Islam and Middle East politics
In continuing my presentation entitled The Middle East Crisis: Political, Economic and Religious Implications for the Caribbean, I spent some time looking look at historical events that shaped the Middle East we witness today.
Last week, I looked at the Sykes Picot agreement and the Balfour Declaration. Two significant occurrences that spoke to colonialist interference in the Middle East, the results of which reverberate to this day.
I further drew upon several written analyses of past events as I continued my presentation. One particular analysis stood out with an overview of historical considerations when looking at the Middle East from a political angle. It is reproduced, edited and summarized below.
In response to colonial occupation and imperialist exploitation, some sections of the population in the Middle East countries embraced a secular nationalist response, contributing to the large radical movements and massive social explosions in the region, often organized by the Communist parties, from World War I until the 1960s, and directed against both their own corrupt ruling elites and imperialism. The Russian Revolution had a big impact on the anti-colonial struggle in Middle East, especially those that had been under the boot of the Tsarist government. This influence was not just by example.
In 1923, the victory of Kemal Ataturk in Turkey dealt a heavy blow to Islamic movements as the Ottoman Empire, in which Islam was an official religion, was brought down. In the decades that followed, a modernizing nationalism gained ground and, from the end of World War II until the 1970s, achieved a number of victories. Nasser in Egypt, Ben Bella in Algeria, Bourguiba in Tunisia all pushed through social reforms, some of which directly undermined imperialist economic and political interests in the regi
In the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s, there were strong left-wing currents across the Middle East. In Syria, South Yemen, Iraq, Somalia, Libya and Ethiopia, there were left-wing coups and the creation of state capitalist regimes. In other countries there were strong waves of mass movements which threw up left-leaning populist leaders, such as Nasser. Modernization, it seemed, could have and was about to annul Islam as a political force.
But in the midst of these developments were the Islamic movements; equally strong, they also sprung up in the 50’s and 60’s. By and large, these movements were social based charitable entities who worked with the underprivileged in many of these countries. As these movements grew, they took on the political establishments and ultimately had to fight the ruling elite.
These movements countered the leftist regimes and found favour with the western countries who were consumed with fighting socialism. But these movements also had issues with the western ideology. The United States’ attitude towards Islamic groups and parties has always been determined by its specific foreign policy objectives. On the one hand, it has maintained an alliance with the regime in Saudi Arabia ever since World War II. On the other hand, it has supported the suppression of particular Islamist parties in almost every Middle Eastern country at some time or another.
One thread has never broken, however: imperialism has always viewed political Islam—both the radical oppositions and the Islamic regimes—as natural partners in the task of suppressing the left and, in the context of the Cold War, of weakening the Soviet Union’s influence in the region.
With few exceptions (most notably the Shiites in Iran), organizing, arming, training and funding Islamist groups as a reactionary weapon against the rising tide of mass upsurge and social revolution became a cornerstone of US foreign policy. This was especially so after the defeat of the British and French imperialists in the Suez Canal dispute of 1956. The plethora of fundamentalist offshoots from the main Islamist organizations, in particular, were the perfect tool for the low-intensity combat the US’s Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) uses.
The first and most consistently pro-imperialist Islamic state was established in Saudi Arabia, with the backing of the British, amid the collapse of the Ottoman Empire after World War I. Cleric Abdel Aziz Ibn Saud unified warring tribes, crowned himself king in the 1920s and imposed the Wahhabi interpretation of Islamic law over the Kingd
It has been argued that both governments in the Middle East as well as the major colonial powers of the time used Islamic movements in seeking and/or maintaining control. In Syria, Yemen, Jordan among other countries, Islamic movements have been subjected to brutal suppression at one time or given assistance at other times.
Likewise, it is also argued that the Israeli intelligence agency, Mossad, under successive Israeli governments, discreetly supported the Muslim Brotherhood in the Occupied Territories in the 1960s and 1970s, while the Brotherhood was exclusively attacking Yasser Arafat’s left nationalist Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO). However, this support ended during the first intifada, begun in 1987, when the Brotherhood gave birth to Hamas, which melded the jihad with the struggle for the liberation of Palestine from Israel.
In Algeria, the leftist National Front for Liberation (FLN) successfully led the movement against 132 years of French occupation and remained in power for over two decades, but failed to stop the rise of the Islamic movements. The FLN government’s inability to bring about development and economic prosperity in a context of demands by the International Monetary Fund and World Bank for debt repayment created the social conditions within which the FIS Islamic movement gained support.
When it looked likely that the FIS would win the 1989 elections, the FLN government cancelled the second round and cracked down on the FIS, jailing many of its leaders and banning religious dress. This fueled the violence and propelled the FIS to electoral victory in 1991, before a military coup dislodged them. In response, in 1996, the GIA appeared, declaring a jihad against the Algerian army, and hundreds of thousands of Muslim civilians have died in the ensuing war.
The Arab spring in the early 2000’s was the modern version of the movements that sprung up in the 1960’s and 70’s. These movements sought to correct the imbalances existing in several Middle East countries where wealth and political power were concentrated in the hands of a few.
Several countries in the Middle East continue today to be besieged by the plague of war. And we see its history and the involvement of outside forces contributing significantly to the ongoing conflict and turmoil of that region.
(Suleiman Bulbulia is a Justice of the Peace. Secretary of the Barbados Muslim Association and Muslim Chaplain at the Cave Hill Campus, UWI. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org)