The Arab Spring changed the pattern of Islamic radicalisation in the region. The new Arab revolutions advocated new values, rooted in peaceful secularised Islamic notions that were in deep opposition to the Jihadist cultural values, like the dignity of the citizen and peaceful political mobilisation.
Before the downfall of the Tunisian and Egyptian autocracies, the Jihadist trend within Muslim land was already on the decline. In many countries repression against Islamic radicals, but also the utter violence of the Jihadists and their lack of any constructive project for their host societies brought down their prestige. Their attacks against tourists and Muslims in Egypt, Jordan and elsewhere made them unpopular among many Muslims.
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This essay is one of nearly three dozen original contributions included in 10 Years After September 11, a digital collection launched today by the Social Science Research Council. In the days immediately following 9/11/01, the SSRC invited a wide range of leading social scientists to write short essays for an online forum. Ten years later, these same contributors have been asked to reflect on what has changed and what remains the same. The result is an extraordinary collection of new essays, with contributions from Rajeev Bhargava, Mary Kaldor, Barbara D. Metcalf, Saskia Sassen, Veena Das, Richard Falk, and many others.—ed.
The 9/11 debate was centered on a single issue: Islam. Osama Bin Laden was taken at his own words by the West: Al-Qaeda, even if its methods were supposedly not approved by most Muslims, was seen as the vanguard or at least a symptom of “Muslim wrath” against the West, fueled by the fate of the Palestinians and by Western encroachments in the Middle East; and if this wrath, which has pervaded the contemporary history of the Middle East, has been cast in Islamic terms, it is because Islam is allegedly the main, if not the only, reference that has shaped Muslim minds and societies since the Prophet.
This vertical genealogy obscured all the transversal connections (the fact, for instance, that Al-Qaeda systematized a concept of terrorism that was first developed by the Western European ultra-left of the seventies or the fact that most Al-Qaeda terrorists do not come from traditional Muslim societies but are recruited from among global, uprooted youth, with a huge proportion of converts).
The consequence was that the struggle against terrorism was systematically associated with a religious perspective based on the theory of a clash of civilizations: Islam was at the core of Middle East politics, culture, and identity. This led to two possibilities: either acknowledge the “clash of civilizations” and head toward a global confrontation between the West and Islam or try to mend fences through a “dialogue of civilizations,” enhancing multiculturalism and religious pluralism. Both attitudes shared the same premises: Islam is both a religion and a culture and is at the core of the Arab identity. They differed on one essential point: for the “clashists,” there is no “moderate” Islam; for the “dialogists,” one should favor and support “moderate” Islam, with the recurring question, what is a good Muslim?
Then came, just ten years after 9/11, the Arab Spring, in which Islam did not play a role, and the killing of Osama Bin Laden, whose death went almost unnoticed among Muslim public opinion. What about the “Muslim wrath”? Suddenly, the issue of Islam and jihad being at the core of the political mobilization in Muslim societies seemed to become, at least for a time, irrelevant. So what went wrong with the perception of the Western media, leaders, and public opinion? Was the West wrong about the role of Islam in shaping political mobilization in Muslim societies? Yes. The essentialist and culturalist approach, common to both the clash of and dialogue of civilizations theories, missed three elements: society, politics, and more astonishingly . . . religion.
In fact, three paradigms—social, political, and religious—have changed in Muslim societies over the last twenty years:
A new global generation — As Philippe Fargues showed some time ago, there has been a profound demographic change in the Arab world: the fertility rate has fallen dramatically (in Tunisia, it fell below the French rate after 2000), women have entered universities and the job market, young people marry later, there is more equality in couples (in terms of age and education), they have fewer children and are better educated than their parents, and nuclear families are replacing extended households. Cell phones, satellite TV, and the Internet have allowed these new generations to connect and debate on a “peer” basis rather than through a top-down authoritarian system of knowledge transmission. The younger generation is a peer generation and does not want to be strongly bound to a patriarchal society that has been unable to cope with the challenges of contemporary Middle Eastern societies.
