Samuel Helfont: "Politics, Terrorism, and the Sunni Divide"
Samuel Helfont, doctoral student in Near Eastern Studies at Princeton University, has written an article for the Foreign Policy Research Institute's E-Notes, "Politics, Terrorism, and the Sunni Divide," that is required reading for anyone interested in contemporary Islamism. Helfont opens the article with perfect clarity:
Wahhabism and the Muslim Brotherhood are two distinct forms of Sunni Islamism. They have separate histories and separate worldviews. In reality they are not even the same type of movement. Their origins were largely unrelated. Their historic missions have been completely different, as are their current goals and means of achieving those goals. Unfortunately, these differences too often are overshadowed by a false Sunni-Shia dichotomy that tends to lump all Sunni Islamists together. But learning the differences between Sunni Islamists is critical to understanding politics and terrorism in the Arab Middle East. One could even argue that the most important division shaping Arab politics is not between Sunnis and Shias but between the Wahhabis and the Brotherhood. Before delving into current issues, however, it is first necessary to define differences between Wahhabism and the Muslim Brotherhood.One might suspect that Helfont is somewhat exaggerating the significance of the internal Sunni divide over the more traditional Sunni-Shia divide, but he manages to clarify for me a distinction internal to Sunnism that I had sensed but lacked the expertise to articulate. As "an Iraq war veteran and . . . intelligence officer in the U.S. Navy Reserve," Helfont perhaps had a practical bent along with the experience that led him to notice the difference and investigate it.
Basically, he argues that Wahhabism is a reactionary, puritanical Islamist movement that seeks to reform Islam in light of strictly defined Islamic categories and thus rejects any ideas contaminated by non-Islamic sources of inspiration, whereas the Muslim Brotherhood is a radical, politicized Islamist movement that seeks to reconceptualize Islam in light of contemporary ideologies, both Islamic and non-Islamic. This does not mean that the Muslim Brotherhood is liberal by Western standards -- the Brotherhood accepts suicide bombing, for example -- but it does mean that it is more willing to compromise with democratic processes than is Wahhabism. This does not make the Muslim Brotherhood friendly to the West, of course, as we see in Helfont's analysis of the difference between the Brotherhood and Wahhabism:
Because of this friction between pre-modern and modern norms, the Muslim Brotherhood has reinterpreted the meaning of jihad, infusing it with modern concepts. It generally understands jihad as resistance to expansionist warfare and imperialism. It does not consider domestic political violence to be jihad and it condemns attacks on other Muslims. The only time the Brotherhood considers jihad to be legitimate is when it takes place on Muslim land that it deems occupied by a non-Muslim force. Today, this would include Israel, Iraq, Afghanistan, Chechnya, Kashmir and other similar locales. Once jihad is declared, however, the Brotherhood uses whatever means it has at its disposal. This includes suicide bombings, targeting civilians, and the use of women and children . . . . Wahhabists generally see the Brotherhood's reinterpretation of jihad as an abomination. Muhammad ibn abd al-Wahhab's interpretation of jihad makes no apology for aggression. In fact offensive jihad was essential for the spread of Wahhabism in the eighteenth and nineteenth century. The famous union between abd al-Wahhab and Muhammad ibn Saud was based on the idea that Saud would have much to gain from religiously-sanctioned expansive warfare.Neither the Muslim Brotherhood nor Wahhabism are compatible with Western Civilization's basic values, but their hostility will be differently expressed and acted upon and will therefore need to be differently responded to, and Helfont offers some policy recommendations. To deal with the Wahhabists, Westerners would need to gain expertise in Islamic laws and values, especially in the Wahhabist tradition. To deal with the Muslim Brotherhood, one could take advantage of contradictions in its unstable mix of modern and premodern ideas.
All this is quite interesting to consider.
One problem with Helfont's analysis, however, is that it does not very well account for the rise of Al Qaeda, which combines aspects of both types of Islamism -- as Helfont notes -- for given the stark distinction drawn between the two, one wouldn't expect to find such a combination.