How the conflict between political Islamists and secular-leaning nationalists has shaped the history of the modern Middle East
In 2013, just two years after the popular overthrow of Hosni Mubarak, the Egyptian military ousted the country’s first democratically elected president—Mohamed Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood—and subsequently led a brutal repression of the Islamist group. These bloody events echoed an older political rift in Egypt and the Middle East: the splitting of nationalists and Islamists during the rule of Egyptian president and Arab nationalist leader Gamal Abdel Nasser. In Making the Arab World, Fawaz Gerges, one of the world’s leading authorities on the Middle East, tells how the clash between pan-Arab nationalism and pan-Islamism has shaped the history of the region from the 1920s to the present.
Gerges tells this story through an unprecedented dual biography of Nasser and another of the twentieth-century Arab world’s most influential figures—Sayyid Qutb, a leading member of the Muslim Brotherhood and the father of many branches of radical political Islam. Their deeply intertwined lives embody and dramatize the divide between Arabism and Islamism. Yet, as Gerges shows, beyond the ideological and existential rhetoric, this is a struggle over the state, its role, and its power.
Based on a decade of research, including in-depth interviews with many leading figures in the story, Making the Arab Worldis essential reading for anyone who wants to understand the roots of the turmoil engulfing the Middle East, from civil wars to the rise of Al-Qaeda and ISIS.
Read Gerges’ latest interview about Making the Arab World on Jadaliyya:
Jadaliyya (J): What made you write this book?
Fawaz Gerges (FG): I have always been fascinated by Gamal Abdel Nasser, Egyptian president and highly charismatic Arab popular leader, and Sayyid Qutb, master ideologue of revolutionary Islamism. Rather than being diametrically opposed, these two seminal, and interconnected figures in contemporary Arab and Muslim politics—as well as the movements they represent (Arabism and Islamism, respectively)—have mirrored each other in significant ways.
While their struggles came to be invested with cultural and existential overtones, the biographies of Nasser and Qutb offered in this book highlight the fundamentally contingent nature of two individuals who could, in principle, have traded places with one another. The political careers of both men were marked by ideational fluidity, including dramatic shifts between different ideological poles. In their younger years, each stood on the side of the aisle that the other would later come to embrace. While Nasser moved in the underground networks of the Muslim Brotherhood in the early 1940s, the young Qutb vociferously opposed what he understood to be regressive religious, social, and historical conventions prevalent in Egyptian society.
Although the book is framed as a dual biography of Nasser and Qutb, one of the key goals is to reconstruct the history of this deadly encounter between secular-leaning nationalists and Islamists and to shed further light on its effects on state and society in Egypt and neighboring Arab countries. Egypt was initially the main battlefield, but the confrontation between nationalist (Arabist) and Islamist spread to neighboring countries, undermining the development of nascent postcolonial states. This prolonged confrontation, between the two most powerful social and political movements in the region, has left a deep, indelible scar on Arab states, societies, and economies. Today, the deep divide between nationalists and Islamists is invested with profound existential meanings that far outstrip those at its genesis.
However, far from being a binary and inevitable division—as it is too often depicted by both participants and analysts—the struggle between nationalists and Islamists is far more complex. The focal point of the struggle is the state, its power, and its position as custodian of the public sphere, not ideology.
A major conclusion of this study is that neither nationalism nor Islamism were or are monolithic or ideologically unified movements, but rather that they involve diverse perspectives and distinctive individuals and factions.
J: What particular topics, issues, and literatures does the book address?
FG: I worked on this book intermittently since 2006, spending two years on field research in various Arab countries, which enabled me to conduct scores of in-depth interviews with leading activists, public intellectuals, politicians, and civil society leaders. Utilizing historical sociology and a historical-thematic approach, the book takes human agency seriously by focusing on collective action, hidden internal struggles, clashes of personalities, and pivotal watershed moments. It is rich with ethnographic details, including personal testimonies of old men who have since died and middle-aged ideologues who have been at the forefront of the confrontation.
In important ways, this book represents a valuable resource as a document in oral history. It carefully provides context for views expressed by the historical figures being interviewed, giving a direct personal dimension for understanding how the movements actually operated and developed.
