CHAPTER 20

Political Islam

Granted, the Iranian Revolution may not have provided the world with an alternative model for organizing political and economic relations. And, bluster aside, the Islamic Republic of Iran may well have found its niche in the international state and economic systems rather than challenging those systems. Nevertheless, many in the Middle East and beyond watched the Iranian Revolution and saw in it a new model for political mobilization, if not a new foundation for anti-imperialist struggle and social transformation. In the aftermath of 9/11, much of the world's attention has focused on the outrages perpetrated by fringe jihadi groups like al-Qaeda. It has been mass-based Islamic movements, however — many of which drew inspiration from their reading of events in Iran — that truly have been transforming the political landscape of the Middle East in recent decades.

A few years after the Iranian Revolution (the exact year is disputed), Islamic activists ("Islamists") in Lebanon, who were inspired by the revolution and backed to an unknown degree by the Iranian government, founded Hizbullah. The purpose of Hizbullah was to provide assistance and protection for that country's disadvantaged and underrepresented Shi‘i community — and to drive the Israeli military, which had been occupying southern Lebanon since 1982, out of the country. Although Hizbullah still operates the only officially sanctioned armed militia in Lebanon, it has also participated in parliamentary elections and in the Lebanese government. In 1987, another Islamic movement, Hamas, emerged in the occupied Palestinian territories. Drawing from the social service and mosque networks its members had established throughout the territories, Hamas coalesced into a formidable political machine capable of challenging both the Israeli occupation and the dominance of the secular Palestine Liberation Organization. By conducting a campaign of terror against Israeli civilians, Hamas played a critical role in derailing the Oslo process. Islamic groups have used violence in their attempts to destabilize the Egyptian and Syrian governments and Islamic political parties have won elections from Turkey to Algeria. In the latter case, the government nullified the results, precipitating a civil war which claimed the lives of anywhere between forty thousand and one hundred thousand Algerians. And on the periphery of the Middle East, Islamic movements have taken power in the Sudan and Afghanistan, and a group calling itself the Islamic Courts Union was on the verge of doing the same in Somalia before being ousted by troops from neighboring Ethiopia. In the wake of the loss, a splinter group called al-Shabab ("the youth") emerged to continue the Islamist struggle.

All these phenomena are manifestations of something social scientists call "political Islam." In the broadest sense, the phrase political Islam embraces a grab bag of associations, parties, and governments that seek to order their societies according to what they consider to be Islamic principles. Some Islamic activists, such as those who dominated the Taliban government of Afghanistan, believe that those principles provide them with a strict roadmap to be followed without deviation. Hence their single-mindedness when it comes to issues like dress codes for women and prescribed punishments. Others, such as those who dominate the Justice and Development Party of Turkey, treat those principles more gingerly, either because it is politically expedient to do so or because they honestly believe that Islam is compatible with post-Enlightenment values. Hence, their declared belief in the democratic process.

As for the principles themselves, Islamic activists in the Shi‘i world — the world of the Islamic Republic of Iran and Hizbullah, for example — derive them from the Qur´an, the Sunna, and the rulings of the faqih, whose function was described in the previous chapter. In the Sunni world, Islamic activists derive those principles from the Qur´an and Sunna alone. Shi‘is and Sunnis also differ on the nature of the Sunna: Shi‘is define the Sunna as the acts and sayings of Muhammad and the twelve imams and the acts of Muhammad's companions in the Medinan community. It is assumed that those acts were at least tacitly approved by Muhammad. For Sunnis, the Sunna does not include the acts and sayings of those whom Shi‘is celebrate as the twelve imams. To put it another way, in the Sunni world the associations, parties, and governments that fall under the rubric "political Islam" are salafi, like the eighteenth and nineteenth century movements discussed in Chapter 8.

