There are two types of revolutionary Islamists in the Middle East today: the Muslim Brotherhood and the “Salafists.” Of course, the Muslim Brotherhood is in fact a Salafist group, in the sense that it wants to use Islam as it can be most strictly and repressively interpreted and create a dictatorship based on a radical interpretation of Sharia law.
And that is the first important point to understand. The difference between Brotherhood and “Salafists” is purely tactical. The Brotherhood has learned how to maneuver politically, an advance similar to what Lenin instituted for the Marxists of his day. You can’t just declare a revolution and change everything overnight.
No, the Communists argued a century ago and the Brotherhood advocates now, instead the road to victory is to create a disciplined movement, build a mass base, construct front groups, create (temporary) alliances that split your opponents, and march step by step to total power. Just as Lenin planned to get the capitalists to sell him the rope with which to hang them, the Brotherhood plots to get the infidels to do it.
So far, the Brotherhood has been pretty successful. In contrast, the Salafists are less elegant. They put it all on the table: total Islamism now through direct action and violence.
These thoughts were prompted by an Associated Press article on Tunisia, the only Middle Eastern country where secularists are going to make a stand against the revolutionary Islamist movement that is advancing everywhere. In addition, since the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood is in a coalition government with liberals, Tunisia will be a test case for lots of issues.
Can liberal Tunisians expect any real Western help or sympathy? Well, as we’ve seen in Iran, Turkey, Lebanon, and Syria the answer is pretty much “no.” Why? Because in the dominant Western narrative — dominated by the far left — the Brotherhood, not the liberals, are the “good guys” in the Middle East.
Think of how “unnatural” this is. There are leftists in the region and real liberals, too, who are the precise counterparts of the current Western elites in terms of ideas or of Western democratic societies in terms of goals. Shouldn’t all those academics, intellectuals, journalists, and government officials be cheering the liberals and booing the Islamists, including the Brotherhood? Marxists and Communists used to call the equivalents of the Brotherhood “clerical fascists.”
Here’s a rare example today of old-fashioned leftism from the Communist Party of Great Britain’s newspaper, December 1, 2011:
In 1979, a wave of euphoria for the uprising against the shah of Iran swept through the left, which failed to warn of the danger that was presented by other bourgeois forces, particularly the mullahs. The left adopted the attitude of “My enemy’s enemy is my friend”, rather than adopting the position, developed by Marx and Engels, and later by Lenin and Trotsky, that the working class should focus on defending its own interests, developing its own independent organisations and maintaining a strict separation from the bourgeoisie.
Refreshing, isn’t it? Makes you yearn for the good old days. The article continues:
As Engels and Lenin, in particular, made clear, our aim is not bourgeois democracy, but socialism. We defend bourgeois-democratic freedoms not as an end in themselves, but only in so far as they facilitate the independent organisation and struggle of the workers.
So Marxists aren’t supposed to support reactionary clerical regimes (said to be “bourgeois”) while Marxists only pretend to be for democracy in order to get Communism. But nowadays most of the Western left does back the Brotherhood, or at least serve as its public relations agency. Forget about “Islamophobia”: the real attitude of these circles can be called ‘Islamomania,” a belief that Islamist groups are the true revolutionaries of our time, the “progressives” of the Middle East.
Why should Western liberals, or leftists for that matter, support reactionary clerical regimes (totalitarians) that only pretend to be for democracy in order to get Islamist dictatorships (Iran, the Taliban’s Afghanistan, Hamas’ Gaza Strip, and coming soon to Egypt, etc.?)
Can you think of one liberal Muslim, in the West or in the Middle East, who has become a hero to Western onlookers? No. Such people remain small in numbers and obscure in terms of publicity. In a few cases, they are let into the Western media but only to argue that the Brotherhood is going to be their protector. This is what happened after the brief period of cheerleading for the Tahrir Square “Facebook kids.” If you are a liberal or secularist Middle Easterner or Western Muslim, don’t expect any support from liberal secularist Westerners.
How do you make the bad guys into good guys while ignoring the good guys? By making the even-worse guys the apparent threat. Al-Qaeda is evil, and now so are the Salafists. In Egypt, that role is also assigned to the army, which will soon be out of political power. But the “mainstream” Islamists then become the hero even as they persecute the liberals.
Here’s the New York Times version:
The Muslim Brotherhood … is proving more pragmatic than expected. Emad Gad, a lawmaker from the opposition liberal bloc, says “we can cooperate with” them. The Brotherhood is also working with the military council that has failed at running the country and is supposed to cede power to the new president in June.
Consider these parallel statements in an Associated Press article on Tunisia:
This emerging movement of believers known as Salafis has seemingly appeared out of thin air.
