Wednesday,18 October, 2017
Current issue | Issue 1132, 24 - 30 January 2013
Wednesday,18 October, 2017
Issue 1132, 24 - 30 January 2013

Ahram Weekly

Fundamentalist dilemma revisited

The actions of Islamic militants in Mali and Algeria are a forewarning of strife that could even target Islamist-leaning governments in the post-Arab Spring, writes Abdel-Moneim Said

Al-Ahram Weekly

The major security issues of the Arab region and the Middle East as a whole have never been so intertwined. Here I will discuss some aspects of this phenomenon and their attendant dangers and predicaments. But bear in mind that perhaps the most serious peril of all is that in midst of the overwhelming deluge of security problems, other major issues — above all, the development and progress of our nations and societies — may fade from the public consciousness or be deferred until we resolve the current existential questions we face. Applying the lost opportunity cost principle in this context, imagine the toll exacted on our societies and peoples from allotting a large portion of time in the history of mankind for the purposes of conflict, strife and warfare. But then, what can one do? Such is the nature of our region, after all. We have to face the cold, hard facts that have been gradually conspiring to pit us against life-and-death questions, if not now, then in the near future. Nor can we afford to ignore these brute realities at a time when our region is unable to sustain more shocks of a magnitude that shake the foundations and fabrics of its states and societies, which are already reeling and uncertain of what direction they are heading.

Our countries and societies have experienced “epic” conflicts that have passed from conflict to relative calm, and from attempts at peacemaking to flare-ups in hostilities. The most famous, of course, is the Arab-Israeli conflict with its fluctuations between intensification and ease-up. Yet it appears that we, as peoples and societies, have grown accustomed to conflict in one form or another. Moreover, we have given conflict a function: it is something on which we can pin all our problems, from the domestic to the international, and it frequently serves to justify certain types of government that may not be the best forms of government that we are capable of producing.

However, conflict, with its familiar ups and downs, has assumed a magnitude of a different order. Our entire region is creaking and quaking on the waves of the “Arab Spring”, through which every other season of the year quickly swept, from autumn and winter to blazing summer, bringing a heavy dose of instability that has permeated every country in the area in various ways. Uncertainty is rife. For example, we can no longer predict the domestic or foreign policies of the countries of the Arab Spring that entered transitional paths whose starting points were “democratic” and whose end points were “Islamic” and whose initial ballot boxes may give way to bodies charged with issuing fatwas instead of legislation. True, the process is still at the outset, but the attempt to generate a new “hybrid” between democracy and political Islam is being swayed by a concoction of elements that regard the former as an abomination of Satan.

Whether or not these elements ultimately prevail, the convulsions of the societies of the Arab Spring revolutions are sending powerful tremors throughout the region. It is reminiscent of how the French Revolution rocked other European societies in the 19th century. Now, add to this the raging sectarianism in our region today and, more recently, the Salafist jihadist groups that have come to infest various parts of the Middle East and seek to change the region not through electoral polls but by armed militias.

It is precisely in this context that we must view the events that began to unfold last week when a terrorist group attacked a natural gas plant in the south of Algeria and took hundreds of its employees hostage. The Algerian army mounted a massive military operation to free the hostages, in the course of which 34 died and 26 were freed. Leaving aside for the moment the question of the efficacy of the operation and whether Algiers should have first consulted with the governments of the countries of which the hostages were nationals, the issue that dominated international coverage, the Algerian hostage crisis itself is a dangerous indicator of the extent to which terrorist groups that brandish the banners of “Islam”, “jihad”, “Al-Qaeda” and the like have reached saturation point in men and arms. The attempt on the part of an Al-Qaeda affiliated group to seize control of Mali was the first clear sign of the looming peril. That campaign, which began in the north of the Saharan country, was driving southwards towards the capital when the French military intervened. A multi-national African force joined the French effort, which may soon be backed by a NATO contingent.

The issue at heart here is twofold. Firstly, there is the threat of countries being taken over by radical Islamist groups. The more a country becomes mired into the conditions of a failed state and the more frustrated the regional and international communities grow in their attempts to address that failure, the greater are the risks of takeover. Somalia and Mali are prime examples. Syria may join them if the balance of powers among revolutionary forces there tips in favour of groups that sound radical Islamist trumpets. Certainly, these groups have left no room for doubt as to the type of “Islamic” state they intend to form in Damascus or as to the nature of the “Islamic” they have in mind.

Secondly, there is the question of these groups’ quintessentially terrorist militancy, the latest example of which just occurred in Algeria, which hardly needed this painful reminder of horrifying memories. But this is just the tip of the iceberg. Below is a mountain of Libyan arms and the leftover hardware from military hostilities of every sort. Also beneath the surface is an army of highly trained and experienced mujahideen who hail from the war in Afghanistan and other “holy” wars. These are not a bunch of lost kids who are venting their anger and frustration through isolated militant actions here or there. These are powerful organised groups who are resolute in their determination to change their societies into Taliban clones. The experience of northern Mali makes this explicit. The first step these groups took in the areas they took control of was to inflict a rash of amputations, stonings and other forms of “Islamic” punishments on the basis of trials that are widely believed to have failed to meet the minimum degree of justice by any standards.

Yet, surprisingly, Arab Islamic societies have experienced this type of dilemma before. Long ago in their history there arose extremist terrorist groups that murdered caliphs and imams on the ostensible grounds that the Islamic governments, rulers and their societies were not “Islamic” enough. The response to this was a collective rejection of extremist ideas and a call to support ruling authorities as a means to obviate sedition of a scale that threatened to destroy the Islamic community as a whole. However, the “return” of terrorism today, whether in the form of the bid to seize control over Mali or the hostage crisis in Algeria, has become muddled with other issues. In fact, often it is regarded as one of the fits in the current “revolutionary” convulsions or as an authentic feature of a massive uniform Islamist trend that is relentless in its determination to come to power whether by the polls or by force of arms.

The peril is clear, and it is immanent and grave. Arab countries are probably the main targets. But it is not unlikely that the threat will also hone in on the Islamist political forces that came to power through electoral processes because, in so doing, they lent a kind of credibility and legitimacy to that Western “innovation” that makes “commoners” the source of governmental authority instead of God Almighty. With such potential threats compounding existing threats, is there a way out of the dilemma?

The writer is the CEO and director of the Regional Centre for Strategic Studies in Cairo.

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