There is a large library of books dealing with Nasser and Egyptian and Arab nationalism and another large library of books on Qutb, the Muslim Brotherhood, and Islamist movements in general. A remarkable aspect of this scholarship is the degree to which these two libraries present separate pictures and are not integrated across time and space. Studies of Nasserism and nationalism mention Qutb and the Muslim Brotherhood, but such observations tend to be marginal to the main lines of analysis. In a similar vein, books on Qutb and political Islam pay remarkably little attention to the evolution and continuing popular support for populist nationalism as articulated by Nasser. While studies of Islamism note populist opposition to elitist secularism, there tends to be little recognition that the nationalist movement in Egypt did not involve a rejection of Islam, even in some of its more “traditional” forms.
In contrast, my book analysis presents a distinctive synthesis of the two existing libraries and concentrates on the dynamic interaction between nationalism and Islamism from the late nineteenth century till the present, though focusing specifically on the period since the early 1950s.
A major conclusion of this study is that neither nationalism nor Islamism were or are monolithic or ideologically unified movements, but rather that they involve diverse perspectives and distinctive individuals and factions.
J: How does this book connect to and/or depart from your previous work?
FG: Although Making the Arab World is an extension of my research and writing on social movements in the Middle East and Arab politics in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, it is much more historically and sociological ambitious. This big book examines two major themes and dynamic developments shaping Arab history in the past century and a half: the development of relatively secular nationalism and the evolution of sociopolitical Islam-identified activism. These two movements formed a duality defining sociopolitical life, and the study argues that their interaction—both as a fierce competition and a symbiotic cooperation—has been so profound that neither can be properly understood if they are viewed as separate historical agents.
J: Who do you hope will read this book, and what sort of impact would you like it to have?
FG: This book will be informative and critical for anyone who is interested in making sense of modern Arab history and politics, including specialists, students, and everyday readers.
Time and again, Western observers ask why an alternative progressive force has not materialized in the Arab arena. This exhaustive study offers an answer. Since the mid-1950s, Arab politics have been polarized, a struggle between Islamists and nationalists. There is no third wave or viable alternative to compete with the ideological hegemony of the Islamists on one hand and the nationalist-military alliance on the other. While the Arab Spring uprisings briefly raised hopes that such an alternative would emerge, those hopes were dashed by collusion between the two sworn enemies. Both the Islamists and the nationalists benefit from the other’s existence.
Nasser’s and Qutb’s successors have dominated the social and political scene for sixty years, not only by battling each other but also, sometimes, by collaborating to prevent the rise of third-party competitors and rivals. The Arab world has been unable to overcome the dialectics of Islamism and militarism and to pass into new democratic territory.
As to impact, this book deconstructs modern Arab history and provides a revisionist account of one of the biggest fault lines in Arab politics. My hope is that Arab readers will recognize that there is nothing “sacred” about the so-called “religious” or “cultural” wars raging in Arab lands. Power, not religion or even ideology, is the key driver behind the titanic clash between secular-leaning nationalists and Islamists.
J: What other projects are you working on now?
FG: I am researching a book tentatively titled The Hundred-Year-War for Control of the Middle East: Colonialism, Postcolonialism and State versus Society.
This book sets out to examine how we reached this point of crisis in the Middle East. It unfolds the history of the region for the last hundred years to tell the story of why and how the post-colonial dream of having a region that is inclusive, open, free and peaceful has never been realized, but has consistently been squandered away.
How is it possible that political progress has regularly been reversed despite the determination of people to struggle for their freedom, as was seen in the revolutions against colonial domination in the early part of the twentieth century? In fact, political authoritarianism has deepened and gotten worse over time.
This book critically engages with dominant interpretations about the Middle East that have developed in the course of a hundred years after its establishment by the colonial European powers.
J: How would Nasser and Qutb see the enduring clash between their followers and supporters?
FG: Nasser and Qutb must be turning in their graves at the drama unfolding in Egypt and across the Arab region. Nasser would be heartbroken to see Egypt a shadow of its former self, adrift with no ideational anchor to unite the ancient nation. His successors have replaced his doctrine of qawmiyya (Arab nationalism) with wataniyya (local patriotism), but they must rely on corporate militarism to maintain control. Nasser would criticize his successors for abandoning Arab nationalism, thus leaving ideology to the Islamists and failing to provide both symbolic inspiration and motivation for the Egyptian people and a center of gravity for the region. He would see the Ikhwan’s coming to power in 2012 as a consequence of this. Nasser would bemoan the political and economical emasculation of Egypt and its voluntary shedding of its larger-than-life self-image.
