“Islam is the Solution”: How Extremist Political Islam Feeds on the Failures of Secular Arabs

The revival of Islam as a political force in the 1970s is a sociopolitical phenomenon that is often difficult to understand. Much to the confusion of many, the Islamic resurgence took place after waves of modernization, secularism, and nationalism hit the Arab World. In this essay, I argue that extremist strands of both political Islam and Islamic fundamentalism have and continue to gain traction in the Arab world due to continued failures of the state: in the Arab Israeli conflict, in providing for its people, and in exercising sovereignty without foreign influence

Background

There are a number of terms that are relevant to the understanding of modern Islamist movements in the Arab World. Political Islam, or sometimes Islamism, refers to “Islam as a political ideology rather than as a religious or theological construct.” Political Islam can range from moderate to extreme, but in all cases, its adherents hold the belief that “Islam as a body of faith has something to say about how politics and society should be ordered in the contemporary Muslim world” (Ayoob, 2004, p. 1). Islamic fundamentalism is a closely related—but highly debated—term, describing a certain strand of political Islam. Islamic fundamentalism is often understood in the context of political Islam; indeed, many scholars use both terms interchangeably to indicate a religious-political belief that the return to the fundamentals of the Islamic tradition is the key to political and socioeconomic prosperity, following the failures of secular, modernist, and nationalist movements (Esposito, 2000, pp. 49-59).

Islamic fundamentalism can also be understood independent of Political Islam, as a belief advocating returning to the origins of Islam and the Islamic tradition from the days of the Prophets and the Righteous Caliphs. That is, a belief of Islamic revivalism that “advocates a return to what is perceived as a lost purity in religious practice”. Islamic fundamentalism contrasts with Islamic modernism, which does not rely on a literal interpretation of the Quran, instead seeking to preserve the spirit of the Quran in a modern social context (Andersen, et al., 2011, pp. 147-8).

Within Islamic fundamentalism, Islamic extremists refers to those “who would use violent or coercive means to implement a fundamentalist Islamic political agenda.” (Andersen, et al., 2011, p. 147) When discussing the rise and salience of Islamic fundamentalism, this essay will use a ‘liberal’ interpretation of the term to refer to extremist strand Islamic fundamentalism, consistent with common everyday use of the term. Furthermore, Islamic fundamentalism and Islamic extremism implicitly imply a belief in political Islam; this is understood by the origins of the modern Islamic revival.

Islamic Resurgence and Revival

Movements of political Islam, Islamic fundamentalism, and Islamic extremism, though not identical in meaning, are closely coupled and follow the same trends in terms of emergence, popularity, and spread. While Islamic fundamentalism is not new, political Islam is a modern phenomenon rooted in the sociopolitical conditions of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries (Ayoob, 2004, p. 2). The rise of political Islam led to the rise (or, rebirth) of the rest of the spectrum of Islamist movements, including fundamentalism and extremism. This is because as political Islam gained traction, its adherents followed contending beliefs in realizing its vision. The rise of political Islam, and therefore the rebirth of the entire spectrum of movements into mainstream social and political circles, took places in what is known as the Islamic revival or resurgence, taking place in the late 1960s and early 1970s (Esposito, 2000, p. 50).

Some believe that “there is a connection between the decline of Arab unity as a symbol and the rise of Political Islam.” Indeed, “as Arab unity was becoming increasingly discredited through the years, especially after 1967, new paths were sought.” (Andersen, et al., 2011, pp. 77-8). In the same spirit as my main thesis, I argue that the birth of political Islam was indeed a result of the failures of the secular Arab state.

A series of crises since the late 1960s has discredited many regimes and Western inspired modernization paradigms, triggering the politics of protest and a quest for greater authenticity. The resulting call for an Islamic alternative has been reflected in slogans such as “Islam is the solution” and “Neither West nor East.” —John Esposito, (Esposito, 2000, p. 50)

Beginning with the Arab-Israeli war of 1967, the failures of Arab Nationalism and Secularism frustrated many Arabs. Further events, including the growth of armed resistance the Arab-Israeli conflict, sectarian conflict in the Lebanese civil war, and the success of the 1979 Iranian Islamic Revolution all contributed to discredit secularism and modernism, in favor of an Islamic movement. Indeed, Esposito argues that “modernism has been perceived as a form of neocolonialism, an evil that supplants religious and cultural identity”  (Esposito, 2000, p. 50).

