by Francesco Petronella. Journalist and Analyst of International Politics
The most serious mistake that can be made when talking about Islam is to consider it a single and monolithic reality. However, it is not enough to know the distinction between Sunnis and Shiites to avoid making this mistake, since even within the two great branches of Islam there are dozens of currents, schools of thought and ways of understanding the faith revealed in the Koran. The most important distinction is the one that runs between Islam understood as faith and spirituality and political Islam (or “Islamism,” as many say). In the latter field, that of Islam understood as a source of law and politics, a series of events recently took place that could pave the way for the rapprochement between two components of political Islam itself, both Sunni. To understand recent events, however, it is necessary to take a step back several years, in order to put things in the right context.
AN EXISTENTIAL TRAUMA
Conventionally, to trace the trajectory that led to the birth of political movements of Islamic inspiration, historians start from an event considered symbolically as the meeting between the Islamic world and modernity: Napoleon Bonaparte’s campaign in Egypt and Syria from 1798 to 1801.
This fateful meeting gave rise to a large intellectual and political movement in the Islamic world of the nineteenth century, in an attempt to answer one big question: is there an “Islamic way” to modernity? Attempts to reply were manifold. Some thinkers became convinced that it was not possible to take only what was needed of Western modernity—as specialized personnel and techniques capable of transmitting knowledge—without welcoming the cultural impact of nineteenth-century Europe, that is, the Enlightenment and the positioning of man—not of God—at the center of knowledge and political action. In other words, Islam could not be a path to modernity, but an obstacle. Others—among the most famous are Mohammed Abduh (Egyptian jurist, philosopher, theologian and mufti who lived between 1849 and 1905) and Jamal al Din al Afghani (Iranian theologian who lived between 1838 and 1897)—emphasized the need to return to interpreting the Koran and the Sunna without lingering in the studies, now dated, of the Middle Ages. Their idea, from which the movement known as Islah (Reformism) was born, was that in traditional texts there were the answers to all the questions of modernity. It was just necessary to find them.
THE “RETURN TO ISLAM” OF THE MUSLIM BROTHERHOOD
The real turning point in the history of political Islam took place in 1928 with the birth, in Egypt, of the Muslim Brotherhood (in Arabic Ikhwan al Muslimìn). Founded by Hassan Al Banna (1906-1949), and systematized by Sayyid Qutb (1906-1966), the complex ideology of the Brotherhood could be summarized as follows: Islam has all the characteristics to represent not only a form of faith and personal spirituality, but also a model of politics and state. However, the development of this movement must be considered on the basis of the historical context. Egypt in the 1920s and 1930s was ruled by monarchs subject to the rule of Great Britain, whose efforts to modernize and westernize the country had aroused perplexity and doubts among the most conservative and religious groups. Therefore, the “return to Islam” proposed by the Brotherhood is partly interpreted as a response to the colonial logic. The Brotherhood spread throughout the Arab world, much less in the Islamic offshoots in Asia and Africa. The one represented by the Ikhwan is still today one of the two fields of Sunni political Islam to contend for hegemony in the Islamic world. On the other side of the fence, arriving at the present day, there is a variegated Islamic political world that could be defined as “conservative.” Its origins go back a long way. To trace them, it is necessary to start from the four juridical schools (in Arabic madàhib) of Sunni Islam. These are the Hanafi, Malikite, Shafi’ita and Hanbalite currents. The latter is certainly the most conservative, since it is based on a rigid interpretation of legal sources and, above all, recognizes the absolute primacy of the Koran and the Sunna in the elaboration of law. The others are ijma’a, that is, the tradition established among believers, and qiyas, that is, analogical reasoning. A classic example of analogue reasoning is that which refers to the taking of drugs for an Islamic faithful: if the Koran and the sunna say that we must abstain from alcohol and intoxicating substances, must this principle also be applied to modern substances? Thinking analogically, the answer could be yes.
In the wake of the Hanbalite school, various conservative or Salafist currents were born. The latter, however, is a very ambiguous term, since it originates in the Arabic expression salaf al-salihīn (ie “the pious ancestors”), but in the course of the history of Islamic thought it has come to identify both reformists such as the aforementioned Abduh and Al Afghani that radical and militant movements of Islam spread today. The most important of the followers of the Hanbalite school is Wahhabism, a fundamentalist doctrine that formed an iron alliance with the house of Al Saud, rulers since 1932 of what is now the kingdom of Saudi Arabia. The Wahhabis immediately preached the elimination of any interpretation of the Koranic text, which must be taken literally as the revealed word of God.
Returning to current events, we can say that the political Islam of the Muslim Brotherhood and the conservative Islam backed by Saudi Arabia and allies have found a fairly precise geopolitical location. The Muslim Brotherhood is backed in a not-too-veiled way by countries like Turkey and Qatar, while on the opposite side are positioned—together with the Saudis—countries like the Egypt of Abdelfattah al Sisi, Bahrain, and the United Arab Emirates. This contrast has had an enormous weight on the politics of the southwestern Mediterranean in the last few decades. Just think of the wave of riots in 2010-11, which went down in history with the misnomer of Arab Springs [cf. Confronti 02/2021]. The parties linked to the Muslim Brotherhood, supported by Turks and Qataris, constituted at one point a hegemony of discontent against the Arab autocrats, since they were the only movements structured by decades of militancy in the context of varied and unfocused protests. Some examples will clarify.
