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Geopolitics And Islam In The MENA

Politics / Religion Sep 02, 2013 - 05:01 PM GMT

By: Andrew_McKillop

Politics

ROOT CONFLICT OF IDEOLOGY
As I reported in a previous article ('Political Islam and the Next Oil War') political Islam and Pan Arab nationalism are either the uppermost fears or seen as lurking threats by the great powers, or so-called great powers, and by their regional imitators setting out to “redesign the landscape” in the Middle East and North Africa. Islamism or political Islam, like Pan Arab nationalism and Arab socialism in the 1950s and 1960s generate the fear of violent political movements sweeping away previous nations and frontiers, and with them the “liberal economy”. In fact these threats have more spin than substance and oppose each other. Conversely the real threats are ignored.


Since the events of 9/11 and the “war on terror”, discussion on relations between Islam and the West is mainly based on Arabist and Orientalist clichés, notably the idea that the West is again at war with Islam. The underlying logic is that the West is secular, democratic and free market, while Muslim countries are hobbled and mired in the backwardness born from slavish adherence to Islam. Reinforced by paternalist Great Power memories of tracing borders and building nations in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA), these notions and fears still influence the regional geopolitical perception and strategy of the United States, France, the UK and other Western countries.

These notions draw sustenance from books like 'The Clash of Civilizations' (Samuel Huntington). One of the biggest errors made by today's crop of Western leaders is their belief that the rise of “radical Islamist” organizations is unstoppable and is the natural outgrowth of Islam. This ignores literally centuries of de facto separation between religion and politics in Muslim majority societies. Certainly for the last 200 years – until the last few decades - the dominant trend in what is called the “Muslim world” was toward secularization. Also ignored, “radical Islam” has been heavily promoted by the West and may never have achieved its present power without Western intervention and support.

The lurch toward what is called political Islam or radical Islam since the 1970s and 1980s is the special product of possibly unique economic and political conditions – the rise of oil prices and oil revenues, the Afghan war and Iranian revolution, and the nearly five fold multiplication of MENA regional population since 1945. Also neglected, the recent trend of “radical Islam” is not just comparable with, but the same thing as religious fundamentalism and its political outgrowth in countries as varied as the US, India, Israel and even Buddhist-majority states like Sri Lanka. In each case, right wing and far-right wing xenophobic and radical extremist politics and policies proliferate. The process is only more advanced, violent and dangerous in the MENA.

THE SORCEROR'S APPRENTICES
It is easy to defend the thesis of a near cause-and-effect of US aid and support, and the growth of Islamic militant or “djihadist” movements, notably led by Osama bin Laden in the Afghan war against the USSR of the 1980s. The active role played by the US and allies such as the UK in posing Islam and political Islam as a counterweight to secular nationalism in Afghanistan was very clear. In Afghanistan before the Soviet invasion of 1979, as in other MENA countries there had been a decline of secular nationalism and falling support to a range of its mostly left wing secular parties. With the Soviet occupation, this created an ideological vacuum the Taliban Islamists were able to occupy and exploit.

In the Arab Spring sequence of street revolts against local strongmen since 2011, national economic crises exacerbated by neoliberalism opened the door for Islamists and their community support and charitable networks. In well known examples such as Hezbollah and Hamas, what is called “Islamism”, or “Islamic fundamentalism” or “political Islam” are interchangeable terms. The action by these groups is based on a reinterpretation of Islam to serve particular political goals, notably separatist or anti-state goals as well as completely conventional economic goals. Also, these movements necessarily include a militarist facet, shown by often large organized and well-armed militias.

Bernard Lewis, in a famous essay titled “The Roots of Muslim Rage” published in the wake of 9/11 sets out the elite-favoured argument that historic separation of religion and politics in Christianity occurred several centuries ago, but no such separation has occurred in Muslim societies. Apart from the extreme bloodshed due to “wars of religion” in Europe, especially in the period of about 1300-1500, the argument by Lewis is that Muslim societies experienced no equivalent of the Enlightenment, scientific progress, philosophical development, and so on, which for Lewis “militated against Christian dogma”. He goes on to argue that while Muslims were formerly admirative of the West, this has turned into hostility and rejection of the so-called  Judeo-Christian heritage of the West.