A shift in the political culture — Being more individualistic, the members of this new generation are less attracted to holistic ideologies, whether Islamist or nationalist, and there is a sharp decline of interest in the patriarchal model embodied by charismatic leaders. The failure of political Islam that I pointed to twenty years ago is obvious; it does not mean that Islamist parties are no longer present on the political field—to the contrary—but that their Utopian conception of an “Islamic state” has lost credibility. The Islamist ideology is challenged either by a call for democracy, which rejects the claim of any party or ideology to have a monopoly on power, or by the “neo-fundamentalists,” or Salafis, who claim that only a strict personal return to the true tenets of religious practices could help to establish an “Islamic society.” Even among the Muslim Brotherhood, young members reject blind obedience to the leadership. The new generation calls for debate, freedom, democracy, and good governance. They are more patriotic than nationalist, and while the Palestinian issue still has an emotional impact, it is no longer at the core of political mobilization (a fact, by the way, that undermines the well-established cliché stating that, as long as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict remains unsettled, there will be no peace or democracy in the Middle East). The appeal of democracy is not a consequence of the exportation of the concept of Western democracy, as fancied by the supporters of the US military intervention in Iraq. It is the political consequence of a process of social and cultural changes in Arab societies, which, of course, is part of the globalization process. It is precisely because the Arab Spring is a succession of indigenous upheavals, centered on the nation and unlinked from Western encroachments (which, when they happen, come after and not before the movement, as in Libya), that democracy is seen as both acceptable and desirable. Consequently, the ritual anti-imperialist mottos and chants have disappeared from demonstrations (including the usual condemnation of Zionism as the source of all the problems of the Arab world). This explains why Al-Qaeda is out of the picture: the uprooted global jihadist is no longer a model and fails to germinate when he comes to enlist local militants for the global cause (Al-Qaeda has been expelled from Iraq by the local fighters), with the exception of the geographic fringes of the Arab world (Sahel, Somalia, Yemen). Al-Qaeda was part and parcel of the old anti-imperialist Middle East political culture: fighting the West first and never caring about real societies. It disappears with the dictators because they are two sides of the same coin.
A new religiosity — This is probably the least understood mutation. There were two recurrent premises underlying the debate on Islam: that democratization is linked with secularization and that this secularization process should go with a rise of a “liberal Islam.” So began the search for reformers, liberals, not to speak of a Muslim Martin Luther (the people who advocate a reformation of Islam in order to free it from fundamentalism, anti-Semitism, and gender prejudices apparently never read Luther). The visible re-Islamization of Muslim societies during the last thirty years (spreading of the veil, growing mosque attendance, Islamization of daily life, and so forth) seemed at odds with this supposed prerequisite, but in fact, it is far more congruent with a process of democratization than expected. Why? This wave of re-Islamization hides a very important fact: it has contributed to the diversification and the individualization of the religious field. Religion (theological corpus) did not change, but religiosity (the way the believer experiences his or her faith) did, and this new religiosity, liberal or not, is compatible with democratization because it unlinks personal faith from collective identity, traditions, and external authority. The usual religious authorities (ulema, or Islamist leaders) have largely lost their legitimacy in favor of self-appointed, and often self-taught, religious entrepreneurs. Young born-agains have found their own way by surfing on the Internet or joining local groups of peers: very critical of the cultural Islam of their parents, they have tried to construct their own brand of Islam. Religion has become more and more a matter of personal choice, ranging from Salafism to any sort of syncretism, not to mention conversions to other religions (see, for instance, the growth of an evangelical Protestant church among former Muslims in Morocco and Algeria). This individualization and diversification has had the unexpected consequence of disconnecting religion from daily politics, of bringing it back to the private, and of excluding it from the sphere of government management. As I tried to show in Holy Ignorance, fundamentalism, by disconnecting religion from culture and by defining a faith community through believing and not just belonging, is in fact contributing to the secularization of society (hence the bitter belief of any fundamentalist, from born-again Christian evangelicals to Salafi Muslims, that true believers are a minority, even if the surrounding society is nominally sharing the same religion).
