Vicious cycle of radicalisation — Konrad-Adenauer-Stiftung de which says political Islam has lost power almost everywhere, and its radical and violent manifestations prevail

By Thomas Birringer

The Muslim Brotherhood and ideologically related groups in North Africa initially emerged as winners from the Arab Spring. By now, political Islam has lost power almost everywhere, and its radical and violent manifestations prevail. One reason is the failure to tackle the people’s problems. The other one is a vicious cycle of repression by the authoritarian regimes, who are back in power, on the one hand and sectarian-based radicalisation on the other hand.


“The Arab Spring will be followed by the Islamists.” That was the headline of an article by Boualem Sansal, the Algerian writer and winner of the Peace Prize of the German Book Trade, in the German daily newspaper Die Welt in February 2013. At that time, more than two years after the start of the Arab Spring, political Islam was at its zenith. It was the big winner of the upheavals in the Arab world: Egypt had a Muslim Brotherhood president, Mo­hamed Morsi, Tunisia’s constituent assembly was domi­nated by the ideologically kindred Ennahda Party, and Morocco had – and still has – a moderate Islamist prime minister, Abdelilah Benkirane of the PJD.

Opposition to that development was signally led by Saudi Arabia, where a different form of political Islam is dominant: Wahhabism, a branch of Sunni Islam which is linked with the House of Saud since the 18th century. Wahhabism gave rise to modern Salafism. Salafists advocate a return to the values and social structures that existed in the earliest days of Islam. While Salafism places doctrine first, the Muslim Brotherhood was formed in 1920s Egypt as a political and social movement. The return to Islamic values was a means to an end, and the end was liberation from colonial hegemony. That harnessing of Islam to a social agenda and anti-Western politics is still inherent to the movement today.

The Muslim Brotherhood and Salafism share a simi­lar ideology. Nonetheless, the Muslim Brotherhood opposes the form of government that exists in Saudi Arabia and most of the Gulf States, with their conspicuous wealth and alliance with the West. So the rulers of those countries saw the developments of the Arab Spring as an existential threat. The attempt by Saudi Arabia and some of its neighbours to turn back the tide should therefore not be seen as a fight against political Islam but as an ideological clash within political Islam: Wahhabists/Salafists versus Muslim Brotherhood.

One country in the Gulf stepped out of line. Although itself a Wahhabi society, Qatar lent backing to the Muslim Brotherhood across the Arab world, granted its leaders asylum and provided media support through TV broadcaster Al-Jazeera. As Emir of a small country of only 300,000 people, overshadowed by neighbours Saudi Arabia and Iran, Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al-Thani adopted that policy in order to make clients of the most likely winners and thus secure Qatar prosperity and independence.

Besides Qatar, Turkey also sought to boost its status as a player in the region in the wake of political Islam’s success. The ruling AKP and its leader, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, also made no secret of their sympathies for the Muslim Brotherhood. The “zero problems with neighbours” policy devised by former foreign minister and current prime minister Ahmet Davutoglu provided the theoretical and operative framework: Relations with the Arab world, in particular, should be intensified and Turkey’s role as an independent regional power thus established.


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