Ted Thornton
History of the Middle East Database
The Political and Religious Landscape of the Middle East at the Dawn of the Twenty-First Century

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At the dawn of the twenty-first century, the Middle East in particular and the larger Muslim world in general were stagnating: locked in an inter-sectarian religious struggle that had been going on in one form or other since tenth-century Abbasid times. The contemporary phase of the struggle was often hard to detect behind strident anti-Western rhetoric on the part of some of the contestants who preferred to keep up an old game: blaming the West (especially its history of colonialism) for the Muslim world's problems.

However, many in the Middle East had an acute sense that they were falling more and more rapidly behind other parts of the world in some of the more secular and material areas of life. Two recent U.N. commissioned Arab Human Development Reports (2002 and 2005) written by Arab experts made it plain that the Arab Muslim world was lagging behind the rest of the world in many if not most socioeconomic indicators. (see) While much of the world was globalizing, the greater Middle East (including the Central Asian Republics) had been deglobalizing. Will Hutton (The Writing on the Wall (New York: Free Press, 2007), 323) cited figures showing that between 1979 and 2000, "the Middle East's share of global trade and investment fell by three-fourths while its population nearly doubled, to 600 million," and that, "across the Arab world average per capita incomes fell from $2,300 to $1,600 between 1980 and 2000." Hutton argued it was trends like these that were the real reason for Arab and Muslim anger against the West.

Rising Muslim anger seemed to observers like Fouad Ajami to be related to global demographics. Taking a fresh look fifteen years later at Samuel Huntington's "clash of civilizations" thesis, Ajami noted that more than 40% of the world's people had been under the "political control" (Huntington's phrase) of Western civilization in 1900, but had declined to 15% in the year 1990 (the year Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait), and was headed to a low of 10% by the year 2025. In contrast, Islam's share of control had risen from 4% in 1900 up to 13% in 1990 and might rise to 19% by 2025. (Fouad Ajami, "The Clash," New York Times Book Review, Jan. 7, 2008, 10).

Some of Islam's anti-Westernism stemmed from long centuries of polemical attacks back and forth, many of them anchored in convictions of religious supersessionism. Inside Islam itself, two main groups were contending. On the one hand were the free thinkers, advocates for ijtihad ("independent reasoning"). On the other hand were the champions of taqlid ("tradition") who stood for strict obedience to literalist interpretations of the Qur'an and Islamic law and aimed to restore the caliphate, which had been dismantled by the modernist Turkish leader Ataturk in 1924.  Osama bin Laden's movement, following the Hanbali theologian Ibn Taymiyya aligned itself with the latter group. (more below)

Anti-Westernism, long directed at European colonial powers, began targeting the United States when the CIA engineered the overthrow of a democratically elected government in Iran in 1953 and especially in the aftermath of the Second Gulf War (1990-1991). Not long after Iraq's leader Saddam Hussein was driven out of Kuwait in the winter of 1991, Middle Eastern Muslims began wondering what place they would occupy in the "new world order" proclaimed by the victorious American President George H. Bush, who had led the multilateral coalition against Saddam.  Many Arabs in 1991 were ashamed that one of their own, Saddam, had created such peril in their region by invading and occupying another sovereign Arab country, and that alien ("infidel") Western powers - the United States foremost among them - had to be invited onto sacred, Muslim soil (Saudi Arabia, location of the chief Muslim shrines of Mecca and Medina) to restore order and solve a dilemma Arab Muslims themselves had been powerless to. Osama bin Laden would make a major issue out of this throughout the 1990s.  He and his lieutenant Ayman al-Zawahiri, a former leader of the Jihad Organization, considered the American military presence a profanation of Islam's holy places, and more importantly, blamed not only the infidel Americans for this, but, to an even larger degree, their own Muslim rulers whom they excoriated as corrupt traitors to the cause of Islam.

From the Arab point of view (and that of many others in the world as well), the "new world order" was little more than the latest presentation of  the American Empire, working in collusion with Israel to reshape the Middle East according to American interests, chief among them: oil.  One Arab columnist, Auny Bashir thought he saw it all coming as early as 1995 (al-Majalla, June 11-17, 1995 -- translated excerpts).  So did Qasam Khadir Abbas, who described the new world order in a 1997 study, as, "a tyrannical system of rule which the United States imposed after the breakup of the Soviet Union giving it authority over those world powers which endeavor to resist it." (quoted in the literature supplement of al-Majalla, no. 933, December 28, 1997, 6) That same year, a new political lobby appeared in Washington, the Project for the New American Century, which called for aggressive military interventionism on behalf of American interests around the world. 