All these changes gave way to what I called “post-Islamism” (the expression was first used by Asef Bayat)—it does not mean that the Islamists disappeared, but that their Utopia did not block social, political, or even geo-strategic realities. They have no blueprint for an “Islamic economy,” and although they run many charities in deprived neighborhoods, they tend to become socially conservative, opposing strikes and approving of the rescinding of agrarian reform in Egypt; they have never been able to articulate a coherent supranational program of mobilizing the “ummah” (the Islamic world), leaving the concept in the bloody hands of Al-Qaeda and standing in the Middle East in an uneasy status quo between the strategic ambitions of a supposedly Islamic, but Shia, Iran and Arab dictators (from Saddam Hussein to the Saudis) who claim to protect the Sunnis from the “Shia threat.” They favor elections because they do not support armed struggle even when unable to strike a deal with authoritarian regimes, but they are uneasy about sharing power with non-Islamic groups and turning their “brotherhood” kind of an organization into a modern political party. They have not given up formal support for sharia (except in Tunisia and Morocco) but are unable to define a concrete ruling program that would go beyond banning alcohol and promoting the veil or some other petty forms of shariatization.
After the Arab Spring, which started outside their ranks, the Islamists have choices to make. The first option would be the “Turkish model” (the AK Party): turning the “brotherhood” into a true modern political party, trying to rally a larger constituency than hard-core devout Muslims, recasting religious norms as more vague conservative values (family, property, work ethic, honesty), adopting a neoliberal approach to the economy, and endorsing a constitution, a parliament, and regular elections. Another option would be to ally with “counterrevolution” forces for fear of a real democracy that they are not sure to control, but they thereby risk losing their remaining legitimacy, as in Egypt, where they might be instrumentalized by the army. They may also side with the Salafis by calling for an Islamization that would center on certain isolated issues (veil, family law), the same way Christian conservatives in the West are focusing on abortion and gay marriage while ignoring other social and economic issues.
Whatever the political ups and downs, the diversity of the national cases, the foreseeable fragmentation of both “democrats” and “Islamists” into various trends and parties, the main issue will be to redefine the role of, and the reference to, Islam in politics. The de facto autonomization of the religious field from political and ideological control does not mean, once again, that secularism is necessarily gaining ground. What is at stake is the reformulation of religious reference in the public sphere. There is large agreement on inscribing in constitutions the “Muslim” identity of society and of the state; there is also large agreement on the fact that sharia is not an autonomous practical system of law that could be implemented from above and replace “secular” law.
As I’ve described, modern forms of religiosity tend to stress individual faith and choices over conformity to any sort of institutionalized Islam. The old motto “in Islam, no separation between religion (din) and worldly issues (dunya)” already turned a long time ago from an academic statement to mere wishful thinking, but it has been definitively undermined by the Arab Spring. What we see, more than secularization, is a deconstruction of Islam, torn between some sort of a cultural identity (there could be, in this sense, “atheist Muslims”), a faith that could be shared only by born-again believers (Salafis) in the confines of self-centered faith communities, or a “horizon of meaning” where references to sharia are more virtual than real.
The recasting of religious norms as values helps also to promote an interfaith coalition of religious conservatives that could unite around specific causes—opposition to same-sex marriage, for instance. It is interesting to see how, in Western Europe, for example, secular populists tend to stress more and more the Christian identity of Europe, while many Muslim conservatives try to forge an alliance of believers to defend shared values. In so doing, many of them tend to adopt an evangelical Protestant agenda, fighting abortion and Darwinism, both issues that have never been relevant in traditional Islamic debates. In this sense, modern neo-fundamentalists are trying to recast Islam as a kind of Western-compatible religious conservatism, a fact that is obvious in Turkey, where, in 2004, the prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, tried to promote an anti-adultery law that defined adultery not in terms of sharia but by reference to the modern Western family (a monogamous marriage of a man and a woman with equal rights and duties, thus making the custom of polygamy, not uncommon among traditional AK local cadres, although illegal since 1926, more clearly a crime). Islam is thus part of the recasting of a religious global market disconnected from local cultures.
