After the Arab Spring the question is: What role will the countries of the Arab Spring play in the upcoming world order. Will they become true democracies or Islamist states at odds with the West? Will stability return or will militant groups assert themselves in the public space created by the revolutions? What impact will the conflict in Syria have on the wider Middle Eastern situation? Such an inquiry should include some understanding of the main forces at work within those Islamic communities and the goals they aspire to. In this article I focus on the Salafists, the Sufi's, the Muslim Brothers and the Shiites, asking: How will each of these groups try to influence the process of change? And how will the poles of influence in the Middle East amplify these influences. What will the new world order eventually looks like?
The Arab spring has changed the face of the Islamic world. Arab dictators were swept away by popular uprisings. Democratic elections have taken place in Tunisia, Egypt, Morocco, Libya and Yemen. The euphoria of the revolutions, during which whole populations stood together against their rulers, have in the post-revolutionary period been replaced by cold, calculated power struggles for positions in the new political landscape. Not all the new role players are enthusiastic about democracy. The role of extremist forces in these societies have become more accentuated - in Libya the US ambassador was killed on 12 September 2012 in an terrorist attack that coincided with the popular anger against a trailer of an anti-Islam film posted on YouTube. A question frequently asked is: Who will prevail?
These changes in the Muslim world introduced a more complicated world scene. Previously it was possible to describe the world situation in rather simple terms, for example the West versus Communism, or the West versus Al-Qaeda. The fight against Al-Qaeda did not really involve the rest of the Muslim world (except for Pakistan). The Arab dictators kept their populations in check and the fight against Al-Qaeda was for the most part fought in far-away areas outside the borders of civilization (in Afghanistan, Somalia, Yemen etc.). The Arab Spring has changed this stable political landscape. A more fluid situation has emerged that can lead to a total realignment in the political landscape of the Middle-East.
The only way to get some grip on this fluid landscape is to identify the main role players that compete for power. The most important of these are not merely involved in the local politics of each country; they are active all over the Middle East. Some work positively towards democracy and cooperation with the West; others strive to reestablish a Muslim caliphate and reject the Western way of life. Their influence on the other players will eventually determine what the new Middle East will look like. Who are the most important of these groups and what are their aims? Their chances of success are to a large extent determined by the poles of influence that amplify their efforts in one direction or another.
Important Muslim groups
The main players in the fluid landscape of the Muslim Middle East are the Salafists, the Sufi's and the Shiites. Although the Muslim Brothers and all their associated groups in other countries are also important, they are not a homogenous group with a particular political vision - their overall goal is to promote Islam in all aspects of life. Some of the Brothers are more sympathetic towards the Salafists and others towards the Sufi-perspectives. I will therefore discuss the Brothers as part of the fluid landscape in which these influences compete.
The Salafists is a grouping among Sunni Muslims who take their name from the first generation of Muslims who are collectively referred to as the "Pious Predecessors" (as-Salaf as-Saleh). They view those predecessors as model examples of Islamic practice and support literalist, strict and puritanical approaches to Islam. The Salafists grew in importance since the second half of the nineteenth century as a reaction to the spread of European ideas in Muslim society. In modern times Saudi king Faisal (1906-1975) embraced Salafism and it was through the generous financing of the House of Saud that the current worldwide Salafist movement came about.
The Salafists aspire to reestablish a Muslim caliphate. Caliphate means "dominion of a caliph ('successor')" and refers to a political-religious state governed according to Sharia law. They hope to establish such a caliphate that will surpass national borders (seen as a Western ploy to divide Muslims). Many of these ultraconservative Salafists support violent jihad against civilians as a legitimate expression of Islam. They are active in all the Arab counties where revolutions have occurred.
The main opponent of the Salafists is the Sufi's. The Sufi's also trace their origins to the earliest followers of Muhammad. They are widespread among much of the Muslim world (both among Sunnis and Shiites) and adhere to a more liberal and free interpretation of Islam. The various Sufi orders have their own group liturgies and saints who are venerated in shrines. The orders meet frequently at local mosques, the homes of devotees, or at specific Sufi lodges known as zawiya’s. They are mystics - comparable to Rosicrucianism in the West. Although Sufism is not a political force as such, it has considerable influence behind the scenes. In the aftermath of the Arab revolutions they have typically supported the liberal forces in the political landscape. They support a transition to true democracy.