Salafism has appeared episodically throughout Islamic history. As we have seen, salafism provides those within the Islamic tradition with a logical way to frame a problem, find a solution, and plot a plan of action to be taken. Take the question, "Why is it that the Islamic world is so weak and the Mongols or the Christians or the West so strong?" for example. Salafis would answer that the Islamic community has deviated from the true principles of Islam. They would also propose any one of a number of plans of action to bring about renewal. Needless to say, in the pre-modern and early-modern periods, salafis would frame the problem in appropriately pre-modern and early-modern terms (for example, by counterposing the Islamic umma to "the Mongols" or "the Christians") and hit upon appropriately pre-modern or early-modern plans of action. In the modern period salafis have framed the problem in appropriately modern ways (for example, counterposing the Islamic community to "the West" or Israel) and have hit upon appropriately modern plans of action. Thus, we find contemporary Islamist organizations, such as Hamas, engaged in renewal by undertaking a host of activities that are only possible in the modern world. These activities range from offering preschool education and ambulance services to participating in elections and fighting a war for national liberation (which, of course, is only possible when there are nations around to liberate). Political Islam is very much a product of the modern world.

The scope of activities in which Islamist associations, parties, and governments are involved — activities that often point to widely varying goals — has made it difficult for scholars to sort out the field of political Islam. It has also made it difficult for Western policy makers to find the right policies to address the phenomenon. Is Jordan's Islamic Action Front really committed to parliamentary politics, or is its participation in elections a Trojan horse concealing a radically different agenda? Could the British decision to reestablish contacts with the "political wing" of Hizbullah, taken in 2009, possibly bear fruit? Or should Hizbullah be treated as the United States has treated it — simply as a terrorist group, like al-Qaeda? What about the suggestion from the Obama administration that the United States reach out to "moderate" members of the Taliban? For that matter, in terms of the Taliban, what constitutes moderation anyway? Not engaging with al-Qaeda? Not barring girls from school?

To answer these questions and resolve the broader issue of the character of political Islam, we might be well advised to go to someone who is neither scholar nor policy maker. Ayman al-Zawahiri is considered the number two man in al-Qaeda. He has also been both a member and a critic of a number of Islamist groups. On the one hand, he is a veteran of the Muslim Brotherhood of Egypt and Egyptian Islamic Jihad — the group that assassinated Egyptian president Anwar al-Sadat in 1981. And he is also a veteran of the hothouse atmosphere of the Egyptian prison system, a place where Islamist ideas and trends have historically incubated. On the other hand, he broke publicly with his former colleagues and their ideas and joined al-Qaeda. As we discussed in the Introduction, al-Qaeda is a grouping that differs from others within the world of political Islam not only structurally but ideologically.

Like others associated with al-Qaeda and its ilk, al-Zawahiri consistently identifies a global "Zionist-Crusader alliance" as the main enemy of Islam and the Islamic community. But in his writings and speeches, al-Zawahiri also castigates two types of internal enemies within the Islamist world: those who have abandoned their previous commitment to jihad, and those who are guilty of the sin of particularism.

In his book, Knights under the Prophet's Banner, al-Zawahiri identifies two groups that are guilty of the first sin. The first is the Muslim Brotherhood of Egypt, the premier Islamist political association in the Arab world. Since its founding in 1928, the Muslim Brotherhood has had a checkered history with both the Egyptian government and with political violence. In 1987 the brotherhood renounced violence and pledged allegiance to the Egyptian government. (The Egyptian government rewarded the brotherhood by reaffirming its refusal to allow the group to participate in the electoral process as a formal political party.)

The second group al-Zawahiri scorns for abandoning jihad are those jailed members of something called the "Islamic Group" who renounced their jihad in 1997 and agreed to a ceasefire with the Egyptian government. Before its repression in the 1990s, the Islamic Group had attempted to disrupt the Egyptian economy, and thus bring down the Egyptian government, by attacking tourists, among other targets. In his book, al-Zawahiri treats both the Muslim Brotherhood and the Islamic Group "defectors" with derision, writing, "Has it become the job of the jihadi groups... to repeatedly beg corrupt secular governments to grant us permission to establish an Islamic state?"

The second type of internal enemy al-Zawahiri castigates consists of those who might be accused of the sin of particularism; that is, those whose geographic and philosophical horizons fall short of encompassing the entirety of the Islamic umma. For example, one might expect al-Qaeda and Hamas to be natural allies. Both employ a discourse in which jihad takes pride of place. The Hamas Charter, for example, mentions jihad no less than eleven times, and article 15 of the charter explicitly states that jihad is an individual duty incumbent on every Palestinian. On this basis, both al-Qaeda and Hamas might be called “jihadi.” Both want to have all of Palestine governed according to the dictates of Islamic law, so both might be called Islamist. Both have committed acts of violence against civilians, so both might be called terrorist. And both claim to derive their ideology from the principles of the Medinan community, so both are salafi.