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Conflict Begets Conflict: the evolution of Arab attitudes, policies, and strategies in the Arab-Israeli Conflict

Since its beginnings, the Arab-Israeli Conflict has been through several phases of distinctive characteristic foreign policies, political attitudes, and strategies. Through a number of monumental defining events—including the major wars—shifts in policies, strategies, and attitude took place, marking transition between these phases. In this essay, I argue that the climate of the Arab-Israeli Conflict can be characterized by four historic phases after an initial period of indecision: Arab Nationalism and Defiance, Resistance and Refusal, Palestinian Armed Resistance, and then a Phase of Contradictions, starring two Arab camps with a widening gap, one entering the Peace, Negotiation, and Reconciliation phase, and the other entering the Islamic Resistance phase.

Background: Setting the Stage

The Palestine Question was a concern to the Middle East and International Community since the 1920s. The Arab response to the Zionist movement wad under debate in the period, and was first solidified in 1948 with the Israeli Declaration of Independence and the Arab War the next day.

Contending Visions

After the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire, Arab intellectuals responded differently to the Jewish immigration movement, Zionism, and news of the Balfour Declaration.

One camp of Arabs was the Hashemites, who had aspirations for a unified pan-Arab Kingdom. Faisal is a noteworthy example; writing that Arabs and Jews are “cousins in race”, and stating he “looks with the deepest sympathy on the Zionist movement.” (Friedman, 2000, p. 228) Furthermore, in Article III of the Faisal-Weizmann Agreement of 1919, Faisal, as the representative of the Arabs, agrees to the Balfour Declaration, and commits to the establishment of a Jewish national home in Palestine, “provided the Arabs obtain their independence as demanded […]” (Smith, 2009, pp. 98-9).

Other Arab nationalists, however, viewed Faisal as a traitor for “abandoning Palestine”. Though Smith points out that Faisal’s agreement was based on the fact that “the Jews did not propose to set up a government of their own but wished to work under British protection to colonize and develop Palestine without encroaching on any legitimate interests.”  (Smith, 2009, p. 78) Indeed, Balfour’s vague statement promised the establishment of a Jewish national home in Palestine, not to reconstitute Palestine as a Jewish state.

Still, other Arab Nationalists vehemently opposed such discourse with Zionists. Many clashes within Palestine took place between Arab and Jewish groups over considerations including land, freedom of religion, and an Arab belief that the Zionists and Jews were encroaching on their rights. Such clashes began with the Western Wall Riots of 1929 (Smith, 2009, p. 129).

Within Palestine, two distinctive families of urban notables lead public opinion. One such family with the Nashashibis, a wealthy and notable family of Jerusalem that included, amongst others, Raghib Nashashibi, who was the Mayor of Jerusalem between 1920 and 1934 (Jewish Virtual Library, n.d.). The Nashashibis were known to be friendlier to the Jewish communities and more flexible in terms of dealing with Zionism, compared to other groups (Smith, 2009, p. 113).

Another family is the Husseinis, of whom Hajj Amin Al-Husseini was the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem. Husseini opposed Nashashibi and was more anti-Zionist in sentiment. Husseini continued to drift away from Nashashibi’s attitude, eventually forging a relationship with German Nazi Leader Adolf Hitler, and adopting a similar, albeit more dilute, anti-Semitic rhetoric. (Smith, 2009, p. 176)

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Jordan’s Revolution: is the unnecessary inevitable?

I have always believed that the Jordanian regime — here meaning the king, and the king alone — is genuine in its hopes for reform, and is capable of achieving a slow but solid transformation to a reformed democratic state. My thoughts on this haven’t changed.

But I am beginning to have concerns that all of that might be futile and altogether irrelevant, given the current conditions on the ground.

Since the political process is an interplay between the rulers and the populous, a failure of either party to participate is a failure of the system.

My thesis is simple: is a significant segment of the Jordanian populous cynical enough that it no longer has the patience nor the will to positively respond to gradual political reforms? To me, it seems plausible.

We have been hearing of many reformist and opposition parties declare their boycott of the coming elections under the new (and slightly improved) election law. The big one here is the Islamic Action front, the political branch of Jordan’s Muslim Brotherhood, who seemingly defacated on Gandhi’s saying “be the change you want to see in the world” (excuse the language), and instead opted to not work towards reform, instead only participate in governance once an already-reformed Jordan is handed to them on a silver plate.

