Wednesday,20 September, 2017
Current issue | Issue 1352, (13 - 19 July 2017)
Wednesday,20 September, 2017
Issue 1352, (13 - 19 July 2017)

Ahram Weekly

Thoughts on Western expertise

The language used by Western experts to describe the security situation in the Middle East too often contains many unquestioned assumptions, writes Tewfick Aclimandos

Thoughts on s on the rest where  involvement in the fighting and the sacrifices they have made.  centuries ago, and it can look I came across a paper published by the US military’s West Point Combating Terrorism Centre (CTC) review “Sentinel” last week dealing with the security situation in Egypt, both in the Nile Valley and in Sinai. I don’t want to discuss the argument of the paper in this week of mourning after the latest attacks in Sinai, but I feel compelled to address the ideological connotations of the language used in it, since this has become the lingua franca of Western expertise.

To state things more cautiously, I have never read a paper or an article or a book that did not use this terminology, which happens to be widely disseminated by the media.

The first set of terms frequently used includes “moderate” and “mainstream” for the classification of some Islamist movements. The Muslim Brotherhood is relentlessly described as being both. With regard to the present crisis over Qatar, for example, many Western commentators have said that Qatar supports the “mainstream”, “moderate” and/or “democratic” Muslim Brotherhood and implied that this is the “normal” thing to do. Classifying the group as terrorist or extremist is preposterous, they say.

The writer of the CTC paper says that Hasm (“Decisiveness”, one of the Brotherhood’s armed branches) was “far more moderate than the Islamic State and more capable of tapping into the growing discontent of the Egyptian population.” I consider this sentence to be an unsubstantiated assertion that is characteristic of unquestioned assumptions.

The meaning of the word “moderate” is relative. Being moderate assumes there is some group that is more extremist. I am not sure that Hasm is more moderate than the extremists of the Sinai Province group, and I do not how the author has reached this conclusion. It looks as if being a Muslim Brother is enough to be thought of as moderate. The author of the paper may be right, though this will scarcely help the families and relatives of those killed by so-called “moderates”. Of course it can be stated that Al-Qaeda is moderate when compared to the Islamic State. But nobody (I hope) would jump to the conclusion that we should stop fighting it for this reason.

This is not the only problem with this assertion. It also clearly assumes that being moderate brings support, and therefore that this is the proper posture and strategy to adopt whatever one’s real thoughts are. This, of course, is sometimes true, and sometimes false. The expert cannot know for sure what the proper approach is. We cannot even say that being moderate works in political matters, but not in religious ones, or the other way around. The real answer would be that there is no general recipe, that situations vary, and that we are not even sure we know what the correct direction might be in any specific case.

Moderate is a relative term, so it should not be used in a universal way. Some 20 years ago Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was described as a “hawk”. Today, he has become relatively moderate. What has changed is the Israeli political map. The same goes for our topic here. The Muslim world is not homogeneous. What is moderate in Afghanistan might be radical in Indonesia. Two decades ago, the Muslim Brotherhood was considered to be moderate in Egypt. It no longer is. Both the population and the movement have changed and gone in opposite directions.

This leads us to another aspect of the problem. In a brilliant piece, the Palestinian-American academic Lama Abu Odeh has noted that many in American academia seem to have bought into the Islamist worldview. An “authentic” Muslim is an Islamist, it is thought. If he is not, this is because he has been corrupted by western ideologies, by the seductions of materialism, or by apathy, and a Muslim who is not an Islamist is irrelevant.

This means that a “moderate” Islamist may or may not be viewed by Muslims as an extremist. The Islamist agenda is often understood as a call to restore Islamic Sharia law as the cornerstone of the legal system. And most Muslims indeed believe God’s law to be superior to that of men, especially if those men are Western. However, this is not the main Islamist goal, which is to create a new man, a new state, and a new society that would be authentically Muslim, according to the Islamist understanding of Islam, and that would get rid of any impurities.

This implies, even in its “moderate” versions, that currently existing Muslims and currently existing Muslim societies are not really Muslim. It entails, in its mildest version, exerting constant and relentless pressure on the “not really Muslims” to force them to change their ways and the radical marginalisation of non-Muslims. It also entails a non-covert radical hostility to the legacy of the last two centuries in the Muslim world, including its bright spots (perhaps especially its bright spots).

Of course, the distinction between Muslims and Islamists does not mean the former will never vote for the latter, and in fact some do. The frontiers between conservatives and Islamists are often blurred. I am not saying that moderate Islamists should be excluded from the political arena. I am just saying, once again, that a moderate Muslim and a moderate Islamist are not the same thing. Moreover, non-Islamist Muslims are relevant.

Moderate also has an objective meaning. A moderate Islamist does not recommend and does not use violence and abides by the rules of democracy. This should be clear, but closer scrutiny raises many questions. For instance, everybody agrees that a defensive war is legitimate. But what is the meaning of “defensive”, “war”, and “legitimate”? It is clear that the paranoid jihadists think their present war is a defensive one. A rider could be added about “not killing the citizens of your own country”. But what if the regime of that country is undemocratic?

This could lead us a long way from the subject at hand, so I will content myself with a few remarks. Once again, democracy means more opportunities for Islamist recruitment in the short term. In the first pages of one of his books, a former CIA agent says that some areas of London now look like some Islamist areas of the Middle East, with the key difference that there are bookstores there selling books and other items preaching hatred and violence.

Another remark might be that the Muslim Brotherhood’s branches are more or less autonomous. The movement may abide by the law in one country but still use violence in another. This obvious point should prevent misleading generalisations.


The writer is a professor of international relations at the Collège de France and a visiting professor at Cairo University.

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