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Political Islam And The Next Oil War

Politics / Middle East Aug 19, 2013 - 08:50 AM GMT

By: Andrew_McKillop


PIMCO's Mohamed El-Erian, interviewed by Bloomberg  August 15,  speaking from deep knowledge and sympathy for Egypt likely felt obliged to give a positive turn to his view of events. He said "It is very important for people inside Egypt to step up. This is not a situation where people from the outside can come in, whether they are people who were living in Egypt at one time, or whether it is foreigners. This is a situation where the Egyptians have to find a way to get over what is a very tragic, dangerous, and sad situation".  In fact this situation has a tortured pedigree of the state-versus-religion stretching at least 1100 years back in time, but we can start with the the 2011 National Assembly (parliament) elections in Egypt – the first elections in more than 30 years, or longer.

The Salafists or Salafis proved to be the ‘dark horse’ of that poll, winning 25% of the seats.  Together with the Muslim Brotherhood’s 47%, this gave Islamic movements, transformed into political parties  almost three quarters of all seats in the Assembly. To the extent that Muslim Brotherhood members are now focused by Egypt's media and its transitional army-led government as a danger to the nation and repressed, but the Salafists are presently not, this might be called a victory for them. Under President Mubarak they were privileged as a bulwark against the Muslim Brotherhood — in no way limiting Salafist ability to promote or foment religious violence, for example against Christians and Shia either inside or outside Egypt.

Understanding why Salafists, for the moment, flourish below the radar for public vindictiveness extending unfortunately and already to mass killings in Egypt throws up the real dangers of the Egyptian situation – and the situation in other post-Arab Spring societies. I

n the case of the Salafists they can appear politically disengaged, even obscure or innocuous, and separate from daily reality. In several Arab countries until 2011 their leaders explicitly instructed their followers not to participate in democratic elections. Basically, Salafism is not so much an organization as a religious philosophy and worldview, and can very easily be compared with the Muslim Brotherhood.  Salafi Muslims may identify with one or another of the schools of Islamic law, but their ideology is not to stray from the practices of the first generations following Mahomet. They delight in rejecting ‘innovation’.

Although there is extensive ideological hairsplitting on  the subject,  Abd Al-Wahab's 18th century teachings on the need to respect only and explicitly early Islam became the dominant form of Islam in Saudi Arabia - and the central meaning of Salafism.  Al-Wahab attacked what he called moral decline in the Arabian Peninsula and condemned what he perceived as idolatry, the cult of saints, shrine and tomb visiting, and proclaimed that his movement adhere to the “correct understanding” of general Islamic doctrine.

For al-Wahab, innovation is the  “curse of Allah and His angels” and the term 'innovation' was defined by al-Wahab and his followers as including all concepts associated with western thought, whether they concern economics, education, ethics and morals - or politics. Next to this, the Muslim Brotherhood's much later and more modern, sometimes western-influenced set of political and social beliefs could seem “evolved”. Started as a religious social organization in 1928 by its Egyptian founder Hassan al-Banna it preached Islam, as well as educating the illiterate, setting up hospitals and playing a role in the economy, even launching commercial enterprises. However, from as early as the 1930s its  tracts stated that “Jihad is our way and death for the sake of Allah is the highest of our aspirations”.  Al-Wahab and before him Ibn Hanbal on many occasions proclaimed the same thing.

 Helping explain why Saudi Arabia and other Sunni-minority ruled Gulf States – except Qatar – are ferociously hostile to the Muslim Brotherhood, and also why Salafists and the Brotherhood share essentially the same goals, al-Banna was influenced by Islamic reformers extending from Sufis to Salafists. Nevertheless, al-Banna believed that the Coran and the Sunnah constitute the perfect blueprint for social and political organization. Like the Salafists, he said that Islamic governments must be based only on this system and unified in a World Caliphate that would express Islam's manifest destiny as an empire stretching from Spain to Indonesia.

There is therefore a large degree of irony in the Salafist rejection of the Brotherhood as an “innovative organization” which includes a certain dose of Western political concepts – such as 1920s-vintage British Fabian socialism- but at least as decisive in the Salafist rejection of the Brotherhood was al-Banna's willingness to take account of the Shia philosophy, Sufism. As we know the Salafists in particular, and Sunni ideologues in general reject all Shia belief. Making the situation in Egypt and any other Muslim country post-Arab Spring both complex and dangerous, the multiple splits of Islamic ideology are in fact traceable to the foundations of ancient Greek philosophy, about 600 BC. That is 2600 years ago.