The truth is, no election law can produce a respectable, representative parliament if people and parties boycott the elections. I also feel that no election law can be produced under the current conditions to yield a different result.

The current system is capable of producing a solid, straight path to a reformed state, some few years from now. The fuel that would allow us to move along that path is popular participation. We need people to vote and participate in each iteration of the political system, which will each, in turn, spur out a new system that is marginally better.

Or not. Another option would be an abrupt jump towards reform. An abrupt jump is another word for “top-down reform”, reform that is initiated and executed by those who are in control of the system and imposed on the populous (willingly or unwillingly). “Those in control” here would be either the king, or some revolutionary authority.

I have always observed that we are a very cynical people, in our part of the world, and we are not getting any less cynical in this year-long Spring.

Are we cynical enough that the first option is no longer on the table — that slow, controlled, iterated, and organic reform is no longer viable? Are we only left with the second option on the table?

Embarassing Failure from Ammon?

This must be a joke, but it might not be. A few hours ago, Ammon News published this article on their front page:
http://www.ammonnews.net/article.aspx?articleno=120314

It claims that a British model, Katie Price Jordan, is suing Jordan, the country, for a billion dollars, for using her name, even though she is more notable. Funny story. But also false. The article initially appeared in satirical online article “the spoof” in 2009 (http://www.thespoof.com/news/spoof.cfm?headline=s3i60018), and then appeared in the Pan Arabian Inquirer under the “SATIRE” section on May 11 2012 ((http://www.panarabiaenquirer.com/wordpress/katie-price-to-sue-hashemite-kingdom-of-jordan/). There is no instance of the story anywhere else that I could find.

How can I believe any article published by Ammon about Jordan’s nuclear plans or political reform, if they are incapable of verifying the correctness of an article as straightforward as this one. An article that 21-year-old-me managed to prove wrong in less than an hour, while procrastinating between essay writing and finals studying.

I hope this is an April fool’s joke, a month and a half late.

Jordan in Numbers

In Jordan, hard facts are not commonly used, unfortunately. As I described at an earlier post, Jordan has a big social problem of bigotry and over-confidence is politics.  Many statements are given about the deteriorating status of living, which is true and sad in many cases, but are often expanded and generalized to say that nothing good has come out of the establishment. This is not true. Jordan has real problems: We have political problems, from the external climate of the Middle East, to internal marginalization. We have social problems, and problems in education, and problems in corruption, and a poor economic situation, etc. But things are getting better, and to say that the establishment has not done anything would be an injustice.

This is not to say that all is well: we are a long way to go, and we should obviously demand more from the establishment. We should also demand less marginalization, and to be included in the process. But to fool ourselves and say that we are living in a system where the Establishment is trying to keep is weak and poor would be an unjust, unfounded, and disheartening act.

This is a look at the last ten years King Abdullah II’s reign as the Kingdom’s head of state.

Can some of these developments be associated to the potential positive sum nature of the world, technology, etc.? Yes. But take a look at the data, collected from a number of sources, and decide for yourself if it shows the possibility of a benign, well-intentioned establishment.

Information is taken from the CIA Factbook (referenced CIA for short), the International Monetary Fund (IMF), and the Ministry of Finance of Jordan (MOF). Currencies are either in dollar ($ / USD), or in Jordanian Dinars (JD / JOD), and are indicated.

Nor all numbers are necessarily useful; GDP for instance is often criticized for not being a good metric of a country’s economic situation. Keep this in mind while viewing.

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According to Abdullah II’s book, Jordan exports to the US shot up from “virually nothing to $18 million in 1998”. Under Abdullah’s negotiations, this number rose to $1 billion in 2009.

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Debt as a percentage of the GDP continues to drop. After it reached below 60% of the GDP around 2008, a new policy was adopted that indicated that public debt shall never go above 60%. Initial reports indicate that we are about to hit that mark now, a very concerning sign. But people forget we are in a global recession; things are indeed very concerning, but some people assume that the establishment has worsened our situation. Looking back at 2002, where public debts’ percentage of the GDP was in the high 90s, it puts things in perspective.

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Public and External debts in Jordan shown as an absolute number in JOD. These numbers are contemporary and not adjusted for inflation. As such, if adjusted for inflation, one would probably see a more level Public Debt graph up to 2011, and slowly declining external debts.

 

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