I was just listening to an LSE lecture podcast (wonderful gizmo, I must say) and their July 28th, 2009 lecture was delivered by Ali Allawi about “The increasing religiosity of Muslim societies and the spectacular rise of political Islam have served to mask the seeping of vitality from Islamic civilization. If Muslims do not muster the inner resources of their faith to fashion a civilising outer presence, then Islam as a civilisation may indeed disappear.
(Ali A. Allawi has served as Minister of Defence and Minister of Finance in the Iraqi postwar governments. A graduate of Harvard University and MIT, he is Senior Associate Member of St Antony’s College, Oxford). [The lecture itself is available]
I don’t want to talk about the lecture itself, I’d rather further the point made at the beginning of it: Muslim societies of the MENA region were, between the 50’s and the 70’s, going secularists, and religion –Islam, that is- was just part of folklore or ‘elderly people kind of thing’. Am I longing for a past period I idealize too much? Surely not.
However, I do recall from my readings and discussions with much older people than I am, the MENA region was not so heatedly religious, and the moralist speech that is now so oppressively dominant in the Arab Medias. This new conservatism is, if I may say so, an artificial part of the political spectrum.
I had a glance at the declassified CIA documents –available on their website–; they produced in the 60’s and through the 80’s some interesting documents that report the general mood of the MENA region.
Now, I know that these documents are not entirely creditable, or genuine, and they just reflect America’s point of view on quite complicated issues –that are usually produced in utmost a dozen pages with some figures– but the truth of the matter is, and it backs up my early hypothesis, MENA was going secularist with the modern Arab nationalism (of which I disapprove, being a non-Arab, albeit a Moroccan national), one can read in the National Intelligence Estimate dated April 1964, pages 6 to 9: “Area-wide Political Forces :
[…] Nasser remains the prime symbol of revolutionary success [he] will continue to use his assets throughout the Arab world to promote political leaders and groups sympathetic to his policies and objectives [and] feel compelled to help any embattled Arab nationalist […] [his] leadership is being challenged by the Baath movement. [It’s] a unique political organization in the Arab world; an Arab unity movement based on an ideology rather than on personal leadership, and it has an apparatus functioning in nearly every Arab state. The Baath is socialist in character; it has been bitterly opposed to both imperialism and communism (that is, the USSR and its allies) virtually since its inception in Syria. [As for communists, they had] an apparatus of some sort […] in virtually every Arab state, and the movement has been well organized in the past in Syria, Lebanon, Jordan and Iraq. […] More recently, the rise of nationalist movements has provided [it as] an alternative far more appealing. […] Nevertheless, in the turmoil which might follow the overthrow of a regime, there is a possibility of significant growth of communist strength or influence. “
Not a word of political or militant Islam as a political contender. As for the West, the same reports points out that:
“The Arabs are attracted by the image of the Western countries as modern nations, capable of playing an important role in international affairs and of providing decent life for their people.
The latter outlook influences Arab society in matters of education and economic development”
The very same things our ‘modern’ Islamists and would-be conservatives in the MENA region are rejecting since the late 1970’s.
Now, the question I would like to ask is: ‘how, in less than a couple of decades, the MENA-Arab world went from an aspiring nationalist, secularist project, to another nationalist, religious-based project?’
Do notice that the ‘nationalistic’ dimension of the aspiring MENA people is remaining, which is perfectly understandable and though I don’t like being at odds with Popper criticism of historicism, I believe it to be the modern aspect of nation-state (or even regional nation) is a brand new concept (albeit a colonial sequel).
The how should not hinder our sight from the why. And the second question is even more important, as this long trend of conservatism (I would call it reactionary) finds its roots in a series of political projects, more or less coordinated. I think we have to go back to the Cold War (I am not getting nostalgic about it) in order to understand that Islamism is not inherent to the nature of MENA societies, and moral conservatism that is so dominant nowadays is a reflection of confused generations, for whom the traditional weltschauung is profoundly shaken; that’s a first-glance kind of explanation. The next step is to unveil the various actions that influenced MENA population to be more conservative and to consider that rigorous practise of Islam could actually make their everyday life better off.
I do not have the required knowledge nor the relevant information to venture an explanation, but I can provide some information about how, during the 70’s and 80’s, in order to toe the line, MENA (with some US help) fostered the nationalist Islam in order to ward off the left-leaning secularism. Before I could lay my point, I found in the US President daily checklist dated October 15, 1962, it stated:
“King Saud, in extremely poor health and in a psychopathic state of suspicion and worry about the Yemenis, may not last much longer.
Among other Plots, a group of Saudi princes, anxious to pre-empt the field before pro-Nasserites make a try at taking over, are laying plans to force [King] Saud to abdicate […]”
Even Saudi Arabia was subject to the new Arab nationalism; though not on the same scale. (Saudi society is still a tribal society)
Strangely enough, the rise of reaction was not especially in the MENA-Arab world, but rather Eastward, namely in Pakistan.
After his bloodless coup against Ali Bhutto’s government in 1977, General Zia Al’haq established Sharia law, in a chronology related by this Time article dated July 1977:
“Last week the new military regime in Pakistan announced that it was imposing Koranic law in that country. Whipping, amputation and death, along with prison terms, were prescribed for a long list of crimes, ranging from theft, armed robbery and insulting the modesty of a woman to political activities, labor organizing and striking. General Zia ul-Haq, the new chief administrator of martial law, decreed that there would be no amputations without his approval and that anesthesia would be used. Nonetheless, the threat was apparently sufficient to cause a sharp drop in crime.” And in the same article, one can read:
“Five Arab states in the Middle east—Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Oman, Libya, and North Yemen—base their laws on the Koran. In Egypt, which prides itself on its Western-style sophistication, a parliamentary commission is at work on a new code, based on Islamic law that would make apostasy, among other crimes, punishable by death. A rider to the proposed bill provides that if a Muslim becomes a Communist he would be considered apostate and therefore subject to beheading.”
