Magazine | April 16, 2012, Issue

Islamists and Men in Khaki

Sheik Abdul Aziz bin Abdullah (AFP/Getty)
Theirs is not an ideology of springtime

If we want things to stay as they are, things will have to change.

– Giuseppe di Lampedusa

Chaos theory, at least as it reaches me, has it that a butterfly flapping its wings somewhere can change the course of events far away. Something akin to this occurred in December 2010 in Tunisia. A man in his twenties was unable to find a job that matched his qualifications and the authorities then prevented him from scratching a living by selling fruit and vegetables off a barrow. He set fire to himself and died. Many, perhaps most, Arabs identified with this poor man, and one Arab country after another has exploded with anger about misrule and oppression. Taken at face value, the Arab social order appears to be breaking down.

The presidents of Tunisia, Yemen, and Egypt have already been forced out of office. For no clear reason, Western powers joined in the tribal war that engulfed Libya, bombing those loyal to President Moammar Qaddafi and eventually bringing about his assassination. Again for no clear reason, Western powers are not intervening in the civil war in Syria. Bashar Assad is leading the minority Alawite sect in a merciless campaign against the Sunni majority. In a typically self-serving fantasy, he claims that unspecified terrorists are responsible for the nearly 10,000 people whom his security forces have killed and the destruction of built-up areas by his heavy artillery.

These presidents on their way out may be defined as men in khaki. Their mindset derives from the post-1945 years when Arabs everywhere gained their independence. In that period, Gamal Abdel Nasser, president of Egypt, was the undisputed Arab hero. He had shown how someone with ambition and no scruples is able to exploit a nationalist movement for his own ends. Nasser and his imitators worked up an ideology out of animus against the West and its perceived offspring Israel. Self-serving fantasy of the kind excuses and maintains distress. Inter-Arab and anti-Israeli wars have resulted in Hobbesian violence that repeats itself and changes nothing. Militarized politics, however, gives men in khaki the monopoly of power.

A few intellectuals, most of them in Egypt, were the first to resent the misuse of nationalism. Taking a traditional view, they held that Islam is an identity common to all Muslims and is not divisible into nation-states. Men with beards and turbans have been busy founding groups or movements such as the Muslim Brotherhood in the belief that this will restore the long-lost supremacy of Muslims over non-Muslims. They share the view that the West and especially Israel are enemies to be fought to the end, but the men in khaki nevertheless have taken the precaution to repress and sometimes to hang them. Such are the imperatives of the monopoly of power.

Seizing power in Iran in 1979, Ayatollah Khomeini was the epitome of a man with a beard and turban. Although they were Shiites, he and his advisers tried to form some sort of common Islamic front with Sunnis. They did not succeed, with the one exception that they were able to co-opt Hamas, the Gaza branch of the Muslim Brotherhood, which was prepared to accept help from any source in the struggle against Israel. Otherwise Saudi Arabia and Turkey, the major Sunni states, increasingly suspect that Tehran’s Islamic overture is really Iranian imperialism lightly disguised. The Iranian pursuit of a nuclear bomb confirms their fear.

Reports of the upheavals in Cairo’s Tahrir Square, at the Pearl Roundabout in Manama, the capital of Bahrain, and in Benghazi in Libya did not take this complex context into account. Foreign correspondents belong to a culture in which activist protesters are sure to be right and authorities wrong. Among those crowds were undoubtedly many brave and sincere young people, some of whom could speak English well enough to scatter signpost words such as “freedom” and “democracy” into interviews. This was the “Arab Spring,” a media coinage if ever there was one, the product of ignorance and wishful thinking. Islamism, if mentioned at all, was dismissed as irrelevant; experts in the studios and newsrooms at home were positive that this Arab Spring marked the success of secular and progressive values just like those they themselves held. They imagined they were witnessing an Arab version of the 1848 revolution of European intellectuals against reactionary regimes of that day, or perhaps a Middle East reprise of the Soviet collapse after 1989.