Qutb would be equally enraged by the naiveté and cynicism of the Ikhwan leadership for joining the polluted political process and for falling into apostasy. He would reproach his disciples who control the decision making for emasculating the Ikhwan ideologically and theologically and for giving up the utopian dream of a Qur’anic state. Qutb would be equally displeased with his self-appointed disciples for distorting his Islamic doctrine by spreading violence and chaos at home and abroad.
Excerpt from the Book:
Following the large-scale popular uprising that toppled President Hosni Mubarak in February 2011, Egypt witnessed a polarization between Islamist and secular nationalist forces. Ultimately, this contentious dynamic culminated in a coup mounted by the military against the country’s first democratically elected post-revolution president, Mohamed Morsi of the Islamist movement al-Ikhwan al-Muslimun, better known in English as the Muslim Brotherhood (Ikhwan will be used throughout this book). As soon as it took power, the new military-dominated administration led by Abdel Fattah al-Sisi undertook a campaign of repression, violently breaking up Ikhwan protests, killing a few thousand and arresting tens of thousands more. Remarkably, it did so with considerable support from nationalist secularists and revolutionaries who had earlier protested in their millions against Morsi’s tenure and who had initially taken to the streets to denounce the tradition of regime-led oppression in their country.
Even more striking was the extent to which the new military-dominated order and its supporters instantly sought to ground their legitimacy by invoking a historical precedent with great symbolic weight and situating themselves in relation to the legacy of Gamal Abdel Nasser, Egypt’s second president and in many ways the country’s founding political figure. Indeed, the then young, charismatic army officer did everything in his power to repress the Ikhwan during his presidency, which lasted from 1954 until his death in 1970. The Sisi administration, state media, and public commentators sought to reclaim Nasser as a powerful symbol who had prevailed against the Islamists in his own day by offering the alternative ideology of secular Arab nationalism. With no well-defined ideology of their own, contemporary nationalists and secularists filled their ideological vacuum with Nasserist terms and slogans. They depicted the Ikhwan as untrustworthy and dangerous. The Islamist organization had a grand design to hijack and Islamize the identity of the Egyptian nationalist state, they insisted. Huge portraits of Nasser filled Tahrir Square, and anti-Islamist activists drew nostalgia-tinged parallels between the former president and Sisi, an irony conveyed by the Guardian correspondent in Cairo, who reported that although Nasser was the man the Ikhwan wanted to forget, he was very much part of the new Egyptian psyche.
The Origins of the Nationalist-Islamist Fault Line
In so many ways, this recent wave of repression echoed earlier efforts by Egyptian regimes to crush the Ikhwan in 1948, 1954, and again in the second half of the 1960s. Although Egypt was initially the main battlefield, the nationalist-Islamist struggle spread to neighboring countries, undermining the development of the fragile postcolonial states in the Middle East. Today, the divide between nationalists, on the one hand, and Islamists, on the other, is a major cleavage not only in Egyptian politics but also across the Middle East and beyond. This division goes so deep that it has come to be invested with profound existential meaning. Writing in the Arabic-language newspaper al-Hayat, the Syrian poet Adonis, a prominent secularist and a vehement critic of the Islamists, has gone so far as to argue that the struggle between Islamists and secular-leaning nationalists is more cultural and civilizational than it is political or ideological; it is organically linked to nothing less than the struggle over the future of Arab identity. In a similar vein, the Ikhwan portray the “fascist coup” that removed Morsi from power as an attack on the whole Islamist project, and even as an extension of the Westernized secular ruling elite ideology which targets Islam. For the Islamists, the battle against their secular-leaning opponents is a stark existential struggle between faith and kufr, or unbelief. Although both secular and religious nationalists depict their confrontation as a clash of cultures, identities, and even civilizations, what such narratives leave out are the real objects of the struggle: the state, its power and its position as custodian of the public sphere.