Just before that, Bhutto showed the way. Another Time article (July 18, 1977):”Bhutto became a national hero for restoring the country’s morale after the 1971 war. His popularity, however, was badly eroded in recent years by his highhanded ways. After the March elections, he tried doggedly to come to terms with opposition leaders on conditions for holding new elections in the fall. He imposed nationwide prohibition of alcoholic beverages in an effort to win the support of conservative Muslim elements“.
The 1970’s where, it seems, the tipping point on which Arab and Muslim-countries’ leaders started the ‘let’s-go–back–to–religion’ policy. Indeed, Sadat did say once he ‘would crash anyone who creates doubt’
Indeed, “President Sadat proposed a referendum on whether Egypt should continue to allow political activity by those who “advocate an ideology contrary to divine law,” and those who in previous times were convicted of “corrupting the country’s political life.” His targets were obvious, a small but active leftist party, and the leaders of the re-emerging Wafd (delegation) Party” Sadat, it seems, wanted to get rid of the Soviet influence by calling up America as an alternative partner, and most importantly, by reigniting the Islam nationalism. Nasser was not, so to speak an atheist, but his followers, and especially under Sadat tenure, were pushing for anti-islamization policy, in universities and elsewhere and it has been proved that Sadat used the Muslim Brotherhood as a tool to encounter the leftist radicals. “After Egyptian President Gamal Abddul Nasser dies in October 1970, he is succeded as president of Egypt by his former Vice President, Anwar Sadat. Sadat is also a former member of the Muslim Brotherhood, and he promptly reinstates the group as a legal organization and welcomes them back into Egypt. Sadat also has a very close relationship with the head of Saudi intelligence, Kamal Adham. Through Adham, Sadat also develops close working relationships not only with the Saudis, but with the CIA and Henry Kissinger. Sadat uses the power of the religious right, and the Muslim Brothers in particular to contain the Nasserites and their resistance to the radical changes he introduces. During Sadat’s tenure in the 1970’s Egypt becomes a hotbed of Islamic fundamentalism, and figures like Sheikh Omar Abdul-Rahman and Ayman al-Zawahiri gain great power in Egypt during this period.”
What about Morocco then? Well, it is trickier, because the monarchy did use Islam, above all because it is a backbone of its legitimacy. Furthermore, other political forces, long before the independence, claimed Salafism –true observance of Islam precepts- as a way to get out of the submission and humiliation Morocco is enduring as a French protectorate. I am not an expert, but it seems that the basic idea of it, is to renew the Moroccan and Muslim society through a renewed Islam, some sort of Islamic (and not islamist) humanism as it where. 1956 aftermath was not so politically smooth though, and Istiqlal as well as the monarchy did use Islam as a way to get rid of their not so religious political rivals.
Anyway, in crude generalization, religious conservatism was above all, of academic nature, according to this paper:”[…]This new form of imported Salafiyya differed significantly from that of the 1925-1954 where Moroccan Salafi activism, personified by Allal al-Fassi, the religio-nationalist leader of the Istiqlal party, sought to defend Morocco’s Arab-Islamic identity against the onslaught of European colonialism and the “heresy” of Sufism and maraboutism, by promoting scriptural orthodoxy. This mainly revolved around the famous Islamic injunction of “commanding what is proper and forbidding what is reprehensible”. This obsession with the good conduct of individuals resonated well with broad sectors of the population who lived in crowded and poor neighbourhoods and shantytowns. The latter are largely unrecognized by the state and receive little or no basic public services such as electricity, water, telephone lines, educational or health facilities.
Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, this apolitical, puritanical, and backward-looking wave of new fundamentalism benefited greatly from globalization and the widespread alienation generated by the painful IMF/World Bank policies of economic and financial structural adjustment programs. […] But contrary to popular images, the ideological underpinnings of modern Moroccan jihadism derive from a much more complicated set of intellectual, political and ideological trends than what is referred to as the fatalistic Wahhabi Salafism. The phenomenon of al-Salafiyya al-jihadiyya can be traced back to a deadly mixture of the Saudi tradition of aggressive Wahhabi militancy and the revolutionary political trend of Egyptian scholar, Sayyid Qutb (d. 1966).
The initial question is still unanswered, though it becomes obvious that a political mastermind made it possible for the Wahhabi salafism to get to Morocco. Islam was effectively put to use for political purposes, during the Green March for instance. Volunteers were sent with “Divine Protection. […] Premier Ahmed Osman personally sent off the first contingent of 20,000—most of whom carried copies of the Koran along with soup bowls, spoons and bottle openers—from the oasis of Ksar-es-Souk. “Go then under divine protection,” he said, “helped by your unshakable faith, your true patriotism and your total devotion to the guide of your victorious march, King Hassan II.”
Even though western medias noticed with a long delay, islamization of the Moroccan society is the effect of a policy carried out by officials in order to block radicals and leftists, in universities and elsewhere. Islamists were helped out in many ways, and that, unfortunately, led to a general state of conservatism and reaction.
My point is, use of religion as a political tool, or as a social regulation –in the way it is now- is not only contrary to any customary or historic tradition, it is the very danger of intolerance looming in the horizon.