It was in Tunisia, as a consequence of the self-immolation of the unfortunate seller of fruit and vegetables, that nationalism first began to morph into Islamism. Hitherto the country had been comfortable with its legacy from France, the historic colonizer. Tunisians indeed tended to be secular, to speak French and drink alcohol and welcome hordes of tourists, bikinis and all. The Tunisian president, Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, had monopolized power for 23 years. Not more brutal than other absolute rulers, he had preferred to practice the art of turning his power into money. Basically a man in khaki, he had long since driven Rashid al-Ghannouchi, leader of the Tunisian branch of the Muslim Brotherhood, into exile in London. As demonstrations intensified, Ben Ali called out the army. When the soldiers refused to obey orders, he had to flee abroad.

#page#Was it revolution or counterrevolution that al-Ghannouchi now returned in triumph from London? The ban on his Islamist party was lifted. In elections held under new rules, this party won nearly half the seats in parliament. French influence has vanished. Tourism is more or less nonexistent. Western behavior and Islamism are not compatible. Hillary Clinton recently and rightly accused Tunisia of backsliding. In mid-March, 500 women in veils and niqabs — but no men — attended a conference in Tunis. Speakers thought that democracy had failed, and a British Islamist spokeswoman declared, “We want the caliphate system, which has been historically tested and which is the system that can give a better future to Muslim women.” This is how fantasy is mistaken for reality: There is no candidate for caliph, and restoration of the post would unleash competition between contenders, with bloodshed and an enhanced monopoly of power for some individual more brutish than everyone else at the end of it.

Hosni Mubarak had become president of Egypt when Islamists shot and killed his predecessor, Anwar Sadat, for signing a peace treaty with Israel. Was it revolution or counterrevolution when he was obliged to resign and hand the power he too had enjoyed for three decades to a Supreme Council made up of his military colleagues? He had enriched himself and brutalized opponents, especially Islamists, but the peace treaty with Israel had lasted under his rule. Old and seriously ill, he was wheeled into court on a hospital gurney to face charges that he was responsible for giving orders to shoot and kill some 800 demonstrators — for this he might well be sentenced to death. Meanwhile the Supreme Council turns a blind eye to the burning of Christian churches and murderous attacks on Copts, 200,000 of whom have fled abroad in the past year.

Under rules they have devised to suit themselves, the Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamists won almost three-quarters of the seats in parliament. Egypt, a parliamentary committee states, “will never be a friend, partner, or ally” of an Israel that it cannot bear to name but deprecates as the “Zionist entity.” Another committee is having trouble drafting the new constitution. Put another way, in the coming months the Supreme Council and the Islamists are bound to engage in a power struggle. The outcome will determine who is the next absolute ruler and whether there is to be peace or war with Israel.

Saudi Arabia is a family property with no experience of nationalism or men in khaki. Its oil wealth is used to proselytize the family’s notions of Islam. The aged King Abdullah distributes billions of dollars in the hope that money will keep his subjects passive. Anyone caught practicing a religion other than Islam is severely punished. Sheik Abdul Aziz bin Abdullah, the country’s grand mufti or senior cleric, calls for the destruction of churches throughout the Arabian Peninsula. Hamza Kashgari, a young journalist, published a few sentences considered insufficiently respectful of the Prophet Mohammed. Accused of blasphemy, he fled abroad but was caught and returned and now has to grovel to save himself from execution. Last year, 79 people had their heads chopped off in public. One of them was an elderly woman accused of witchcraft.

The kings of Morocco and Jordan try to find some way to appease their Islamists without compromising their own absolute power. In Syria, Bashar Assad offers reforms while openly mocking “rubbish laws of parties, elections, media.” He is deploying his monopoly of power to prolong old-style nationalism. This civil war has no rules and therefore no atrocity is too extreme. Victims of constant injustice, the bulk of the population is willing to support Islamic sectarianism as the only alternative on offer. The Arab League, the United Nations, and the White House are helpless. Assad is well aware of the reality that the Sunni Islamists will do their very best to kill him, which is why he has to kill them first. The legitimacy to be ruling is a fantasy for all concerned. It isn’t that ideology is creating thugs but rather that thugs are creating ideology. The Arab order now emerging is different in dress, in appearances, but the customary Hobbesian violence is the same as ever.

David Pryce-Jones is a British author and commentator and a senior editor of National Review.

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