This book traces this profound fault line back in time through decades of contemporary Egyptian history. The rise of both the Islamist and nationalist political forces from the beginning of the twentieth century is located in their common struggle against British colonialism and a domestic political establishment accused of collaborating with the occupying power. In addition, the book places particular focus on the origins of the conflict between these two leading social movements in the aftermath of the July 1952 coup that ousted the monarchy. Far from being either straightforwardly binary or inevitable—as it is often represented by participants and outside observers alike—the struggle between the nationalists and the Islamists involved much ambiguity and complexity. It emerged and was consolidated through a series of contingent events, personality clashes, and workaday political rivalries. Power, not ideology, was the driver. If this is the case, what explains the escalation of the confrontation between the Islamists and the nationalists into an all-out war that has endured to this day? Why did both sides subsequently invest their rivalry with cultural and existential meaning? What does the use of culture as a weapon of choice by the nationalists and the Islamists reveal about the identity and imagination of leading postcolonial social forces? In what ways have they reproduced the structure of Western colonialism, which was filled with the rhetoric of domination and annihilation of the Other? Finally, what are the costs and consequences of this prolonged confrontation for state and society, and to what extent has it impacted the formation of national identity and institution building in Egypt and neighboring Arab states?
The Book Design
The body of this book follows a broadly historical-thematic structure, utilizing historical sociology to illuminate the struggle between the two leading social movements in the Arab world. The study concentrates on the ideas and actions of individual personalities, with the core analysis being a double biography of Gamal Abdel Nasser and Sayyid Qutb, based on interviews with their contemporaries as well as textual sources. The personality-based approach and the extensive utilization of information from interviews with people involved in the nationalist-Islamist struggle presents a strong conclusion that neither nationalism nor Islamism was or is a monolithic or ideologically unified movement; rather, they involved complex diversities of perspective and involvement by distinctive individuals and factions. By focusing on collective action, hidden internal struggles, and personality clashes, the book also allows a better understanding of the patterns of contentious politics that have characterized relations between the nationalists and the Islamists since independence.
In a way, the book borrows a page from Eric Hobsbawm in treating history as an act of continuance, producing patterns and cycles which can be traced and compared. Unlike the mass corpus of recent literature which is mostly interested in explaining or predicting events classified under the rubric of ongoing “revolutions,” the book is rather a critical attempt to understand the modern history of the Arab world. Taken together, the chapters that make up this book move beyond a clear-cut, frozen-in-time binary division of the rift between secular nationalist and Islamist. Rather, what emerges is a picture of flux and complexity; marked by intersections and interactions between the two camps, on the one hand, and internal divisions within each camp, on the other. The violent nationalist-Islamist clash is fundamental to understanding critical aspects of contemporary Arab and Muslim politics, including the crisis of mistrust and suspicion and the psychology of vendetta that have taken a grip on the Islamist imagination.
In the wake of the Arab Spring uprisings, the Nasserist-Qutbian clash endures and shapes the trajectories of Arab politics. Sisi is wrapped in Nasser’s iconic cloak, and he borrows heavily from his predecessor’s repertoire to try to discredit and delegitimize the Ikhwan. He has repeatedly reminded Egyptians that the Islamist organization cannot be trusted to be in charge of the state, because its members are not patriots: their primary loyalty lies outside the country’s borders. Similarly, the Islamist organization frames its post–Arab Spring ordeal as an extension of a historical vendetta or a conspiracy by the state and its pro-Western patrons against Islamic values and heritage. Sisi is portrayed as Nasser’s heir. The only significant difference in today’s clash is that Qutb’s followers have publicly broken ranks with the Ikhwan, accused it of shedding its Islamic identity, and joined up with extremist groups like the Islamic State and Al Qaeda. From Sinai to Cairo and even beyond Egypt, religious radicals inspired by Qutb wage all-out war against what they call “apostate” and “renegade” regimes. These Qutbians are iconoclasts who seek to bring the temple crashing down on everyone, including the Ikhwan.
The space for free, open debate and political activism is tightly shut, not only between the two warring camps but also within each camp, a toxic situation similar to that of the 1950s and 1960s. All sides are on a war footing, waging trench warfare against each other. Apart from the human and social toll that this six-decade-old violent struggle has exacted, it has radicalized and militarized Arab politics and led to entrenched dictatorships and deeper repression. The Islamist-nationalist fault line remains the single most important impediment to the normalization and institutionalization of political life in Egypt, the most populous Arab state, and other Arab countries. There can be no political transition as long as the Ikhwan, the most influential social movement in the Arab world, and the military-dominated regime are locked in a state of war
Luma Simms, Ethics &Public Policy Center— What have we learned from our failed Middle Eastern endeavors? Journalists and some experts tell us that Bashar al-Assad is a bloody dictator, a war criminal, terrible to his people, and that he should be opposed, with aid and support going to those who would topple him. We are told that some—though not all—who oppose him are throwing off the chains of authoritarianism, and are seeking freedom and democracy. Even the president of Turkey (the re-Islamicizer of his country), Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, has declared that The World Must Stop Assad. Ergo, we should assist those fighting for their liberty against the oppressive dictator.
