The future of Islam

It is important to be very clear that there is no middle ground between Islamism and modernity.

muslim brother supporters protest 370 (photo credit: REUTERS)
muslim brother supporters protest 370
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Since the “Arab Spring,” different movements and forces within Islam have taken several directions.
The Muslim Brotherhood—which is seen as the most powerful movement within Political Islam—suffered the biggest setback in its history, after its miserable failure in Egypt drove tens of millions of Egyptians to revolt against it. Following this defeat, the Muslim Brotherhood—with its now discredited slogan “Islam is the solution— has lost a lot of its luster.
The Salafist groups have also suffered significantly as a result of the Muslim Brotherhood’s failed Islamic experiment in Egypt. Exposure of the bizarreness of their teaching, their moral corruption, their hypocrisy, and their lack of nationalism by mainstream Egyptian media has turned many people against these groups. Salafists are now in a difficult position, because the more they promote (or practice) violence, the more people turn against them and their ideology. Some of them will join even more violent groups, but the majority of them are likely to focus on trying to improve their own image and on trying to make their ideological beliefs more palatable.
Following the political failure of the Muslim Botherhood and the unprecedented attacks on the Islamist ideology, the Jihadist groups have entered a stage of convulsions that has led many of them to pursue a path of destruction in a last ditch effort to — as they see it — “save Islam.” These groups will do significant harm, but they can be defeated if the authorities handle them correctly.
Another outcome of the Islamists’ failure has been the rise of two major anti-Islamist movements in particular; both Reformation (which seeks to re-interpret the religion) and Atheism (which rejects the religion altogether) are gaining momentum. The first, Reformation, is abundantly evident in the unprecedented explosion of criticism of Islamist ideology not only in the social media, especially on YouTube, but also in the mainstream media in the Arab world. Modern interpretations of the Koran are being produced and are spreading rapidly. Atheism is also becoming pretty popular. Some studies estimate that atheists, who were previously virtually unknown (or at least extremely rare) to the Arab world and Egypt, now number in the millions.
It is important to be very clear that there is no middle ground between Islamism and modernity. The former (represented by the Muslim Brotherhood, the Salafists and the Jihadists) absolutely cannot coexist with the latter (represented by the Reformists and the Atheists). It is either the one or the other. It is this or that. It’s zero-sum.
The future of Islam will be largely determined by which of the above mentioned powers or forces will dominate the Arab street. Several factors can contribute to the outcome of this struggle.
The first factor is the level of suppression of the Islamists by the authorities. While it is perhaps somewhat unfortunate in principle, history clearly shows that suppressing Islamists is a far more effective strategy for protecting a society than appeasing Islamists. Consider, for example, Nasser’s Egypt, Ataturk’s Turkey, or even Hussein’s Iraq in comparison with, for example, Anwar Sadat—who released the Islamist radicals from prison and was assassinated at their hands for his efforts. Similarly, suppressing Islamists has historically been far more efficient in defeating Islamic radicalism than, for example, implementing democracy. Consider Afghanistan and Iraq, where radical Islam has flourished since the adoption of democracy. In other words, if you hope to protect a society from Islamic radicals (and thereby from suicide bombers) your best bet from a historical perspective is to exclude them utterly from the political process, and shut them down by suppression and by forcing secularism upon them.
The second factor that can affect the balance of power within Islam is the availability of the Internet. Since the Arab Spring, the Internet and social media have played a crucial role in spreading criticism of radical Islam. This “e-Reformation” ultimately led to the collapse of the Muslim Brotherhood and allowed many anti-Islamist Muslim groups to grow. The availability of fast and affordable Internet for young Muslims will be a pivotal factor in shaping the future of Islam and defeating the radicalism ideology.
The third factor is the position that the International Community takes with regard to the so-called “military coup” in Egypt. Using the threat of diminishing aid to pressure the military to release Islamists from prison and include them in the political process is not only irresponsible and counterproductive; it is downright dangerous, and can only make things worse. Such tacit international approval will empower the radicals to reject any political solution that does not return Morsi and his henchmen to power. It may also encourage them to resort to more violence, as they are well aware that without the ability to cheat at the ballot boxes, they have very little hope of winning the popular vote any time soon. Apparent international support for their cause is a great psychological boon for the Islamists.
The fourth factor is the "Egypt Factor." The defeat of the radical Islamic ideology in Egypt can be a role model to be followed by other Muslim nations, especially in the Middle East and North Africa. This is mainly due to the historical role Egypt has played in the region and its influential effect in the Arab drama and media.
The fifth factor that can influence the balance of power within Islam is the Economic Factor. Failure of the current government in Egypt (which is the “role model” for other societies in the Arab world) to improve its economy may allow Islamist voices to rise again claiming that not implementing strict Sharia Law in the country is the reason for the economic failure. This distorted logic will of course be rejected by most, as Sharia states have failed in several parts of the world; but such claims may resonate in the minds of many naive and ignorant people. Moreover, the combination of economic failure and violent Islamist ideology facilitates the recruitment of more suicide bombers and Jihadists. Violence begets economic instability, which leads to poverty, which leads to more violence, and so on. Radicalism begins a vicious cycle of violence and poverty, which ends in a death spiral.
The writer is an Islamic thinker and reformer, and one-time Islamic extremist from Egypt. He was a member of a terrorist Islamic organization JI with Dr. Ayman Al-Zawaherri, who later became the second in command of al-Qaida. He is currently a senior fellow and chairman of the study of Islamic radicalism at the Potomac Institute for Policy Studies.