On December 6 Thomas L. Friedman published a column with the title How ISIS drives Muslims from Islam in the New York Times. I totally agree with this. It’s only strange that the New York Times refused my piece with exactly the same message two weeks ago. Maybe Friedman was inspired by my (of course much less well written) piece? Anyway, you cannot read it in the New York Times, but here:
Poised opposite Cairo university stands a grand statue of a traditional peasant woman (often used to depict Egypt) lifting her veil while standing next to a couchant Sphinx. The statue known as “Egypt’s Renaissance” was created in the 1920ies by the famous Egyptian sculptor Mahmoud Mokhtar and symbolizes hopes of modernity after a long history of colonization.
Today ninety years later again women start to take off their veil. Just like in the early twenties this change is not yet noticeable in the streets of the more popular neighborhoods of Cairo, but in the more affluent parts of the city it already is. In a like manner, a lot of young veiled women are following a new trend: showing some hair. Like their Iranian counterparts, wearing the headscarf this way reflects a protest against the very purpose of the veil: covering a lady’s hair.
This ‘secularizing’ trend seems to contradict with the daily news we get from the Arab world. Today all eyes are focused on the Islamic State. After the horrors of the Taliban in Afghanistan and Al Qaeda worldwide, the world is shocked to see an extreme and barbaric version of Islamist rule through a reign of terror in Syria and Iraq. The Islamic State is becoming an Arab World phenomenon as groups in Algeria, Egypt and Yemen pledged allegiance to the new Caliphate. There seem to be no limits to growing extremism in the Muslim World.
Therefore, the question is, are more people becoming extremists or are extremists becoming more extreme? To answer this question we have to refer back to history. With the humiliating defeat of the Arabs in the 1967 War against Israel, most non-Islamist ideologies died. Egypt’s President Gamal Abdel Nasser’s pan-Arabism, socialism and secularism died on the battlefield, as well as the liberalism of his predecessors. The Arab world fell into an identity crisis, opening the way for the only remaining ideology: Islamism or conservative political Islam.
Saudi Arabia used this momentum and its newly gained petrodollars after the oil crisis in 1973 to spread Salafism or Islam without modernity. The Muslim Brotherhood too regained ground. It was founded in 1928, four years after Turkey’s Atatürk abolished the Caliphate. Its main goal was (and continues to be) reinstalling this Caliphate. This could only be achieved by getting rid of the Western-backed Arab dictators.
The Arab revolutions of 2011 were a golden opportunity for the Islamists. Knowing that the young revolutionaries were too unorganized and idealistic, Islamists took the power. The entire Arab World looked to Egypt, where for the first time, the Muslim Brotherhood had the leverage to execute their plan and organize an Islamist society. They miserably failed.
The psychological effect on the Arab World cannot be underestimated. With the exception of Ennahda in Tunisia that moderated its course, but still lost the elections, it turned many Islamists in other Arab Awakening countries more extreme. The failure of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt convinced them that democracy and Islamism are not the way forward. The Arab World fell into a new identity crisis.
The Islamic State offered one answer to this crisis by going further, reinstalling the Caliphate and abolishing this other European decision, the national borders of the Middle East. It is an appealing project to disillusioned Islamists and adventurers trying to escape from their own personal identity crisis. But after all, the numbers of foreign fighters and supporters are rather small.
Much more important is what is happening to the silent majority in the Arab World. And here the opposite trend slowly starts becoming clear. Fewer taxi drivers place a copy of the Koran visibly in their car. More women are taking off their veil. The young revolutionary generation is also attending prayers at the mosque less often. Most of them only denounce the political Islam preached at many mosques. Others go further and flirt with atheism. The Egyptian government doesn’t like this trend and in Alexandria even a special police taskforce has been created to arrest atheists.
As there are no credible surveys on these trends and the reasons behind it, we can for the time being, fall back on personal stories that might be representative. One such story is about a conservative family in the city of Port Said, Egypt. Two sisters in their thirties, Marwa (36) and Heba (31), discovered just after the fall of President Mohamed Morsi that the books with which they grew up reading are books printed and distributed by the Muslim Brotherhood. Shocked to learn this, they started to rethink all the ideas that they formed and question the very basis of their religion. “Only after Morsi fell, I discovered that Hassan Al Banna (the founder of the Muslim Brotherhood,) wrote the foreword of the book ‘Living along the Sunni Lines’. I grew up with this book. Now I begin to doubt about everything,” Marwa said. Their veils started to become ‘trendy’, then to disappear last week.
The story of Marwa and Heba is just one of many. It demonstrates what is happening on the ground in the Arab World. The young revolutionary generation feels betrayed by the Islamists and is turning its back on them and often even religion itself. Where power and religion are one and the same, youngsters seem to reject both. This was already the case in Iran and it is happening now in the Arab World. As the current generation consists of fifty percent of the Arab population, this trend is probably the real revolution that is silently transforming the Arab World.
The group of extremists in the Islamic State is small in comparison. More importantly, most Muslim Arabs revolt against their claim to represent the real Islam. As a result, their terror as again shown in the video of the killing of Peter Kassig, it will only have one effect: it will speed up the trend of decline of Islamism in the Arab World.
by Koert Debeuf, 7/12/2014
Koert Debeuf lives in Cairo, Egypt, where he represented the EU parliament’s Alde group for many years. Currently he is Project Coordinator “World Leaders on Transitions towards Democracy” at International IDEA. He is a former advisor of a Belgian prime minister. Reporting from post-revolutionary Egypt, his columns are a window on events in the Arab world. Koert Debeuf is also author of ‘Inside the Arab Revolution’.
For more Koert Debeuf columns, click here.