Monday, 8 October 2007


Secularism and Islamism in the Arab world

By *Sukant Chandan,
Conflicts Forum,
October 7, 2007

Secularism in the political leadership in the Arab world has had a
very short life-span if put into historical context. It became a
dominant political current for a few decades in the latter half of
the twentieth century, and today is seeing a near complete collapse
in political movements struggling for independence and development in
the region. Different Islamic leaders have been the main political
inspiration for Arabs in their liberation movements. Salahuddin
al-Ayoub, more popularly known as Saladin, who liberated Jerusalem
from the Crusaders in the twelfth century is probably the Islamic
leader most widely known outside of the region. Saladin’s legacy
remains a profound source of inspiration for Arabs, especially so for
radical Islamists who not only see the parallels with today’s
military invasions and occupations, but directly employ this history
in their political agitation in their fight against what they
consider as the modern-day Crusaders. More recently, Political Islam
was at the forefront of the fight against colonialism in the
twentieth century. There are examples of movements and leaders from
every Arab country, but some of the more well-known include Sheikh
Izz al-Din Qassam, after who Hamas have named their armed wing.
Sheikh Al-Qassam was killed by the British colonialists in Palestine
in an armed confrontation; his death sparked what some call the First
Palestinian Intifada from 1936 to ‘39. In Iraq Shia Islamists united
with their Sunni counterparts against the British colonialists in
1920, a popular uprising from which one of biggest present-day Iraqi
Islamist insurgent groups, the ‘Brigades of the 1920 Revolution,’
takes their name. Shia Islamism in Iraq can also be linked to the
emergence of the Lebanese Hezbollah. Shia Islamist scholars such as
Fadlallah, a prominent radical Shia scholar based in Lebanon who has
close ties to Hezbollah, were immigrants to Lebanon from the
religious centres of Iraq and Iran. On a theoretical level it has
been the ideas of Muhammad Abdu and Al-Afghani in the nineteenth
century, and further back to Ibn-Tammiyah from the fourteenth century
who have been some of the most important contributors to Islamist

While one can trace back the influences on modern Islamism from the
region’s own history, making it an integral part of the political
identity of the people and their struggles, in contrast it was the
cultural and political influences from outside of the region, in
Europe, that influenced modern secular Arab nationalism. The founding
father of modern secular Arab nationalism was Syrian Sati al-Husri,
who was inspired by French republicanism and nineteenth century
German nationalism. Arab nationalism became the ascendant political
force in the post Second World War period.

Like the rest of the ‘Third World’, the post Second World War period
saw the increasing strength of secular and left-wing nationalist
currents in the region, inspired by the example of the independence
and social development of the Socialist Bloc in the face of
neocolonial hostility. The direct or indirect support from the USSR,
East European socialist countries and China, to radical Third World
movements also played a major role in their growth.

It was the preeminent secular Arab nationalist Gamal Abdel Nasser of
Egypt whose nationalization of the Suez Canal signalled the pinnacle
of the modern Arab renaissance. This in turn brought about an
unprecedented atmosphere of Arab confidence that invigorated various
trends of Arab nationalism, a period in which branches of the Arab
nationalist and socialist Ba’ath Party came to power in Syria and
Iraq. The Arab National Movement, mainly based in Beirut, developed
into various left-wing forces such as the Marxist Popular Front for
the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) who put the largely unknown
tragedy that befell the Palestinian people onto the world agenda by
being the first Arab armed group to hijack passenger airplanes. And
of course Yasser Arafat’s secular and left nationalist Fatah led the
Palestinian national revolution by the late 1960s.

In this same period Islamist forces had also been gaining momentum
and were often in the ranks of the independence movements. Those
inside and outside of the region with vested interests in opposing
the anti-imperialist leftist and nationalist surge supported sections
of political Islam that were in opposition to the secularists. In the
light of the complex interaction between the two political movements,
this relationship is all too often over-simplified. In Algeria theFLN
was an Islamist nationalist movement as much as one inspired by the
ideas of Fanon, Mao and Che Guevara, although the Islamist current
was purged shortly after independence. Many of the original Fatah
leadership (including Arafat by his own claims) belonged to the
movement to which Hamas is the ‘Palestinian branch’: the Muslim
Brotherhood or ‘Ikhwan Muslimeen’, a major force of mass radical
anti-imperialism after World War Two with branches throughout the
Arab world. The Ikhwan was strongest in Egypt, the home of its
founder Hassan al-Banna. Another Egyptian leader of the Ikhwan after
Hassan al-Banna’s death, Sayyid Qutb, was possibly modern political
Islam’s greatest strategist and thinker. He was executed by Nasser’s
regime in 1966 after being accused of plotting to overthrow the
state. Initially Nasser’s Free Officers and the Ikhwan were allies in
the struggle against the British, before Nasser’s regime conducted a
massive repression against the movement, jailing and cruelly
torturing many of their activists. A fact little known outside of the
region is that the Palestinian Ikhwan also played a major role in the
resistance against the establishment of Israel in Palestine in the
late 1940s.