This argument is given world scale geopolitical extension, notably by Samuel Huntington as a clash between the still-religious East and the increasingly secular West where the separation of Church and State was “inevitable”. Conversely Muslim societies are unable to tolerate “non-religious society”.
Huntington's by-line is that “the underlying problem for the West is not Islamic fundamentalism. It is Islam, a different civilization whose people are convinced of the superiority of their culture, and are obsessed with the inferiority of their power”.

The historical process by which the power of the Church was pushed back or contained, in Europe, itself provides us with a somber warning of what may come next in the MENA, as Arab Spring morphs to Arab Winter. By the 12th century, the papacy sought to unite Europe under the banner of Roman Christianity, and unleashed the 200-year-long Crusades as a tool for unification “in the name of God”. This was a totally political act – and failed. Some of the bloodier Crusades killed at least 500 000 persons. Corrected for then-and-now population numbers this would represent millions dying today.

This underlines the simple fact that any religion can be used for political purposes – as is starkly clear in the “Islamic insurgency” of today in the MENA. It also underlines that any dominant religion can be transformed in various ways to adapt to and serve the goals of political deciders in the societies where the religion is practiced.

SECULARIZATION
The goals and motivation of Mahomet surely included the creation of a tribal confederation united by a common religion better able to pursue commercial trading activities along the Mecca-Damascus trade route.  As we know, Mahomet's political and religious authority was unquestioned in his lifetime but after his death there were long and internecine conflicts over his succession – the fourth caliph or imam, Ali, was killed by Hussein who claimed the caliphate. His followers became the Sunni while followers of Ali became the Shia.

The Mongol invasions and Mongol warring with Muslims of the Arabian Peninsula forced the separation of the state and religion to a much greater extent than the effect of the preceding Christian Crusader invasions. Muslim standing armies were vital to survival. A de facto separation of religious and political power quite rapidly took shape. Religious authority was held by descendents of Mahomet and the caliphs, but monarchs or sultans and emirs wielded political and military power.

This process was in place at latest by the 12th century. The original development of the Sharia was a set of codes formulated by religious ulemas to classify all activities as forbidden, recommended, objectionable, or pure and impure, and covered almost any sphere of life from commerce and crime, to rules about marriage, divorce, property, hygiene, and aspects of interpersonal relationships. At the same time, the ulemas were not political leaders. They played a secondary and subservient role in relation to the political leaderships. Islamic treatises dating as far back as the 10th century, for example by the school of Abu Hassan al-Ashari of Baghdad (the founders of the Sunna), do not stake out a political role for the clergy. Political rulers had a higher role, to defend the territories of Islam (dar al-Islam), enable Muslim subjects to practice their religion, and prevent rebellion because “fitna” or anarchy was worse than tyranny. Certainly by the 12th century Muslim societies had separated religion and politics.

Whereas the prophet Mahomet was both a political and religious leader, the needs of empire and defence against external attack necessitated a de facto separation.

The major difference between the separation process in Muslim societies from that in the West, it is easy to argue – and another danger for today – was that the clashes between the state and the religious establishment, in Christian societies was of extreme violence. Certain extreme religious atrocities like The Night of St Bartholomew (24 August 1572), in France, probably resulted in 25 000 dead within a few days of Catholic-Protestant massacres. Another former advantage for Muslim societies, and now a handicap was the diffuse nature of religious power in Islam and its lack of a hierarchical system like the Christian priesthood and Papacy. The creation of a politicised power hierarchy in Islam is a very recent trend, accelerating since the 1970s.

A modern form of secularism was able to take hold in Muslim majority societies centuries ago. The roles of Turkish Ottoman colonialism, then Western colonialism, the entry of capitalism, and the growth of Arab nationalism and national liberation struggles all reinforced this secularization.