Because we keep falling for these lines, veiled—and sometimes not-so-veiled—Islamists pull us into their spheres against brutal dictators. Assad didn’t help things by turning to longtime U.S. nemesis Iran (and in actuality Assad’s enemy as well) and Russia for help. As of this writing, these tactics have established an Iranian presence in Syria, entrenched with a military infrastructure there, and strengthened the arm of Hezbollah in the region, while Christians in Lebanon, and Israel our ally, bear the brunt of a cunning Iran.
Those who wanted to “strike Syria and take out the dictator” may be motivated by images of suffering, but this is incomplete knowledge. For those looking for realism, I’m happy to fly you out to Arizona so you can meet Iraqi and Syrian Christian refugees. After that, maybe we’ll drive out to San Diego and get a feel for “Little Baghdad.” We can hit Los Angeles after that, and then head off to Michigan.
It wouldn’t be enough. We would have to travel all over the world to get a true sense of the Middle Eastern Christian diaspora. That is the reality of what happens when America “strikes” Arab countries. The second- and third-order effects reach back home and reverberate around the world for decades. People remember—peoples remember—and people learn to presume and expect that the United States will attack Arab lands whenever it suits its purposes. They have come to believe that the United States is the aggressor. These lines from a dear Syrian friend who lost her little girl in a bus bombing in Syria never leave my mind: “We [Syrians] knew when we saw on television that America invaded Iraq, that one day they will do the same to us.”
This is what people on the ground believe—nay—know.
A people, no matter their religion, deserve more than that. They deserve the opportunity to stay in their homeland. This has not been the case for Middle Eastern Christians, and nothing is happening to change that projection into the future.
What does the war in Syria have to do with Fawaz Gerges’s new book, Making the Arab World: Nasser, Qutb, and the Clash that Shaped the Middle East?
It has to do with the Islamist and national-secularist dialectic that has shaped the history of the region since the beginning of the 20th century, a struggle within the Arab world that has undermined the development of the Arab countries during the postcolonial period. This dual biography of two Egyptians, Gamal Abdel Nasser and Sayyid Qutb, shows clearly that the conflagration in Middle Eastern lands was kindled a long time ago. In the face of a complex civilizational dynamic, Gerges gives the reader the fundamental answer: What we have intervened in is an intra-Islamic war between the secular nationalists and the Islamists; or, in the words of one of Gerges’s Islamist interviewees, a war between “Islam versus apostasy.”
As an Iraqi Christian growing up in America but within an Iraqi subculture, I often heard this conflict spoken of, especially as it affected the Christians caught in the middle—from the soft discrimination of yesteryear that drove our family out, to the most recent outright genocide of Christians in Iraq.
Islamists and Secular Nationalists
Gerges, a Lebanese American who teaches Middle East politics and international relations at the London School of Economics, does a superb job in Making the Arab World. He begins his telling with Napoleon’s mission civilisatrice, a campaign to bring the ideals of the Enlightenment and the French Revolution to Egypt. This mission backfired, in the sense that it produced in Islamic lands a dissonant dynamic: enchantment with Western technological progress while harboring animosity for Western civilization.
The warped reaction of the Arab world as it encountered the West complicated the Arab colonial period. Gerges has a darker view of colonialism than the one I hold; he believes that the hypocrisy of the authorities at that time is what disillusioned the Egyptians. Regarding the British and the monarchy in Egypt during the 1920s, he writes:
Both regarded constitutionalism as a menace to their hegemonic influence, and they spared no effort to curtail its advance and entrenchment in society. More than any other factor, the British authorities and the maverick king sacrificed constitutionalism on the altar of their narrow interests, a point worth mentioning when pondering the question of why democracy has not taken hold on Arab soil.
It is a human tendency to think in hard and impermeable categories. When it comes to colonialism, caricatures abound. So often we blame the current paroxysms of the Arab lands on colonialism because it’s fashionable to believe that it is—was—an inherent and unmitigated evil inflicted upon ethnic people. But without the British helping the newly formed government of Iraq craft the 1925 constitution, this language of inclusion would not have happened: “There shall be no differentiation in the rights of Iraqis before the law, whatever differences may exist in language, race or creed.” This worked well in Iraq for some time.
