It was once a simple dream that breathed life into the hope-starved spirits of so many.
Ever since the French landed on the shores of Egypt in 1798, we have been in the grip of a past alienated from its history, an identity divorced from its memory, and insecure flashes of pride defeated by a deep sense of indignity.
Then came the Arab Spring!
So many thought the Arab Spring would allow the region self-determination, and would shift the gaze of the world away from the twin spectres of oil and Israel. Perhaps the world would finally gaze upon Arabs without racism and Islam without bigotry.
The Arab Spring was a resounding protest against everything, from the corruption of the West's corporate cronies - who exploit the region's natural resources so that they can enjoy the latest luxuries their colonial masters have to offer - to the foreign occupations and humiliations heaped upon all those who dared to think that they had a right to resist.
The Arab Spring was about this magical word, hurriyya, which means different things to different people - but at a minimum, it means freedom from oppression, exploitation, corruption and a servile existence.
But the Arab Spring was like a foetus in an abortion clinic; it never had a chance.
Why was the Arab Spring aborted? Because a democratic Middle East would have been a poor habitat for the survival of the parasitical military regimes and putrid oil sheikhdoms, which relentlessly eradicate any healthy space for the development of civic institutions that can cultivate and nurture the growth of civic values. Those regimes cannot afford to rule over citizens. They can only rule over slaves.
The truth is that with the failure of the Arab Spring, so many politicians and intellectuals in the West and the Arab world breathed a sigh of relief. Why? Because the danger of so-called political Islam had been averted. And indeed, so many pundits gleefully declared that the phenomenon of political Islam was finally dead.
In Egypt, the largest Arab country, what ensued had become a familiar and repetitive pattern since colonialism: in the name of modernity and progress, the state went into an ultra-repressive mode, persecuted Islamists, banned Islamic parties and declared war on all expressions of Islam that it deemed political. Abdel Fattah El Sisi even equated political Islam with terrorism, and in an interview with a French newspaper, when asked to comment on Hamas, Sisi responded that political Islam in all of its permutations and forms are one and the same.
This was only a harbinger of what was to come: Egypt has now formally declared Hamas a terrorist organization, but apparently, as far as Sisi is concerned, Netanyahu's government - with its war crimes and ongoing unlawful occupation of Palestinian lands - is kosher.
By now, it is beyond dispute that Saudi Arabia, UAE and Kuwait bought themselves a counter-revolution in Egypt, Yemen and Libya. These countries formed a reactionary alliance to intervene wherever they can to restore the morally defunct and corrupt old order. In each case, they flooded the hopelessly corrupt cadres of the military officers with enough cash to buy proxy agents capable of expressing the egotistic anxieties of despots.
The parasitical military regimes and putrid oil sheikhdoms of the Middle East cannot afford to rule over citizens. They can only rule over slaves.
Instead of hurriyya and freedom, all of the focus now is on fighting terrorism and maintaining stability and security, which, in the case of the aforementioned countries, is a superficially coded way of saying: Don't dare dream of self-determination and autonomy, because political Islam is the ever-present boogeyman ready to return you to the dark ages ('usur or 'uqud al-zalam) once again!
If this exclamatory warning is hopelessly confusing, then welcome to the madhouse. Have the military juntas and sheikhdoms ruling the Arab world since colonialism taken the region out of the dark ages in the first place? What precisely is the current blissful state of enlightenment that Muslims are at risk of losing to the political Islamist hoards, and what exactly are the blessed fruits of the praetorian states and the oil sheikhdoms that the barbarians at the gates are threatening to usurp from the post-colonial Arab?
But, even more fundamentally, what is this political Islam that is equated with reactionism, the dark ages and barbarism and terrorism?
Islam, its doctrines, symbolisms and linguistic constructs, are persistently utilized by the Gulf States to legitimate and maintain themselves in power. The exploitation of religion as a means to keeping a conservative and exploitative elite in power is a staple of everyday life in the Gulf countries. Every one of those countries carefully nurtures and maintains a class of clergymen with religious institutions that function as a conservative legitimating force safeguarding the status quo, which includes the exploitative use of foreign workers, and a hyper-form of Gulf nationalistic elitism.