MODERNIZATION
Secularization and modernization were both spurred by external forces. By at latest the 16th century the spread of capitalism and the encroachment of Ottoman colonialism intensified the separation, and Islam ceased to play a central role in political organization. Muslim rulers of the Ottoman, Egyptian and Persian empires quickly introduced programs of modernization, from the 17th century, with major economic and market reforms and further “Westernization” in a later and more intense phase, in the 19th and early 20th centuries.

These programs covered military, administrative, educational, economic, legal and social reforms, strongly influenced and inspired by the West, that gradually displaced Islam as the basis of Muslim society, reinforcing the previously existing secularism.  The new Western-educated secular middle class arose and held positions of importance in government, education and law, posing a direct challenge to the traditional basis of power of the ulemas.

The danger, for historians like Bernard Lewis, was this further secularization drove the “return to Islam” and Islamic revivalist movements, starting as early as the 18th century and including extremist variants such as Wahabism, but this did not stop modernization. The Albanian-born ruler of Egypt, Mehmet Ali is often credited by historians as the first Arab world ruler to grasp the importance of industrialization. He realized that a modernized army would need textile factories to make tents and uniforms, dockyards to build ships, and weapons plants to turn out guns and bayonets.  The monarchs who presided over Egypt, Turkey and Iran looked to the West to find ways to develop their military in order to better defend themselves from colonial conquest.

The Ottomans in Turkey built schools, roads and canals, then railways and set up a modern financial system. Persia under the Qajars in the 18th and 19th  centuries attempted to pass similar reforms, but had less success than their Egyptian and Ottoman counterparts. In all cases, there was a move to create a secular middle class. Schools based on the European model created a new intellectual elite that was not only modern and Western in its orientation – but was also the class that later generated the first national liberation struggles in various countries – and the Pan Arab socialist movement.

Turkey was the most successful in the modernization quest. In 1923, Turkey became the first republic in the modern Middle East. Mustafa Kemal or Ataturk instituted a series of reforms, including the separation of religion from politics and the shift from a feudal monarchical order to a capitalist democratic order. His key opposition was the old order based on Islamic law and practices.  In 1924 he abolished the caliphate, closed down the madrassa religious schools, replaced Sharia with the Swiss legal code, and expunged all reference to Islam in Turkey's constitution. As we know, the Justice and Development Party (AK Party) of prime minister Erdogan, founded in 2001, has made mostly unsuccessful attempts to revive and partly “re-Islamize” Turkey.

FAILED ISLAMIC REVIVALISM
The response at the top of society to colonialism was a move toward modernization and secularization, but this also generated “revivalism” lower down.  The Islamic revivalists saw European colonialism and imperialism - particularly its 19th and 20th century versions - as a major threat to Muslim political and religious identity. However, almost never noted by alarmists like Bernard Lewis, leaders of this revivalism tended to be religiously minded middle-class individuals who wanted to limit the authority of ulemas over the meaning of Islamic texts and insisted on the right of individual interpretation (ijtihad) of the Koran and Sunna.

The key representatives of this new current included the 19th century philosopher and thinker Jamal al-Din al-Afghani (not born in Afghanistan, but Iran), and other revivalists like Muhammad Abduh, Rashid Rida and Mawlana Mawdudi, considered as 'fathers' of Modern Salafism. Totally unlike Salafists of today, and easily contrasted with Wahabism of the 18th century (and its early forebear, Hanbalism of the 9th century) their advocacy only concerned the role of tradition and had little or nothing to say about the State. They did not make a wholesale condemnation of Muslim governments and did not call for overthrow of these governments. This came much later, with today's so-called Salafism, or modern Salafism of the late 20th century. Like al-Afghani, Mawdudi also spent several years in India where he published an Islamist doctrine for the Indian subcontinent, later known as Jamat-e-Islami. This was transformed from the 1970s into a racist and xenophobic movement similar to Wahabism, but called “Islamic radical” by Western analysts – and even by historians like Lewis.

