The tragedy of betting on political Islam

For a typical illustration of the tragedy of political Islam, look no further than the story of Hassan al-Turabi.
Tuesday 24/07/2018
A file photo showing Sudan's President Omar al-Bashir (R) and the late breakaway Islamist Hassan al-Turabi meeting in Khartoum, in 2014. (AFP)
A file photo showing Sudan's President Omar al-Bashir (R) and the late breakaway Islamist Hassan al-Turabi meeting in Khartoum, in 2014. (AFP)

All the regimes that allied with political Islam or tried to co-opt it have ended up clashing with it in dramatic ways.

Examples abound. At the beginning of the Free Officers revolution in Egypt, President Gamal Abdel Nasser allied himself with the Muslim Brotherhood, hoping to use it to bring al-Azhar institution to heel. He quickly clashed with its members and they with him.

Next came President Anwar Sadat, who used the Brotherhood to wipe out Nasser’s heritage but ended up assassinated at their hands in a famous parade incident.

Another example from Egypt is Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, whom the Muslim Brotherhood helped put in as minister of defence and military production in place of Field-Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi. They chose Sisi for the simple reason that “he knows the Quran by heart and goes to dawn prayers” and they had thought he would be their hand over the armed forces. Sisi turned against them.

We can also cite Saudi Arabia, which welcomed the top leaders of the Muslim Brotherhood when they had to flee Nasser’s repressive machine. All the top brass was there, including Muhammad Qutb, Ma’mun al-Hudaybi and Yusuf Qaradawi. The Saudi monarchs let them fashion and control the educational system, including universities.

However, the Saudis grew weary of their guests, especially when the latter kept silent about Juhayman al-Otaybi’s armed seizure of the holy mosque in Mecca in 1979, when they hesitated to condemn Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait and on many other occasions.

There is also the case of the United States, which backed the mujahideen in Afghanistan against the Soviet Union. The mujahideen were funded and armed by Osama bin Laden, who founded al-Qaeda, which was responsible for the September 11, 2001, attacks on the United States.

Consider also the story of Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Turkey. The Turkish president had allied himself with Fethullah Gulen, head of one of the biggest Islamic organisations. He figured that with Gulen’s help, he would wipe out Turkey’s secularist heritage. As expected, Erdogan turned against Gulen and made him a personal enemy.

The Kurds’ story with Erdogan is no different. They sided with him under the impression that he would be a lesser evil than the fascistic tendencies of Turkish nationalism but they were proven wrong.

This same tragedy of political Islam has been repeated in Syria. From time to time, political Islamist groups would clash on the battlefield with former allies or friends. The ferocity of those clashes was surpassed only by the ferocity of their common enemy.

For a typical illustration of the tragedy of political Islam, look no further than the story of Hassan al-Turabi. Here is the case of an Islamist political leader who had formed alliances with the regime that came after each coup in Sudan. He had personally signed off on some of the worst decisions when he was in power, such as the execution of Sudanese thinker Mahmud Mohammed Taha. After every regime change, he ended up in jail — until the next coup.

Now we come to Morocco, where the state’s bet on political Islam will cost it dearly. Common sense simply says we are dealing with a tragic movement that governs according to its nature and culture only. Here is a movement that mistrusts everybody. When it speaks, it never says its mind. It relies on intimidation and threats but never forgives any criticism.

It only knows two conditions: the Mecca phase or the Medina phase. When it imagines itself in the Mecca phase, it acts as a victim. When it imagines itself in the Medina phase, it acts as a tyrant. A balanced state, in which it neither oppresses nor is oppressed, is foreign to it. It is impervious to the adage “live and let live.”

Given these observations, the question becomes: Why is political Islam incapable of living in a normal state in which it is neither executioner nor victim?

If members of the new generation of political Islamists do not ponder that question in a rational way, the tragedy of political Islam will keep repeating itself.

In other words, we will be seeing future political Islamists as either executioners like Gaafar Nimeiry, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, Erdogan and others or victims like Sayyid Qutb, Abdelkader Ouda, Mohammed Badie and others. Sometimes they may appear as executioners and victims at the same time as in the case of Erdogan’s relationship with Gulen or the case of the different Islamist factions in the Syrian tragedy.

To overcome a profound defect, the approach must be even more radical. Will the new Islamists have the guts to do it?