The fact is that simple human agency is meaningful. Pivotal historical moments have been shaped by personal human action and not necessary systems, plots, or grand schemes. Gerges attests to this, and it is one of the themes he hits upon over and again in recounting the actions of Nasser and Qutb, and the gritty struggle for power between men and political factions.
The experience of minorities was positive, and for the most part good, under colonial rule. (I know this not just from my reading, but from many firsthand accounts I’ve received from Christians from those lands.) But the desire for Islamic and Arab identity was powerful and so the struggle against colonialism held a disparate band of actors together. The secularists, the socialists, the Marxists, the Islamists were able to unite, for “This fight against colonialism overshadowed their different visions of the political articulation of an independent Egypt,” writes Gerges.
Moreover, Germany and the Soviet Union took advantage of Arab resentment and hostility toward the West. The Arab lands were fertile soil for political and philosophical ideas coming from these countries (fascism and socialism). And so, in July 1952, Lieutenant Colonel Nasser and the Free Officers conducted a successful coup d’etat of the British-backed monarchy. As Gerges notes, their emphasis was on decolonization and on communitarian “rather than individual freedoms and constitutional rights.”
Nasser is usually portrayed as a secular nationalist, but Gerges gives us a more nuanced understanding of a man who experimented with many anti-hegemonic ideologies, including his connection with the Muslim Brotherhood movement in the 1940s and into the early 1950s. He also tilted toward the Soviet model in organizing Egypt’s economy. Through all of his experimentation he learned, especially after the 1948 Palestinian war (or Arab-Israeli war), that the army is the only way to keep law and order.
The Free Officers and the Islamists both believed that the West had thwarted the Arab world’s self-determination, and of Egypt’s in particular. But after Nasser’s coup, there arose a conflicting vision between nationalists and the Islamists as to what form that self-determination should take. And that political rivalry has shaped not only Egypt but the region since then.
For the Islamists—mostly in the form of the Ikhwan, the Muslim Brotherhood movement—Islam was not just a religion but an all-encompassing civilization that had within itself all that was needed for life, including the dictates of how a country is to be governed. They envisioned a Qur’anic political order much like today’s Islamic Republic of Iran. That they believed this was the only path to an authentic Arab Islamic identity can be seen in a 1958 video of Nasser. He recounts his 1953 conversation with the head of the Ikhwan, and his pursuit of some form of compromise between the two sides. He relates that the first thing the leader of the Ikhwan asked for was a law mandating every woman walking in public to wear the hijab.
Socialism, Arabism, and Secularism
The national secularists—Nasser and his heirs—were politically and philosophically more influenced by German and Russian socialist thought, which they alloyed with Arabism, than by the Anglo-American tradition. Nasser himself certainly did not believe in democracy. He and the others desired to create socialist Arab nations that could compete economically with Western nations, and attempted to do so by pure authoritarian fiat. At the same time, and contra the propaganda the Ikhwan peddled about Nasser, the Egyptian leader was neither an unbeliever nor an apostate. Gerges quotes from interviews showing that Nasser stayed a Muslim believer until the end, only that he did not believe that religion should be enforced via state power.
And that brings me to an underestimated point: Middle Eastern Christian and other religious minorities tend to fare better under nationalists. There are two reasons for this: One, the nationalist ideology is more inclusive (by default) as it takes in all the people living in that particular nation, no matter their religion. (In fact, Gerges discusses how in the early days of pan-Arabism and nationalism, many Christians were involved in these political movements because they finally felt included, because it wasn’t religiously driven.) The second reason is that nationalists don’t want to enforce Islam via state power. This creates social, political, and cultural space for religious minorities of all stripes.
Granted, not to the extent we see in the West. Seen through our Western lens, we tend to consider these “freedoms” laughable and we attempt and have attempted to push the Arab world for more. What we should do, as realists, is consider it a good stage in the evolution of the Arab world.
For Qutb, on the other hand, “The ultimate objective became that of replacing the Nasserist ‘apostate’ state with what was envisioned as a new, more righteous Qur’anic political order,” as Gerges says. A few pages later he writes that during the years Nasser had imprisoned Qutb—from 1954 to 1964—the preacher of jihad “developed a normative ethics which partially crystallized around the concept of politically driven violence. With Qutb, violence is not only used as a tool of opposition to the state, it de facto becomes an identity marker that helps differentiate real Muslims from the rest.”
