Why Islamists Beat Liberals in the Middle East

August 27, 2014

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Few could disagree that the Arab uprisings that first began to sweep across the Middle East and North Africa region at the end of 2010 have been hijacked. The surge of democratic participation and opposition to authoritarianism was forced from liberal, pluralist values, and towards Islamism and, in Egypt’s case, back to despotism. Certainly, there was a time when democracy did seem to be taking root in earnest, but as I noted at the time, an important opportunity was missed by both the West and pro-democracy activists in the region. The secular and liberal youth movements that came together to push octogenarian dictators from power hit a wall in the vacuum that followed. They were, whether we like it or not, ill-equipped to maintain their previously awesome momentum and, structurally, far surpassed by Islamist groups, both moderate and extremist, from Tunisia to Syria.

That this has happened should not come as a surprise. Indeed, when Egypt, for example, was still in the throes of post-revolutionary fervor, it rapidly became clear among the components of the anti-state coalition that it was the Islamists who were much better placed to take political power than any other group. History is forever repeating itself. Indeed, looking back, long before the so-called “Arab Spring,” a similar thing happened in 1979 in Iran when a broad coalition of Iranian civil society successfully worked together to oust the Shah, only for its pursuits to be co-opted by a minority of extremist Islamists, the heirs of whom are still wreaking havoc on the Iranian state right now. If we are not careful, the same will happen with the rest of the Middle East, perhaps even worse.

In order to try to ensure that it doesn’t, we need to first come to grips with what makes Islamism so much more enticing to subjects of post-revolution power vacuums than liberal democracy. As a former adherent of an extremist Islamist ideology myself, I have personal experience with what it is that draws people to the likes of Islamic State (IS); what it is that renders a group that crucifies its opponents more attractive than one that seeks to challenge them peacefully.

Put simply, it comes down to five structural distinctions that make Islamist movements so potent in ways that their secular, liberal competitors are not. When combined, these tools create Islamism, this blatant manipulation of religion, an attractive ideology that will almost inevitably supersede the appeal of its secular, liberal rivals.

What are they, then? First, it is the basis of their political motivations, the idea that drives them: Islamism. Here, I am referring to the desire and perceived imperative to enforce a version of Sharia as law.

This idea is then reinforced by the next tool: narratives. After all, every idea must be backed up by a series of narratives that confirm its legitimacy. The most often touted narrative that Islamists cling to — regardless of their creed — is that there is a war against Islam, and that Muslim victimhood across the world is a direct result of a “Crusader” conspiracy against the ummah. Ultimately, the response to the ideas peddled by such narratives is to fight back, to engage in jihad. It is not difficult to see why this might be appealing to the young and disenfranchised.

On top of narratives, every social movement needs a strong leader. If we take IS, which is almost certainly the most threatening jihadist group that we have ever faced, it revolves around the cult of personality associated with its self-proclaimed caliph, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. Time and time again, we are bombarded with his image, while many IS supporters use screen grabs from his Mosul khutba as their Twitter profile pictures.

These are all further entrenched and popularised through iconographic prowess. With jihadist groups, the symbolism of choice is a black flag with the shahada written in white across it, a throwback to the Abbasid rebellion against the Umayyads. It has tenuous theological foundations and has only recently re-emerged from obscurity thanks to Hizb ut-Tahrir, which revived its use in 1953 when it was founded. As such, to refer to it as a “flag of Islam” is a grave misapprehension. Just like Islamism, it is a manipulation.

At the peak of all this and, indeed, the workings of all social movements, is an end goal. Islamism is no different. The ultimate objective of all Islamists is the desire to right the wrongs faced by Muslims throughout the world and to unite them under one leader, the caliph. Again, we can refer to IS for an example of this. Indeed, one of the things that makes it so appealing to extremists is the fact that it has made tangible progress towards these goals. Its propaganda is rife with references to its shattering of the imperial borders laid down by the Sykes–Picot Agreement.

It is a confluence of the above factors that has long made Islamist groups outrun any liberal or secular group. This is because Islamists form social movements, tightly bound by a set of ideas and symbols, instead of being a loose coalition with a limited aim of removing a dictator. Indeed, the biggest issue for the non-Islamists is that they have little idea of what would come next, after the dictator is ousted.

Ill-equipped and with no centrifugal force to bind them together, anti-authoritarian secularists are always bound to fail. The mechanisms that make a group of people a movement are absent, and thus the building blocks for democracy — ideas, narratives, leaders, iconography and end goals — were not there either. This is where we need to start again.

This does not mean establishing new political parties that appeal more to the youth of the region, nor is it simply a question of tackling the cronyism and corruption that is so endemic to Middle Eastern politics. No, what we need instead is a movement to emerge, something that crosses borders and demographics, a desire for change that it is deeper than loose coalitions of like-minded individuals.

