For the past two years, the Arab world has been undergoing one of the most significant upheavals to be experienced by the region since the end of the Second World War. Although many analysts have chosen to focus on the factors preceding the Arab Spring, there has been another important, albeit understudied, consequence of the revolutions. Due to these uprisings, power has shifted from the traditional centers of Egypt, Iraq, and Syria to the Gulf countries of Saudi Arabia and Qatar. This shift has led to the implementation of an aggressive foreign policy carried out by these new centers of power as well as a much larger role of Islam in Arab politics. It should be taken into account that the Arab Spring by itself was not sufficient to cause these changes, nor was the rise of political Islam and the fall of Arab nationalism unfamiliar phenomena to the region. However, the Arab Spring served as a catalyst which accelerated this ongoing development.
While Saudi Arabia possessed the oil wealth and a recipient of military patronage of the United States, it should be unsurprising that Egypt, Iraq, and Syria were considered the traditional centers of power in the Arab Middle East. With their population, economic strength, and general cultural standing, these states had the ability to influence the larger discourse in Middle Eastern politics. It is also worth noting that these three states also represented some of the most fervent supporters of Arab nationalism. Even with the humiliating defeat of Egypt in the 1967 war and the ostracizing of the country in the aftermath of the Camp David Accords, it is hard to deny that Egypt continued to play a major role in Arab politics and still embodied some of the principles of Arab nationalism.
Political Islam gained a strong foothold in the years following 1979. Three key events helped precipitate the rise of a new political force: the Iranian Revolution, the seizure of the Grand Mosque in Mecca, and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. These three events created a theocratic Shia power that was willing to use its religious imagery and language for political power, the strengthening of Wahhabi influence in Saudi Arabia, and the use of religion as a motivational vehicle to bring in fighters to resist the Soviets. This last event is particularly important for the role it played in the spread of radical Islam throughout the Middle East and South Asia. This period also witnessed a boom in the Gulf countries as the oil wealth led to rapid changes in standards of living and economic power.
While the 1991 Gulf war and subsequent sanctions regime greatly weakened Iraq, the 2003 U.S.-led invasion of the country removed Iraq as a significant power broker in the Middle East, and deposed one of the most fervent nationalist Arab leaders. Iraq served as a proxy battleground for conflict between the Gulf countries, most notably Saudi Arabia and Iran. Each country supported different militias as well as government officials in order to have a say over the country’s future. Here, Saudi Arabia’s growth as a Middle Eastern power broker could be witnessed through the funneling of money to Islamist elements in various Middle Eastern countries in addition to the spread of Wahhabi influence in general. Qatar also started to use its vast oil wealth and popular news station Al Jazeera to gain soft power in the region.
The continuing effects of the Arab Spring have embroiled Syria in a very destructive civil war and made Egypt too domestically unstable to exert power effectively in regional affairs. With the three traditional centers of power in the Arab Middle East consumed by domestic instability, this has led to the emergence of new players. Accompanying this has been the use of a more aggressive foreign policy by these states to cope with the changed regional atmosphere. The perceived rise of Iran has led several of these states to break their traditional public compliance with American policy as well as the birth of a new rivalry between these new power centers. Lastly, these new states, Saudi Arabia and Qatar, carry a much more Islamist influenced identity, leading these countries to try and label themselves as moderate Islamic powers rather than a moderate Arab power. This represents the most significant development (in my opinion) in the Arab world. But the question remains, is the trend bad for the Arab world? If so, can anything be done to counter it?
It is worth nothing that this trend of politicizing religion is not new. While the world has followed the rise of political Islam, Christianity has also continued to play a growing role in the politics of several nations (Uganda, parts of Europe, or even look at American politics). Buddhism as a political identity has also taken root in Myanmar and Sri Lanka, with their extremist incarnations causing great harm to religious minorities in the country. Political Judaism and Hinduism have also grown in prominence in Israel and India respectively (there will be a post in the near future where I will examine political Hinduism in the future). While I must confess that I am not a fervent supporter of having religion play a role in politics (hell, I’m not even the biggest supporter of nationalism), it seems inevitable that people will use different aspects of their identity as a political device to help rally people to their cause. Nor do religious parties differ greatly from their secular counterparts. Perhaps this is the cynic in me, but both parties will use similar tactics and images to promote their objectives when they find it favorable to do so.
So is the rise of political religious groups bad? Not quite, the difference is where on the political spectrum the party places itself. Just like extreme nationalism can lead to xenophobia and fascism, extreme religious parties can also lead to divisive outcomes. If the current problem is that the religious parties in the Arab world are that they are extreme, what can be done with it?
The solution is simple, let them rule. So far, religious parties in the Middle East have not had much success in governing in the perception of people with the examples of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and Hamas in the Gaza Strip coming to mind. At the moment, the AKP in Turkey has also been facing resentment against their rule. The reality is that these religious parties are here to stay. With regular democratic elections that see peaceful exchanges of power, the larger of these parties will have to moderate themselves. The problem is that external support for these parties will encourage them not to moderate their platform, nor will it encourage them to implement reforms that might be needed for their respective countries. Qatar had given so much aid to Egypt under Morsi that the government felt no need to implement the economic reforms necessary for the economy. With the Qatari and Saudi governments playing a proxy power game throughout the Middle East, this will unfortunately lead to the rise of extremist groups whose interpretation and use of Islam is divisive and fundamentalist. While this external support will need to be dealt with, any attempt by the United States to sideline one party will encourage excess by the ruling party as well as a less democratic country.