Despite Historical Interplay, Islamist Movements Dominate Arabist Perspectives in the Arab Spring

Article Summary
In Egypt, nationalist protest movements seem to be losing ground day by day to their Islamic counterparts due to the latter’s ability to reach out to deeply engrained social values. Mustafa al-Faqi examines the historical relationship between Islamism and Arabism in description of how the Islamist parties have achieved such success as of late.

Experts in Arab and Islamic affairs who have studied the [2011 Arab revolutions’] effects on both the Islamic and nationalist agendas have noticed that the mood of the Arab populace everywhere seems to be dominated by Islamic rather than Arab sentiment. Some might say that Islam is integral to Arab identity, and that Arabism is rather a part of the Islamic community’s makeup. [If one were to] conduct a review of political Islamic theory, it would become clear that in his writings Imam Hassan al-Banna - the founder of the Muslim Brotherhood and its first spiritual leader - believed in the presence of harmony and symmetry between the Islamic and Arab viewpoints. Let us not forget that the vanguards of Egyptian Fedayeen (guerrilla fighters) who joined other armed groups during the first Palestinian war in 1948 included a large contingent of young men belonging to the Muslim Brotherhood.

We should also be conscious of the fact that Muslims around the world view the Palestinian Cause - the preeminent Arab cause - as a distinctly Islamic one. They base their views on on the Palestinian people’s suffering on Islamic concepts clearly espoused by most Muslim states in their formulation and implementation of foreign policies. We shall shed light on this matter with the following propositions:

First:  A historical debate on the symbiotic relationship between Islam and Arabism has existed ever since the following question was posed: Did Islam spread Arabism to countries that were not Arab, leading these countries to accept both Islam and Arabism? Or did Islam carry Arabism - as Arabic is the language of the Qur’an - to countries that had already accepted Islam as their religion but had reservations about adopting Arab culture? This statement points to those Muslim countries that are not Arab, although most of Arab countries have a Muslim majority. This leads us to believe that Islam carried Arabism with it out of the Arab Peninsula and spread it wherever it reached. Because the Prophet was an Arab who spoke Arabic, [Arabism gained influence in those regions who adopted Islam]. However, certain regions - such as Iran - did not accept Arab culture to an extent that it could supplant that country’s original traditions. On the other hand, Arab culture was fully accepted in places such as Egypt.

Second:  Political Islam was born in Egypt when the Muslim Brotherhood was established [in 1928] in the city of Ismailia - a city with a sizeable number of foreigners. Egypt’s exposure to the West, [specifically to the British directly after the fall of the Ottoman empire during World War I], led to a need for an Islamic identity that would replace the Ottoman Caliphate. Therefore the birth of political Islam was but an involuntary reflex of Muslims. [It came about] due to the lack of unifying leadership and the disappearance of the notion of an all-encompassing Muslim or Arab Caliphate following Sharif Hussein’s (the last Emir of Mecca) failure to become King of all Arabs. In my opinion, an analysis of the regional and international political environment at the end of the 1920’s clearly illustrates a concern among Islamist thinkers of the time. In this context, it would serve us well to review Sheikh Ali Abdel Raziq’s famous book Islam and the Foundation of Governance in which he squashed King Fuad’s aspirations of becoming the Caliph of the Muslims. Imam al-Banna’s [the founder of the Muslim Brotherhood] movement then spread like wildfire through Egypt and made its way to neighboring Islamic countries. [His movement was emboldened] by the Egyptian authorities’ campaigns - whether they were led by monarchies or republics - against the Brotherhood’s leadership. The rule of Gamal Abdel Nasser constituted a turning point for the Brotherhood in which it solidifed its ranks and strengthened its bonds with society. It is worth noting here that First Saudi King Abdul-Aziz met with Imam al-Banna during a pilgrimage [to Mecca], and answered the Imam’s call for Islamic rule with an intelligent and eloquent reply. He stated, “we are all brothers and Muslims,” and by doing so early on quelled Imam [al-Banna’s] call for his brand of Islamic rule in Saudi Arabia. To the contrary, Imam Mohammad Ibn Abdul Wahhab’s Salafist brand of Islam had filled the Kingdom’s religious void decades earlier.

