Islamism and secular nationalism have much in common

The struggle between nationalists and Islamists, argues Gerges, was about control, not ideas.
Sunday 17/06/2018
Cover of Fawaz Gerges’s new book  “Making the Arab World: Nasser, Qutb and the Clash That Shaped the Middle East.”
Refreshing research. Cover of Fawaz Gerges’s new book “Making the Arab World: Nasser, Qutb and the Clash That Shaped the Middle East.”

At 400-plus pages, the new book from Fawaz Gerges, professor of international relations at the London School of Economics, is a weighty tome drawing on more than 12 years of research but it is also accessible and refreshing.

In an era when many academics favour grandiose theories or seek to please those who finance their institutes, Gerges returns to narrative and empirical history, seeking to understand rather than take sides or predict the future.

After books exploring recent militant Sunni Islamism, Gerges’s new work — “Making the Arab World: Nasser, Qutb and the Clash That Shaped the Middle East” — examines the earlier relationship between Islamism and “relatively secular nationalism.” Islamism and secular nationalism, Gerges argues, had more in common than either admits. His focus is Egypt, the most populous and influential Arab state.

“My book is an asset to conceptualise the raging rivalries and struggles in the region today,” Gerges said. “The only way to do so is to understand what happened in Arab and Muslim politics immediately after the end of colonialism in the late 1940s, early 1950s.”

After leaving his native Lebanon, Gerges’s interest in the 19th-century Arab enlightenment, sharpened with a doctorate at St Antony’s College, Oxford and exposure to Albert Hourani. “There’s a sense of humility in the English school,” Gerges said. “They wanted to understand the specifics… The Middle East, in particular, has been a graveyard of grand theories… My goal has been to understand the world from the inside out as opposed to the outside in.”

Hence “Making the Arab World” begins by tracing the failure of “semi-liberal forces” in the face of British colonialism, a subservient monarchy and the new Egyptian ruling class’s failure to deliver before 1945.

“Instead of being about progress, cultural renewal and development, the struggle became about identity politics,” said Gerges. “Illiberal Arab nationalism borrowed more [in the 1930s] from Germany and Italy than from America and France.”

This set the scene for “the political earthquake of 1952,” the Free Officers’ coup that set a model for Arab nationalists elsewhere. The coup is the hinge on which “Making the Arab World” turns: The book offers not just dual biographies of Gamal Abdel Nasser and Sayyid Qutb, but a history of the two men’s interaction and influence.

Gerges has interviewed close colleagues of both Nasser and Qutb. Contacts with the latter came partly through Kamal el-Said Habib, a leading figure in the group that assassinated Egyptian President Anwar Sadat in 1981 and the major source of Gerges’s 2006 book, “Journey of the Jihadist: Inside Muslim Militancy.”

Habib introduced Gerges to activists in both the mainstream Muslim Brotherhood and al-Tanzim al-Sirri, the organisation Qutb ran from prison. Al-Tanzim set a model for subsequent Islamist extremists.

What emerges — and what makes the book so startling — is that, far from being the polar opposites so often portrayed, Islamism and nationalism shared many characteristics.

Gerges establishes through his interviews that Nasser was originally a member not just of the Muslim Brotherhood but of al-Nizam al-Khass, its paramilitary organisation, and swore fealty to Hassan al-Banna, Ikhwan’s leader until his death in 1949.

Likewise, Qutb’s trajectory is far from the one depicted by followers today. “Even as a child he had a mission,” said Gerges. “As a secular public intellectual [1930s and early 1940s], any kind of disagreement turned existential: you disagreed with Qutb, you became automatically evil. From the Free Officers coup in July 1952 until 1953, Sayyid was the mouthpiece for the Free Officers. He was fanatically pro-Officers in newspaper articles: ‘Get rid of the political system, establish a dictatorship.’”

Gerges argues Qutb probably knew of the coup in advance and was the only civilian who attended the ruling Revolutionary Command Council. Far from being “the inevitable antithesis to Nasser,” Gerges writes, Qutb can be seen as an “accidental Islamist.”

Qutb joined the Muslim Brotherhood in March 1953, after the junta passed him over for education minister and head of state broadcasting. Only subsequently in prison, until he was hanged in 1966, did Qutb write the texts, especially “Milestones” and offer the martyrdom that has fired up militant Islamists.

The struggle between nationalists and Islamists, argues Gerges, was about control, not ideas. In their pursuit of power, both failed to develop viable institutions or effective policies for the post-colonial state, while their rivalry crushed other options.

“Even though the militarists — really the nationalists were subsumed under their rubric — and the Islamists have been bitter enemies,” said Gerges, "they implicitly collaborated to prevent a third alternative emerging.”

Gerges’s book runs up to the 2011 uprising, the election of Brotherhood-backed President Muhammad Morsi and the 2013 coup. “The Egyptian military and the Islamists were terrified of transformative change,” Gerges said. “People ask, ‘Where is the third force in Arab politics?’ The two dominant social and political forces have collaborated to prevent its emergence.”