Nevertheless, al-Zawahiri has condemned Hamas (and, unsurprisingly, its Shi‘i counterpart, Hizbullah) for a number of reasons. He has condemned Hamas for reaching agreement with secularists. Hamas joined Fatah, the largest group within the PLO, in a unity government administering the Palestinian Authority. By doing this, Hamas committed itself to "respecting" previous agreements with Israel, a sin of the first order according to al-Zawahiri. He has also condemned Hamas for "entering polytheistic councils" (Hamas participated in the Palestinian parliament) and for basing its right to rule on democratic principles rather than divine commandment (it ran in and won in parliamentary elections). Most important, al-Zawahiri has condemned Hamas for privileging the bond of nationality over the sacred bond of religion. What al-Zawahiri means here is that Hamas has transformed a front in the struggle to liberate all Islamic lands, from Spain to Bosnia to Kashmir to the Philippines, into just another movement for national liberation. For al-Zawahiri, the liberation of Palestine provides a way station on the road to liberating the entire Islamic umma. For Hamas, the liberation of Palestine is the goal. (Hamas has responded to al-Qaeda's ill-will by destroying al-Qaeda affiliates and by killing al-Qaedist sympathizers in Gaza, which it governs.)

Following the categories suggested by Ayman al-Zawahiri, then, we find al-Qaeda at odds with two types of groupings within the field of political Islam: One might be called reformist, the other Islamo-nationalist. Now, it should be stated at the outset that these categories are to be viewed as nothing more than intellectual guideposts. As we know from the Muslim Brotherhood of Egypt or Hizbullah, for example, it is possible for boundaries within Islamist organizations to be fuzzy, for those organizations to house multiple perspectives, and for those organizations to evolve over time into something with an entirely different orientation. Ayman al-Zawahiri himself began his career as an activist dedicated to overthrowing the Egyptian government and replacing it with an Islamic one. It was only after this that he became an activist fighting for the liberation of every inch of ground ever occupied by the Islamic umma, not for the "liberation" of one piece of that umma. Be all this as it may, the categories of refomist and Islamo-nationalist should be seen as what sociologist Max Weber called "ideal types." Ideal types are conceptual models that are useful for sorting out otherwise scattered facts. They may or may not exist in their pure form in the wild.

So then, let us start with the reformists. Reformists come in two varieties. First, there are those who advocate incremental change and function as a lobby and sometimes a political party. Included in this subcategory are Turkey's Justice and Development Party, which refers to its members as "Muslim Democrats." The Justice and Development Party won 34 and 47 percent of the vote, respectively, in the 2002 and 2007 Turkish general elections. Also included in this subcategory are factions within the Muslim Brotherhood of Egypt, which, as was mentioned earlier, cannot itself act as a political party. The second subcategory of reformist includes those who have abandoned formal politics and instead concentrate on transforming — Islamizing — society. They frequently undertake charitable, public service, or missionary work for that end. Their view is that Islamic rule cannot be imposed from the top down on a society that is unprepared for and undeserving of it. While they do not participate in parliamentary or local governance, they do participate in politics in its broader sense. For example, through their activities they reclaim for society real and metaphorical spaces abandoned by the state (building clinics, providing what had been government-dispensed "entitlements," etc.). Furthermore, their activities contribute to the redefinition of the civic order, the rights of citizenship, and the nature of political discourse.

The second category identified by al-Zawahiri as an internal enemy within the Islamist world is the Islamo-nationalists. This category includes those who seek to control the instruments of state, engage in wars of national liberation, or both. These organizations then seek to use the disciplinary capabilities of modern states to Islamize their societies from the top down. As opposed to the reformists, who might participate in affairs of state playing by the rules of the game, Islamo-nationalists seek to redefine the very nature of the state. There are a number of examples we might look to: Hamas, Hizbullah, and factions within the Taliban (in spite of the organization's close association with al-Qaeda). Article 12 of the Hamas charter says point blank, "Hamas regards nationalism as part and parcel of the religious faith." Hizbullah's 2009 manifesto states, "Lebanon is our homeland and the homeland of our fathers and ancestors" (a nationalist sentiment for sure). And Hasan al-Banna, who founded the Muslim Brotherhood of Egypt, went so far as to tell a British newspaper — with perhaps more than a touch of calculation— "[we are] neither politicians nor a political party but simply nationalists working for the welfare of Egypt and the restoration of usurped Egyptian rights." Whatever al-Banna's motivation for making this statement, it is significant that it was to the category of nationalism he turned in order to explain his organization to a foreign audience.