In some Arab countries the Salafists and Sufi's have come in direct conflict with each other. The Salafists view the Sufi teachings as "heretical" and claim that worshiping at graves and shrines is un-Islamic and idolatrous. In Libya various Salafi attacks against Sufi shrines and libraries have occurred since the revolution. On 24 August 2012 Salafists razed the 500-year-old tomb of Sufi saint Sidi Abd As-Salam Al-Asmar and a mosque library in Zliten, a town 90 miles east of the Libyan capital. On the next dag they bulldozed the Sha’ab mosque in Tripoli. This happened after a prominent Saudi imam, Sheik Muhammad Al-Madkhalee issued a fatwa praising the desecration of Sufi graves and urging Libyan Salafists to do more to clear the North African country of any taint of Sufi worship.
These opposing groups compete for influence, not only in the wider framework of Muslim society, but also in the ranks of the Muslim Brothers who are found all over the Arab world. The Brothers, offspring of the Egyptian Society of the Muslim Brothers (Muslim Brotherhood), are the most influential and largest Islamic movement in the Arab world. Hassan Al-Banna, founder of the Egyptian Brothers, was himself a Sufi who participated in the revolution of 1919 against British rule. He adopted a policy of avoiding religious controversy and later rejected terror as a way to further their cause.
Both moderate as well as radical (Salafist) elements are present among the Brothers. One of the important moderate voices among the Brothers is Yusif Al Qaradawi, one of their most prominent intellectual leaders (who twice rejected an official position within the body). Stationed in Qatar, he is the head of the International Union of Muslim Scholars, and host of a popular Al Jazeera TV show on Islamic laws and principles. He rejects extremism and supports democracy. He supports "Islamic Sufism", praising those who practice it as pious. These, however, excludes Shiites, whom he view as heretics.
Al Qaradawi has called for dialogue with non-Muslims and wrote in his book titled The Lawful and Prohibited in Islam, "Islam does not prohibit Muslims to be kind and generous to peoples of other religions, even if they are idolaters and polytheists, ... it looks upon the People of the Book, that is, Jews and Christians, with special regard, whether they reside in a Muslim society or outside it. The Qur'an never addresses them without saying, 'O People of the Book' or 'O You who have been given the Book', indicating that they were originally people of a revealed religion." During a visit to Tahrir square on 18 February 2011 he began his address with "Oh Muslims and Copts", referring to Egypt’s Coptic Christian minority, instead of the customary opening for Islamic Friday sermons 'Oh Muslims'. It seems that Mohammed Morsi, the current president van Egypt who was until his election himself a Brother, is of the same moderate persuasion.
The last important group is the Shiites. They originated directly after Mohammed's death when some of his followers supported Ali ibn Abu Talib, his cousin and son-in-law, as successor against others who supported one from his circle of close associates named Abu Bakr. The supporters of Ali became known as "Shiat Ali," or "followers of Ali," the source of the term "Shiite". The others became known as Sunnis (named after the Sunnah, the canon of Muhammad's teachings). Since that time the Shiites and Sunnis are the main groups claiming succession from Mohammed. Most Shiites recognize twelve imams in direct succession of Mohammed. The twelfth imam disappeared in 874. Shiites believe that he did not die and will one day return.
In the sixteenth century the Safavid dynasty came to power in Iran and forced its subjects to adopt the Shia form of Islam. Since that time the Iranian Shiites and the Arab Sunnis were in constant rivalry. When the Arab world's religious center shifted to Mecca after the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, the Saudi king Ibn Saud (1876-1953) used this religious alliance to establish the kingdom of Saudi Arabia with the particularly narrow-minded Wahhabi branch of Sunni Islam as state religion. His main rivals were the Iranian Shiites to the east. As mentioned earlier, his son, king Faisal (1906-1975), embraced Salafism. Today the Shiites are a majority in Iran and Iraq. The Hezbollah group in Lebanon is also Shiites, as well as the Alawites in Syria, to whom the Syrian ruling family belongs.
Poles of influence
In this fluid political landscape there are various poles of influence. These serve as poles of attraction or repulsion and amplify the efforts of the various role players in the Middle Eastern Muslim landscape. The Middle East as we know it, came into existence with the establishment of Israel as a state in 1948. Although the state of Israel serves as a bastion for Western strategic interests in the wider Middle East, its birth gave rise to a strong anti-Israel sentiment throughout the Muslim Middle East. This anti-Israel sentiment would also translate into an anti-Western sentiment.