This Islamized and oddly pietistic Gulf nationalism often manifests itself in highly racist and ethnocentric ways, deep seated social and political inequities, entrenched patriarchal institutions, and unabashed political despotism and authoritarianism. Critical to this dynamic is that the state carefully defines, regulates and dictates religious expression and orthodoxy. Religion is also exploited to further state policies, such as antagonism towards Shi'i Iran and other Shi'i allies.
Even Sisi of Egypt, who plays the role of the protector of secularism in the region, allows for no expression of religious values outside the sphere defined and controlled by the state. The state controls which places of worship are built and where, and in the case of Islam, also what can be said in mosques. The state controls what Muslim clergy may say on their podiums and relies on Azhar state-salaried clergy to defend its legitimacy and Islamic orthodoxy in the face of any dissent. All the Islamic charitable endowments that exist in Egypt have been placed under state control and have been plundered by corruption and nepotism. Incidentally, thanks to the precedent established by colonial powers, the Coptic religious endowments remain under the private control of the church.
Not only did Sisi secure the support of the Azhar and Coptic church before the coup in July 2013, but before the massacre of Raba'a al-Adawiya mosque, he brought in a line-up of clerics to lecture the army officers that Islam mandates the removal of democratically elected governments and that whether they do the killing or be killed, in both cases, they are honoured and blessed in the eyes of God.
On an occasion bordering on the comical, in July 2014, the venerable Rector of Azhar University awarded the late King Abdullah Bin Abdulaziz of Saudi Arabia an honorary doctorate in Islamic theology and law. Azhar is the oldest university in the world and is supposed to be the premier theological Muslim institution. Not to be outdone, the University of Medina in Saudi Arabia conferred an honorary doctorate in Political Science upon the King, even though the school does not have a political science department and does not offer a degree in the field.
Was the late King of Saudi Arabia presented with an honorary doctorate because of his inexhaustible knowledge of Islamic law and theology, or perhaps because of his impeccable Islamic ethics of mercy, compassion and justice? No, this is yet another manifestation of the way that religion, its symbolisms and moral force, are placed at the disposal of the state. The decision to award the late Saudi King an honorary doctorate was a thoroughly political act in which the state leveraged Islam to serve its political interests.
But adding to the chaotic incoherence, Sisi apparently now fancies himself a Muslim reformer of sorts, and has decided to have the intellectually comatose and doltish functionaries of Azhar become the pioneers of this supposed reform.
First, in a speech given at Azhar University on 1 January 2015, Sisi mirrored the narrative of his intellectual dons - namely, Fox News and other well-accredited Islamophobes - by declaring that it is due time the 1.6 billion Muslims in the world desist from being the source of the world's woes. In doing so, he not only offended the mainstream Muslims for whom he claims to speak, but he adopted the role of the prototypical native informant whose narrative and imaginary constructs have thoroughly internalized the supremacist and often racist culture of his colonial master. He no longer has the ability to gaze upon himself through the eyes of those who resist and reject subservience to dominant powers. He can only see himself through the deprecating and effacing gaze of his long-time masters.
In the same speech, Sisi called for a rebellion against sacred texts, and then turned to his Azhar functionaries and charged them with defining "moderate Islam." But how would this moderate Islam look? What would be its epistemological underpinnings and philosophical presumptions?
Perhaps political Islam should be defined as any form of expression of Islamicity for purposes not consistent with the pro-Western military regimes and oil sheikhdoms in the region.
Here we must hearken back to a fascinating body of evidence: from the honorary doctorate given to the late Saudi King; to Sisi banning any bumper stickers that call for praying upon the soul of the Prophet Muhammad; to the closing down of all privately owned Muslim places of worship in Egypt; to Wahhabi Islam's psychotic hatred of Shi'ism and to Wahhabi Islam's obsessive control over personal space and the hegemonic regulation of the public performance of religiosity; to many other sociological articulations such as cosmopolitan Dubai, the world's dirty playground and the capital of human trafficking; to cosmopolitan Mecca with its vulgar display of stark McWorld consumerism and Uncle Sam capitalism; and also Riyadh and Cairo, which have become prototypes of the worst forms of the modern day police-state.