Islamo-nationalists may not, at first glance, appear to constitute a coherent category. They have, for example, used a number of tactics to assume power. In Iran, they participated in revolution. In Palestine, they have participated in elections and later a coup in Gaza. In Somalia and Afghanistan, they have participated in armed struggle. Islamo-nationalist groups also come in a variety of forms: Some, such as the Taliban of Afghanistan are vanguardist, mobilizing a small number of activists to take power. Others, such as Hizbullah and Hamas, have built mass-based political operations. As mentioned earlier, Hizbullah and Hamas are totally interconnected with their societies through a network of charities, social service organizations, militias, and so on. Whatever their differences, however, all Islamo-nationalist organizations (like the previously identified reformist organizations) do have something in common: They have chosen to work within the established nation-state system.

At first, it might seem a bit counterintuitive that groups whose primary marker is Islam should work within the nation-state system. Islam is, after all, a universalist religion, and the Islamic umma stretches around the globe. But Islam is not the only religion to be adopted as a marker of national identity: One need only think of the use of Catholicism by Irish nationalists, the use of Hinduism by Hindu nationalists, and the use of Judaism by Zionists. Furthermore, it is important to remember that Islam does not exist apart from social practice. Nor does it exist apart from the beliefs that social practice confirms. Muslims, like the rest of us, live in a world in which much of their social and political existence is defined by the modern state and the modern state system, as well as the basic assumptions that give credence to the modern state and the modern state system. It only stands to reason, therefore, that their Islam would conform to such a world as well. It also stands to reason that the social and political movements that have emerged in the region during the last century — including those movements that use Islam as their primary marker — would correspond to the social and political movements that have emerged in Europe and North America.

This being the case, it should come as no surprise that the same factors that contributed to the expansion of the domain of nationalism and the multiplication of nationalist movements in the Middle East also contributed to the multiplication of Islamic political movements. These factors should be familiar by now. There were the effects of the great nineteenth-century transformation: the standardization of cultural norms, the emergence and enlargement of a modern public sphere, and the expansion of the role of the state and the public's expectations from the state. As we have seen, this was also the period in which a number of Muslim intellectuals, and the Ottoman government of Abdulhamid II, formulated the intellectual foundations for modern Islamic political movements and spread their ideas. There was World War I, which destroyed the Ottoman Empire and opened up the Arab Middle East to a variety of political currents that had previously been held in check. As a matter of fact, the period of World War I was bracketed by the 1911 call of Syrian ulama for the formation of an Islamic party, on the one hand, and the 1928 founding of the Muslim Brotherhood of Egypt — the largest, most effective, and most influential Islamic political association for the next half century — on the other. There was the period of the 1930s and 1940s, which was marked by expanded urbanization, the proliferation of urban-based popular political movements, and the further intrusion of the state into the economic and social spheres. There was the 1950s and 1960s, when Third Worldism was at its peak and governments promoted anti-imperialism and based their right to rule on their ability to deliver development and social justice.

Vignette

Islamism — or Fundamentalism?

This book uses the terms "Islamic movements" and "Islamist" to refer to those groups that use Islamic symbols and rhetoric and advocate the return to Islamic law and "Islamic values.' These terms are not the only ones that have been applied to those groups. Indeed, finding an agreed-upon term in English for those groups has not been easy for scholars and commentators. It is not simply a question of taking the Arabic term and translating it into English — there is, after all, no agreed-upon Arabic term for them either.

One term that has commonly been applied to these groups is "fundamentalist," as in Islamic fundamentalist or Muslim fundamentalist. Many scholars of the Middle East have found this term inappropriate because it so obviously borrows from the Western — particularly American — experience. The word "fundamentalism" emerged in the United States at the end of the nineteenth century to describe a school of theology that advocated a return to the fundamentals of Christianity. While this school was particularly strong among American Protestants, it affected American Catholics as well.

