Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Samuel Helfont: "Politics, Terrorism, and the Sunni Divide"

'Qibla' Quibble?
What Direction Sunni Islam?
(Image from Wikipedia)

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.

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At 6:31 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

"One problem with Helfont's analysis, however, is that it does not very well account for the rise of Al Qaeda..."

To my mind (and mine likely differs from Helfont's) Al-Q's rise owes much to the ultimate withdrawal of the Soviets - and "the need for an enemy."

Some analysts agree and accept that as a given, not all, but some. I'm uncertain as to whether Helfont does and therefore offers minimal context. But if he does, that would seem to make sense.


At 7:14 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

What I meant about the "rise of Al Qaeda" was that it combines aspects of Wahhabism and the Muslim Brotherhood despite the antagonism exhibited between the two.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 12:54 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...



At 7:11 AM, Anonymous erdal said...

Good grief! This guy better finish his studies before authoring a book. Wahhabism is an historical concept that led the House of Saud to pre-eminence in Arabia more than a century ago. As a political a religious philosopy, it helped spark the Brotherhood in the early 20th century and has been sterile since. Nobody anywhere is a Wahhabi anymore, or has been for 70+ years. Even the embodiment of "contemporary Wahhabism", Bin Baz, owned everything to the the Brotherhood's thinking. The only trace left of the original was his attachment to the Saudi royals. Arabia, and the Middle East in general, is Brotherhood country, as far as softcore Islamists are concerned. Beyond Arabia, the only fertile ground for Islamists has been the Indian subcontinent, namely Maududi, and late 19th century Turkey, namely Said Nursi. The first merged pretty smoothly with the Brotherhood, the latter still informs Turkey's Islamist discourse.
Obviously, there are every now and then hardcore Islamist groups that go well beyond standard al-Banna/Qutb/Maududi brotherhood stuff; none of them have anything to do with Wahhabism though, they usually hark back even further into the past (like the Taliban, with their strong dose of Maududi plus Pashtun tribalsm), or build upon standard Brotherhood ideology (like al-Zawahiri/al-Qaeda and several factions of Algeria's civil war). If there is an overarching Sunni divide in Islamism, it's between those who hold power themselves (or support those who do) and those who are in opposition, usually to semi-secular despots.

At 7:24 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Erdal, I follow most of your points, but are you perhaps overstating the case when you write: "Nobody anywhere is a Wahhabi anymore"? Does that include Saudi Arabia itself? Wouldn't the Saudi form of Salafi Islam be strongly Wahhabist?

Jeffery Hodges

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At 10:40 PM, Anonymous erdal said...

As I see it, Wahhabism means Salafist Islam of the Hanbali school plus the ideosyncratic tenets of Abd al- Wahhab. These were: Wage war on the tribes in Arabia to bring them back into the fold. Return Mecca and Medina to the locals (the "right" locals, of course, namely the family of Saud). Eliminate pre-Islamic custom in your sphere of influence. Expand aggresively, whilst declaring even your Muslim opposition to be infidels. Points 1-3 were achived long ago. Point 4 has apparently been dropped. Saudi Arabia hasn't attacked its neighbors for a very long time, or declared them infidels (except the Shiites, but then everybody Sunni does that every now and then). Abd al-Wahhab's writings are of historic interest only; they are not even used for Dawa (mission work) purposes. Just the classics that everybody in the Salafist camp uses.

The mission of the Wahhabist movement is largely completed (in Arabia), just like e.g. the mission (in Europe and America). What remains is Salafist Islam of the Hanbali school, which in the Saudi case just happens to be state doctrine, unlike in North-Africa, for example, where is remains the main opposition.

At 10:42 PM, Anonymous erdal said...

...just like e.g. the mission of the Abolitionists (in Europe and America)...

At 4:35 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Quintan Wiktorowicz, in his article "A Genealogy of Radical Islam" (Studies in Conflict & Terrorism, 28:75-97, 2005), makes a distinction between (older) Salafis and the jihadis that might map onto Helfont's distinction:

Wiktorowicz on Islamist Suicide Bombings

Wiktorowicz, however, sees the distinction as one within the Salafi community -- between older and younger generations.

Jeffery Hodges

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