The crude politicisation of Salafism as we know it today started with Hassan al-Banna who founded the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, in 1928. In the same way that Mawdudi called for the creation of an Islamic state in all-India based on Sharia law, the Muslim Brotherhood rejected the demand of Egyptian nationalists who called for the creation a modern Turkish-style state with a secular constitution, after ending British colonial rule. The Brotherhood played the Islamic revivalist card and championed the slogan it still uses today: “The Koran is our constitution.”

All these revivalist movements were however minor players on the political stage in the nineteenth century and for at least the first half of the twentieth century, because the dominant trend in the MENA during this period, as discussed above, was secularism and modernization. No pan-Islamic alliance was ever built. Similarly, secular nationalists in India and Egypt had the support of the vast majority of the population, but Islamist currents were marginal.

After the Second World War, a new generation of radical anti-colonial secular nationalists replaced their predecessors. The previous generation had failed to end colonization, and colonial conditions had become harsh and unbearable for the vast majority. The formal independence granted to several MENA regional countries by the 1950s or before, such as Morocco, Syria, Egypt, Iraq, Yemen, Lebanon, Jordan and Saudi Arabia was however negated by a continuation of economic colonialism by the former Western colonial administering powers.

NATIONALISM, SOCIALISM AND ISLAMISM SINCE 1945
Many Middle Eastern and North African countries had been granted formal independence, but in reality this did not change living conditions for ordinary people. They were not free, generating disillusion with their political leaderships. The pro-Western upper and middle classes were seen as incapable of delivering domestic reform. The landed aristocracy was despised for its collusion with imperial powers and its shameless self-interest. The humiliating loss of Palestine in 1948 and the failure of the Arab states to stop the formation of the state of Israel intensified the hostility of public opinion towards the ruling elites. The result was that popular discontent drove Arab politics leftward, exploited by  Communist parties recently established in the region, radicalising the Arab nationalist movement. This new phase saw the birth of radical nationalism in the Middle East. The key leaders, starting in 1949 were Syria's Colonel Husni al-Za'im and Egypt’s Colonel Gamal Abdel Nasser operating military coups d'etat and referring to their program as “Pan Arab socialist.”They were later joined by the Iraqi colonels and by Colonel Gaddafi of Libya, all of them calling themselves Arab nationalist.

In both the cases of Syria and Egypt, and elsewhere in the MENA such as Yemen and Algeria (from 1963), the new political elite was keen to set close relations with the USSR. This confounded and alarmed Western commentators who believed that people in Muslim countries, supposedly deeply entrenched in their religious beliefs, would reject “atheist” political ideologies combining nationalism with Marxist-influenced socialism. They were wrong.

Certainly by the late 1950s, the dominance of socialism and nationalism in the MENA region was admitted by Western analysts to be a stronger current than the “bulwark of Islam”. This ignored or downplayed the dominance of Arab nationalism, rather than socialism and Marxism, among the new political elites. One reason is in fact simple, the continuing formal colonial status of several MENA region countries, and de facto economic colonialism among all other regional countries that had been granted  nominal independence radicalized local politics. In turn this spurred the student movements in Arab countries, resulting in further secular reforms, among other measures.

At that time, the decisive break occurred between the new Arab nationalist and socialist leaderships, symbolized by Colonel Nasser of Egypt, and Islamic forces who resented the loss of “influence of the clergy”. Nasser introduced political, social and economic reforms, including measures to prevent the clergy from interfering in politics and the state, notably Nasser's formal break with and repression of the Muslim Brotherhood – a former ally. Nasser said that some of Islam’s teaching was consistent with his “Arab socialism and nationalism” but his ideology was secular nationalist to the core.

It was therefore only following the successive defeats of Arab secular nationalism, symbolized by the Arab-Israel wars but mainly by economic failure, from the late 1960s and early 1970s, that a space opened up for the revival of political Islam or Islamism.