The desire to return to Christian fundamentals arose in response to two movements in American Christianity: modernism and the social gospel movement Protestant and Catholic modernists, like Islamic modernists, sought to make religion compatible with the findings of modern science, social theory, and social practice. Those who preached the doctrine of the social gospel sought to apply Christian principles to solve social problems — the sort of problems (poverty, crime) sparked by the industrialization and urbanization of America. Many American Christians thought that the advocates of modernism and the social gospel doctrine had lost touch with their theological roots. In particular, they felt that any attempt to use Christianity to create a "heaven on earth" ignored two fundamental precepts of Christianity: original sin, which made the effort sacrilegious, and the imminent return of Christ, which made the effort superfluous.

Beginning in 1878, those associated with the attempt to return to Christian orthodoxy began holding meetings in upstate New York, an annual event called the Niagara Falls Bible Conference. At the same time, conservative Protestant theologians associated with the Princeton Theological Seminary began to weigh in on the issue. Believing in the literal truth of the Bible, these theologians founded a school of theology called the "Princeton School" or the "Princeton Theology." A marriage of these two groups took place in 1895 when the organizers of the Niagara Falls Bible Conference drew up a list of five principles in which, they maintained, all real Christians had to believe: the literal truth of the original Bible, the virgin birth and deity of Christ, the redemption of mankind through Christ's death, the bodily resurrection of Christ, and the imminent return of Christ. To make these principles widely known, two brothers, Milton and Lyman Steward, published a twelve-tract series called "The Fundamentals." Because they were wealthy — the brothers were founders of the Union Oil Company — they were able to print and distribute over three million copies of their tracts. By the early 1920s, those who held to the principles of "The Fundamentals" began to be labeled "fundamentalists" by their modernist adversaries.

If Christian fundamentalists advocated a return to the original sources of Christianity, why can't the term fundamentalism be used to describe Muslims who also advocate a return to the original sources? Many Middle Eastern scholars believe that the circumstances surrounding the emergence and growth of the two movements are so different that calling them both "fundamentalism" does more to obscure than enlighten. They assert that applying a term originally coined to denote a Western phenomenon demonstrates cultural arrogance —once again, it appears, the West has provided a model, whereas the Middle East has only a cheap knockoff. They also point out that the social composition of the American movement is different from that of the Middle Eastern movement: Whereas contemporary Islamist movements have a particularly strong following among better-educated urban dwellers, Protestant fundamentalism is a doctrine of choice among lesser-educated Americans living in rural areas. Interestingly, this was not always the case. American fundamentalism began as a predominantly urban movement and found strong support in such cities as Philadelphia, Minneapolis, and Los Angeles. In the beginning, the movement also attracted the well educated, as one would expect with a movement that was expounded by theologians at the Princeton Theological Seminary.

Thus, from the nineteenth century through the 1960s, as the numbers of those inhabitants of the Middle East willing and able to engage in political activity expanded, many of them joined one or another political movement that adhered to the same basic assumptions and expectations. Of course, by the mid-twentieth century a preponderance of power resided in the hands of the nationalist movements that held the reins of government. Like their European counterparts, most of these nationalist movements were secular. The smug self-assurance of these nationalists that their brand of nationalism was on the side of history is reflected in a statement that was published in a Syrian newspaper at the beginning of the nationalist era: "I proclaim a new religion above all others. It is the religion of Arab unity which gathers together the children of the nation regardless of their faith."

By the late 1970s, however, the states of the region were in deep crisis. More often than not, the accomplishments of Middle Eastern governments did not match the commitments to development and social justice they had made. None was able to bring about the economic miracles they had promised, none had brought about the expected social transformation, none had ended imperialism, and none had defeated Israel in battle. But what is important here is precisely those commitments, for in the commitments to social justice, true political and economic independence, true democracy, and so on, we find the aspirations of so many in the region. These commitments ran afoul of pressure from the West, the authoritarian tendencies of the regimes in the region, and the inefficiency of centralized economic planning. As a result, governments began to back away from the commitments they had made, leaving the playing field open to those who still took those commitments seriously and who had not been tarnished by failure. Among those groups that still took those commitments seriously were Islamic groups.