Mohammed Morsi was elected Egyptian president in 2012, only to be overthrown in a coup the following year. In Tunisia, the Islamic party Ennahda – under the leadership of Rachid Ghannouchi – played a central role in the transition after the fall of Zayn al-Abidin Ben Ali on January 14, 2011. In Libya, after the expulsion and death of Muammar Gaddafi ( October 20, 2011), the Brothers entered the National Transitional Council and created ample room for maneuver in the politics of the following years. The West, in particular the United States led by President Barack Obama, found themselves in the situation of having to speak with these actors, whose decline began symbolically with the ouster of Morsi in 2013 in Egypt, which from that moment passed into the sphere of influence of Saudis and Emiratis.
Today, however, the two camps of Sunni political Islam have ceased to look at each other “with disgust,” and seem destined for a slow but decisive reconciliation. Indeed, the geopolitical context has definitely changed. On the one hand, with the exhaustion of the phenomenon of the Arab revolts, the repression has also ceased. The war in Syria—the worst conflict of its time—has grown progressively more complicated, leaving President Bashar Al Assad in his place and thus normalizing his reign. Therefore, the competition between the various Sunni actors to dominate the anti-Assad front (the main partner of Shiite Iran) has also waned. In even more recent times, the COVID-19 pandemic hit the entire area of the Middle East and North Africa hard, opening up unprecedented spaces for cooperation to build a common front against the health emergency. Last but not least, it is worth pointing out that in 2021 the US presidency changed, with Democrat Joe Biden replacing Republican Donald Trump as the tenant of the White House.
On January 5, Saudi Arabia, the Emirates, Egypt, Bahrain and the member states of the Gulf Cooperation Council signed the Al Ula Declaration which paves the way for the restoration of ties with Qatar—protector of the Brotherhood—isolated in 2017 with the so-called Qatar Ban. The initiative, which sees Saudi Arabia as a protagonist and Kuwait as a mediator, first of all envisages the reopening of land, sea and airspace borders with Qatar. The latter aspect is far from secondary, considering that Doha airlines—such as Qatar Airways —were often forced to extend their air routes through Iran, given the impossibility of flying over the Saudi territories. The regional actors were in a sense encouraged by former US President Trump to isolate Qatar, considered a hotbed of fundamentalists within the Brotherhood. With Biden’s settlement in Washington it is likely that Riyadh and allies immediately wanted to give a signal of discontinuity to the new tenant of the White House, paving the way for the restoration of relations with Doha. The Qatari government, for its part, then showed solidarity towards Saudi Arabia and its crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman, after US intelligence disclosed, in early March, the report on the murder of dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi. Mohammed bin Salman then garnered the support of all Gulf partners, including the former Qatari sworn enemy. In late April, Saudi King Salman Bin Abdelaziz (father of Mohammed bin Salman) invited the Qatari Emir Tamim al Thani to Riyadh, for what would be the first visit of this kind in four years.
On March 10, the Libyan House of Representatives gave confidence to Abdul Hamid Dbeibeh, interim premier of the newly formed Libyan National Unity Government (GNU). Dbeibeh managed to bring together the various Libyan actors, including those of the Government of National Accord of Tripoli—supported by Turkey and Qatar—and those close to the authorities of Cyrenaica and to General Khalifa Haftar (supported by Emiratis, Egyptians and Saudis) . Important signs of rapprochement were then seen directly between Egypt and Turkey. On March 6, Ankara’s Defense Minister Hulusi Akar spoke of “historical and cultural values in common with Egypt.” Considering that with the ousting of Morsi and the rise of Al Sisi, Ankara has in a sense lost its point of reference in Egypt, these openings towards the current Cairo government seem far from negligible. After the dismissal of Morsi, in fact, Turkey gave asylum to numerous Egyptian exponents of Ikhwan, ushering in a period of cold in relations with Egypt that continues to this day. Furthermore, in the Libyan quadrant, Ankara and Cairo have held diametrically opposed positions so far. Egypt has supported Haftar’s self-proclaimed Libyan National Army financially and militarily, occasionally threatening a land invasion from Libya’s western border. On the contrary, Turkey has provided resources and men—especially Syrian mercenaries—to the Tripoli executive, effectively halting the advance of Haftar and his troops towards the Libyan capital.
It is not easy to establish how concrete these signs of openness can be in bringing the two opposing camps of Sunni Islam back to dialogue, nor what could be the results of this reconciliation. In fact, it could be mere momentary convergences dictated by the particular historical moment and political opportunity. Added to this is the fact that, as already mentioned, one thing is political Islam—which gathers the consent of millions of people and guides policy-makers—and another thing is Islam as a faith, which affects almost 2 billion individuals all over the world, often very far from these ideological dynamics. What seems certain is that both ways of interpreting the “religion of Allah” in a political sense do not represent the totality of the variegated demands of Muslim society. In the West we are used to thinking of the Arab-Islamic world as an often indistinct set of peoples for whom the Islamic religious component is always and in any case essential. On the contrary, there are secular voices, secularists supposedly inspired by “Western” modernity. In other words, even today—as in the days of Napoleon’s campaign in Egypt—there are those who think that the path to modernity does not necessarily have to pass through Islam, nor even through the West.