi sects. ʿAlawis still hold power in Syria, and Hezbollah dominates much of Lebanon. South of Damascus, only Jordan lies between Saudi Arabia and another Shiʿi arc to the north. Add to this anxiety the prospect of Iranian nuclear weapons, and you have all the ingredients of an escalating sectarian confrontation, since the Iranian regime thinks in the same way. The Iranians feel encircled by American pressure aiming to reduce them to submission to Western will. The result is a mutual paranoia which is fueling Sunni–Shiʿi violence across the region.
The dynamic you describe substantially pre-dates the Arab Spring. How do you assess the Arab Spring’s effect on these pre-existing antagonisms?
By cracking apart the old order without bringing forth any new one, it has simply created a more open field for militants. Currently, no Arab country has any real measure of stability. Egypt does not have it. Libya does not have it. Sudan does not have it. Jordan does not have it. Lebanon does not have it. Tunisia does not have it. Let alone Syria or Iraq. Nor is Saudi Arabia stable, after repressing Shiʿi demonstrations for basic rights in its north-east, and sending troops into Bahrain in 2011 as soon as there was democratic unrest there. The one regional state that could have tried to mediate these conflicts was Turkey, but Erdoğan threw away his opportunities and now looks ridiculous with his own paranoid outbursts, blaming opposition protests at home on international conspiracies, on Kurds, and anyone who dares stand up to him.
How far has Israel, often portrayed as a modern Crusader state, played a role like that of the original Crusades in stoking religious passions across the region?
In a pan-Islamist perspective, Israel has always been a very small country with a very small population, which can be driven out as the Crusader states were, once the Muslim world is united. But every time the Arabs fought Israel, they lost. Ironically, in both Syria and Egypt, the war of 1973 is commemorated as a victory and celebrated as a national holiday, but of course they were both humiliated in that war. Yet the threat from Israel has never been a major factor in the popularization of Islamism. The vast majority of Arabs are hostile to Israel as a Jewish state. But this hostility is matched with a widespread indifference toward the Palestinians, whose cause has not been a central theme for Islamists. The fate of the Palestinians featured only in the margins of the thought of pan-Islamism’s leading theorists. Even when it is invoked, Israel figures not as a major threat in itself, but as a proxy for the true threat: America and the West.
What really galvanized contemporary Islamism, and made it appealing, was the overthrow of the Shah in Iran. This was the first revolution in the region that succeeded in toppling a powerful ruler. No other change in the Muslim world has compared with that. The Algerian Revolution (1954–1962) was made against a colonial power: France. The ousting of the monarchy in Egypt (1952) was a tame coup d’état, like many of the same in Syria, Iraq, or Libya. In Iran, by contrast, massive popular demonstrations, sweeping aside the army, brought down the Shah: that was unprecedented. Who were the figures behind it? Khomeini and the mullahs. This boosted pan-Islamists’ argument that religion can bring change. Islam is the alternative. An ideology, of which the trial runs by Mawdudi or Qutb had had a very limited reception, started to find a much wider and more willing audience.
In Afghanistan, Salafis jumped on the bandwagon, taking it in their own direction. In Egypt, Sadat used radical Sunni groups to weaken the popularity of socialists and communists in the universities and labor force. Then he realized they had become too powerful and he started cracking down on them, especially after the Camp David peace with Israel in 1978. This was a general pattern we see elsewhere. It was pursued by the military regimes of the period, which sought to appear in a good light as a barrier against two lunatic elements (communists and Islamists), each manipulating the other to destabilize it. Israeli intelligence did much the same by fostering Hamas as a counterweight to Fatah in the Palestinian territories. The US did the same in Afghanistan by empowering jihadists against communists, but this backfired when these same jihadists started to target Americans.
It seems a huge irony that visionaries who wanted a united Islam should have helped set off the most violent division of Islam of modern times. Accusations of apostasy—takfir—have notoriously played a part in that. Where does this idea come from?
We find the term in Ibn Taymiyya in the thirteenth century used against the recently converted Mongols and other deviant Muslims, but its current usage is much more recent and started with the Wahhabis. In principle, jihad cannot be waged against fellow Muslims. So how could Salafis mobilize people for a jihad against a ruler like Sadat or the Saudi monarchs? The only way they could do it is to prove that these rulers are no more Muslims. This is the essence of Wahhabism. If we look at Osama Bin Laden’s denunciation of the stationing of American troops in Saudi Arabia after the Gulf War, we see that his main point was to show that the Saudi ruling family have become apostates. He was telling his followers: we need to fight jihad against them because they are no longer Muslims. By inviting enemies of Islam into the Holy Places they have abjured the faith. The same was true in Egypt. Salafis may be religious fanatics, but they have to observe basic Islamic law. You cannot cut corners, and simply urge your followers to wage jihad against fellow Muslims—you have to prove to them that these people are not Muslims anymore. So the mechanism of takfir is crucial to Salafism. You do not need any fatwa to kill infidels. But for Muslims, you not only need one, you need a fatwa explaining why they are no longer Muslims, and what they have done that has made them apostates.
That is why Lieutenant Islambouli, who shot Sadat in 1980, did not kill Mubarak at the same time. He could kill Sadat because Sadat was an apostate, but he did not have a fatwa to kill Mubarak. Conventional analysis of Islamic terrorism does not pay attention to what its militants actually say—it looks at economic factors or historical circumstances, operating with only a very general sense of religion and ideology, ignoring the precise terms in which they justify their actions. The head of the Law School at the University of Qatar addressing a Muslim audience once said the only way Islamic terrorism can be defeated is by understanding its theology and producing a counter to it. As long as we deny this, there is no way we can gain the upper hand over militant Islam.