In calling for jihad against America, the West and Israel in terms virtually identical with Osama bin Laden’s rhetoric, the leader of Egypt’s powerful Muslim Brotherhood uttered one sentence that explains the contemporary Middle East.
Here it is: “The improvement and change that the [Muslim] nation seeks can only be attained through jihad and sacrifice and by raising a jihadi generation that pursues death just as its enemies pursue life.”
Here’s why that sentence is so important. The central question for the Middle East for many decades has been this: Why is it – especially since we are a superior people (Arabs) with a superior religion (Islam) – that we are behind the West? How that question has been answered has been the core of Middle Eastern politics. Let’s call it The Question.
FROM ROUGHLY around the 1880s into the 1930s, and even until the 1950s, the main answer might be called the liberal developmentalist perspective. The West’s advances were seen as being technological, institutional and intellectual. Distinguished historian Albert Hourani called this “the liberal age.”
What was needed, said the leaders, in answering The Question, was to adapt and adopt Western techniques. If, for example, the Ottoman Empire or Egypt had a constitution and a multi-party parliamentary system, built up educational institutions and created private enterprises, they too would flourish.
These reformers, of course, made it sound too easy. Some were secular-oriented, others thought Islam could be modernized. Ironically, the latter – like Muhammad Abdu and Rashid Rida – are often seen in retrospect as pioneers of radical Islamism, even though they were the opposite.
For many reasons, the liberal age failed. One chief factor was that the Arab societies were not ready for such changes, and they could not easily be imposed from above. Another was the fact that authoritarian systems – like fascism in the 1920-1940 period and communism in the 1950-2000 era – seemed more successful than moderate democracy.
Rampant corruption and extremes of class injustice were prominent, as was imperial intervention (most notably in Egypt). To some extent, the failure to prevent Israel’s creation in 1948 made the existing system seem incompetent, though I’d argue the fault was more due to the radical nationalists and Islamists than to the liberals. (I deal with this issue in my book, The Arab States and the Palestine Conflict.) Yet fail the liberal age did, and in came radical Arab nationalism, gaining power beginning with the Egyptian officers’ 1952 coup.
Ever since, radical nationalists have dominated Arabic-speaking
countries. Their answer to the key question is: The reason we are behind
is not mainly due to any internal failing but to the oppression of
imperialism and Zionism. The solution is to have nationalist governments
with dictatorial control and state domination of the economy.
These regimes will fight, defeat the West, destroy Israel, bring Arab unity, rapid development and prosperity.
These regimes failed to deliver on any of their promises. They led their
peoples into losing wars and generally (except for oil and gas riches)
stagnant economies. These nationalist governments were generally
repressive and corrupt, too, and there was much discontent. The collapse
of the Soviet bloc – their main ally and model – also discredited them.
One reason for this failure is a flaw in their formulation of The
Question, an error they share with the Islamists. Once you blame
external forces and deny the need for internal reform (such as less
statist control, democracy, changes in the status of women, modernizing
Islam, getting along with the West, and making peace with Israel), you
ensure that you will remain backward.
AND SO here we are in the early 21st century with the Arab nationalist
regimes being challenged by revolutionary Islamists. Though the
Islamists go back as modern political organizations to the mid-1920s,
they really revived in the 1980s. The Iranian revolution and the
jihadist war in Afghanistan were important factors, but so was the
increasingly obvious failure of the nationalist regimes.
Small new liberal movements have also arisen, somewhat parallel to those
of the past but putting more stress on human rights and democracy than
on technology and formal institutions. Yet they are very weak. The
nationalists, the existing regimes, are far more powerful than they are;
so are the Islamists.
At least, though, the nationalists and their regimes are worn down by a
half-century of experience and failure. So how do Islamists deal with
The Question? By saying: The reason we are behind is not mainly due to
any internal failing but to the oppression of imperialism and Zionism,
the treason of our governments and above all our abandonment of Islam.
The solution is to have proper Islamic governments with dictatorial
control, state domination of the economy, unity through a new caliphate,
the systematic rejection of Western culture and making our society
conform to Islamic law as we interpret it. These regimes will fight,
defeat the West, destroy Israel, bring Muslim unity and fulfill Allah’s
Here’s where Badi’s statement fits in as the proposed solution: “The
improvement and change that the [Muslim] nation seeks can only be
attained through jihad and sacrifice and by raising a jihadi generation
that pursues death just as its enemies pursue life.”
Not through solving problems by compromise, not by ending foreign
conflicts, not by better educational systems that are open to science
and other imported ideas, not by modernizing Islam, not by granting
equality to women, not by democracy, not by human rights. No and no and
no. But only by: “...jihad and sacrifice and by raising a jihadi
generation that pursues death just as its enemies pursue life.”
Jihad they want and jihad they will get; death they want and death they
will get; a generation of warfare they want and a generation of warfare
they will get. They will fail and their claims will be seen to be
hollow. Unfortunately, it will take about 50 years for that to happen.
The result? Arab and Muslim-majority countries will be left even further
behind the rest of the world.
The writer is director of the Global
Research in International Affairs Center and editor of Middle East
Review of International Affairs and Turkish Studies. He blogs at