Modern Islamic revivalism - fueled by the conviction that a return to the basic principles (usuliyya) of Islam was the solution to the woes of the Islamic world - had begun in the Middle East with men like Jamal al-Din al-Afghani and Muhammad Abduh in the mid-nineteenth century as a response to Western colonialism. Other revivalist movements had sprung up elsewhere (see, for example, the Deobandi movement).) But, it became a global force beginning in the 1960s throughout the entire Muslim world, at that point heavily financed by petrodollars and drawing from several streams: the Wahhabi movement which had begun in the Arabian peninsula in the 1700s, the thought of Sayyid Qutb in Egypt, the thought of  Maulana Mawdudi in India and Pakistan, and Khomeini's revolution in Iran.

Encouraged by the revivalists on the one hand and by secular writers like Edward Said on the other, many Arab Muslims blamed Israel and the United States in addition to historical European colonialism for their woes. Others began to look closer to home for blame.The great Islamic reform and revival movements that arose during the nineteenth century (see Afghani and Abduh), chiefly as a means of resisting European colonialism and of rediscovering Muslim roots and returning to past glories, became bogged down in ill-informed nostalgia and utopianism (seen in attempts to recreate the conditions of Muhammad's Muslim community in seventh century Medina:  examples included  Hizb al-Tahrir, Takfir wa'l-Hijra, Osama bin Laden, and the Afghan Taliban). Many Muslims noted with embarrassment the dismal record of Islamic rule in the Sudan, which was frequently cited for violations by all the world's major human rights organizations and which had banned works of literature including those of renowned Sudanese novelist, Tayib Salah. The conflict between government and rebel Islamist forces that began in Algeria in 1992 had, by 1999, left nearly 100,000 dead while the death toll from a parallel but more torpid and intermittent conflict in Egypt claimed over 1,000 lives during the same period.

Other benchmarks in the evolution of Islamic revivalism included the founding of the Muslim World League in 1962 in Saudi Arabia, the purposes of which were to counter Egyptian President Nasser's pan-Arab nationalism and perceived secularism and to export Wahhabism.  The humiliating Arab defeat in 1967 at the hands of Israel was followed in 1969 by an attack on the al-Aqsa mosque by an extremist who claimed to be a Christian.  This event precipitated the Rabat Summit and the formation of the Organization of the Islamic Conference, which Saudi Arabia  used to promote itself as leader of the Muslim world.  Finally, the oil crisis following the 1973 Arab-Israeli war permitted Saudi Arabia to apply vast amounts of its new oil wealth to Wahhabi missionary efforts worldwide.  Many revivalists sought to reverse the decline and final breakup of the Ottoman Empire following World War I and restore the caliphate, which Turkey's Ataturk had abolished in 1924, one of his many secularizing reforms

Saudi Arabia's claims to preeminence in the sixties and especially the seventies as the natural leader of the Muslim world did not go uncontested. The success of the Iranian Revolution (1979) sent two equally forceful claims rocketing through the Muslim world:  first, that the West was not invincible, and second, that Shiite Iran could do a better job of challenging the West and spreading Islam than Sunni ("orthodox") Saudi Arabia had done. 

Muslims were also divided between those who were ashamed that democracy had been so slow to make inroads in their nations and those who regarded democracy as anarchic and profane (mostly adherents of Islamist revival groups -- see, for example, the Muslim Brotherhood's Mamun al-Hudeibi). Many Muslims were embarrassed and upset that the economic boom underway in many parts of the world in the early nineties had seemingly bypassed them.  They felt powerless and impotent to change their situation.

Almost no Arab state had been left untouched by popular dissent from the authoritarian rule that was the norm everywhere in the region, even in such traditional bastions of stability as Saudi Arabia and Jordan. In the summer of 1996, serious anti-government riots occurred in Bahrain, Jordan, and Libya. In Egypt, where some of Nobel laureate Naguib Mahfouz's books were in the late 90s still banned, where laws severely limiting freedom of the press had recently been passed, and where Islamist lawyers daily brought new suits to ban magazines and books and to censor popular entertainment, an Egyptian appeals court in August of 1996 upheld the divorce decree imposed upon Cairo University Professor Nasr Abu Zaid and his wife Ibtihal Younis, also an academic. Orthodox Islamist lawyers had petitioned that Abu Zaid be declared guilty of apostasy (ridda ) and that his marriage to Younis be annulled on the grounds that his writings contained religiously blasphemous material (for example, he had stated in one of his works that some parts of the Qur'an should be read metaphorically, not literally). The divorce decree received the imprimatur of the new Sheikh of al-Azhar, Muhammad Said Tantawi. In 2001, Egypt was again rocked when the government staged  the show trial of American University of Cairo Professor Saad al-Din Ibrahim. Ibrahim was sentenced to seven years in prison for alleged financial improprieties surrounding a film he had made that the government deemed slanderous.  He had also written a piece in 2000 that was even more directly critical of the regime. Ibrahim  was finally acquitted in March, 2003.