There was one Muslim country that served as Western anchor in this anti-Israeli sea of sentiment. This was Turkey. Turkey was established as a state in 1923 by Mustafa Kemal, surnamed Atatürk (meaning "Father of the Turks"). Atatürk transformed the former Ottoman Empire into a modern, westernized and secular nation-state. Turkey became a member of NATO in 1952. In 1987 Turkey applied for EU membership, which was officially recognized in 1999. Since the days of Atatürk many Arab military leaders followed his example and established secular states, some of them also bringing their countries into the Western sphere of influence.
Since Turkey's Muslim Justice and Development Party came to power in 2002, Turkey's Muslim character became more pronounced in its public and political life - evidenced by changes in dress and appearance, segregation of the sexes, the growth of Islamic schools and banks, and support for Sufi orders. In the same way that Atatürk's reforms were copied by other Muslim leaders, many in the Arab Spring look to Turkey as a working example of a Muslim democracy - as a country that has become wealthy and prosperous. The fact that Turkey's relation with Israel has cooled since the flotilla debacle in May 2010 has lead to it being viewed even more positively among the Muslims of the Arab Spring. Turkey is a very important pole of influence in the Muslim Middle East of today, strengthening the democratic impulse throughout the Arab world.
There are, however, important anti-democratic forces working against the Turkish influence in the region. The Salafists are prominent throughout the region and are aggressively trying to restrict the Western influence in the Muslim world. Closely aligned to them are the jihadic groups (some affiliated with Al-Qaeda), who fight a "holy war" against the "infidels". They are active in Libya, the Sinai, Syria and Yemen (and maybe Iraq) with a wide support network spread throughout the entire Muslim Middle East. They have established themselves in northern Mali (in the African Sahara), which provide them with a base where they can regroup and provide support to other jihadists all over the region. They are actively trying to destabilize the Western efforts to assist the region on its path to democracy. If they are not ejected from Mali soon (probably with Western help), they could become a major destabilizing force in all the Arab Spring countries of Northern Africa (and even beyond).
The most important anti-Western (and anti-Israel) pole of influence in the Middle East is the Islamic republic of Iran which was established in 1979. After the Gulf wars Iran became the main antagonist of Israel in the Middle East. Today it serves as a stimulus for the anti-Western forces throughout the region, providing many of them (like Hezbollah, Hamas etc.) with financial support. But Shia Iran also endangers the internal stability of some Gulf countries like Bahrain and even that of Saudi Arabia. The popular uprising in Bahrain was ascribed to Shiite groups with ties to Iran, which gave the minority Sunni rulers of that country reason to suppress the revolts. The popular uprisings in that part of the world have in fact reignited the centuries old Sunni-Shiite conflict, leading to a solidification of the alliance of the Gulf states and Saudi Arabia with the USA.
Before the Arab Spring the anti-Israel sentiment, amplified by Iran, was tempered by Turkey's alliance with Israel, the alliance of the Gulf states and Saudi Arabia with the West, and the fact that many of the Arab dictators were part of the Western sphere of influence in the Muslim world. Since the Arab Spring this situation has changed. Turkey has downgraded its relationship with Israel, many pro-Western dictators were overthrown (in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and Yemen) and Saudi Arabia has done nothing to stop the anti-Western Salafist impulse. Does this mean that the anti-Israel, anti-Western pull will overwhelm the Muslim world, with the Salafist forces who want to establish a caliphate becoming dominant? The answer is no. The same Arab Spring which deposed the pro-Western dictators also produced an important impulse towards the West and against Iran, in the form of the Syrian revolution. This unites all the pro-revolutionary forces against the Iranian-supported Syrian regime.
The Syrian conflict has created a new reality in the Middle East. It binds the pro-democratic revolutionary forces throughout the Arab world together against the anti-Western influence of Iran. It puts Turkey, bastion of Western influence in the region, in a position as the main defender of the revolution. Although the Gulf states and Saudi Arabia supports the rebels financially, Turkey provides them with the breathing space to regroup and work against the Syrian regime. At the same time, the Iranian support for the Syrian regime puts Iran in the anti-revolutionary camp to which all dictators belong. The Syrian conflict brings the Sunni world together against the Shiite alliance which includes Iran, Syria and Hezbollah. In this way it minimizes the Iranian influence in the Arab world. Although the anti-Israel sentiment is still very present all over the Muslim Middle East, the Syrian revolution has dwarfed it to a large extend as an immediate concern.