The 1967 defeat of Nasser and the Arab armies by Israel can now
clearly be seen as the beginning of the decline in leadership of the
secular forces. As soon as the left nationalists in the Middle East
gained power, their leadership in the struggle against Zionism and
neocolonialism began to wane. While much of the 1970s saw struggles
being conducted and led by left nationalist forces, this decade also
witnessed a qualitative shift in favour of radical Islamism. The Arab
people were incensed when the Arab Republic of Egypt under President
Sadat sued for peace with Israel, giving the Ikhwan and other more
radical Islamists a greater hearing from the masses. The event which
contributed to the growth of the Islamists more than any other was
the overthrow by Islamists of the West’s strongest ally in the region
after Israel — Iran under the Shah — which was up to then ‘an island
of stability’ according to former US president, Jimmy Carter.

The two most important manifestations of the growth of radical
Islamist movements in the 1980s were the Lebanese Hezbollah which was
directly assisted in military training and infrastructure by the
Pasdaran, an Iranian military force, and Palestinian Islamic Jihad
(PIJ). Both movements saw Iran as their chief inspiration.

PIJ were the first openly Islamist movement to conduct armed struggle
against the Israeli occupation in the early 1980s, and the first
movement in the Sunni community to use the controversial tactic of
kamikaze attacks. At the same time the Palestinian Ikhwan were
involved in building up a network of charitable and religious
organizations that were invaluable social institutions to the lives
of many Palestinians, especially in Gaza. The Ikhwan established the
Islamic University in Gaza in the late 1970s, the construction of
such a centre of learning, debate and activity constituted a big step
forward for them and forged a new generation of Islamist educated
youth. Nevertheless, PIJ was a challenge to the Palestinian Ikhwan as
it was the only Islamist armed resistance to Israel at the time. This
meant that many young Ikhwan members either joined PIJ or put
pressure on their leadership to develop and implement a militant
strategy for the Palestinian revolution. The fact that one of the
most charismatic and astute ideologues of the Palestinian Ikhwan,
Fathi Shiqaqi, had split and formed PIJ, must have added to the
Palestinian Ikhwan’s image at the time as a movement unable and
unwilling to address the challenges of the Palestinian liberation
struggle. This possibly speeded up preparations of Sheikh Yassin and
other leaders of the Palestinian Ikhwan for armed struggle which came
to fruition with the establishment of the Harakat Moqawama
al-Islamiyya — the ‘Islamic Resistance Movement’ or Hamas — on the
second day of the Palestinian Intifada in 1987. The initial document
that Hamas issued in 1988, ‘The Charter’, is problematic as it gives
credence to the fabricated Protocols of the Elders of Zion. It has to
be borne in mind that this anti-Semitic document has wide currency
across much of the political spectrum in the region due to the West’s
support for Israeli settler-colonialism, and the feeling of
powerlessness amongst the masses in the face of Israeli aggression.
Hamas issued various subsequent communiqu├ęs which give a more
accurate exposition as to their ideology, strategy and tactics.

The PLO claim that the 1987 Intifada was led by them, and that they
were the ‘sole legitimate representatives of the Palestinian people’.
Nevertheless, it has been argued by Dr Azzam Tamimi’s in his new book
on Hamas, Unwritten Chapters, that the PLO’s jealous guarding of
their claim to leadership may have been partly due to Hamas playing a
major role in the Intifada and challenging the PLO’s claim to

In an ironic twist of history it was the Western and
Chinese-supported Afghan mujahideen who fought against the Soviet
army and pro-Soviet government in Afghanistan that gave further
impetus to the development of modern militant Islamism which was soon
to become a powerful force against neocolonialism in the region. The
Afghan jihad allowed militants to overcome the rivalry between
different groups that existed along national and ethnic lines.
Overcoming these divisions and forging pan-Arab and pan-Islamist
unity were some of the main strategies of Bin Laden and Zawahiri in
the construction of their organization that was to become the violent
‘World Islamic Front for Jihad against Crusaders and Jews,’ commonly
known as Al-Qaeda, meaning ‘The Base’, formed in 1998. Initially for
Bin Laden, Zawahiri and others, Afghanistan was the base for
international jihad, today it is mainly Iraq.