To repeat and summarize, there is no link or relation between historical religious Islam of the period before the 10th century -  and the rise of Islamist groups in the last decades of the 20th century. The traditions of secularism and modernization were dominant for at least two, sometimes three centuries before the late 20th century in most Muslim majority countries. What is wrongly called Political Islam, or “Islamism”, can be traced to a set of global, as well as local or regional factors and as already mentioned has clear counterparts in other regions and countries with “radical religious” political and social movements.

THE DRIVERS OF RADICAL ISLAMISM
What is called political or radical Islam today is the product of the convergence of several political and economic developments. These include renewed or neo-imperial intervention for global geopolitical objectives and continued Western economic domination of Arab and Muslim majority countries. Neo-imperial powers, especially the United States sponsored and promoted radical Islamist groups as a bulwark against nationalism and Marxism. The role of Israel and its self-preservation was also powerful in this geopolitical and geo-economic strategy. In addition, the USSR-USA proxy war of Afghanistan, and smaller but similar proxy wars both in the MENA region and outside, undermined Soviet power and revealed its economic and political weakness. At the same time, the internal contradictions and failures of secular nationalism and especially the failed neoliberal economic “revolution” in MENA countries since the early 1980s deepened the political vacuum.

The series of global and national economic crises starting in the 1970s, which continue, gravely harmed the image of Marxist-influenced State capitalism in several MENA countries such as Egypt and Algeria, revealing it as powerless to safeguard and promote national economic wellbeing in the face of external economic shocks. The Islamists, through their vast network of charitable social outlets were able to offer alternative ground-up “Islamic political” solutions for society, and grow by recruiting from the disillusioned middle classes, students with “no future”, and other de-classed sections of society.

The Cold War, until 1989 was surely and certainly a main driver of the process. The US saw radical nationalism and communism as dire threats to its influence and even its survival. In several cases, such as Egypt and Iran, Washington actively and lengthily “wooed” the nationalist socialist leaderships, Colonel Nasser and Iranian secular nationalist Mohamed Mossadegh. When this failed, the US developed an “Islamic strategy”, aided by Saudi Arabia, to undermine and then overthrow Arab and Muslim nationalism, State capitalism and communism. During the 1950s, the United States notably used the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt against Nasser, after Nasser's break with the movement.

In the case of Mossadegh, we already have the “oil card” and spur to US determination to prevent political radicals form obtaining or staying in power. By nationalizing Iran's oil industry, Mossadegh operated what leading American politicians called a “nightmare scenario”, ignoring the fact that Saudi Arabia has to all intents and purposes a fully-nationalized oil industry since the 1940s. Regarding Egypt, although not possessing significant oil resources, Nasserism was seen as an equally dire threat, due to its emphasis on pan-Arab unity with the goal of uniting the technologically advanced urbanized Arab countries and their large well-trained working classes, with the vast wealth of the low population oil producing countries. The combination of Cairo-plus-Riyadh would have been another nightmare scenario, simply due to it reducing or eliminating Western control of the oil resources of the region.

If Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood was first established in 1928 with a grant from the British Suez Canal Company, it was thanks to US political support and massive Saudi funding that it was able to grow and proliferate. Saudi Arabia used the Brotherhood against the secular regimes in Egypt, Syria, Iraq and Sudan, among other countries. In Afghanistan and Pakistan, Saudi funding helped the Muslim Brotherhood to ally with Mawdudi’s Jamat i-Islami. Numerous US intelligence officers and advisers, over the years, have summarized this “Islamic counterweight” strategy as being viewed as powerful, effective and likely to succeed. Saudi Arabia was in particular seen as a staunch local ally against communism. Where necessary “objective allies” could be locally operated, for example the Arab socialist, but virulently anti-communist Baath Party and movement in Iraq and Syria. In 1963 for example,  the CIA supplied the Baathists with the names of Iraqi Communist Party members so they could be assassinated.

