Tuesday, July 26, 2005

Islamic Fundamentalism in Egypt and Iraq

It is often argued by the Left (and by the so called “realists” on the Right) that the removal of Saddam Hussein is a bad idea since he is a Socialist Baathist, he would keep the Islamists in check - the old stability trade-off theory.

I will get back to how Saddam fail miserably at keeping Islamism in check. But I want to talk about the terror attacks at Sharm al-Sheikh. Abdullah Azzam Brigades in Syria and Egypt claimed responsibility. The group is an Al-Qaeda affiliate. There are indicators that Egyptians are involved in the attacks, either as the attackers themselves or logistical supply. As I have described terrorist operational cycle here. The attacks of that complexity could not have been done without local assistance.

Egypt clearly disproves the stability trade off theory. Egypt is a repressive but secular regime. Mubarak studiously oppress and target Islamists, particularly the Muslim Brotherhood. He considered them to be his worst enemy and is particularly brutal to them. Despite Mubarak relentless pressure, instead of withering away, Islamism is flourishing in Egypt. The Muslim Brotherhood continues to attract membership among the Middle Class, and the writing of Sayed Qutb is more popular now than when he was still alive.

My favorite Egyptian blog, the Big Pharaoh blog often about the encroaching Fundamentalist value and culture. Here he lamented the state of women affair in Egypt, particularly the dress code. On another post, he compared the dress code in his time versus the dress code when his mother was a young lady. His mother was allowed socially to show far more skin than girls of his generation. It is clear that Islamic Fundamentalism is gaining ascendancy in Egypt. Islamists may not be able to control completely the politic of Egypt but they have absolute control over the undercurrent of culture and value. The strong arm of Mubarak only reaches so far.

The same situation occurred in Iraq. When I arrived in Iraq early 2004, we witnessed many rural villages (and a few neighborhoods in the city) where people dress and act differently. Their dress code is distinctive (different from the Iraqi traditional costume) – men in full beard with their dress wear above the ankle and women cover from head to toes. They also pray differently. I was informed by other Iraqis that they are Wahhabis. There are many of those villages and neighborhood scattered across Iraq - the source of recruit and support for the insurgency.

The presence of many Wahhabi villages exposes and debunks the idiotic and ill-informed allegation that the War in Iraq brought Islamic Fundamentalism to Iraq where it did not exist before. Villages full of Wahhabi did not show up over night. They are a result of a long steady process of many years.

The story of how Wahhabism arrived to Iraq is eye opening. It is a recent phenomenon. All Iraqi Wahhabis were converted after the 90s. According to many Iraqis I spoke to, Wahhabism did not arrive to Iraq via Saudi Arabia but it arrived via the West (North America and Europe). A few Iraqis expats who reside in North America and Europe came into contact with Wahhabism and converted to the sect. After the 1990s, many came back to Iraq and converted their kinsmen. Slowly Wahhabi villages and neighborhoods emerged across Iraq Sunni heartland.

The rise of fundamentalism in Egypt and Iraq beg many questions. (1) How does Islamic Fundamentalism gain ground in countries in which regimes are openly hostile toward it? (2) And what attract people in those particular countries to Fundamentalism?

(1) On the first question, Islamic (or any other religious fundamentalism) Fundamentalism is very resilient to oppression. The Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt has always able to operate as a grass-root movement underground. Those who had interaction with religious zealots would realize that they are literally impossible to suppress. Their religious faith sustains them through the most difficult time. Secular political parties lack the conviction and devotion of religious zealots. In fact the sense of martyrdom would strengthen a zealot conviction when he oppressed. In Egypt, many secular opposition died away from repression (the recent ones are newly born), but the Muslim Brotherhood survived. The same is true in Iraq. The two dominant Sunni Iraqis political movements are the Iraqi Islamic Party and the Muslim Ulema Council, but no secular party.

(2) On the second question, the deficit of freedom is the decease and terrorism is the manifested syndrome. The lack of political freedom and an atmosphere of repression radicalized people and drive them toward extremism. This is particularly true of young middle class men. Educated men in their 20s and 30s are full of energy and they need a way to channel their energy. Egypt under Mubarak and Iraq under Saddam (I would include the House of Saud) provide no outlet for them to express themselves. Instead they are left with a feeling of helplessness and alienation (I know alienation is a Marxist term but it is the most descriptive). Participation in jihads gives them the illusion of control – that they are the drivers not the driven.

Therefore, the removal of repressive regimes is the only cure for the current ailment of the Middle East. If anything, post Saddam Iraq offer alternatives to Wahhabism. Young men in Iraq have a variety of political parties of diverse ideologies to pick from. They no longer have to pick between the Baath Party and Wahhabism.


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