Islamic political groups had an added advantage in their battle with official nationalisms: They were able to counterpose their own brand of "cultural authenticity," as represented by Islam, to the "imported" secular nationalist creeds, which, they argued, brought nothing but oppression, economic stagnation, and defeat to the region. But it has not only been the failures of secular nationalisms that have fueled Islamist polemics or bolstered their claims to authenticity. In Saudi Arabia, the Islamic opposition has taken a "holier than thou" stance against a monarchy that claims to promote a strict puritanical interpretation of Islam. The Islamic opposition refutes those claims, asserting that the regime is mired in corruption, condones "un-Islamic" practices, and is servile to the West. Both Hamas in Palestine and Hizbullah in Lebanon have not only confronted the non-Islamic "Zionist enemy," they have challenged their own secular or sectarian political elites at home. The Ba‘th party rulers of Syria and former Ba‘th party rulers of Iraq have come from minority communities, as did their most trustworthy associates: Alawites from the city of Latakia in the case of Syria, Sunni Muslims from the village of Tikrit in the case of Iraq. This, of course, enabled Islamists in those countries to define themselves as the true representatives of the nation in opposition to a sectarian "other."

Middle Eastern regimes certainly have done all they could to repress all opposition, including their Islamic opposition. And they have certainly been successful in repressing individual Islamic groups, just as they have been in repressing secular opponents such as communists and supporters of rival nationalist creeds. Nevertheless, Middle Eastern regimes have been relatively ineffective in suppressing the impulse behind Islamic groups. Islamic movements could not but thrive underground in an atmosphere in which the state not only broadcast its commitment to social justice, but made that commitment the foundation for political legitimacy. Beginning in the mid-1970s, financially strapped regimes began to heed the dictates of the American government and the international economic institutions it dominated by withdrawing from responsibilities they had assumed earlier. The appeal of Islamic movements touched those who were hardest hit by that withdrawal, as well as those who simply viewed the state's attempted retreat as a betrayal of its responsibilities.

The appeal of Islamic political parties has been demonstrated time and again across the region. In November 2003, then-president George W. Bush gave a speech celebrating the twentieth anniversary of the National Endowment for Democracy. In the speech he proclaimed, "Many Middle Eastern governments now understand that military dictatorship and theocratic rule are a straight, smooth highway to nowhere." He then hailed the steps toward democracy taken in Morocco, Bahrain, Oman, Qatar, Yemen, Kuwait, Jordan, the Palestinian Authority, Afghanistan, and Iraq. Interestingly, however, practically every example cited by Bush — and some that went unmentioned — only serves to underscore the popularity of Islamist parties. Although governments have repressed Islamists, banned their political parties, restricted Islamist fund-raising and media access, and gerrymandered districts and fixed electoral lists, Islamists still managed to score significant successes in parliamentary elections in Morocco, Bahrain, Kuwait, Yemen, Jordan, Egypt, Lebanon, and the Palestinian Authority during the period of the Bush presidency.

What all this bodes for political developments in those countries is unpredictable. In spite of dire predictions, participation in electoral politics and governance seems to have kept Turkey's Justice and Development Party and Jordan's Islamic Action Front on the straight and narrow. In Lebanon and Palestine, however, it has not. In Lebanon, Hizbullah has not only maintained its militia, but in the summer of 2006 it provoked a war with Israel in which approximately one thousand Lebanese civilians died and close to a million were displaced. And although Hamas won 56 percent of the seats in the Palestinian parliament in elections held in 2006 (running, it must be added, under the banner of "Change and Reform" against a notoriously corrupt Fatah), the group's military operations provoked war with Israel that same year and again in 2009. And, for good measure, the group, in all likelihood acting to prevent its own repression by Fatah loyalists, violently overthrew what had been a unity government administering the Gaza Strip. So much, then, for George W. Bush's assertion, in the speech cited in the preceding paragraph, that "democracy...teaches cooperation, the free exchange of ideas, and the peaceful resolution of differences."

In spite of it all, the inability of regimes to suppress the impulse behind their Islamic opposition does not necessarily mean that those regimes will eventually succumb to that (or any other) opposition. Middle Eastern states have been able to concentrate into their hands an inordinate amount of power, particularly repressive power. Although political scientists may talk about populations "bargaining" with their governments to obtain rights or preserve pockets of freedom unfettered by state control, it must be remembered that Middle Eastern states are maintained by seemingly pervasive intelligence services and militaries designed as much to preserve internal order as to make war on external enemies. Bargaining under such conditions cannot be but one-sided. When pushed against a wall, regimes have responded with unrestrained viciousness. As we noted before, the Syrian government suppressed an Islamist rebellion in the city of Hama in 1982 by shelling the city center at an estimated cost of ten to twenty thousand lives. Saddam Hussein's repression of Shi‘i revolts that broke out in Iraq in the aftermath of the 1990-1991 Gulf War was even more savage. The tanks that entered towns controlled by the rebels bore the legend, "After today, no more Shi‘is," and after rebels fled to the expansive marshlands of southern Iraq the Iraqi government had the marshes drained. In the process, it displaced as many as a quarter of a million "Marsh Arabs" and created what the United Nations called an "ecological disaster."