THE WAHABITE KINGDOM OF SAUDI ARABIA
By the mid-1950s, President Eisenhower had been convinced by State Dept. analysts that the United States, by promoting Islam on the political stage, could head off Pan Arab nationalism and socialism or Arab Marxism. Eisenhower wrote in a note released many years later: “We wanted to explore the possibilities of building up King Saud as a counterweight to Nasser”.  King Saud was a logical choice in this regard. He was anti-Communist and due to religious grounds, had a high standing among the Sunni majority Arab nations. Analysts and scholars advising Eisenhower developed the theory of “Western rupture of Islam”, that Islam had been “disrupted” by Western influences and therefore had to be brought back into high prominence with US help.

This very simplistic theory was however powerful for American politicians, and was extended to the geopolitical goal of, one day, making a Saudi King the “Islamic Pope”  ruling a huge Caliphate which, as defined by political Islamists would extend “from Spain to Indonesia”. Although neither Saud nor his successor Faisal took on this mantle, they made significant strides towards “Islamizing” the MENA region and bordering regions, such as Sahel African countries with minority Muslim populations. Saudi Arabia continues to be the most powerful, and decreasingly less behind-the-scenes, promoter of today's radical Islamism.

Saudi Arabia had little political legitimacy in the Middle East during the era of progressive secular nationalism symbolized by Nasser, the Syrian colonels, Iraqi colonels and Libya's Gaddafi. Nasserism was widely accepted as the regional model. Egypt acted as the dominant political force until the end of the 1960s or early 1970s, but from the first Oil Shock of 1973-74 this dynamic changed. The oil embargo raised Saudi Arabia’s prestige to the extent it was able, from that time on, to put Wahhabism on the political map. Fueled by petro-dollars, the Kingdom was able to either create or take control of, and fund a series of Islamist organizations with international reach, such as the World Muslim League,  the Organization of the Islamic Conference, development funds, Islamic banks and media outlets.

Ironically because today's Saudi Arabian rulers are radically hostile towards the Muslim Brotherhood, Saudi funding of Islamic banks and financial networks, in the 1970s, were under the control of the Islamic right and the Brotherhood. These banks also funded politicians, political parties, media companies and the business ventures of the devout middle class— defined by the Saudis as descendents of the mercantile classes of the bazaars and souks, and newly wealthy professionals. Muslim Brotherhood funding activities, and political action using Saudi money operated in Egypt, Kuwait, Pakistan, Turkey, Jordan and several other countries.

Western support to “Islamic banking” was immediate and strong – to ensure Western banks and financial establishments were not left out of the vast amounts of petrodollars now flowing through these new Islamic banks. Financial experts and academics – including Milton Friedman – welcomed this new source of abundant and available capital, saying it was another lever for the rapid development of the so-called “neoliberal financial model”. Islamic finance repeatedly relied on mostly American right-wing economists to advocate financial privatization and the “liberation” of banking systems in the MENA. Countries as widely different as Algeria, Sudan and Turkey adopted neoliberal banking and finance measures but usually with only meagre success.

Already by 1979,  there was another “anti-model” of political Islamism, made concrete by  Khomeini’s Iran, but this spurred and intensified the Saudi drive to reorganize the political and religious map of Arab and Sunni-majority Muslim states. One key strategy with enduring effects has been the intense reinforcement of ulemas or the clergy in national affairs, seen by the Saudis as an effective way to weaken progressive or secular nationalism.

In turn, with the increased intensity of its propaganda drive, the Wahabite Kingdom raised the banner of virtuous Islamic civilization — defined as the exact opposite of Western corruption and its baleful influence. Western political deciders, while pretending they do not know the openly anti-Western and xenophobic or racist bias of Saudi Wahabite propaganda, have only themselves to blame for finding themselves facing a new and powerful enemy.

AFGHANISTAN AND IRAN
While the US and its Western allies has supported an assortment of Islamists from the 1950s it was only from 1979, with active and constant Saudi participation, that “Islamic holy warriors” or mujahideen and djihadists became almost daily images in mass media outlets of the West, deflecting attention from their real role – as set by the Saudis – of projecting radical Islamism on the global stage. To be sure, the US had everything to gain from supporting mujahideen as a means to weaken its Cold War enemy the Soviet Union in Afghanistan, but that was more than 23 years ago.