We must help people in the region to correct this situation. We need to incubate and foster what is already there, help catalyze the formation of a social movement that seeks to spread a secular democratic ideal using — just like the Islamists do so successfully — ideas, narratives, leaders and goals. The trans-regional desire to remove despotism from the face of Middle Eastern politics must be harnessed. Perhaps, this could one day come in the form of a regional union based on principles of economic prosperity, freedom of religion and collective security. Certainly, there is a long way to go before this is possible, but the hope for something else, something secular, needs to be invigorated.

What the Middle East needs right now is a secular force that dreams a secular dream. At the moment, the only “dream” is the caliphate. It cannot continue without competition, though.


Maajid Nawaz is Chairman and Co-Founder of the Quilliam Foundation, the world’s first counter-extremism think tank. Based in London, he is a Liberal Democrat parliamentary candidate and regular commentator on both far right and Islamist extremism.

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3 thoughts on “Why Islamists Beat Liberals in the Middle East

  1. I constantly read that countering Islamism is the key/top problem. But there are reasons to think otherwise; so let me suggest a different angle, based on a view about social evolution.

    Extreme Islamism has much in common with extreme tribalism. In many regards, religious extremism is an overlay atop a deeper dynamic: extreme tribalism. This has been the case for all sorts of religious extremisms across the ages. Thus, countering tribalism — tribalized mindsets — may be more key than countering Islamism.

    Tribes are the first form of organization behind our centuries of social evolution. Hierarchical institutions, modern markets, and new information-age networks arose later. Each form (and its philosophical implications) has both bright and dark sides; societies can get them wrong as well as right, in ways that affect their usage of the other forms.

    When matters go well, societies advance by adopting and using these forms progressively (T+I+M+N). When matters do not go well — in particular, if leaders make a mess of the institutional and market forms, or if individuals cannot find places for themselves in the institutional, market, or emerging network realms — then people revert to organizing and behaving in terms of the tribal form, often in dark ways.

    No society can do well without the tribal form. It is initially expressed best in families, clans, and real tribes; later in community spirit, civic clubs, and patriotic nationalism; as well as via positive group identities about religion, ideology, ethnicity, and even commercial brands. So, tribes and tribalism per se are not a bad thing — not at all, some is good and necessary.

    But dark sides often show up too, as in urban youth gangs, criminal gangs, sectarian militias, partisan cliques, millenarian movements, charismatic cults, etc. And when people turn darkly tribal, they exhibit similar patterns of thought and action, no matter their religious or other identity: They boldly tout their unique identity. They exalt “us” and demonize “them. They express sensitive narratives about respect, honor, pride, and dignity for themselves — plus revenge and retribution for transgressors.

    Dark-side extremists often coat all this with religious references. But it is their tribal mindset, not their religiosity, that is the driving force. They have selectively reduced their religious pretensions to tribalist tenets. Thus, the “war of ideas” and “countering violent extremism” should be rethought, making extreme tribalism rather than Islamism the key challenge. Or so I’d wish to suggest.

  2. I think Maajid and David make very good, and not that dissimilar points about Islamism. As Maajid says the central Islamist narrative is based on a belief that Muslim suffering worldwide is the result of a Western conspiracy/crusade against Islam. Despite appearances to the contrary this is essentially a political, not religious idea. One that in the M.E. feeds off the violence and destruction it tends to promote, whilst simultaneously rendering progress based on democratic reforms impossible.

    The problem is how to respond?

    First we need to recognise that this is a battle not just of ideas, but of facts, and one that due to the pre-existing distrust we were powerless to win from the off. Here is an interesting fact. According to Pew Research (2011) there was no Muslim (Arab or Persian) state in the Middle East where even 30% of people believed Arabs carried out the 9/11 attacks! Many believe it was part of an American/Zionist plot to discredit Islam. For the West it is hugely significant that a horrific attack on the US very quickly came to be seen as an expression of the lengths Islam’s purported enemies will go to discredit it. Even amongst American Muslims (Pew 2007) only 40% believed Arabs carried out 9/11 with (Pew 2006) only an extraordinary 17% of Muslims in the UK, 48% in France and 35% in Germany. Yet there are some promising trends. Muslim tolerance of suicide bombings has been consistently on the wane in the decade to 2013 (Pew 2013) as has support for violence in the name of Islam. With it support for extremist groups such as Al Qaeda, The Taliban, Hamas (pre protective edge) and Hezbollah is also declining. The bloodshed in Syria and the West’s non intervention there (thus far) undermine the central Islamist narrative that this violence and suffering is Western in origin, as does the Islamic State’s strict interpretation of Sunni Islam which calls for ridding Iraq and the Levant of what it calls idolatry and disbelief by, for example, blowing up Shia Shrines and Mosques and killing ‘non believers’ who refuse to convert.
    So on the back of IS extremism being increasingly hard to portray as a Western war against Islam, we need to strive to make the case, both at home and in the M.E. that this has never been about defending Islam but rather, just like 9/11, xenophobia gone mad with Muslims being in the main the victims and perpetrators of the violence.