So what might be the common threads to all of this "moderate Islamicity"? Apparently, the only common threads are that it is a state-led and state-defined Islam, and a thoroughly politicized version of Islam. This moderate Islam could even be a theocratic state of the Wahhabi prototype. It could be as despotic, patriarchal, authoritarian, exploitative, oppressive, puritanical and intolerant as it wishes, as long as its politics are consistent with what the old-guard and their Western allies want, and as long as the sufferers of this state-driven Islam are themselves the right type of victims. So, for instance, they could be trafficked labourers from Sri Lanka and the Philippines, or Palestinians living under occupation, but they cannot be American contractors in Iraq or Israelis in occupied territories.
If this highly contingent and erratic definition of "moderate Islam" strikes someone as thoroughly political, then what does this do to the coherence of the concept of political Islam (al-Islam al-Siyasi) and its many terrifying spectres? In the kosher type of politicized Islam that apparently is acceptable to Sisi, Azhar, Saudi Arabia, the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) and their allies, the state is God - it defines and manages religion in the public space, it defines good religiosity as opposed to bad religiosity, and it tells us what God wants or does not want. Therefore, obedience to the state is a legal and moral duty, and submission to the state is a virtue.
Now, of course, this is all true if the state happens to be the right type of state. So if the state happens to be Shi'i, pro-Iranian, defiant of Israel or - God forbid - subversive of Western interests in the region, then disobedience and rebellion is a moral virtue, and perhaps even an Islamic obligation. Perhaps political Islam is like terrorism - if employed by the right state for the right kind of purpose, then it is simply the deployment of violent means for justifiable ends. If, on the other hand, it is deployed by the wrong kind of people for the wrong purpose, then it becomes the unlawful and immoral use of violence to terrorize the innocent.
Perhaps political Islam should be defined as any form of expression of Islamicity for purposes not consistent with the pro-Western military regimes and oil sheikhdoms in the region. If we strive to be even more uncomfortably honest, perhaps political Islam is any assertion of Islam that serves to agitate against the right type of people being in power, or that acts to incite subversion against their habitual privileges and entitlements.
If we are being entirely honest, we would have to recognize that the very concept of political Islam is quintessentially incoherent. The very first steps towards the construction of civil coherence must be honesty in discourse. The problem, however, is that the deployment of the label "political Islam" is itself a politically motivated and often mendacious attempt at obfuscation.
When I first visited the United States, I was first introduced to a phrase that for the next thirty years became something of a hypnotic mantra: "Israel is the only democracy in the Middle East." It has always struck me as interesting that Israel is also the only state in the Middle East that is not only unequivocally supported by the West, but that is organically an outgrowth of the West and not the West.
To what extent does this help allay Western anxieties about the way Israel constructs its identity, and to what extent is Israel seen as an extension of the white Judeo-Christian civilization, or what many would call the Western Judeo-Christian civilization? To what extent does the expression "political Islam" betray Western - that is, primarily Euro-white - anxieties about the construction of an Islamic civilizational threat?
In Israel, political Judaism is alive and well. Religious parties, even the most extreme and fanatic, participate in elections, win seats in the Knesset, and often form a part of ruling coalition governments. These religious parties have their publications and media outlets and have an undeniable influence upon the legislative process in Israel. Israel does not have a written constitution, and its constitutional norms are usually interpreted by secularly minded Supreme Court justices. But the Jewish tradition and faith provide the normative foundation and moral inspiration for numerous political parties active both in and outside of Israel, before and after 1948.
Likewise, there are well-over fifty Christian political parties active in Europe, Africa, South America and Asia, including the Christian Heritage Party of Canada, the Christian People's Alliance of the UK, the Christian Democratic Union of the Ukraine, the Christian Democratic Party of Indonesia, and the Albanian Christian Democratic Movement of Albania. Australia, of course, has its own rather contentious Christian Democratic Party.
All of these parties are about Christian and Jewish identity and self-definition, but none of them speak for either Judaism or Christianity. No serious commentator would dare suggest that any of the Christian or Jewish political parties could possibly embody the nuanced and multi-layered socio-historical experiences of Judaism or Jewishness, and Christianity or Christianness. The irony is that one thing shared by Saudi Arabia, Sisi, Azhar and Islamic State (ISIS) is that they all claim to speak for Islam.