In addition to the groups based in Afghanistan, the United States actively sought to build up the numbers of the “holy warriors” to more effectively challenge the Soviet Union in several other so-called “theatres”. The CIA undertook well-funded programs of mujahideen recruitment and toured people like Osama bin Laden and Sheik Azzam (a founder of the Palestinian group Hamas) around the US, as well as providing them logistics and training at various military locations in the US.

Official training began under the Carter administration and was widened to include training of Pakistani ISI operatives who in turn trained the “holy warriors” of Afghanistan and Pakistan. Apart from training djihadists how to stab an enemy from behind, strangle them, or kill them with a karate chop, the US also supplied remote control devices, timers, fuzes, C4 and Semtex plastic explosives, long-range sniper rifles, rapid fire anti-tank and anti-building cannons, wire-guided anti-tank missiles, and the acme symbol of high tech weapons, the Stinger anti-aircraft missile.

Strongly aided by the economic crisis pushing adult and youth unemployment to extreme levels in MENA regional countries, volunteers for the Afghan jihad came from almost all the Arab and Muslim world. Thousands of people who came to be known as the “Afghan Arabs” poured in from Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Algeria, Libya, Yemen, Sudan, Turkey, Pakistan and other countries, such as Chechnya and Daghestan - as well as from Muslim immigrant communities in Western countries. Before 1979, militant Islamists in these countries and communities had no program outside of isolated acts of urban terror and the operation of protection rackets, car theft, credit card or other urban crime to finance themselves. The Afghan war served to unite them, finance them, supply them weapons and train them in weapons use, and give their movement sustained life.

For the first time, it seemed like a “global community” of armed believers had come together to fight against Soviet infidel encroachment, thanks to the United States, Saudi Arabia and other allies in the region. What they would do after the Soviets retreated from Afghanistan and the USSR itself collapsed, was never mulled over.

When the Soviet Union retreated in 1989, it marked a high point for the global Islamist movement' It legitimized and made credible the extremist tactics of militants in the eyes of others who henceforth would look to them as the way forward. Their job completed in Afghanistan, the “holy warriors” dispersed to other regions of conflict “against infidels” such as Bosnia, Kosovo, Chechnya, Kashmir, the Sahel African countries, the Philippines, western China and elsewhere to carry on their supposed holy war. Former CIA asset Osama bin Laden allied with the Egyptian former Brotherhood ideologue Ayman al-Zawahari to form al-Qaeda and make the Afghan jihad “a global phenomenon”.

In short the “Afghan Arabs” introduced more extreme ideology, discourses and tactics into the Islamist movement, while spreading it to the largest-possible number of regions. These “holy warriors” can be called neo-fundamentalists and are symbolized by al-Qaeda operatives, but most critical – although this is amazingly not stressed in many accounts of “radical Islamism - Islamic (neo) fundamentalism is heavily Sunni dominated and is very hard to attribute to Shia Iran. Mainstream media accounts of “the new terrorist menace” often shine a spotlight on Iran, with its revolution of 1979 portrayed as the source of all things radical Islamist.

IRAN VERSUS SAUDI ARABIA – OIL POLITICS AGAIN
As mentioned above, Mossadegh, who came to power by election in 1951, nationalized Iran’s oil industry and dealt a blow to Britain's BP.  Ironically, Mossadegh had received US help because it was thought by State Dept. planners that through Mossadegh, the US could establish a larger role in Iranian oil with greater control over its oil resources by elbowing Britain out. However, when Mossadegh rejected a plan to allow more US oil companies into the country, the United States turned against him and the well-known CIA coup (called “Operation Ajax”), deposed him. The coup was supported by the Islamic clergy, particularly Ayatollah Khomeini’s mentor Ayatollah Abolqassem Kashani, able to mobilize large numbers of people from Tehran’s slums against secular nationalist Mossadegh. This initial groundwork laid by the CIA and by Kashani certainly helped position Khomeini for his role in the 1979 revolution to oust the Shah – who had been installed by the US.

