Is Hypernationalism The New Islamism?

Islamism in the Middle East may have met a match in the hypernationalism taking hold in Egypt and Syria.

al-monitor Protesters against Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi hold a poster of Gen. Abdel Fattah al-Sisi in Tahrir Square, in Cairo, July 3, 2013. Photo by REUTERS/Mohamed Abd El Ghany.
Taufiq Rahim

Taufiq Rahim


Topics covered

takfiri, syria, sunni-shiite conflict, muslim, islamism, islam, egypt

Aug 23, 2013

Since the military overthrow of Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi’s government in early July, the rhetoric by critics of the Muslim Brotherhood has been vitriolic and relentless. The campaign has sought to delegitimize the Islamist movement, and in fact, negate its Egyptian identity. Morsi himself has been charged with espionage and serving foreign interests. The general prosecutor has accused Muslim Brotherhood supporters of hiring Syrian and Palestinian mercenaries. Partisans of the army-led government, including some familiar “democracy” activists, have repeatedly called for additional crackdowns on Islamists. More often than not, Muslim Brotherhood members are portrayed in juxtaposition to ordinary Egyptians, rather than among the people, and as a “cancer” that must be removed at all costs.

As the Arab world continues to politically devolve following the revolutions of 2011, it seems that a new fascism is becoming en vogue. In many ways, a response to the rise of religious supremacy over the past three decades, the ideology is predicated on a foundation of hypernationalism whereby the state is paramount, and any intellectual contestation is met with rhetorical — if not legal — excommunication. As the dust settles, a shrinking political class of moderate Islamists and liberals are increasingly caught between these dueling ideologies and their proponents.

This religious supremacy, or Islamism, has its roots in the modern Middle East in a seminal work by Sayyid Qutb, the Muslim Brotherhood leader imprisoned and executed in Egypt in the 1960s. In "Signposts along the Road" (or Milestones), Qutb intellectually grounds the rejection of fellow Muslims in a process of delegitimization, or takfir. This ideology went into overdrive with the 1979 Islamic revolution in Iran and the subsequent jihad in Afghanistan in the 1980s, both of which laid the groundwork for Islamism as a modern political movement.

The continuum of Islamism has always been expansive, so it is sometimes hard to differentiate what constitutes the extremist elements of the political community as opposed to more moderate forces. In post–Saddam Hussein Iraq, the philosophy of takfir descended to a new level with the dehumanization of other Muslim groups, with authorization to kill those deemed takfiris. Yet, Morsi, allegedly a mainstream Islamist, sat applauding the same rhetoric targeting Shiites by preachers in relation to the Syrian conflict, illustrating how difficult it can be to draw distinctions.

With the rise of Islamism, most regimes in the region — lacking a real contesting ideology in response — felt compelled to peddle hollow exhortations of bygone regionalism, or pan-Arabism. Direct attacks on Islamism would have run the risk of alienating their Muslim populations. In this space and amid the tumult of the last two years during which Islamists have grown increasingly unpopular after ascending from the opposition to seats of power, religious supremacy has finally met its match — hypernationalism. In effect, takfir is now being opposed with takhwin, the delegitimization of opponents of the state as traitors of the national cause.

The hypernationalism emerging today in Egypt as well as in Syria seeks to displace pan-Arabism with an updated ideology supporting the state, and in effect, represents the ongoing evolution of the regimes of Hosni Mubarak (now Abdel Fattah al-Sisi) and Bashar al-Assad. Islamist groups are portrayed as serving foreign interests, or a broader global agenda, rather than the national cause. The takhwin of “opponents” is often prefaced with xenophobia and ultimately provides an authorization to kill based on the delegitimization of these individuals as being outside the “nation” or as terrorists seeking to kill the people. 

As hypernationalism coalesces in the modern Arab world, it seems to bear, quite hauntingly, many of the characteristics of traditional fascism, as described in Stanley Payne’s "History of Fascism, 1914-1945." It remains to be seen whether Arab hypernationalism will conflate, as was the case in Ataturk’s Turkey, with a form of ethnocentrism that imperils ethnic minorities.

Yet, it should be clear that this hypernationalism is not a liberal movement, as most fascist movements are distinctly illiberal. In fact, one can clearly see in Egypt the demonization of dissenting figures, including Mohamed ElBaradei, who is likely to be prosecuted for resigning from the new government, and Amr Hamzawy, leader of the Egypt of Freedom Party who has been vocal in warning about the new wave of authoritarianism. More important, akin to Islamism and its slogan “Islam is the solution,” hypernationalism seems to offer nothing more than “the nation is the solution.” There is no real policy agenda or strategic vision underpinning this political framework.

Within Egypt and Syria, the intensification of hypernationalism shows no signs of abating, and may even spread to other countries within the region. In the case of the latter, one could argue that it already has. Yet, if history demonstrates anything, it is that Newton’s third law of motion — every force is met with an equal and opposite reaction — is applicable to the Arab world. While in the short term the rise of hypernationalism is likely to result in the emboldening of more violent Islamists, in the long term it could mean that a movement linked neither to takhwin or takfir might begin to take root as a new ideology in the region. 

Taufiq Rahim is a Dubai-based political analyst. He blogs regularly on The Geopolitico. On Twitter: @thegeopolitico

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