With the multiplicity of conflicting and contradictory native voices speaking for the authentic and true Islam, many in the West have fallen into the habit of not taking any native voices at their word, and of constructing their own sense of self-hood in opposition to the other. Meaning, they construct their own sense of what Islam is as simply what they are not and do not wish to be. This is precisely how expressions like "political Islam" come to be. Like pornography and terrorism, perhaps we cannot define political Islam, but we know it when we see it. This is also precisely why so many pundits were able to observe the atrocities of ISIS and declare with a veiled sense of relief: Ah! Therein is the true face of political Islam!
Nonetheless, this might explain how Western anxieties become the platform for the birth of expressions such as political Islam, militant Islam, radical Islam, Jihadi-Islam, and all other forms of hyphenated Islam. This is also why we choose to hyphenate Islam and not Muslims - the difference, for instance, is between saying militant Islam or militant Muslims.
With the multiplicity of conflicting and contradictory native voices speaking for the authentic and true Islam, many in the West have fallen into the habit of not taking any native voices at their word, and of constructing their own sense of what Islam is as simply what they are not and do not wish to be.
All of our academic terminology evidences a persistent prejudicial anxiety and fear of what Islam as such is about to do to and with us. This does not, however, explain why the governments of the region adopted the same anxiety-ridden terminology to the phenomenon of what they describe as political Islam, as if they too belong to one civilization at odds with the civilization of the other.
As a starting point, we should recognize that it is not unusual for the elites of postcolonial societies to internalize and respond to the constructed civilizational conflicts not of their own cultures, but of their Western guardians and protectors.
This is especially the case with the Gulf countries of the Middle East. Both in their formative years as newly founded states, and again, in the past two decades, the Gulf States have come to represent extreme cases of neo-colonial states. Per international law they are sovereign nations, but the margin of autonomous political agency in their understanding of and responses to the world order is very narrow. Their elites cannot conceive of a world where their former colonizers, and the West in general, is not the Mecca and central force of finance, banking, technology, arms, consumer products, city-planning, higher education, entertainment, leisure and practically everything else.
Indeed, the Gulf countries are keenly aware of the West's anxieties about the phenomenon invented and developed in the West known as "political Islam." The translated al-Islam al-siyasi has been fully imported and embraced in practically all the Muslim world as if it is phenomenologically sound and pertinent. Despite its internal incoherence, the expression was widely used by the GCC and Egypt in quashing the Arab revolutionary fervour.
Does this mean that in acting to pre-empt the threat of political Islam, Egypt and the Gulf countries acted upon a sense of false consciousness instilled in them by their Western colonial masters? In my view, since the fall of the Soviet bloc, this is one of the few occasions in which Egypt and the Gulf countries led the West, instead of the other way around, and did so to the detriment of the West and the rest of the world.
Put bluntly, "scary Islam" plays a very useful functional role for the proto-Western elites of the Arab world. The narrative adopted by the Egyptian military and the sheikhdoms, especially in dealing with the United States and Britain, has persistently played on the age-old political realism of the lesser of two evils. Essentially, this narrative says: Yes, we might be bad, but the alternative is much worse.
But for this stark functionalism to work and to overcome the West's sense of goodness about being the ideological bearers of humanitarian and civilizational values, the alternative has to play on all the Western historical prejudices, fears, and anxieties about the barbarians at the gates. But most of all, the alternative has to reinforce the position of unabashed despots - such as Sisi and the Saudi government - as essential strategic allies in the region as opposed to, at best, the unknown.
More concretely, there is an ever-growing body of evidence that ISIS was a monster unleashed upon the world by Saudi intelligence and its allies, with Prince Sultan bin Bandar playing the key role. In 2011, the Saudis were confronted by a worrisome situation. Their despotic friends in Tunisia and Egypt were overthrown, and their arch-nemesis in Libya, Muammar Qadhafi, was killed. The regimes in Yemen, Bahrain and Syria were under siege, and there was wide speculation about which authoritarian regime would be next.
After its military intervention in Bahrain violently quashed the popular uprising, Saudi Arabia and its allies needed to convince the White House of the need for a coup to restore the old regime in Egypt. Reportedly, it was Prince Bandar who took charge of creating a significant enough threat in the Middle East to convince a recalcitrant American administration of two things: first, the threat of popularist Islamic challenges to established regimes in the Arab world; and second, if need be, the necessity for American military interventions to overturn the revolutionary fervour that was overtaking the region at the time, and to protect the Saudi regime if it came under threat.
