The rise and fall of political Islam

The rise and fall of political Islam

No, it is not true that political Islam only started to become radicalized with the Islamic Revolution in Iran. Before that there were two major moves.

The first was the coup by General Zia ul-Haq against Prime Minister Zulfiqar Ali Butto in Pakistan in July 1977. With ul-Haq, Pakistan gradually moved towards being a nuclear power, and also turned a blind eye to radical Islamist armed groups. (Importantly, in the May 1977 elections in Israel, Likud dominated Labor for the first time, also endorsing a religious focus in regional politics.)

The second was the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in April 1978 following a pro-Soviet coup d’etat. The Mujaheed resistance, assisted mainly by U.S. and Saudi intelligence agencies, paved the way for organizations like the Taliban an al-Qaeda. 

Then we see Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini returning from his exile in Paris to a restless Tehran on Feb. 1, 1979, which marked the start of the Islamic Revolution in Iran. That was the emergence of the Shiite pole in political Islam after hundreds of years, following the emergence of the Sunni one in Afghanistan.

The next step in the ascending ladder of political Islam was the July 16, 1979 coup in Baghdad, in which Hasan al-Bakr was toppled by his deputy, Saddam Hussein. There is an interesting detail here. If al-Bakr had not been toppled, he was about to close a deal with Hafez al-Assad of Syria, who had taken power through a coup d’etat back in 1970, about the merging of the two countries. However, the Iranian revolution motivated al-Assad, he led the Shiite leaning Nusayri minority over a Sunni majority in Syria, while Hussein ruled over a Shiite majority based on Sunni tribes. The first result of that polarization was the Iraq-Iran war that started on Sept. 22, 1980, only 10 days after a military coup took place in Turkey. 

The Israeli announcement to declare Jerusalem as their capital in July 1980, the Syrian massacre of 1982 in Hama and Homs against supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood (originally founded in Egypt in 1928), and the Israeli military campaign against the Palestinians in Lebanon, all contributed to the further radicalization of political Islam.

The 10 year adventure of the Soviets in Afghanistan resulted in a total defeat, which was one of the last nails in the Soviet coffin. As the Taliban and al-Qaeda turned their guns acquired from the West on the West, Iran started to adopt a revisionist policy: From the export of Islamic Revolution to a neo-Persian nationalism, sugar coated with Shiism.

In Turkey, political Islam has further evolved into a vote-based movement by adopting Europe-focused economic and democratic standards, the model of the Justice and Development Party (AK Parti) that won the 2002 elections and is still ruling Turkey. The AK Parti positively influenced certain factions of Brotherhood movements in Egypt, Morocco, Tunisia, and Syria, and the Arab Spring from 2010 on carried a pinch of that influence. That was the point where Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdoğan started to prioritize the Middle East and showed an interest in this new wave of political Islam. The misfortune of the Brotherhood movements in those countries was the lack of a democratic and secular experience that Turkey had had, despite a lot of pain. As neo-political Islam started to decline, al-Qaeda like movements started to gain support, especially among youngsters full of Western hatred.

A good scenario is the hope of new political movements believing in the separation of religion and government, but which have respect for faith, in the near future. No one would really like to talk about the bad scenario.