But while all states in the region have not been afraid to use their coercive power, they have also learned not to test its limits unnecessarily. Even under the most adverse economic and political conditions, states have been reluctant to redefine their missions radically. As we have seen, after Anwar al-Sadat, at the insistence of the IMF, attempted to withdraw price supports from basic commodities in 1977, rioting broke out throughout Egypt. The government backed down. When it comes to tampering with the social safety net, the Egyptian government has avoided direct confrontation with its population by acting more deliberately and furtively. By maintaining at least the illusion that they are committed to social welfare, Egypt and the other states of the region have been able to take some of the wind out of the sails of Islamic political groups.

There are other reasons as well why regimes in the region may be able to weather the Islamist storm. Many in the region consider the Islamist cure more dangerous than the authoritarian disease. Among them are secularists, religious minorities, liberals, and advocates of women's rights. This "better the devil you know" attitude can be seen by once again taking a look at the Hama revolt of 1982. While most commentators have viewed the entire incident as a morality tale underscoring the ruthlessness of the regime, there is another lesson to be learned as well: The population outside Hama remained quiet in spite of attempts by Islamic organizations to spark revolts in Damascus and Aleppo. Fear and repression certainly played a role, but there were other factors as well. For example, the non-Sunni Muslims that make up a quarter of the population of Syria are not thrilled at the prospect of an Islamic government. They are joined by that part of the population that has directly benefited from regime policies, such as those who live in rural areas of Syria who had been neglected before the Ba‘th Party took power. Following suit are the secular nationalist true believers and those who are just plain skeptical of the promises of Islamic groups, whatever the sins of the regime.

There is one more reason why regimes in the region might get the better of Islamist movements: the failures of those movements. Islamist movements have demonstrated that they can act with the same bloodlust and ineptitude as the governments they have opposed or even joined. After the second round of voting in Algeria was canceled in 1992, a group called the "Armed Islamic Group (GIA)" emerged to fight the government, then all those who worked for the government (including school teachers and doctors), then foreigners, and finally Algerians who were not GIA members. The GIA designated them "unbelievers." A bloodbath followed, including wholesale massacres of villagers by machete-wielding GIA members (and/or, perhaps, government forces intending to discredit the GIA). At the height of the carnage, about three hundred Algerian civilians were killed per month. The crimes of the GIA were so repellent and thus so counterproductive that even al-Qaeda deemed them to have been "a mistake." And, for want of a better option, Algerian popular opinion turned in favor of the government. Similar shifts in public opinion took place in Egypt after members of the Islamic Group killed four Egyptians and fifty-nine tourists in the town of Luxor; and in Jordan, after a triple suicide bombing in Amman, attributed to al-Qaeda in Iraq, killed fifty-nine celebrants gathered at a wedding.

In the meantime, native Jordanian Islamists have demonstrated that piety and political acumen do not necessarily coincide. After Islamic activists won thirty-four out of eighty seats in the Jordanian parliament in 1989, the prime minister appointed them to five cabinet posts — education, social development, justice, religious affairs, and health. Triumph soon turned to disrepute (or, perhaps, farce), when the ministers tried to apply such "Islamic" measures as banning alcohol and banning fathers from watching their daughters compete in athletic meets. According to observers, it was not as if either the prime minister or the king was surprised by the Islamists' actions or their effect: In the next election, Islamists lost a third of their seats. In this and other cases where Islamists have joined governments, they have had to engage in petty politics and the mundane, day-to-day tasks of governance that all too often wear the luster off shiny ideals. They also have become complicit in their state's failures. In all, the domestic field on which Islamists have been forced to play may prove as constrictive to Islamist aspirations as the international state system did to those of the Iranian revolutionaries.

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