In the territories under Palestinian administration, high hopes for democracy and justice following the return of PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat to his homeland in the summer of 1994 and the first ever elections of Palestinians in the winter of 1996 (in which Arafat was elected President) had given way to despondency over the absence of progress on the economic front, foot dragging by the Israelis with respect to implementation of the Oslo agreement, and mounting reports of Palestinian political arrests, human rights abuses (including torture in Palestinian jails), and lack of due process, all of which played into the hands of extremists on both sides. (see the dismal course of events following Arafat's return to Gaza in 1994, and the U.N. statistics on the economic degradation ushered in by the Oslo Agreement.)

Calls to Muslims to join jihads in pursuit of Islamic utopias (not only in places like Bosnia and Iraq, but also increasingly in mainline European nations) increased throughout the nineties and into the twenty-first century. As for interpreting the rules of jihad in the Qur'an and the Hadith, radicals like Osama bin Laden increasingly began basing their own readings on the guidelines laid out by Sayyid Qutb in addition to the sayings of the medieval Hanbali philosopher Ibn Taymiyya as filtered through Wahhabi puritanism.  Military action against the United States was seen as  warranted for the following reasons:  the American occupation of holy Muslim lands (areas of Saudi Arabia where U.S. troops had been stationed since the 1991 Gulf War), American support of another "infidel" nation - Israel - which had conquered and occupied the third holiest shrine in Islam (Jerusalem), and American support of "non-Islamic" rulers of Muslim nations (the label, in their estimation, fit practically all of them -- see bin Laden's fatwa of February, 1998).

Mainstream Muslim jurists and scholars countered that any jihad must be declared and conducted by the Muslim ruler of a state, or failing that, by Islamic officials (ulema). (Osama bin Laden, for example, fit  neither of  these categories).  Jihad throughout Muslim history had usually been considered a last resort. The rules of jihad forbade the killing of noncombatants (women, children, and the elderly). Ambassadors and diplomatic missions were also immune from attack so long as they did not engage in espionage. Jihads against unbelievers could not be initiated without a prior summons to embrace Islam.  Suicide attacks were ruled out. According to the Hadith, Muhammad taught that the punishment for suicide was the eternal repetition of the act. Suicide was not the same as martyrdom (falling in battle while engaged in a legitimate jihad, the seventh century Battle of Badr, for example).   Martyrdom brought the believer immediate entrance into paradise. Under the influence of radicals like bin Laden and his teacher Abdullah Azzam, the rules were reinterpreted to fit the new extremist agenda.

In the wake of the "9/11 2001" attacks and the expulsion of the Taliban from Afghanistan, U.S. President George W. Bush in the fall of 2002 proclaimed his "Bush Doctrine," and the buildup began toward the invasion and occupation of Iraq in the spring of 2003.  The campaign was promoted as an attempt to rid Iraq of its alleged "weapons of mass destruction" and its alleged connection to Osama bin Laden's al-Qaeda network (neither charge turned out to be true) either prior to the attack or in the months immediately following.  However, most saw it as a drive to take care of the unfinished business of 1991 and revenge for 9/11 (although an Iraqi role in 9/11 had also never been established).  The second Palestinian intifada ("uprising") dragged on past the death of Yasser Arafat in 2004 amidst charges that the United States was biased toward Israel and was ignoring Palestinian claims, especially with respect to Israeli occupation of Palestinian lands and the disposition of Palestinian refugees who fled during the 1948 war