Saudi Arabia and its allies understood very well that there are strong political and social reservations in the United States about committing troops on the ground. Such reservations could be overcome only if the frightening spectre of political Islam was elevated to such heights that the white Judeo-Christian civilization would be willing to sacrifice its proverbial sons to exorcise the region of its demons.
Scary Islam plays a very useful functional role for the proto-Western elites of the Arab world. The narrative adopted by the Egyptian military and the sheikhdoms has persistently played on the age-old political realism of the lesser of two evils.
It is no accident that Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the leader of ISIS, performed the highly pretentious and very Hollywood-esque act of declaring himself Caliph. Nothing plays on the vulnerabilities of the Western imagination like the phantom of the return of the Muslim hordes united behind their Caliph to lay siege at the gates of Vienna once again. But as with the Wahhabi Ikhwan movement in the 1920s, which had to be slaughtered by the British air force with the full support of Ibn Saud (r. 1926-1953), the ISIS gamble badly backfired, and the Saudis and their allies ultimately found themselves threatened by the monster they created.
For all practical effects, the White House's hands were forced, but to the dismay of the Saudis and their allies, the White House still insisted on not re-sending troops into Iraq, and reportedly, the removal and exile of Bandar was made a condition for the commencement of the air campaign and the escalation of covert operations against ISIS.
So much has been made of ISIS's purported Islamicity that I think it is worthwhile briefly to comment on its ideological and intellectual lineage. It is already well known that ISIS emerged as a break-off from Al-Qaeda in Iraq and that many of its officers are former members of the Iraqi army dissolved by American forces in May 2003. It initially emerged in response to the perceived take-over of Iraq by Shi'is in the south and Kurds in the north of Iraq.
Intellectually, other than the typical Wahhabi works on theology and law, two treatises have proven most influential upon militant Muslim groups in the Arab world, including Al-Qaeda and ISIS. The first book is titled Idarat al-tawahhush ("The Management of Savagery") by Abu Bakr Naji (2004), and the second is Da'wat al-muqawama al-Islamiyya al-'alamiyya ("The Global Islamic Resistance Call") by Abu Mus'ab al-Suri (2005).
The first book reads more like a manual by the Red Brigades than any recognizable form of Islamic literature. The author is clearly well acquainted with Western writers as evidenced by his references to Paul Kennedy and others. Reflecting the intellectual influence of scholars such as Arnold Toynbee and Samuel Huntington, the author provides a narrative of history in which civilizations are constantly competing, clashing, rising and falling. According to the author, when civilizations rise to the peak of their power and achieve complete hegemony over the world, they enter into a period of unmitigated and willful savagery. They are able to inflict harm upon whomever, whenever they wish, and can annihilate any group that defies their hegemonic influence.
Being very sparse on theological content, the book reads like an anarchic manual de guerre by outlining a detailed strategy for Muslim resistance groups to engage the hegemonic civilization of our times - namely, the West - in a protracted war of attrition. The purpose of this war of attrition is to force Western civilization to reveal its true prejudiced and barbaric face, and to hasten the crumbling of this civilization by forcing it to rely on militarization and brute force instead of the pretence of civil ideals.
Theologically and jurisprudentially, the second book by Abu Mus'ab al-Suri is more important and dense. The book is a tome of 1,600 pages that claims to document an unrelenting history of crusading and aggression by the West and others against Muslims and the Islamic message. Its understanding of history is unequivocally dogmatic with Muslims invariably being the victims of countless atrocities, and the West as the arrogant perpetrator of endless savageries.
Abu Mus'ab al-Suri reserves his harshest criticism for Islamists like the Muslim Brotherhood, who believed that they could work within the political process and accept the ideals of democracy and the people's sovereignty.
The author writes extensively about current Muslim subservience and defeatism, and sees Muslim leaders as peons serving the interests of their Western masters. Moreover, the author argues that all Muslim reformers such as Muhammad Abduh (d. 1905) and Muhammad Iqbal (d. 1938) are hypocrites and apostates. Interestingly, he often cites Western sources that impeached the authenticity or the sincerity of the Islamic convictions of these reformers.