Now that is true if one speaks of them as an organized movement. Even then, though, they didn’t appear out of thin air, but didn’t exist because they were repressed by the regime, just as was true in Egypt, Libya, in a different way in Turkey, and elsewhere.
If you go out to rich farmland where the seeds are planted, if you add water and perhaps some fertilizer, then the corn or wheat can also be said to have “seemingly appeared out of thin air.” That soil, of course, is the society as it existed, including the role of Islam in shaping them.
If extremism, and especially Islamist extremism, just appears because some people “misunderstood” Islam or want to “hijack” it, then how are they so instantly successful? There has to be a serious consideration of what created these beliefs, movements, and popular support for them. Of course, in doing so let us remember that many people also oppose them. So the environment is not deterministic, but it does have influences in a certain direction.
Ok — so now we have a culture war between Salafists and secularist modernist liberals. But here’s how the narrative is spun for the Western observer: fortunately, there’s a third, moderate force that can be depended on to bring balance and democracy. And it’s … the Muslim Brotherhood!
Here’s how the Associated Press explains it:
Caught between the Salafis and the secularists are the moderate Islamists who won Tunisia’s first free elections and are trying to build a democratic model for countries that followed Tunisia down this still uncertain revolutionary path.
In other words, the AP is “officially” telling us that the Brotherhood’s goal is real democracy. But is the Brotherhood “caught between” the other two groups, or is it seeking the same goal as the Salafists? On the one hand, the Brotherhood is going to respond to pressure from the Salafists by going farther and faster; on the other hand, it will use the Salafists as a cover to prove their own “moderation” and to present themselves as everyone’s protector from those crazy extremist types.
Here’s another point worth considering: “The Salafis … call the secularists leftover supporters of the old dictator.” This is a good tactic also for Egypt, Libya, perhaps Syria, and in a watered-down form, in Turkey. In the Western interpretation, these were revolutions for democracy and modernization. But in the Islamist interpretation, Brotherhood just as much as Salafist: the old regime was a dictatorship that repressed Islam; the revolution was for Islam; the future regime will be Islamic.
Here is how Professor Hussein Solomon makes this point regarding South Africa’s African National Congress (ANC) Party believing it has a monopoly on virtue and should have a monopoly on political power:
The ANC does not see itself as a political party like other political parties representing a particular constituency, but rather as a revolutionary movement representing all South Africans. … The ANC sees all those who oppose them as “counter-revolutionary.” The ANC is the custodian of the mythical National Democratic Revolution. Those who expose the ANC’s ineptitude in governance and corruption within the `revolutionary movement’s’ ranks are all reactionaries.
[In Zimbabwe], Despite the terror [President Robert] Mugabe and his goons have unleashed on Zimbabwe’s hapless citizens, [the people are told] that it was [his] ZANU-PF [party] which delivered them from the clutches of Ian Smith’s racist regime.
In both South Africa and Zimbabwe, other groups that participated in that struggle are ignored or delegitimized while the ruling party’s dictatorship is justified because it is the sole legitimate institution representing the revolution.
The same thing is happening in the Middle East. Said Ferjani, a high-ranking member of the Brotherhood’s party, presented the situation this way with the AP’s cooperation:
There is a war of life styles; someone from one group wants to impose their lifestyle on the other group. They each believe in freedom of speech only for themselves.” He called the liberals “secular fundamentalists;” the AP called them the “secular elite.”
So the Salafists and liberals each want to be dictators, but the Brotherhood will defeat both “extremes” and ensure freedom for everyone?
Ferjani added that the Brotherhood didn’t want a culture war:
We are dealing with the business of government, we have floods in the north, a sinking economy and these people are talking about the burqa and the hijab. I don’t think they are very grown up.
The Brotherhood, however, is “very grown up.” It presents itself as the pragmatists who just want to fix things and bring democracy. It won’t talk so much about the burqa and hijab. It will just ensure that the new constitution and future laws enshrine such things and many more aspects of Sharia.
And it will do so with the silence, approval, and even cooperation of most Western media, academia, and government policies. Lenin, roll over. You have met your match in terms of revolutionary strategy.
Barry Rubin is director of the Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) Center and editor of the Middle East Review of International Affairs (MERIA) Journal. His book, Israel: An Introduction, has just been published by Yale University Press. Other recent books include The Israel-Arab Reader (seventh edition), The Long War for Freedom: The Arab Struggle for Democracy in the Middle East (Wiley), and The Truth About Syria (Palgrave-Macmillan). The website of the GLORIA Center and of his blog, Rubin Reports. His original articles are published at PJMedia.
Also read my article: “No Picnic: What a War with Iran Really Means”