The past year with its global crises, starting with the aftermath of the corona pandemic, Russia’s invasion war in Ukraine, the Hamas terrorist attacks in Israel and the subsequent mood of crisis in the Middle East, has many experts looking back to the year 1979. For many, it was a turning point in world politics in the 20th century, the consequences of which are only now becoming clear.
The claim is that something began to emerge in 1979 that may not have fully developed until decades later. The return of the Shiite Ayatollah Khomeini was certainly a turning point in the history of the Middle East, as was the occupation of the Grand Mosque by Sunni extremists in Mecca, which could only be ended after a massacre with more than a thousand deaths. Since then, the centuries-old conflict between Shiites and Sunnis for supremacy has become increasingly bitter and bloody. The invasion of the Soviet Army into Afghanistan undoubtedly played a role in the downfall of communism. After a cruel and costly war against the Islamic religious warriors (“Mujahideen”), the Soviets had to withdraw from the country in the Hindu Kush after ten years in humiliation.
In 1979 it became clear for the first time what political Islam actually means for global security. To this day, Islamism has been the breeding ground for widespread discontent over corruption, social injustices and the lack of freedom and democracy in the countries of the Middle East. It is doubtful whether religious fire still burns in Iran, after forty years of a repressive, incompetent mullahs’ regime. Islamist terror is also mostly linked to Sunni groups (Al Qaeda or IS); Iran, with its Shiite leadership, relies on alliances with co-religionists in Iraq, Lebanon and Syria in order to destabilize using state-military means.
The turning point that marked the year 1979 has only become clearly apparent in recent years, when the consequences became increasingly noticeable. At that time, the world was divided into unbelievers and believers by the virtual rise to power of political Islam. In Iran, the Islamic revolution helped a fundamentalist win the highest state office. In Afghanistan, the resistance against the Soviet occupation almost simultaneously gave rise to the mujahid as the prototype of the religious warrior. Shortly before, religious fundamentalists had occupied the great mosque in Mecca, which resulted in the pact between the Saudi royal family and Wahhabi Stone Age Islam, which was now exported all over the world with petrodollars.
Since then, political Islam has had a clear principle of movement: from its original areas in the Middle and Near East, it has penetrated in waves into regions in which moderate interpretations had previously prevailed. In some cases it associates itself with jihadist currents that are particularly spreading in the Sahel region. Its influence is also strong in Southeast Asia, where fundamentalist groups have gained the upper hand in some countries since the turn of the millennium.
The question now arises as to whether the center of power of political Islam is shifting from the core countries of the Middle East in the Gulf region to Africa and Southeast Asia. While political Islam once emerged as a protest movement that defied the despots of Arab nationalism and appealed particularly to young people, today it is represented by aging scholars and statesmen who themselves take brutal action against critics. Conclusion: Today’s youth are increasingly giving Islamism the cold shoulder in its home countries. Surveys there signal a slightly secular tendency.
This cold shoulder is probably hardly strong enough to make the established powers tremble. Like so many generation theses, this one is also on shaky ground. In Qatar and Turkey, political Islam is somewhat firmly in the saddle. It reconquered Afghanistan. The example of Iran, where, according to a Dutch study, almost one in two people describe themselves as areligious, shows how long an outlived regime can assert itself against the will of the majority. And Egypt shows that the alternative to Islamism does not have to be democracy. Furthermore, Islamism and nationalism do not have to be antipodes. In Turkey both form a unity.
Given the agility and dynamism with which political Islam is developing, predictions are risky. It is questionable whether it will continue its triumph once the money from the oil wells dries up. Given the experience of the Arab Spring, the fact that in the meantime counterforces are automatically forming to push it back is probably too idealistic. One key will be whether Saudi Arabia continues its secularization course and cuts its close ties to Wahhabism. There are many indications of this.
As long as oil money flows in the Gulf, the ideological engine will probably be found there. Scientist Ruud Koopmans from the Berlin Science Center cites the example of the Maldives, which is now one of the most authoritarian Islamist countries. Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, who set the country ideologically on course in the 1990s, studied at Azhar University in Cairo. The same relationship between center and periphery can be found in the spiritual mentor of Boko Haram, who attended the University of Medina.
Sub-Sahara, which is characterized by political disintegration, is an ideal breeding ground for Islamism. Climate change with all its devastation will bring further influx. Demographically, the region is a powder keg. The higher fertility rates among Muslims in countries like Nigeria are likely to further increase the pressure on Christians and other religions. The number of deaths and displaced people is already alarmingly high.
And in Europe, political Islam finds particularly favorable conditions, where Islamist associations find shelter under the protective cloak of anti-racism. Although political Islam in Europe relies on a strategy of non-violent infiltration, the line to militancy cannot be clearly drawn here either. One example is the assassination attempt on the French teacher Samuel Paty, against whom Islamist associations close to the Muslim Brotherhood had been agitating before a jihadist took the hint and beheaded the teacher. Political Islam needs jihadism as an ideological crutch because it uses fake military victories to hide the fact that the followers of a religion that believes itself to be superior and aims for world domination are hopelessly inferior to its opponents.
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