By 2002, however, some writers (see especially Gilles Kepel, Jihad: The Trail of Political Islam (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press, 2002) had declared militant Islamic revivalism defunct as moderate Muslims began to articulate a new relationship between religion and civil authority (with the former subordinated to the latter: see Enes KariƧ, for example, and the Dayton Accords of December, 1995 that ended the war in Bosnia).  Another example of the new mood was seen in the writings and speeches of Tariq Ramadan, grandson of Muslim Brotherhood founder Hasan al-Banna.  A Swiss national, Ramadan seemed to be rejecting the Islamist posture of confrontation with the West and saw European-style democracy as the best guarantor of protection for Muslims from the kind of despotism that was afflicting most Muslim nations (Kepel, 369). But, at the same time he struck some as equivocal, unpredictable, and blind to the sectarian forces that had long menaced Islam (more on Ramadan).  And finally in Egypt, many saw the appearance of the al-Wasat ("Center") Party in 1995 as a sign of a new turn in Egyptian politics and religious life. In an unprecedented display of ecumenism,  al-Wasat, an offshoot of the Muslim Brothers, included a Copt and a Protestant Christian in its leadership (Kepel, 296f., 372). Kamal Aboul Megd was a leading spokesman. 

Calls for a new relationship between religion and politics also began to be heard from Arab writers and artists.  At a "Conference for Arab Culture" in July, 2003, Egyptian poet and writer Ahmed Abdulmoaty Hegazy charged that Islamic revivalism had degraded Islam as a whole. Hegazy called for secularism and the separation of religion from civil life saying, "'We need this separation more than the West and the Christians...Because we don't have priests, our rulers have become the religious leaders, and religious leaders are employees of the state.'"  Gamal al-Banna (brother of Muslim Brotherhood founder Hasan al-Banna) agreed, saying, "'Political power ruins religion, or ideology...Islam is a religion and an Umma (nation), not a religion and a state...The state cannot bring any good to religion; it can only bring terror and oppression.'" (Abdel Rahman Hussein, "Religion Takes a Stand," al-Hayat, July 8, 2003)  Writers like Reza Aslan surveying the contemporary scene thought they saw a revival of the old struggle between the Rationalists in Islam (Mut'azilites) and the Traditionalists (the Hanbalis, for example), which had commenced in the first centuries of Islam, over how the Qur'an and the Hadith should be interpreted. These commentators, therefore, saw the struggle as more of an internal one, between rival factions within Islam who were taking up the cudgels again in an unresolved conflict, not an external one, not a "clash of civilizations," or a war between Islam and the West, but a conflict for which, nevertheless, the stakes had grown considerably high in the wake of pressures on the Muslim world from within and without to reform itself. (Other Muslim writers critical of what they regarded as atavistic or reactionary forces in Islam were Akbar Ahmed, Fouad Ajami, Irshad Manji, Ziauddin Sardar, and Ibn Warraq (also).  See also Thomas Friedman, "Reaping What it Sowed," New York Times, May 4, 2005

Gilles Kepel (op. cit. pp.11-13) saw signs of militant utopian Islam's decline beginning to show up definitively in the mid 1990s, as (one after the other) jihads to take over Algeria, Egypt, and Bosnia were all sputtering out.  For him, September 11, 2001 fell into the category of a last gasp: a desperate attempt to inject life back into a failed movement. The fall of the Taliban in Afghanistan in late 2001 led further credence to Kepel's thesis. Other writers like Ahmed Rashid (Jihad:  The Rise of Militant Islam in Central Asia (New Haven: Yale University, Press, 2000) saw the Islamist threat merely shifting from one venue to another: away from areas like the Middle East and toward Central Asia.  Strong showings by Islamist parties at the polls in Algeria, Morocco, Bahrain, Pakistan, and Turkey, in the summer and fall of 2002 seemed to confirm that the appeal of some revivalist movements was still alive. In addition to the usual litany of reasons (poverty, government corruption, fear of globalization, fear of Western domination), many Muslims said that increasing American hostility toward Islam since 9/11 had prompted them to close ranks with their own. 

With the capture of  Saddam Hussein in late 2003 by American forces near his hometown of Tikrit, Iraq, some predicted that the age of Arabism, which had reached its apex with Nasser, had come to an end. Televised images and accounts of the leader who had billed himself as the Arab world's modern savior, a 21st century Salah al-Din (also), but who had surrendered without a fight to the Americans, pulled from a hole in the ground dirty and disheveled, provoked renewed feelings of shame and humiliation in many Arabs and renewed denial in others (more). Even in Egypt, one of the most stable Arab regimes, the government of Hosni Mubarak was taken off guard by the breadth and depth of new challenges to its authority that came in the fall of 2004. However, as Thomas Friedman noted ("Look Who's Talking," New York Times, Feb. 19, 2004), some Arab commentators began praising the Americans for pushing the Arab world toward genuine political reform. 


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Last Revised: August 1, 2008