Al-Wahab, for example, merely intensified the anti-western stance of Ibn Hanbal in the 9th century, who rejected the whole corpus or body of ancient Greek philosophy. This was split into neo-Platonians and neo-Aristotelians in the Arabian Peninsula of the 6th century, when Islam emerged. As in modern Judaism and especially Christianity, Islamic religious ideologists freely plagiarized ancient Greek philosophy, then engaged in the 'need to deny'. Throwing the baby out with the bathwater, Islamic ideologists of the “hermetic”, literary or narrow path such as Ibn Hanbal and Al-Wahab claimed that ancient Greek philosophy “led to confusion”, by offering a multitude of meanings that can be contradicted and opposed, disputed and defended. In other words, they can be debated and discussed, which is the real meaning of philosophy – and democracy.

For many, the Muslim Brotherhood is an example of Political Islam, while Salafism could be called Islamic ideology. This is unfortunate, due to neither being “political Islam”.

To the extent that any one Father of Political Islam can be identified, many historians agree this would be  “Hibat Allah” ibn Malk abul-Barakat al-Baghdadi (died about 1193), a convertee
from Judaism to Islam at the late age of about 60 years. This philosopher, based in Baghdad as his name indicates is sometimes called an islamic Thomas Aquinas. The problem is that his philosophical stance has almost nothing to do with what we call 'politics', especially today in western society.

His stance was closer to Confucianism or to the schools of Shia Sufi mysticism initiated by Abu
Yazid Bastami (9thC), than anything 'political' of today, but nonetheless Hibat Allah (Gift of God) surely knew how to criticise Baghdadi politicians of his day. These orators were well supported by the already growing schools of sunni fundamentalism founded by Ibn Hanbal, whose own orators were skilled in winning round big audiences using tricks handed down by Greek orators including sophistry, rhetoric, dogmatism and other wordspin. Hibat Allah's criticism of their demagogy earned him many admirers - and bitter political foes. His basic claim was that doctrinal Islam based on strict literary and fundamentalist interpretation of the Coran was a repressive philosophy due to  successive layers or phases of written learning, and transmission of this written learning destroying or degenerating the bases of “traditional wisdom”. For him, politics can only concern traditional wisdom.

As already noted, “political islam” to most persons, certainly our editorial and media directors of today, means Salafism, the Muslim Brotherhood, jihad and terror.  Even inside Muslim countries, “political islam” has a bad reputation linked with fundamentalism, and helps explain why the political process in post-Arab Spring societies is a rocky road strewn with both the modern and traditional meanings of the term 'political' in what are religious, sectarian, ethnic, national and community-based movements, values and conflicts rejecting dialogue, discussion and debate.

For external players, the main focus of what comes out of Arab Spring is “political economy” and this concern usually relegates all other components far behind, or simply ignores them. It can therefore not be a surprise when a country such as Iraq, post-2003, has never recovered the trappings of a unified state or nation, but is split into sectarian Sunni-Shia and nationalist-Kurd conflicts. There is no possibility of a Unified Iraq, today.  Unfortunately for outside interests, which are massively concerned by oil production and supply from the Middle East and North Africa, what can be called political economy inside Political Islam is unrelated to subjects such oil resource ownership, depletion worries, production issues and so on. What are vital interests to outsiders are almost irrelevant to political Islam.

Egypt today is basically living out a massive crisis of this type – which we could call a crisis of Political Islam using its definition by Hibat Allah more than 800 years ago.

Hibat Allah said that political Islam has to be concerned with content – not method.  Insofar as Baghdadi politics of the 12th century can be compared with politics today, it was like modern politics a method of “winning debates” and buying influence. For Hibat Allah who was several times nearly assassinated, the role of “mainstream politics” in whipping up passions and conflict was only another method to deflect attention from its lack of content.  As we know, politics in western society, today, has a degraded image due to the total victory of method and the destruction of content.

What is important in post-Arab Spring countries of today, is that the method of today's western-style politics will not pass due to it being so evidently free of content and false – resulting in a massive kneejerk return to traditional religious movements, calling themselves “political parties”, such as the Salafists and Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt. This can only and will only be the recipe for conflict as we are unfortunately seeing every day in Egypt and other post-Arab Spring societies.

To the extent that civil war is “the only logical result” outside interests cannot be dismayed when the only vital interest they have in the region – oil and gas – become collateral victims in a extremely longstanding but never-resolved philosophical and ideological crisis. Another non-surprise is that “democracy does not work” in post-Arab Spring countries, due to the false politicization of Islam that Hibat Allah criticized - making the re-emergence of either military or religious dictatorships the most logical outcome.