Such an evolution is completely inconsistent with the image of Islam that is constructed and spread by populist movements in the West. In fact, as far as the West is concerned, the main legacy of 9/11, which will survive the “War on Terror” and the death of Bin Laden, is the rooting of Islamophobic populist movements in Western Europe and the United States. These movements have fully borrowed and legitimized the clashist theory: Islam is construed as the enemy of an otherwise elusive “Western” identity. Even populist movements born of a different set of grievances (Lega Nord in Italy, the Tea Party in the United States, the Vlaams Belang in Belgium) have endorsed Islamophobia as one of their main battle cries. It is no surprise that they all dismissed the Arab Spring as irrelevant and don’t acknowledge the way Muslims, both in their native societies and in the West, are recasting their faith into global forms of religiosity. Interestingly, the debate on Islam in the West raised the same questions as in the Middle East: Is religion first a faith or first an identity? Is the crucifix in Italian classrooms just a cultural symbol of national identity or the symbol of the sacrifice of Christ for sinners? The debate about the role of religion in the public sphere should be conducted beyond the clichés of Orientalist essentialism by acknowledging the transversal dimension that connects all the great world religions in their endeavor to find a balance between faith and identity, religion and culture, individual quest and collective belonging, and territorialization and globalization. In this sense, there is neither an Arab nor an Islamic exceptionalism.
With the killing of Bin Laden in Abbottabad, al-Qaeda is as good as dead. This was never a mass movement, or one with connections to real-world struggles like the Arab spring — it fed off the fantasies of loners and theatrical mise en scène. The analysis by Olivier Roy.
Osama Bin Laden was already dead before the Americans attacked his compound in Abbottabad - politically, at least. The political death of al-Qaeda occurred on 17 December 2010 at Sidi Bouzid in Tunisia when the street vendor Mohamed Bouazizi set himself alight. Bouazizi's suicide, whatever its personal motivation, was a political event, but this suicide had nothing to do with terrorism, the rejection of America, the struggle against Zionism or the creation of a global caliphate.
The great wave of democratic revolts in the Arab world has shown the extent to which al-Qaeda had already been marginalised, as much organisationally as in the form of a political discourse. Al-Qaeda, which has never had roots in social movements, ceases to exist if it isn't on the front pages and on our television screens.
In fact, the marginalisation of al-Qaeda corresponds, as I have noted in previous articles in the New Statesman, to a paradigm shift in the Arab world that is religious as well as political. The demand for freedom and democracy in a national context has displaced the imaginary umma, the world community of Muslims, in its struggle with the west. Charismatic authoritarian personalities such as Bin Laden no longer exert any fascination on an individualistic and rather pragmatic younger generation.
However, the coincidence of Bin Laden's physical and political deaths is too remarkable not to raise a number of important questions. The first, naturally, concerns Pakistan. It is impossible that the Pakistani Directorate of Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) did not know where Bin Laden was - for some, if not all, of the time. And it is simply implausible that it was kept entirely in the dark about the US operation in Abbottabad. Pakistan previously protected Bin Laden and then recently decided to cut him loose. Why? First, he was no longer a political force in the Muslim world. He had become a burden rather than an asset. Second, the Taliban in Afghanistan and Pakistan had cut their ties with Bin Laden, not for political reasons but because Bin Laden no longer had anything to offer them - not money, not volunteers, not strategy. It is telling that Bin Laden had sought refuge in an area outside the Taliban's sphere of influence, whereas many observers (myself included) thought that he was either in the tribal regions or in Karachi, both Pashtun and Taliban strongholds.