The Iranian Revolution could be compared with the recent overthrow of Mohamed Moursi, and Hosni Mubarak's preceding ouster, in Egypt. It was the product of deep discontent across huge sections of society, among workers, students, peasants, intellectuals and traders, against economic decline and in favour of change. Socialist political forces, and students played a leading role but completely failed to provide leadership for the movement as a whole. Reasons for this can be debated, but the void allowed the “default candidate” Ayatollah Khomeini to maneuver between various factions and entrench himself with full power over a period of two years, by 1981.

Khomeini as a Shia was able to accomplish things no Sunni Islamist had managed. He not only brought students, the urban middle class and workers under his fold, but also brought together the two classes most inclined to gravitate to Islamism - the rural and urban poor and bazaar traders - as well as other traditionally devout sections of the population. Once entrenched, his dogmatic version of Shia Islam was used to islamize Iranian society - all other interpretations of Shia philosophy were marginalized.

Iran’s Islamic republic began to challenge Saudi hegemony in the 1980s. For the Saudis, the danger of the Iranian model is not so much that it is Shia and therefore “heretical”, but concerns “People’s Islam”, joining the words “Islam” and “revolution” together. The Saudi model, the exact opposite, is a top-down hierarchical approach, using oil wealth to spread Wahabite Islamism with constant and strict control over internal domestic radical elements able to disrupt the status quo. While Iran downplayed Shia theology and ideology in order to attract young Islamist intellectuals outside Iran in Sunni-majority countries, Saudi Arabia has always emphasized that Iran is Shia, and denounces the 1979 revolution as a vehicle for Persian Shia nationalism and imperialism.

Despite this conflict, many Islamists of both the Sunni and Shia sects were inspired by the Iranian Revolution. They looked to Iran as offering a model for how to depose a pro-Western leader and create an Islamic state. They saw the Iranian Revolution as akin to the French Revolution or the Bolshevik Revolution. It was a morale booster.

Joining the deciding factors which tilted Western leaderships towards Saudi Arabia, and away from Iran, oil supply and the price of oil certainly played a major role – some argue a clinching role. Well before the overthrow of the Shah and his abandonment by the West, the 1973-74 oil embargo triggered by the Arab-Israeli war – called the Arab Oil Embargo by mainstream media – was the theatre of Saudi-Iranian dispute. The Shah was a “price hawk” regarding oil prices, and by 1976 Saudi-Iranian conflict inside the OPEC cartel on the pricing issue was constant. While the Saudis believed an oil price rise of “only” 350% was sufficient, the Shah wanted more. This further influenced US, British and other Western deciders in their emerging view that the Shah was less reliable or less useful to the West than Saudi Kings and Princes. By 1978, Western oil companies were downsizing operations and reducing investment in Iran.  After the ouster of the Shah, Saudi Arabia was able to position itself as the sole guarantor of oil supplies at “fair” prices - that it would set.

The Iranian Revolution's version of radical Islam only served as inspiration for Arab nationalists because of the critical and long-running weaknesses of secular Arab nationalism. While the US had played an important role in thwarting secular nationalism and weakening the left in Iran and elsewhere in the MENA, the weakness of Arab socialism also played a major role. In addition, since the 1980s, modernist and secular right-wing non-democratic regimes like that of Ben Ali in Tunisia and Mubarak in Egypt essentially acted as pliant local dictators serving Western interests. Their economic failure, lack of popular support and supine acceptance of US support for Israel extending in Egypt's case to the Egypt-Israel Camp David accords, fueled “Arab street rage” and anti-imperial sentiment. Lacking a viable and secular left, with Arab nationalist parties discredited, the political Islamists were able to channel this anger and disillusion to their own benefit. Today we live with the consequences.

By Andrew McKillop

Contact: xtran9@gmail.com

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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