These two rival political ideologies dominated the Arab World throughout the last century. Despite their great popularity, neither has been able to provide an adequate response to the challenges of modernity

Last update: 2022-04-22 10:03:35

Syria has almost ceased to exist as a nation state, and what happened there after 2011 is the very expression of the clash between two rival ideologies that have been in conflict since the 1960s. These two ideologies were born in the middle of the nineteenth century in the face of European domination, which they each fought against in different ways. The first one wanted to adopt the European nation-state formula, along with its administrative institutions: it was developed by the urban elites who also sought to reconnect—to a certain extent—with their cultural and religious heritage. Beginning with Mohammad Ali Pasha’s reforms and the ideas of Rifaa al-Tahtawi, this ideology led to the establishment of the first nationalist party in Egypt during the last third of the nineteenth century. Although nascent Arab nationalism never broke with Islam, which it used as a means of mobilising crowds, it was nourished by European thought, particularly the German idealism of Herder and Fichte.


The rival current of thought was supported by the traditional sectors attached to Islam, who originally hoped for the return of the Caliphate to avoid the breaking up of the Muslim umma into different foreign nations. At the root of this platform was the idea that Muslim societies had become weaker because they had drifted away from true Islam. The solution, therefore, was to return to the Islam of the ancestors (salaf) and to Sharia law. It is important to remember that these two movements originated with the Nahda, whose most prominent figure was Sheikh Muhammad ‘Abduh (1849-1905).


The nationalists retained Muhammad ‘Abduh’s legitimisation of the European nation-state concept and its institutions, while the culturalists, later called Islamists, emphasised his defence of Islam. Nationalists and culturalists were not in total disagreement regarding the role of religion in the public arena. For the former, politics must take precedence to restore the greatness of Islam; for the latter, religion takes precedence to defend the authenticity upon which the state must be built. Both currents contributed to the ideological struggle that led to the independence of the colonised or under protectorate Arab countries. Nationalists were more effective in the struggle against colonial domination, insofar as they mastered the modern political grammar and had a sense of international power relations. This explains why it was the nationalists who ruled the independent state.[1] But after the failed promises of postcolonial regimes a few decades later, Islamists challenged the nationalists, proposing to free the nation from Western cultural influence. If they defied the nationalists, it was because these regimes, born out of independence movements and led by a military-civil elite, had lost credibility in the eyes of the popular masses because they were unable to fulfil their promises, develop the economy, and modernise society. This failure can be attributed to the ideological limits of Arab nationalism.


The Ideological Limits of Arab Nationalism


Why did authoritarian nationalist regimes fail to develop the economy and modernise culture though enjoying great popularity? Lack of financial resources is not an adequate explanation for oil-producing countries like Iraq and Algeria. The answer to this question is that the nationalist leaders and intellectuals did not understand what the modernity that they promised to their people consisted of. Analysis of ideological texts by Sāti‘ al-Husrī and Michel ‘Aflaq, as well as speeches by Nasser, Assad, Saddam, Boumediene, etc., indicates a voluntarism that prevented reflection on the factors that had given Europe its power.


For them, this power was reduced to its economic and military aspects: therefore, they thought that importing factories and buying arms would be sufficient to catch up. What they overlooked was the very fabric of modernity, whereby civil society creates the market and regulatory state. The matrix of Western modernity is civil society, which is organised economically as a market and politically as the rule of law. The history of Europe shows that societies create wealth and economic development. The state either supports this process or stifles it. Arab leaders were not aware of this: their hostility to civil society and the market prevented economic development. They rejected the market economy in order to prevent economic and trade union power from emerging that could have limited the executive branch’s actions. This authoritarian tendency sought to subordinate all social powers, including religion, to executive power, which derived its legitimacy from the army. The socialist discourse was only rhetoric, a strategy to ideologically justify its officially anti-capitalist policies. What was really at stake was the military’s political power, which they wanted to protect from any counter-power. To this end, there was no question of electoral competition, nor of judicial autonomy. The system functioned as a pre-capitalist formation, reminiscent of Karl Marx’s “hydraulic society”. Sustained economically by the revenue derived from the export of hydrocarbons and other forms of external income, such as the remittances of emigrant workers, the regime ignored the social actors upon whom it imposed paternalistic and authoritarian relations.


But a pre-capitalist rentier system, operating in a globalised economic environment, will inevitably be subject to unbearable financial pressures. This system did not have the autonomy that was granted to local societies in the Middle Ages. Egypt, Algeria, and Iraq were inserted into a world economy that is regulated by an international price system, which had repercussions on local market prices. The price of a quintal of wheat or a tonne of steel is the same in Cairo and New York, beyond the currency parities of the exchange. In order to make themselves independent of the international price system, Arab regimes have had to subsidise everyday consumer goods. After two or three decades, these subsidies have become a heavy burden on the state budget, and in the long run have eroded the purchasing power of consumers.


The West has imposed a model of economic accumulation on the rest of the world that is characterised by a political-economic structure in which state power is public and market activity is private. The only exception is China, a country whose leaders did not gain their power from the ballot boxes. But China has encouraged the development of a private sector whose production was originally export-oriented. The contradiction that has undermined Arab republican regimes is that they have privatised what is public by vocation (state power) and made public what is private by nature (market activity).


From the 1970s and onwards, Arab regimes attempted to overcome this contradiction by liberalising the economy, abandoning the state monopoly on foreign trade (the so-called “infitāh” policy). But this liberalisation did not create a production-linked business community, as it did in China; it created a business-oriented bourgeoisie that accumulated monetary wealth on the basis of speculation and services. This unleashed a dynamic of widespread corruption that would eventually render the regimes even more unpopular and strengthen the Islamist opposition. The latter, taking the moral high ground, would denounce the ruling class accused of encouraging corruption and widening the gap between rich and poor.