This is why Christians cannot survive Islamist states. Americans who rationalize support for Islamists over secular dictators, take note. Believe not the propaganda of the Muslim Brotherhood’s sympathizers in the West. Albeit, things get muddled in the Middle East, and the line between secular and Islamist may be hard to distinguish given the secularists’ use of the Islamists and vice versa—all the more reason for a very cautious and more informed involvement by America.
Is There a Path to Democracy—and Who Cares?
The fact that America has been on the side of Islamists—unwittingly at times, intentionally in others—against secular nationalist rulers—that is, rulers who did not impose religion on the people—has worked against an Arab path to democracy. We saw this with the shah of Iran, and with Saddam Hussein in Iraq. We do not understand the dynamics of the cultures in this part of the world, their value systems and ways of thinking. The brute fact is that our insatiable desire for oil moves us toward short-sighted decisions.
The Islamists talk up democracy and decry the brutality of the dictators to gain Western sympathy and support. This lasts until they gain power. At which point they return to who they really are, enforcers of Islam without any real or lasting ideas for governing a nation or advancing a society.
Gerges returns to that point often. In Egypt, Ikhwan leaders “spent decades growing the movement while neglecting theory, public policy, and a strategic vision for the country.” He adds:
One thing is clear: it is unlikely that the Islamist movement will undergo a democratic transformation anytime soon. Historically, when under attack and besieged, Ikhwan leaders hunkered down, trying to weather the violent storm . . . As they see it, ultimately the sacred truth of Islam will triumph over the powerful forces of darkness and apostasy. This conviction is an impediment to critical self-reflection and acknowledgment of what went wrong with the movement.
My opinion (heretical in some circles) is that the path to peace—or at the very least, a quasi-peace—in the Middle East will come through secular nationalists, not through Islamists. Every time we take the side of Islamists we set the region back. The secular nationalists, yes, even the autocrats, over many iterations will settle down into a stable governmental structure of sorts—a space in which the people may actually live day-to-day without fear of random violence or arbitrary intrusions.
No, it won’t be democracy as we imagine it. But it could be an Arab world with a strong Arab identity manifested in its plurality, a diversified economy—an Arab world that has more to offer the rest of us than just oil, and that is stable enough so that the peoples of the region will have the choice of staying in their country of origin. On the other hand, if the West continues to support Islamists, especially as a tool to battle Russia and Iran, we will see a Middle East destroyed and used by outside agents for their benefit.
It does not seem to me that a form of democracy is impossible ever in the Middle East; but I do believe that a people, a nation, a culture, must work out its own stable governmental forms.
Luma Simms, a fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, has written on the life and thought of immigrants for First Things, the Federalist, and many other publications.– Luma Simms, Ethics &Public Policy Center
Caleb Elfenbein, Reading Religion —Making the Arab World: Nasser, Qutb, and the Clash that Shaped the Middle East provides a remarkable account of how, together, Gamal Abdel Nasser and Sayyid Qutb became towering figures in the story of modern Egypt. The reader learns of the twists and turns through which Nasser grew from a participant in Egypt’s military-led 1952 Free Officer’s Revolution to President of Egypt and leading figure in Arab politics in the space of a few years. The reader also learns about Sayyid Qutb’s transformation from literary critic to leading light of Islamism during the 1950s and 1960s. Author Fawaz A. A. Gerges argues that the particular ways their lives intersected, more than the ideologies they promoted, are responsible for the combustible dynamic between secular Arab nationalism and Islamist politics that continues to play out across the Arab world.
Drawing on remarkable interviews with confidants of Nasser, who possess a treasure trove of information about the Free Officers Revolution of 1952 and its aftermath, Gerges uses first-hand accounts to show that initially the Free Officers were not terribly committed to any particular ideology. In fact, the Muslim Brotherhood and the Free Officers worked together closely to plan, organize, and (after the initial coup) to legitimize the revolution. Gerges argues that the eventual break between the Muslim Brotherhood and Nasser (along with the Free Officers more generally) had less to do with ideological conflict than power politics. The link between the revolution and secular Arab nationalism came later after more personal politics began to play out.