The author's exposition on the true Islam follows along the same exact lines of Wahhabi dogma, with Sufis, Shi'is, rationalists, philosophers and any theological orientation (such as the Ash'aris and Mutaridis) that deviates from Wahhabism being pegged as heresy and apostasy. Although the Wahhabis rebelled against and helped undermine the Ottoman Caliphate, the author has nothing critical to say about the movement. He does, however, condemn Ibn Saud as a traitor and a sell-out to the British. Although Al Saud initially allied themselves to the Wahhabis, ultimately Ibn Saud allowed the British to slaughter the warriors of Wahhabism, known as the Ikhwan.
Abu Mus'ab al-Suri makes no qualms about his belief that the only solution to the Muslim predicament is armed rebellion. He contends that a prolonged war of attrition against Western interests and allies is the only way to force the eventual crumbling of Western supremacy. He has no reservations about killing other Muslims because, in his view, most Muslims are in reality infidels. Shi'is and similar sectarian groups are more dangerous and reprehensible than Christians or Jews. Furthermore, like so many extremist thinkers, he argues that great struggles require great sacrifices, which are all justified by the rule of necessity.
In what I think is a most important part, after demonstrating the undeniable reality of Muslim subjugation and persecution in the world, Abu Mus'ab poses the rhetorical question: what plausible alternatives are there for an effective change? He contends that prayers alone and mysticism will solve nothing. He also argues that all those who believed in the power of the word, the pursuit of knowledge, or gradual change have proven ineffective. Importantly, he reserves his harshest criticism for Islamists like the Muslim Brotherhood, who believed that they could work within the political process and accept the ideals of democracy and the people's sovereignty. For Abu Mu'sab, the Muslim Brotherhood has become heretical for accepting and participating in the political process, and its efforts are doomed to futility.
After documenting the destruction, oppression, or derailment of every Islamic movement in modern history, Abu Mus'ab concludes that the solution is two-fold: 1) Engage the West and their puppet governments in prolonged wars of attrition; and 2) eventually, work towards the establishment of a caliphate, which would become the homeland of all true Muslims around the world and the true protector of Muslims and their interests in the world.
The one thing that is clear and unmistakable in the literature of both radical texts is that they have no faith in the institutions of the United Nations or the rules of international law that their dictatorial rulers have helped put into place.
This kind of thought is a cult of death that has despaired of finding any hint of dignity, autonomy, self-fulfilment or self-determination on earth, and so it finds meaning in killing and getting killed. Every subaltern and decomposed collection of urbanized population is full of the type. Add to this a decade of brutalization under a woefully racist and bigoted foreign occupation in Iraq and Afghanistan, and six decades of living in refugee camps that offer nothing but despair, and the mystery of why so many are drawn to these cults of death is solved. But what remains a real mystery is why this particular cult, which has even been disavowed by Al-Qaeda, has suddenly sprung onto the scene and with such spectacular logistical and military success and with professional skills at organization and communication.
I strongly suspect that this so-called caliphate will disappear as abruptly as it appeared when its witch doctors get tired of playing with fire. But ISIS has already achieved so much for its behind-the-scene masters.
For one thing, ISIS enjoyed unmitigated success in completely aborting the Arab revolutionary fervour that once dreamed of freedom. They have also succeeded in restoring the old polarizations between Sunni and Shi'is, and Kurds, Turks, Persians and Arabs. They also succeeded in further marginalizing the Palestinians in their plight, and in helping Netanyahu get re-elected.
They further anchored the old order of corrupt oil sheikhs and military dictators in power; but most of all, ISIS has deepened the breach between reasonable secularists and reasonable Islamists in the Arab world. Not until the Arab world figures out a way to mend the rupture between its rooted Islamic identity and its present highly contested sense of being will the region start to heal and advance.
Yes, corrupt Arab leaders, greedy and racist Western governments, traumatized and broken Arab masses, a near-illiterate and uprooted native intelligentsia, and frustrated and egotistical buffoons who imagine that they can speak for Islam, all knowingly or unknowingly acted in collusion to snuff out the Arab Spring.
Yet all those who bothered with the pretence of sympathetic sorrow over the blood of the thousands of martyrs who died dreaming of hurriyya should not feel too self-assured. Hurriyya is the natural order of things, and like life itself, it will inevitably sprout again. It could sprout even in the restless heat of the summer, the warm docility of the fall, or the quiet surrender of a very cold of winter.
Originally published in the Australian Broadcasting Corporation's Religion and Ethics Website