Third:  Non-Muslim Arabs have never objected to religious calls, nor have they taken a stance against the Islamist agenda. Proof of this is demonstrated by Michel Aflaq, the Ba’ath Party philosopher, who holds yearly celebrations on the Prophet’s anniversary. Moreover, individuals such as Jurji Zaydan [a prominent Lebanese Christian orthodox writer] enriched Arab libraries with his masterpieces about Muslim history. Arab Christians did not object to Islamic revivalist attempts. Allow me to remind readers that the great Egyptian politician, Makram Ebeid Pasha - a Christian - was the only attendee to Imam Hassan al-Banna’s funeral after his martyrdom. It should also be noted that the relationship between the Copts and the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt has throughout the years never been one of serious conflict. Therefore, when we talk about the dwindling influence of the nationalist agenda in recent years, we should not cast blame on the Islamists alone. We must remember that other overlapping reasons and circumstances led to the demise of the nationalist agenda in recent years, due to international defeats and regional setbacks.

Fourth:  There are two dimensions to the matter of Jerusalem: One is political, and the other is religious. The latter is the one that pulls Islamist forces towards the Palestinian cause. For Jerusalem’s significance is unparalleled among followers of the three heavenly religions, but Muslims in particular make a special link between it and the events that have occurred from 1948, through 1967 all the way to Israel’s aggressive, provocative, expansionist and racially motivated policies. It is therefore our opinion that part of the reason for the clear resurgence of the Islamist agenda emanates from the holy nature and religious dimensions of the Arab-Israeli conflict.

Fifth:  The success of the 1979 Iranian revolution, and its support for the Palestinian Cause and Hezbollah in Lebanon have served to provide Islamic momentum to this cause, which is preeminently Arab. [The Iranian revolution] strengthened the notion that an agreement existed between the Islamist and Arabist movements. It afforded all Muslims - Sunni and Shia - a religious perspective to the Arab-Israeli conflict, and gave the Arab [cause of helping the Palestinians] credence with both Muslims and non-Muslim Arabs. [The Iranians] led the resistance movements until this role was assumed by other parties which have supported an Islamist agenda such as Hezbollah, Hamas and other rising forces on the Arab scene. [These forces] oppose Israel’s occupation and consider it an affront to religious symbolism, an illegal appropriation of property and a denial of religious values and historical facts.

Sixth:  Hamas’ victory in the Palestinian parliamentary elections a few years ago led the general Arab into a new Islamist frame of mind. I cannot forget how the Muslim Brotherhood was delighted by Hamas’ victory in the elections - which made it appear as if it were the Brotherhood’s military wing. International rejection of their electoral victory only bolstered Hamas’ standing, increased its influence and allowed it to become a focal point for all those who support the Islamist agenda. Some pro-American states, which also like to appease Israel, adopted negative relations with Hamas. Similarly, the Egyptian regime was hostile to the movement and wary of its future endeavors, leading some to reckon that it indirectly opposed the Islamist agenda as a whole.

Seventh:  The overall outcome of the Arab Spring seems to favor the Islamists. This suggests that the Arab population has begun to favor its Muslim identity over other aspects of its identity. If you ask an ordinary Egyptian citizen in the street about his or her identity, the answer would likely be “A Muslim from Egypt,” while if you were to ask the same question in Syria, the answer would be “an Arab from Syria.” This clearly reflects the importance of the nationalist agenda in Syria, while in Egypt Islamic aspects of identity hold more weight.

Our aim with these concise propositions has been to demonstrate that the Arab Spring revolutions have led to a new reality that transcends all of the intellectual experiments that have taken place in the Arab world - Socialist, Baathist, Nasserite, Nationalist or Social Unionist. [The Arab Spring] has uncovered a new frame of mind that sees Islam as the only solution [to a country’s woes]. Islamists received the people’s support at the ballot box and in the streets to the point made at the beginning of this article. This point was that the nationalist movements’ have retreated in the face of the Islamists’ ability to mobilize the hearts of a nation in which religious beliefs are strong and powerfully engrained despite all of the superficial ideas to the contrary.

Found in: al-banna, rise of the islamists, religious dimension of israeli conflict, religious, palestinian question, palestinian, muslim brotherhood, muslim, islamism and arabism, islamism, history of islamists, history, competing ideologies in the middle east, arab-israeli conflict, ali abdel raziq

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