Within two years of the Revolution, Nasser had moved to consolidate his authority by sidelining rivals and banning independent organizations that might rival his revolutionary movement. The Muslim Brotherhood, including its leaders and rank-and-file members, fell into both categories. Nasser feared that the Islamist organization’s significant social base posed a threat to his increasing hold on the post-colonial state. More than any ideological orientation, according to Gerges, this set the stage for the clash at the heart of 20th- and 21st-century Egyptian public life.
Nasser’s crackdown on the Brotherhood, spurred by an assassination attempt linked to elements within the organization, entailed mass imprisonments. Among those caught up in the wave of arrests and incarcerations was Sayyid Qutb, who had been quite active in working with the Free Officers both before and after the initial coup. While in prison, Qutb wrote copiously, crafting a radical, revolutionary Islamist vision, arguing that Nasser and other government officials were apostates and as such no longer deserved the respect or protection afforded fellow Muslims. In the vacuum of Brotherhood leadership created by Nasser’s crackdown, Qutb’s writings attracted significant attention among younger members who were seeking to create a new, secret paramilitary wing to confront the Egyptian state.
Eventually, Egyptian security services, which grew exponentially during the 1950s, accidentally discovered yet-to-be-enacted plans for attacks against state interests. On the basis of his alleged role in these plans as well as his writings, Nasser ordered Qutb’s execution in 1966. Just a year later, Nasser himself suffered a serious blow and saw his authority beginning to wane in the wake of Egypt’s terrible defeat in the 1967 war with Israel that called into question the viability of Nasser’s Arab nationalist project. Nonetheless, according to Gerges, the clash between Qutb and Nasser concretized dynamics that continued to frame life in Egypt for decades to come.
Nasser justified the growth of the security state by positioning the Muslim Brotherhood as an existential threat to Egypt. His crackdown on the organization left the Brotherhood fractured, with some members hewing closely to the original vision of the movement’s founder, Hasan al-Banna, who preached gradual societal change, and others advocating Qutb’s vision of revolutionary transformation. When Nasser’s successor, Anwar Sadat, opened significant space for Islamist politics in the years after his death, these fractures continued to play out very publicly. Sadat himself succumbed to Islamist activists (from within the military), who assassinated him in 1981. This in turn led to a renewed, multi-decade crackdown on Islamist organizations, including the Brotherhood, by Hosni Mubarak, who was in power from the time of Sadat’s death until 2011. The permanent state of emergency marking Mubarak’s rule also made a broader crackdown on virtually all non-state organizations possible. After a brief, tumultuous, and polarizing period in power following the uprisings of 2011 and subsequent elections, the Brotherhood is once again prohibited by the current president, Abdel Fattah al-Sisi.
In short, Gerges argues, the original clash between Nasser and the Brotherhood is directly responsible for the state of Egyptian public life: society has little to no room to function apart from the state, the Brotherhood continues to hold itself aloof from non-Islamist life and thus is unable to work effectively with other opposition groups, and more radical Islamists who justify violence give the security state pretext for authoritarian rule. Gerges successfully argues this point with care.
However, Gerges does not really discuss how these dynamics have played out across the region, despite the promise implied by the title. For those with a background in the region it may be possible to connect the dots. For others, it will be very difficult to evaluate this portion of the book’s argument. This is a significant drawback for those looking for a more general account of nationalism and Islamism in the Arab world. There are occasional references to other relevant contexts, such as Syria and Saudi Arabia, but not the kind of extended engagement non-specialists would need.
I am also left wondering about Gerges’s insistence that power politics and personal grievance, more than ideology or ideas, fueled the titanic clash between Nasser and Qutb. It is clear that Nasser and Qutb acted on the basis of very real and concrete concerns about power, authority, and personal interest, but this does not mean that the ideas they articulated and that affected and influenced so many others were merely window dressing justifying their own actions or motivations. Many figures and movements with disparate ideological commitments have found common cause in anti-colonial struggle only to fall out after independence. This element of Gerges’s argument does not seem essential to the book itself, and may well leave those who think ideas motivate action and thus play a crucial role in historical change a little skeptical.
Even with these criticisms in mind, Making the Arab World: Nasser, Qutb, and the Clash that Shaped the Middle East is a significant contribution to Middle East studies. It draws together incredible research to tell an important story about two figures who had a great impact on life in their own historical moment and beyond.– Caleb Elfenbein, Reading Religion