French philosopher Jacques D’Hondt once wrote: “Things never stay as they are, because the world is in a constant state of flux.”
People who busy themselves with pedantic arguments never cease to ponder the fact that passion for political wars grows stronger when the wars are fought over doctrinal issues — even if that in itself is misleading — for the belligerents in any doctrinal battleground are first and foremost politicians.
[The French philosopher] Louis Pierre Althusser always warned about the vacillating relationship between politics and thought; for what seems to be an intellectual struggle often times is nothing but a misleading pretense of such.
The intellectual struggle between the Salafists and the Muslim Brotherhood is primarily a political one, even if it appeared to be an intellectual one, with each party entrenching itself behind ideological fortifications while striving to attain very specific political goals. There are many political prizes that free those involved of the need to engage in sterile intellectual debates, and the fruits of the Arab Spring are riper and more politically enticing than in any other possible field.
The lazy approach towards the strategies of stereotypical change are no longer viable; for Salafism — in its traditional Saudi form — is no longer predicated on effecting change from the bottom up, by Islamizing society. And the Muslim Brotherhood, as a group that grew in response to the downfall of the Ottoman Caliphate in 1924, is no longer exclusively bound by the condition of effecting change from the top down, by Islamizing the state.
For the winds of politics are blowing from every intellectual direction and imposing their own conditions, toppling in their path many taboos that were specifically put in place to build the isolationist identity of the Islamist groups and strengthen their organizational capabilities.
The Arab Spring is not the only instigator that caused a democratic discourse to emanate from within a religious discourse.
In his book "Freedom or the Flood: An Objective Study of Religious Political Discourse and Its Historical Phase" (2003), the Kuwaiti Salafist cleric Hashem al-Muteiri, borrowed from Khaled Mohammed Khaled — who reverted from his leftist leanings — to formulate a consensual view between Islam and democracy. He presented an unprecedented Salafist political discourse predicated on the notion of a nation’s right to choose its ruling regime, have a say in its decisions, a right to hold it accountable, depose it, put conditions upon it, monitor it, criticize it, and have the right to freely think and express itself, resist the regime’s tyranny and oppose it, the right to belong to organizations, intellectual and political groups, the need for justice and equality of all society’s members before the courts, and an equal opportunity for all to hold public jobs.
It is true that Muteiri tied these notions with Shariah Law, but the mere fact of accepting the principle of change means that the “practical roots” of the doctrine have changed.
We are no doubt faced with an anachronism. For there is a tremendous schism between modern and traditional constructs, and the Salafist and Brotherhood religious forces’ contrived attempts to keep pace with the conditions of establishing a modern state do not relieve them of their responsibility to seriously and comprehensively reevaluate their intellectual legacy.
The thin shell of the conflict between the ruling regimes of the Gulf Cooperation Council countries and the Muslim Brotherhood cracks to reveal issues that have nothing to do with the public aspects of the dispute and new facts emerge from behind the continuous fear-mongering about the danger posed by the Brotherhood in the Gulf.
Furthermore, the statements issued by Dubai’s police chief, Dhahi Khalfan, about the dangers that the Brotherhood poses to the Gulf states’ regimes add to, instead of alleviate, the mystery surrounding the long term targets associated with exaggerating the Brotherhood’s danger, as there is a competing Salafist giant being politically and hastily groomed to compete against the Brotherhood wherever it may have a presence.
Observers can clearly notice a trend among Salafist groups to “ritualize” politics, and transform them into a sacred rite following long years of them being considered acceptable only out of necessity when believers lives are at stake — just like cannibalism is acceptable in certain cases.
It thus came to follow that latter day Salafist personalities, such as Nasiruddin al-Albani, Ibn Uthaymeen and Ibn Jabreen espoused the principle of engaging in elections and joining the parliaments of countries ruled by non-Muslim secular regimes, in order to prevent corruption and empower believers to occupy offices the powers of which could be used to reform and fix whatever damage was inflicted on the fate of Muslims.
This change was akin to a free pass allowing democratic thought to filter into the Salafist mentality, contrary to [anti]-Salafists literature’s claims that participation’s sole hidden goal is to take over the state.
There is no doubt that the fundamental change in the Salafist mentality that draws it closer to political life is causing real concern for the ruling Saudi family. Simply put, because Salafist politics carry with them very dangerous repercussions that transform them into ready-made substitutes for the rule of the Al-Saud family.
Contrary to the opinion of those who think that the relationship between the Salafist movement and the ruling Saudi regime is aimed at quashing democratic change and confronting Iran and the Muslim Brotherhood, it is necessary to point out that this relationship underwent dramatic transformations that deprived the Saudi regime of a great deal of its capacity to control Salafist organizations.
These transformations started internally, when the second-tier leadership of the Salafist movement broke away after the second Gulf crisis and formed a separate social movement equivalent to the official one. In that movement grew the Jihadi Salafist doctrine which spread side by side and sometimes in total coordination with al-Qaeda. This dangerous transformation put an end to the preset formula that governed the Salafist movement’s relationship with the Saudi ruling family, whereby it stopped being a guaranteed source of legitimacy for the Saudi regime.
The ruling family and other Gulf sheikhdoms are still counting on the Salafist movement to be their source of political and popular legitimacy which would thwart the spread of the Brotherhood’s contagion into the Gulf region, especially considering that the wiser religious elites use the Brotherhood to develop their dynamic and political momentum.
There is no doubt that when the political field becomes tightly controlled, leaving no room for new players, such as in cases of extreme political and ideological polarization, the Saudi ruling family will run out of acceptable options and will be forced to plant Salafist parties wherever there exists competition on the Sunni political scene.
Until now, the Saudi initiative has been limited to transplanting the Salafist al-Nour Party experiment outside Egyptian borders, after having entrenched it there, intellectually and popularly, and thus create a political wing for the “Muhammadiyah Association of Ansar al-Sunna,” which saw the light in Cairo in 1926 with backing from the Saudi government.
Some members of the association went on to become members of the Saudi “Council of Senior Scholars,” such as Sheikh Abdel Razzak Afifi and Abdel Razzak Hamza, while Sheikh Abdel Zaher Abul Samah became the first Imam of the Grand Mosque in Mecca.
The initiative, at its core, is undoubtedly aimed at limiting the Brotherhood’s spread. But the challenges engendered by the Middle East’s revolutionary experiments have transformed this initiative into a mere uncertain adventure; for seeking shelter from the Islamist wave heading towards power entails probabilities of the Salafists catching the same [power seeking] virus as well.
Accepting the democratic game’s rules would allow Salafist parties to not only strive to attain power, but would also encourage local Salafists to use their status of “keepers of the hallowed secret” to become “rulers of the land,” according to the new doctrine espoused by Saudi Salafist hawks, according to which [religious] scholars and not princes should rule.
The Salafist vs. Brotherhood conflict in the coming phase will be at its most intense, compared to the Sunni-Shiite conflict, despite those who are instigating and benefiting from the latter both regionally and internationally.
But the Brotherhood’s ascent to power in countries of the Arab Spring is fueling fears that Gulf sheikhdoms have never had before, especially in Saudi Arabia, because the concerns are existential: power, legitimacy, identity and fate.