A new world order is emerging
The eventual question is: Which of the role players will succeed in bringing their vision for the new Middle East to fruition? Stated differently: What will the new world order look like once the Arab Spring has run its course? This is not an easy question to answer. There is, however, important clues which can give us a good idea about the direction in which the Arab world is heading. The strongest influences on the fluid political landscape will probably prevail.
The liberal and Sufi-impulse toward a democratic Middle East, strengthened by the Turkish influence in the region, have a good chance to succeed. The reason for this is that many Muslims are put off by the militant's position. Whereas the Turkish experience have shown that the Muslim electorate supports moderate Islamic politics, the Iraqi and Egyptian experiences have also shown that they tend to move away from religious parties in follow-up elections if those parties endanger their freedoms (in Egypt the share of the religious parties fell from about 70% in the parliamentary elections to about 52% in the presidential elections). The Al Jazeera TV channel, which played such an important role in all the Arab revolutions, also serves as a moderate voice throughout the Muslim Middle East. The whole Arab Spring is about the freedom of human expression (although within certain limits as the reaction to the anti-Muslim film has shown). We can expect the electorate to reinforce those freedoms through the ballot box. At the same time, we can also expect these Arab Spring countries to follow more independent policies which will not always be aligned with US interests.
Another reason why we could look forward to democracy succeeding in the countries of the Arab Spring, is the role of the European Union. As in Eastern Europe, the goal of eventual membership of the EU has played an important role in the formation of the present Muslim democracy in Turkey. Once the Syrian conflict is settled, we can expect the European Union to become more active in the politics of the Arab Spring countries, guiding them towards sustained democracy. We can expect some of them to become associated members of the EU (Turkey is an associated member of the EU and its predecessors since 1963). In the long run (over the next 30 years) most of the following countries would probably become associated with the EU: Tunisia, Libya, Egypt, Morocco and Jordan (and possibly Israel, the Palestinian areas, Iraq, Syria and Algeria). It is even possible that many of these countries, together with Turkey, will eventually in some way be incorporated within the framework of the EU.
It is unlikely that democracy will take hold in Saudi Arabia and some of its partners in the Gulf. The reason for this is that the strong Salafist presence in these countries (unchecked by the moderating Sufi influence) will not allow for the spread of perceived Western influences like democracy. At the same time we can expect Saudi Arabia and the other Gulf states to stay aligned with the US in the face of Iranian assertiveness. This dependance on US (NATO) security provides an important leverage for the West to force Saudi Arabia to down-tune its support for Salafist groups across the Arab world.
Iran will stay outside the Western sphere for a very long period of time (more than 30 years at least). I do not foresee that they will turn to democracy any time soon and it is possible that more than one war will eventually be fought against Iran. It is possible that Iran will in the future forge closer ties with jihadic groups. At the moment they are already supporting jihadic groups in the Sinai against their arch-enemy Israel. Others could join these Iranian financed groups in the struggle against Israel once the Syrian conflict is over - many jihad fighters are involved in the armed rebellion against the Syrian regime. This is likely to happen even sooner if Israel attack Iran unilaterally, instead of waiting for its NATO partners to give the green light (probably as part of a wider alliance against Syria-Iran). It is even possible that Iran will eventually become allied to Pakistan to the east.
From the above discussion the conclusions are clear: Islamic countries are going to play a more substantial role in the upcoming world order. On the one hand, we can expect the countries of the Arab Spring to become part of the Western political landscape, especially within the framework of the future European Union (although probably not as full members). On the other hand, we can expect Iran to play a central role as the main agitator of the West. It is even possible that the following decades will become known for the struggle between the West and Iran in the same way that it was preceded by the struggle against Communism and Al-Qaeda.
The process to integrate the Arab Spring countries into the Western sphere of influence will not be without hick ups. The militant Salafists will see to that. The Arab democracies will have a long and difficult struggle to bring these elements under control. But it seems that we have reason to think that they will work against the forces of chaos to establish order. That they will eventually become stable democracies.
Author: Dr Willie Mc Loud. On www.wmcloud.blogspot.com
In another article on my blog titled "The Priory of Sion is back" I discuss the supposed behind-the-scene collaboration between Western occult societies like the Rosicrucian Priory of Sion and the Sufi's in bringing about this new world order. The secret order of the Priory of Sion is well-known from Dan Brown's The Da Vinci Code. Click on the keyword Priory of Sion to the right on this page.