The Rise and Fall of Islamist Protest


There is an extensive literature on Islamism, some of which has focused on its manifestation outside of Muslim societies. Without underestimating its impact as an actor on the international scene, it must be placed within its historical context, which is that of Muslim societies in the process of secularisation. Islamism is a form of resistance to secularisation, or at least an attempt to negotiate the role of religion in a public sphere under construction. It is a long-term phenomenon, requiring a certain amount of time for societal mindsets to adapt to a disenchanted world where religious institutions and saints no longer have the power to influence the course of events. Muslim societies are not moving towards a godless world; rather, they are heading towards a world where God is no longer the public figure who says what to do and what not to do in daily life. That said, Islamism is both a utopia and a political ideology.


The utopia consists of wanting to create a world where social constraints and individual selfishness do not exist. It supposes that everyone would live in happiness if the abundant riches provided by nature—thanks to God—were better distributed and if people became good. Utopia is in search of the ideal society, where all people are equal and perfect. In the past, the Sufis withdrew from the world in search of this ideal. The perfect man could not live in society because it was too imperfect. Instead, he withdrew to the ribāt, the fortress monastery, so that society would not hinder his journey to God. Sufism declined for historical and sociological reasons, but the utopia it embodied was picked up by Islamism, which secularised it, paradoxically. Islamism did not advocate for withdrawal from society; on the contrary, it pushed to invest in society so as to change it, to make it the site of Sharia law morality. The object is to transform society into a community of brothers and sisters, where individual selfishness has no place. This utopia attracted large crowds to Islamism, who dreamed of a better world and enabled it to transform itself into an ideology capable of popular mobilisation.


Islamism is also a politico-cultural reaction to Western domination. Its elaboration as an ideological project goes back to the Nahda and to Rashīd Ridā, who is considered a legitimate disciple of Muhammad Abduh. One of Ridā’s students, Hasan al-Bannā, founded the Muslim Brotherhood organisation in Egypt in 1928. His motto was to re-establish the caliphate that had just been abolished by Mustafa Kemal in Turkey in 1924. Hasan al-Bannā was more of a militant activist than an ideologue, and he did not leave behind a body of work that could form the ideology of the movement. This was to be further developed by the Pakistani Abū al-A‘lā al-Mawdūdī (1906-1979) and the Egyptian Sayyid Qutb (1906-1966).


These two authors commented on the Qur’an and turned it into an ideological weapon against non-Muslims, especially against those they called Judeo-Christians, but also what Qutb termed “sociological Muslims,” i.e., Muslims who do not show zeal for their faith. For these two authors, colonial and neo-colonial domination was a continuation of the Medieval Crusades, which aimed to destroy Islam. Therefore, the alleged motive for the conflict between the two shores of the Mediterranean was mainly religious. In the 1970s and the 1980s, their books were read by young people who benefited from mass schooling after independence. Their writings were easy to read because they did not contain the erudition of theologians. Neither Mawdūdī nor Qutb had a background in Islamic religious studies: one was a journalist and the other a professor of literature.


Islamism developed on university campuses due to the intellectual desert that appeared there after independence. In Egypt, Syria, and Algeria, the military banned intellectual debate that could have limited the influence of Islamists. Before Colonel Nasser came to power, there was a high level of cultural and artistic activity in Egypt, concentrated in Cairo and Alexandria. Cairo was the capital of the Arab world in terms of academics, literature, music, theatre, and film. The Egyptian military did not tolerate the freedom of expression that reigned in this environment; under the pretext of combating social inequality, they levelled society to the ground. And so, the military created a situation in which an individual who memorises a few verses of the Qur’an becomes an intellectual authority in his neighbourhood.   


Islamism is a contradictory product of modernity: it is modern to the extent that it brings the popular masses into the political field, but it contradicts this modernity by refusing the notion of human sovereignty and proclaiming that the law is divine. By refusing to recognise that society is the source of law and power, Islamism has condemned itself to be an intellectually poor ideology. It is this intellectual poverty that prevented Islamists from taking power (with the exception of Iran) even when they had a lot of popular support. They have not been able to shape categories for understanding historical reality and thus influence it. Their discourses are composed of fragments of reality mixed with religious myths. But within Islamism there are also different generations who have had different experiences. Since the mid-1990s, there has been an effort to develop an Islamist thought that can overcome the intellectual poverty of the 1960s. Currents such as al-Wasat in Egypt, Tunisia’s Ennahda party, and the movement Rashād in Algeria want to make Islam compatible with freedom of conscience and gender equality. To do so, they deconstruct what their predecessors wrote, a trend that scholars have called “post-Islamism.” But more generally, dissatisfaction with the official theological discourse is being articulated, even by theologians. Criticism of Al-Ghazāli, Ibn Taymiyya, and Muhammad Ibn ‘Abd al-Wahhāb, unthinkable some time ago, is now freely expressed in universities and on the pages of mass circulation newspapers. The Muslim world is on the cusp of theological debates likely to lead to a challenge of the official readings inherited from the Middle Ages. 


*This text summarises the contents of the book, Radical Arab Nationalism and Political Islam, Georgetown University Press, Washington, D.C., 2017. 

The opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the position of the Oasis International Foundation

[1] This article only focuses on republics lead by nationalists who emerged from the anti-colonial struggle. Although they are national in character, monarchies did not emerge from the anti-colonial struggle. On the contrary, monarchies were favoured by the European powers, who played on tribal rivalries in the region in order to establish allied regimes under protectorates.