By the late 1980s the popularity of Islamism and the Islamist
movement was such that the hitherto secular Arab nationalist Saddam
Hussein, like Muammar Qaddafi before him, started to formally
synthesise Islamism with Iraqi and Arab nationalist ideas into the
social and political fabric of Iraq. The most outwardly visible
example of this was adding ‘Allah u Ahkbar’ – Allah is the greatest –
to the Iraqi flag during the war against Iraq in 1990. Saddam Hussein
initiated a massive mosque building program, and attempted to co-opt
the Islamic revival that was taking place into the Ba’athist strategy
of positioning Iraq as the vanguard Arab nation resisting
neocolonialism. Saddam Hussein may have chiefly been responsible in
contributing to today’s synthesis of radical Arabism and Islamism, a
view advanced by Jerry Long in his book, Saddam’s War of Words. The
1990 war against Iraq saw for the first time a unity between
left-wing, nationalist and Islamist forces in the region and beyond
against Western aggression.

The United States’ establishment of large military bases in Saudi
Arabia during the campaign against Iraq fundamentally shifted the
position of many Islamists who hitherto had been allied with the US
against nationalists in the region. These Islamists, Osama Bin Laden
being the most well-known amongst them, could not sit idly by and see
the Islamic lands of Iraq and Saudi Arabia occupied by the US. This
was compounded by a realisation amongst some Islamists that the US
and Britain were not going to allow them to use their own oil wealth
for the benefit of their own countries. Western oil exploitation was
going to mean that the only natural wealth of the Gulf - oil - was
going to run out in the next four decades or so, and that they had to
fight to wrest control of their own oil from the West before they
were left with nothing. These political shifts culminated in the
establishment of Al-Qaeda and many other organizations that share
their military vanguardist outlook, and many more yet that share
their political aims of an Arab world free from Western domination.

Today one sees the shift from secular nationalism to Islamism nearing
the final stages of completion. Ghaith Abdul-Ahad writing for The
Guardian on June 12, 2007, from Palestinian refugee camps in Lebanon
vividly described this transition, contrasting the “ailing,
ill-equipped and ill-fed fighters of the old secular factions” and
“muscular, bearded and well-equipped jihadis” funded through the
network of Islamist organisations that spans the Middle East, and
describing the migration of Palestinian radicals, both young and
middle-aged, from the former Marxist camp to the Islamist. As one
Marxist in his 50s told Abdul-Ahad, “I have never lost my political
compass. Wherever the Americans and the Israelis are, I am on the
other side. So if Hezbollah and the Iranians and the Islamists are
against the Americans now, so I am an Islamist.” Highlighting the
continuities between armed secular groups of times gone by with that
of armed Islamist groups of today, a PFLP leader explains to
Abdul-Ahad that “most of those jihadis were once fighters with us and
other Palestinian factions … if you come to me and give me $100,000,
I will split from the PFLP and form the PFLP: Believers’ Army. It’s
so easy.” Another secular leader explains of the hopelessness and
anger at their position which drives these wretched youth of the Arab
world to militancy: “we have young men who have nothing, no hope of a
nation, no hope for the right of refugees to return, nothing but the
two streets of the camp. With this situation I wouldn’t be surprised
if half the camp becomes jihadis.”

Islamists have always been at the forefront of the struggle against
colonialism and neocolonialism in the Middle East since the times of
the Crusades. Most academics, policymakers and those who support the
independence and development of the Arab world have some knowledge of
the post Second World War period when Islamist movements were
supported by those who saw them as a counterweight to the secular
anti-imperialist movements of various Arab nationalists and Marxist
trends. Further study and reflection on the contemporary history of
the Arab world may on the other hand lead to a more nuanced
understanding of this relationship, rather than labeling one side
‘reactionaries’ and the other ‘progressives’. Perhaps it is time to
move away from this outdated and problematic terminology. Islamists
see themselves at least as equals to the radical secularists if not
the rightful owners to the leadership of the national and social
liberation struggle. The end of the strife between the Islamists and
what remains of the secularists in the anti-imperialist struggle, is
not just attributable to the weakness of the secularists but is a
sign of the strength of the independence movements in the Arab world.
Furthermore, the Islamists’ leadership in this struggle — such as
that of the Iraqi resistance — lacking support that the secularists
enjoyed from the Socialist Bloc, is indicative of the strength of
their ideology’s roots in the history, culture and identity of the
masses in the region.


*Sukant Chandan is a London-based freelance journalist, researcher and
political analyst. He has contributed to several publications
including Al-Ahram Weekly, Counterpunch and the Kuala Lumpur-based
Third World Network. He runs two websites: and
and can be contacted at

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