What we can call “traditional political Islam” was an Asian-influenced and ancient Greek-influenced doctrine, oriented to personal fulfilment by the destruction of the ego. Without this essentially
pan-Asian wisdom, incorporated in Hindu, Buddhist, Confucian, and other Asian religions and
philosophy, and very certainly a part of much ancient Greek philosophy, no society can remain
stable, nor adjust to changing circumstances, claimed Hibat Allah. Even in the 12th century his followers were castigated by the literary fundamentalist hanbalites and salafists, and later by the 18thC Saudi wahabites because of the argument that no written body of teachings, including the Holy Book of the Coran, could guide persons who had lost all contact with their roots.

Without a “polity” where individuals can listen to and understand honest political debate  even the much vaunted claim of the Islamic religious movements, now calling themselves political parties, that they are “defending tradition” has no meaning. Without traditional roots, there can be no
knowledge of what 'tradition' might mean. Losing contact with tradition - the followers of Hibat
Allah and many chi'ite mystic philosophers claimed - the devil of the human ego would take total
control. This is what we have today, along with massive and indiscriminate killings.

So-called political islam of today, a set of political parties described by western media and observers
as 'islamist parties', are usually dominated by fundamentalist Islam. In their view, the external world's oil and gas need is oil and gas greed – motivated by pure foolish egoism. Strict Islam is presented as the antidote to, and bulwark against this egoism – through the claimed tradition of the Sunnah, also explaining why Sunni parties and movements are always and finally the most extreme.

The weakness of this supposed rock-solid ideology is shown by the fact that “tradition” and its its origins must be accepted by all parties and respected by all parties, but only a moment's
reflexion is needed to prove that what is 'tradition' today, was surely 'innovation' at some stage in
the past. No tradition emerges with an instant-but-ancient pedigree. Even 800 years ago it was possible for clear-sighted Islamic philosophers to say that we have no choice but restrict our definitions of 'tradition' to easily verified concepts - not necessarily given a complete explanation in written sacred texts like the Coran, which only provide 'truth for debating purposes only'.

Egypt has already moved far down in the road to massive and somber civil war outrages in the space of one week. The 'tradition of the clerics' or the ideologists supposedly defending Islamic tradition has no solutions to this drift, because it is is intrinsically anti-democratic. As we know, traditionalists maintain and intensify the schism between sunnites and shia, with sure and certain real world atrocities on the ground – and this is called 'political Islam'. In the now two-year Syrian civil war which has already claimed about 200 000 lives,  oil and gas facilities and infrastructures have on occasions been targeted for 'resource denial' of opposing factions and groups, heavily infiltrated by 'political Islam' in many cases. However, because the role of political economy – as already noted – is not important in these tradition-based conflicts this damage can be treated as a 'collateral risk'.

Although difficult to understand for some Westerners and Asians, the so-called defence of religious tradition as operated by the Sunni extremists in general, and by Wahabi and Salafists in particular is a defence of literary tradition. This extends to a far more serious religious and doctrinal charge. Bible or Coran worship - to the extent it rejects a believer's personal duty to link with god – is exactly what Wahabi and Salafists say they are opposing. Tashbih or anthropomorphism. The counterclaim by fundamentalists is they are above all struggling against tatil or agnosticism.

The sunni minority regimes controlling the Petromonarchies of the Gulf claim they cannot accept democracy because they are defending tradition, by barring the route to political power by agnostic shia and their political parties or movements. Democracy, for these hereditary monarch is a form of agnosticism because it confers power on groups of human beings, rather than princes with a 'close and personal' link to god. These arguments might appear persuasive when they have enough petrodollars behind them but refusal to treat them as what they are - anti-democratic, totalitarian or fascistic – makes it no surprise at all that the West has no remaining power, no remaining influence in the emerging Pan Arab Civil War and must accept that collateral damage to oil and gas production and export capacities is very likely.

By Andrew McKillop


Former chief policy analyst, Division A Policy, DG XVII Energy, European Commission. Andrew McKillop Biographic Highlights

Co-author 'The Doomsday Machine', Palgrave Macmillan USA, 2012

Andrew McKillop has more than 30 years experience in the energy, economic and finance domains. Trained at London UK’s University College, he has had specially long experience of energy policy, project administration and the development and financing of alternate energy. This included his role of in-house Expert on Policy and Programming at the DG XVII-Energy of the European Commission, Director of Information of the OAPEC technology transfer subsidiary, AREC and researcher for UN agencies including the ILO.

© 2013 Copyright Andrew McKillop - All Rights Reserved Disclaimer: The above is a matter of opinion provided for general information purposes only and is not intended as investment advice. Information and analysis above are derived from sources and utilising methods believed to be reliable, but we cannot accept responsibility for any losses you may incur as a result of this analysis. Individuals should consult with their personal financial advisor.

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