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October 14, 2022 12:47 pm
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The Battle for a Moderate Islam

avatar by James M. Dorsey

Opinion

Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and US President Joe Biden meet at Al Salman Palace upon his arrival in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, July 15, 2022. Photo: Bandar Algaloud/Courtesy of Saudi Royal Court/Handout via REUTERS

Proponents of a moderate Islam that embraces tolerance, diversity, and pluralism, may be betting on the wrong horse by supporting Muslim scholars who serve in autocratic regimes. Polling in the Middle East seems to confirm that state-sponsored clerics often lack credibility.

Tam Hussein, an award-winning investigative journalist and novelist, who has spent time with jihadists in various settings, noted in a recent blog post that a segment of Muslim youth embrace the jihadist argument that Muslims should establish a state — or caliphate — through “blood.”

Hussein cautioned that “this sentiment of young Muslims … cannot be combated with platitudes, ill thought out deradicalisation programmes, and naff websites set up to combat social media.”

In essence, Hussein argues that a credible response to religiously-inspired militancy will have to come from independent Islamic scholars rather than clerics who do Muslim autocrats’ bidding.

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Commenting on this phenomenon, Gulf scholar Eman Alhussein said that Arab youth had taken note of religious figures endorsing government-introduced reforms that they had previously rejected.

“This not only feeds into Arab youth’s scepticism towards religious institutions but also further highlights the inconsistency of the religious discourse and its inability to provide timely explanations or justifications to the changing reality of today,” Alhussein wrote.

Hussein warned that “what many … well-intentioned leaders and Imams don’t realise, and I have seen this with my own eyes, is that radical preachers … have a constituency. They hit a nerve and are watched,” as opposed to “those they deem to be ‘scholars for dollars’… There is a dissonance between the young and the imams.”

Autocratic reformers such as UAE President Mohammed bin Zayed and Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed Bin-Salman offer an upgraded 21st-century version of a social contract that kept undemocratic Arab regimes in office for much of the post-World War II era.

That contract entailed the population’s surrender of political rights in exchange for a cradle-to-grave welfare state in the oil-rich Gulf, or adequate delivery of public services and goods in less wealthy Arab states.

That bargain broke down with the 2011 and 2019/2020 popular Arab revolts that did not spare Gulf countries like Bahrain and Oman. The breakdown was sparked not only by governments’ failure to deliver, but also by governments, at times, opening political space to Islamists so that they could counter left-wing forces.

Scholar Hesham Allam summarized the policy as “more identity, less class.” In effect, Middle Eastern government were hopping onto a bandwagon that was empowering religious and nationalist forces.

Using Egypt as a case study in his just published book, “Classless Politics: Islamist Movements, the Left, and Authoritarian Legacies in Egypt,” Sallam argued that “in the long run, this policy led to the fragmentation of opponents of economic reform, the increased salience of cultural conflicts within the left, and the restructuring of political life around questions of national and religious identity.”

To revive the core of the social contract, Messrs. Bin Zayed and Bin Salman have thrown into the mix degrees of social liberalization and greater women’s rights needed to diversify their economies and increase jobs, as well as professional, entertainment, and leisure opportunities.

At the same time, they have cracked down on dissent at home and sought to impede, if not at times brutally reverse, political change elsewhere in the region.

Even so, researcher Nora Derbal describes in her recently published book, “Charity in Saudi Arabia: Civil Society under Authoritarianism,” discrepancies between interpretations of Islamic guidance as provided by government officials and state-sponsored clerics, and charity and civil society groups that have their own understanding.

Nevertheless, the notion of an autocratic moderate Islam appears to work for the UAE and holds out promise for Saudi Arabia, but is on shaky ground elsewhere in the Middle East and North Africa.

Recent polling by ASDA’A BCW showed that of the 3,400 young Arabs in 17 Arab countries aged 18 to 24 surveyed, 57 percent identified the UAE as the country where they would like to live. Thirty-seven percent wanted their home country to emulate the UAE.

The survey’s results starkly contrast Hussein’s perceptions of discontented, radicalized Muslims and jihadists he encountered in Syria and elsewhere. But the diverging pictures may be two sides of the same coin rather than mutually exclusive.

Nobel Literature Prize laureate Orhan Pamuk described the men and women that Hussein discussed as having a “sense of being second or third-class citizens, of feeling invisible, unrepresented, unimportant, like one counts for nothing — which can drive people toward extremism.”

Recent surveys by the Washington Institute for Near East Policy showed that 59 percent of those polled in the UAE, 58 percent in Saudi Arabia, and 74 percent in Egypt, disagreed with the notion that “we should listen to those among us who are trying to interpret Islam in a more moderate, tolerant, and modern way.”

Pakistan is one place where Hussein’s scenario and Pamuk’s analysis play out. In July, a United Nations Security Council report said that Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), also known as the Pakistani Taliban, boasted the largest number of foreign militants operating from Afghan soil. The report suggested that many of the TTP’s 3,000 to 4,000 fighters were freed from Afghan jails shortly after last year’s fall of Kabul.

Recent academic research suggesting that non-violent dissent is seeing its lowest success rate in more than a century magnifies the resulting threat of militancy.

One study concluded that the number of protest movements worldwide had tripled between 2006 and 2020, including the dramatic 2011 popular Arab uprisings. Yet, compared to the early 2000s when two out of three protest movements demanding systemic change succeeded, today it is one in six, meaning that protests are more likely to fail than at any time since the 1930s, according to Harvard political scientist Erica Chenoweth.

By comparison, armed rebellion has seen its effectiveness decline more slowly than non-violent protest, making the two strategies nearly tied in their odds of succeeding. “For the first time since the 1940s, a decade dominated by state-backed partisan rebellions against Nazi occupations, non-violent resistance does not have a statistically significant advantage over armed insurrection,” Chenoweth said.

Chenoweth and others attribute the leveling out of success rates of violent and non-violent agitation to deep-seated polarization, militant nationalism, media echo chambers, increased restrictions on freedom of assembly, and an enhanced authoritarian toolkit. That toolkit includes divide and rule strategies, digital repression, propaganda and misinformation, and the declaration of emergency powers under pretexts such as the recent public health crisis.

Said Chenoweth: “As authoritarian movements gain ground, democratic movements worldwide are struggling to expand their constituencies among those who have grown frustrated with the systems of inequality and injustice that continue to plague … countries worldwide.”

Dr. James M. Dorsey is an award-winning journalist and scholar, an Adjunct Senior Fellow at Nanyang Technological University’s S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, and the author of the syndicated column and blog, The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer.

The opinions presented by Algemeiner bloggers are solely theirs and do not represent those of The Algemeiner, its publishers or editors. If you would like to share your views with a blog post on The Algemeiner, please be in touch through our Contact page.

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