The crisis that for three months has been pitting Qatar against a quartet of Arab countries (Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates, Egypt and Bahrain) raised many reactions also among religious scholars and preachers. This is hardly surprising, since one of the reasons for the clash (and perhaps the reason) is the link between Qatar and the Muslim Brotherhood, and therefore a particular interpretation of Islam and its relationship with politics. A swirl of declarations, fatwas and exchanges of accusations has occurred. But it has also inspired broader reflection.
A case in point is an article that appeared June 22, on the online newspaper Arabi21, by Soumaya Ghannoushi, an Anglo-Tunisian intellectual and daughter of Rashid Ghannoushi, the Islamist theorist and political leader who, with uncertain results, is guiding the Tunisian party Ennahda from political Islam to “Muslim Democracy”. According to Soumaya Ghannoushi, the current crisis should urge Islamic movements like the Muslim Brotherhood to free themselves from the ideological influence of Wahhabism, which is the real responsible for the violent and sectarian drifts of Islam.
Ghannoushi refers to a phenomenon born in the second half of the twentieth century when, in order to escape the repression of socialist and nationalist regimes, many Muslim Brotherhood militants (and not just from Egypt), fled to the Gulf countries and especially to Saudi Arabia. One of the outcomes of this migration was a process of cultural and religious hybridization between the Brotherhood’s ideas, such as Islam’s all-encompassing character and its ambition to establish a particular political order, and the Salafi doctrines, focusing on the scriptures’ literal interpretation and the imitation of the first generations of Muslims. Political Islam assimilated the Salafi rigorism, while some currents of the Salafi constellation assimilated the Muslim Brothers’ political activism. It is from this convergence that movements such as the Sahwa Islamiyya (Islamic Awakening) and Salafi-Jihadist groups such as al-Qaida and Isis were born.
The partnership between Saudi Arabia and the movements of political Islam ended during the Second Gulf War (1990-1991), when Riyadh allowed the American troops to station on the Kingdom’s land in order to free Kuwait from the Iraqi occupation. The decision was endorsed by the Saudi religious establishment in the name of the principle of the lesser evil, but it was considered a sacrilegious decision by many Islamists who started to challenge the legitimacy of the Saudi monarchy.
From that moment on, Muslim Brotherhood stopped being allied to the Saudis, and, as Soumaya Ghannoushi claims, they became more and more their new “obsession”. According to the Anglo-Tunisian scholar, the end of this political alliance should also mark the end of the ideological union between Islamism and Wahhabism. This difficult but healthy process would allow Islamist movements to dissociate themselves from the Salafist violence and rediscover their roots in the Islamic reformism of the period between the nineteenth and twentieth centuries and in the thought of its great protagonists: Jamal al-Din al-Afghani, Muhammad ‘Abduh and Rashid Rida.
The thesis of a reformist genealogy of Islamism has a solid historical ground. However, Ghannoushi’s reconstruction ignores at least two important elements. First, the encounter between reformism and Wahhabism actually happened before the exile of the Muslim Brothers in the Gulf countries. In the 1920s, it was precisely the reformist Rashid Rida who published Wahhabi literature in his influential magazine al-Manar, thus contributing to making it known throughout the Muslim world and accrediting it as the new Sunni orthodoxy. Secondly, unlike Wahhabism, which developed from a re-reading of some medieval theologians, Islamist movements had to deal with modern institutions and thought since their very origin; however, this is not enough to exonerate them from the violence that in recent decades has accompanied the various projects aimed at establishing an Islamic order. In this regard it is emblematic what al-Afghani and ‘Abduh wrote in the 1880s in their magazine al-‘Urwa al-Wuthqa (“The Firmest Bond”): “Islamic religion is based on the search for domination, strength, conquest, honor, and on the rejection of any law that conflicts with its shari‘a and any power that does not apply its norms. Those who look at the sources of such religion and read a sura of its revealed Book will conclude without hesitation that its faithful should be militarily second to none. They should outdo all nations in the invention of war machines and excel in warfare”. Such judgment is definitely affected by the confrontation with colonial Europe. However, it introduces a theology of power and a hegemonic vocation that, regardless of Wahhabi influence, will deeply mark the Islamist ideology and projects.
Faced with the political and religious crisis of the contemporary Arab-Muslim world, not a few intellectuals and observers, even Westerners, are invoking a return to the reformist spirit of Islam of the late nineteenth to early twentieth century. But that era is probably more a bundle of unresolved issues than the source of possible solutions.