At a stroke, the death of Bin Laden opens up perspectives on the conflict in Afghanistan. The principal war aim of western forces when they invaded Afghanistan in October 2001 was the destruction of al-Qaeda and the death or capture of its leader. That goal has now been achieved. So why stay there? Even if western governments tried to persuade public opinion that there was a much broader justification for the invasion (saving Afghan women from the misogynistic dictatorship of the Taliban), no one today is ready to fight to ensure that sharia law and the mandatory wearing of the burqa are not imposed in Kabul.
In fact, it is now hard to justify the western presence in Kabul. But it is possible for Nato to leave with its head held high, claiming that its mission has been accomplished. And that is precisely what both the Pakistani establishment and public opinion want - which explains why Bin Laden was cut loose: not only did he no longer serve a purpose alive, but his death would perhaps allow the Pakistanis to become the masters in Afghanistan.
Islamabad has been constant in its aims in Afghanistan since at least as far back as the Soviet invasion of 1979: it wants a friendly power in Kabul, and has concluded that only an Islamic, Pashtun regime can ensure that. The ethnic connection with Pakistani Pashtuns, who exert considerable influence in the ISI and the Pakistani army, is viewed as an asset. Other ethnic groups, especially Persian speakers, are regarded - mostly without foundation - as potential agents of Iran. In Islamabad's eyes, the Islamic influence also serves as a bulwark against an Afghan nationalism that could push Kabul into an alliance with India (this, in fact, is already happening with Hamid Karzai's regime). Until 1993, this Pashtun fundamentalist strategy centred on Gulbuddin Hekmatyar's Hezb-e-Islami. Since 1994, it has been focused on the Taliban. (The radicalisation of Pakistani Pashtuns along the same lines has not caused Islamabad to withdraw its support for the Taliban in Afghanistan.)
Officially, the policy of exerting indirect control over Afghanistan has been justified by citing the supposed threat from India. Now, one could criticise the Pakistani obsession with achieving such strategic reach on the grounds that conquering Pakistan is the last thing the Indians want to do. It should be recognised, however, that the civil and the military elite in Pakistan have been unwavering in their wish to place Afghanistan under a kind of protectorate. The Pakistanis want Nato to leave and the death of Bin Laden offers the prospect of an honourable exit. As for the Taliban, they no longer have to choose and explicitly renounce their association with al-Qaeda; they can present themselves as national actors rather than
be seen as international jihadists. Nevertheless, we should not expect the western departure from Afghanistan to be announced any time soon. All that has happened is that an obstacle has been removed, making it conceivable that negotiations could be opened with the Taliban without Nato losing face, and in a context in which the Taliban are no longer associated with the ghost of Bin Laden.
However, Bin Laden's death will have an impact well beyond the Afghan-Pakistani theatre of operations. What will become of al-Qaeda? Where will those who might once have joined it go? There will be attacks made in al-Qaeda's name, just as there are attacks made in the name of the "Real IRA" in Northern Ireland. There will be a campaign to prove that Bin Laden is still alive, and there will be new leaders claiming to be his successor. But we should reject the theory that the death of Bin Laden changes nothing as far as the root causes of terrorism are concerned and that al-Qaeda will continue to recruit and to function without him.
I find it difficult to separate Bin Laden from al-Qaeda. In the first place, he was the inventor of the original concept: a network of subcontractors and franchisees using the "Qaeda" label; a flexible organisation, comprising no more than three levels (the centre, the local boss and the group of militants), in which considerable responsibility is given to the "head of operations" charged with carrying out an attack. Al-Qaeda was never a revolutionary party in the Leninist mould, surrounded by satellite organisations and seeking to embed itself among the "masses". It has always practised the propaganda of the deed, and the charismatic figure of Bin Laden was central to this strategy. Tubby and myopic Ayman al-Zawahiri, Bin Laden's so-called number two, does not have quite the right image.
Yet much more important is the question of the causes of radicalisation. For a long time it was thought that recruitment to al-Qaeda expressed the resentment of the Muslim world in general, and the Arab world in particular, at the west's support for Israel and at western intervention in Arab lands. The idea was that so long as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict remained unresolved, the fascination with al-Qaeda would persist, even if the methods it adopted were rejected by most Muslims.
