Political and academic discourse dealing with the phenomena of extremism and radical Islamism in the Arab world, Afghanistan and other areas where Islamist groups are widespread forgets the historical roots of the political employment of Islam during the colonial period and notably by the British against nationalist movements seeking independence.
This was done in Egypt during the British occupation, and later these same British agents moved from the British intelligence service to its American counterpart, which in turn attempted to employ Islam along with the regimes relying on it to back their legitimacy in order to confront Communism and the Soviet Union and the liberating role that former Egyptian president Gamal Abdel-Nasser was playing in the Arab region.
The Islamic alliance emerged as an attempt to circumvent this nationalist role. Later, Islam and the Islamist movements were used through the Arab role in supporting Afghan groups fighting Soviet forces in Afghanistan and facilitating the travel of great numbers of fighters to Peshawar in neighbouring Pakistan through the assistance of the intelligence services. The Al-Qaeda organisation was formed, and it helped to found other organisations, including the Islamic State (IS) group in Syria and Iraq.
Attempting to employ religion and Islamist political groups against political and security threats to the Americans and British is a dangerous game. No matter how many fighters are recruited to these groups, the loyalty of the majority of them, together with that of their leaders, cannot be guaranteed. Religion cannot be made loyal to a particular regime or superpower such as the US. This was also seen in Egypt, when the Muslim Brotherhood and the Islamist groups were used against the leftists, Nasserists and some liberals in the 1970s and soon became the state’s biggest threat.
Equivalents to this were seen in Sudan during the rule of former president Jaafar Mohamed Al-Numeiri after his shift to Islamism in accordance with the National Islamic Front led by Hassan Al-Turabi. He put his opponents on trial in line with the Sharia (Islamic Law) and executed Mahmoud Mohamed Taha, leader of the Republican Party. Al-Turabi then hatched a coup and overthrew Numeiri by using the Islamist Movement’s grassroots in the Sudanese army under the leadership of Omar Al-Bashir. Al-Turabi’s sons then overthrew their teacher by allying with Al-Bashir, whose rule as president of Sudan continued for 30 years.
In the Tunisian case, former president Zine El Abidine Ben Ali employed Islam in some of his political practices and used the Salafis to confront the Islamic Tendency Movement led by Rachid Al-Ghannouchi in exile in Britain. However, that Salafism later expanded and became a supporter of the Islamic Tendency Movement, which later became the Ennahda Movement. Following the Tunisian uprising in 2011, the number of Tunisian jihadists going to Syria and Iraq amounted to more than 4,000, many of them engaging in operations led by IS.
In the Algerian case, the Islamisation of the regime was implemented against the cultural, linguistic and educational heritage of French colonialism in the country. This in turn gave way to the expansion of the Islamic Salvation Front (FIS), which, highly organised, employed Islam in criticising the National Liberation Front (FLN) that had led the independence struggle against France, Sonatrach, the state-owned oil company, and the military, notably by pointing to widespread unemployment among the country’s young people.
The Islamic Salvation Front then won the first round of the general elections held in Algeria in 1992, and when these were cancelled this led to the outbreak of civil war and the subsequent “Black Decade” in the country that claimed an enormous number of lives.
In all such cases of the politicisation of Islam, the results have been similar in showing the regimes’ failure to control it, whether domestically or in employing it in international conflicts against the former Soviet Union in Afghanistan or against liberation movements in the Arab region.
This can be attributed to the fact that religious narratives are characterised by a plurality of doctrines and schools as well as by different jurisprudential opinions and conflicts in choosing between them. It is easy to embrace an opinion and apply it to prevalent political, social and economic circumstances in a certain historical period, saying that that opinion, whatever it may be, stipulates siding with certain ideas and considering them to be part of true religion and belief.
As a result, various such religious opinions have been used to support the ideology of one group or another, requiring the selection of traditional commentaries supporting them, whether such and such an opinion belongs to a particular historical group like the Kharijites, for example, or to one of their followers or to one of the followers of the followers and so on within a particular doctrine or religious school and then building upon it by commentary and construction and applying it to today’s social and political reality.
Such opinions have been used by the Muslim Brotherhood, Islamic Jihad, the Al-Gamaa Al-Islamiya and the Al-Tawafuq wa-l-Tabayun groups. Some groups have relied on general principles and commentaries, like the Muslim Brotherhood and its leader Hassan Al-Banna before the group shifted towards the ideas of Brotherhood ideologue Sayed Qutb in the 1960s, whose ideas derived from those of Abu Al-Alaa Al-Mawdudi on the Indian sub-continent.
Meanwhile, the Arab political authorities employ the official religious institutions to confront the Islamist groups in their views of Islam or use them against regimes they deem to be opponents. The medieval jurist Ibn Taymiya’s jurisprudence and commentaries have been used against different Arab regimes at different times, for example.
The historical lesson is that employing Islamism and radical Islamist groups in international conflicts has led to the eruption of brutal violence in conflict areas, with these groups slipping out of the control of the countries supporting them. This has also been seen in the case of the United States using the Islamist groups for its own political purposes in fighting the Soviet Union in Afghanistan in the 1980s and in other ways up until the present.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 9 September, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.