Conditions propitious for extremism in the Arab world

Washington played a major role in supporting the Muslim Brotherhood to reach power in Egypt after the revolution of January 25, 2011.
Saturday 05/10/2019
Far from defeated. Men suspected of being ISIS fighters wait to be searched by members of the  Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces after leaving Baghouz in northern Syria, last February. (AFP)
Far from defeated. Men suspected of being ISIS fighters wait to be searched by members of the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces after leaving Baghouz in northern Syria, last February. (AFP)

CAIRO - If we want to have some control over our present and our future – and avoid repeating mistakes, it is essential we develop an acute awareness of history. This is the argument put forth by Mahmoud Ismail, a professor of Islamic history at Ain Shams University, when he tries to determine the future of extremist religious groups in the Arab world.

Ismail said terrorist organisations will not be disappearing anytime soon in the Middle East. He bluntly stated that the time of the Muslim Brotherhood, al-Qaeda, the Islamic State (ISIS) and others has not ended.

“Do not think that the defeat of ISIS means the end of the time of terrorist organisations. These organisations mutate or are reborn and they are able to expand as long as the surrounding environment allows them to grow and renew themselves,” he said.

Ismail issued that warning in speaking to The Arab Weekly after a three-year hiatus from writing because of illness.

He said the best way to stop terrorist movements and keep them from spreading is to have more freedom, expand political participation and address the economic and social imbalances in Arab countries that have experienced revolutions.

Ismail has more than 50 publications in Arabic to his credit, notably “Is This the End of Ibn Khaldoun,” “The Marginalised in Islamic History,” “The Marginalised in European History” and “Secret Movements in Islam.” He is known for his two-volume publication about the sociology of Islamic thought as well as for his books about the history of the Islamic caliphate and the history of the Fatimid state.

In his works, Ismail focuses on the link between history and the present, which he did in “Contemporary Fundamentalist Discourse,” “The Islamic Caliphate Between Thought and History” and “The Controversy of the I and the Other.”

Ismail explained that the general climate in many Arab countries is ideal for accommodating and embracing extremists. Even after the “Arab spring” revolutions, freedoms are lacking in many countries that have witnessed incomplete revolutions.

Strangely enough, there are repeat performances of the policies that had led to public anger and paved the way to religious movements to take over the public arena and reach power in some countries.

He reiterated that the denial of freedoms and the refusal of intellectual pluralism allow the expansion of clandestine groups and that the death of politics is not in the interest of the Arab regimes, insisting that, when ruling elites fail to internalise the lessons of history, Arab countries fall into the hands of extremist religious regimes.

He also pointed out that it is dangerous to maintain stifling conditions in a country, especially at the economic and social levels, because that allows for religious groups to attract new supporters.

Ismail stressed that the persistence of a great inequity between social classes after the revolutions and the worsening of economic conditions represent an ever-present threat that should not be underestimated because deteriorating conditions of education and culture do not allow liberal or enlightened thought to exist. Unbearable economic and social conditions inevitably lead to unprecedented extremism. “History shows that clearly and we must learn from it,” said Ismail.

Ismail’s predictions about the return of Islamist movements because of the cloning by authorities of pre-“Arab spring” policies cannot be ignored. He was one of the few scholars who predicted the outbreak of public anger against authorities two years before the “Arab spring” began.

In the introduction to “The Marginalised in Egyptian History,” Ismail wrote: “We need to monitor the deterioration of the situation of Egyptians in real time. This deterioration had triggered popular anger that took various forms, such as demonstrations and strikes in all sectors. The reaction was the rise of extremist religious movements that adopt violence as a method of confrontation and which the government has succeeded in suppressing but, because of the political and intellectual bankruptcy of all political parties without exception, we believe that a revolution is on its way.”

It can be said that the decision-making circles in Egypt could have avoided much of what happened in January 2011 if they had heeded the warnings of a man who, for five decades, offered his views as an independent thinker and researcher without partisan or political bias.

Because of his long research and experience in underground and extremist movements, Ismail said he believes that the Muslim Brotherhood is not ready to be co-opted now or in the near future. The Brotherhood is a crafty organisation and represents the most opportunistic and chameleon-like religious organisations, he said. It does not believe in the concept of a homeland and is by far the mother organisation from which all violent and bloody religious organisations emerged, even if they deny it.

Ismail said Washington played a major role in supporting the Muslim Brotherhood to reach power in Egypt after the revolution of January 25, 2011. It wanted to use it for the implementation of certain policies that would be consistent with the organisation’s ideological denial of the concept of a homeland. These policies would be impossible to introduce and implement under a respectable civil regime.

“Even the bloody organisations that claim hostility to the West and America, such as ISIS, do not operate outside the control and influence of Western intelligence services,” Ismail said. These services “often breach and penetrate Islamic organisations and groups with a view to influencing state policies.”

Ismail said using religion for political ends “is a bad proposition because the conflict between religion and secularism is artificial. Secularism is not apostasy. In fact, Islam is the religion of secularism and the secularism that was prevailing in Europe, except for France, was not opposed to religion but was all for upholding common sense and justice.”

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