But two factors suffice to show the extent to which al-Qaeda's appeal was entirely unconnected to strategic issues in the Middle East. First, most of its recruits came from the periphery of the Arab world: second-generation Muslims in Europe, immigrants from East Africa in the UK and émigré Jamaicans and Martiniquans (in the United States, Britain and France); to whom should be added converts of all origins (Christians such as Muriel Degauque, Hindus such as Dhiren Barot and Jews such as Adam Gadahn). There were very few Palestinians in al-Qaeda. Second, as we have seen, the new political movements in the Middle East have developed independently of al-Qaeda. It has never been able to assert itself as a political force in the Middle East. In Iraq, Lebanon, Palestine, Algeria and Morocco, militants close to al-Qaeda have, thanks to their attacks, had a nuisance value at best.
The al-Qaeda old guard (Zawahiri and Bin Laden) were exceptions; none of the recruits who joined the organisation from the 1990s onwards ever campaigned for any political cause in the Middle East. None of them was radicalised in the course of participating in a political struggle (support for the Palestinians, say, or Muslim community action in Europe). Rather, al-Qaeda's attraction lies in the heroic "narrative": in carrying out an attack, an isolated individual (often in conflict with his surroundings) avenges the suffering of the virtual global umma. Al-Qaeda always needs a mise-en-scène - the volunteer for death filming himself before carrying out an action, the execution of hostages in front of the camera in a macabre ritual (borrowed, as it happens, from the Italian Red Brigades' 1978 assassination of the politician Aldo Moro, and proof that the political genealogy of al-Qaeda owes more to the western ultra left than it does to the history of the Muslim world). The staging is then taken up, for free, by the media: rolling coverage of the attack on the World Trade Center, front pages for any attack in which innocent westerners are killed.
This mirror effect exacerbates public fear and gives an apocalyptic global dimension to al-Qaeda action. Bin Laden's "victory" was to have occupied the space of the media and to have forced the west into putting its fears at the centre of it and then "overreacting". The media circus we have witnessed since his death was announced was merely the act of a great actor who died on stage playing his final role.
There is a romantic dimension to the Bin Laden persona that fascinates young rebels in search of a cause. The way he presented himself and the cult of heroism and death he cultivated were not the icy calculations of a political militant seeking to achieve a strategic objective. Terrorism here is not a means; it is an end in itself.
The "Arab masses" understood very quickly that Bin Laden was not interested in their cause. He was interested in the cause - his own. There is an element of morbid and narcissistic elitism in al-Qaeda's terrorism which explains both its appeal for the ardent young and its political failure. This romantic dimension was intimately related to the charismatic person of Bin Laden, and to him alone.
Certainly his ghost will continue to fascinate, attacks will be carried out and his fans will try to keep the flame alive. But the new actors will be mumbling their lines in front of an audience that has become weary and indifferent. Apocalyptic tragedy will be relegated to the news in brief. Even if, as we know, the news in brief is sometimes deadly.
Source: New Statesman
Inaugural Conference of the Middle East and North African Studies Program, Notherwestern University (PDF) by Prince Moulay Hicham Ben Abdallah
Friday, October 23, 2015
An article by Moulay Hicham in the French publication 'Pouvoirs'
Morocco five years from now, in the aftermath of the “Cumin Revolution” : through such a projection and without any recourse to political fiction,the article draws an a posteriori balance sheet of the current stalemate by looking at the solutions proposed. Such a reversal of perspective makes it possible to raise old questions, left unanswered, in a new form. In this light, the “new Morocco” seems like a pipe dream, the confinement of the country into a waiting room following the current wait-and-see policy, a real utopia. Yet, the other Morocco – a country where life would be easy and pleasant – is within reach.
Clip from Prince Moulay Hicham’s Opening Remarks at the World Premiere of “A Whisper to a Roar” at the Directors’ Guild Theatre in Los Angeles on October 3, 2012, where he speaks to “the conflict between human nature and the human spirit.”