Has Islamism peaked in the Middle East?

The popular opposition to Islamist-led governments in Turkey, Iran, Egypt, Tunisia, and Sudan have been cited by experts as a sign that the once-popular ideology is waning.

Anti-government protesters rally in Tunisia. 370 (photo credit: REUTERS)
Anti-government protesters rally in Tunisia. 370
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Almost every day there is news about a new attack by al-Qaida or another radical Islamic group, yet events since the summer demonstrate that there is also a regional pushback against Islamists in countries such as Egypt, Tunisia and Turkey.
The Egyptian army toppled the Muslim Brotherhood from power on July 3, marking the beginning of a strong opposition by some in the region to Islamists. And in Tunisia, the like-minded ruling Ennahda movement has its rule under threat after agreeing to appoint a caretaker government in the coming weeks. In May, massive protests against Turkey’s ruling Islamist AKP party erupted in Istanbul’s Gezi Park, revealing that a significant portion of the country’s population opposed the government’s increasing aggressiveness in forcing its views on the public.
In Syria, there is mounting evidence that the country is becoming a stew of Islamist groups, both al-Qaida-affiliated and other Muslim Brotherhood-type groups. A United States official, who has access to intelligence reports, told the Los Angeles Times on Tuesday that Syria may become similar to the tribal areas of Pakistan, where al-Qaida and other radical groups are based. US officials have also made comparisons to Afghanistan and Yemen.
Gulf States, while opposing al-Qaida and the Muslim Brotherhood, have nonetheless been supporting Islamists in the quest to overthrow Syrian President Bashar Assad. The Egyptians, who voted the Brotherhood into power, have largely turned on the group and the jihadists in Sinai that have been launching attacks against the army.
In addition to Syria, al-Qaida or affiliated or similar groups have been active in places such as Nigeria, Egypt, Somalia, Kenya, Iraq, Libya, Tunisia, Mali, and Yemen.
Seth Jones, an associate director at the International Security and Defense Policy Center at the Rand Corporation in Washington and a former representative for the commander of US Special Operations Command to the Assistant Secretary of Defense for Special Operations, spoke to The Jerusalem Post about the rising tide of al-Qaida attacks in the Middle East.
Jones, who also served as an adviser to the commanding general of Special Forces in Afghanistan, said that he recently gave testimony in Congress about the rising number and the growing geographic scope of al-Qaida affiliates and other extremist Sunni groups across North Africa and the Middle East.
One of the reasons for their rise, he says, is that the Arab uprisings have created weaker regimes in the region. The resulting power vacuum and lack of control over territory has created an opportunity for groups like al-Qaida to establish a foothold.
The primary issue from a US perspective is to stop attacks and plots against the US homeland and its citizens. For example, Jones referred to uncovered plots against US airplanes and embassies. Worrying about attacks on allies comes second, he said.
He explained that al-Qaida has become fractured and decentralized, and that we are increasingly seeing the rise of affiliate groups such as al-Nusra in Syria.
Asked about the US’s views about the Muslim Brotherhood, Jones said that these vary quite a bit, but since there is little evidence that they are plotting attacks against the US, they are a secondary worry to that of jihadist groups.
He added that some segments of the Muslim Brotherhood are unhelpful and deeply anti-American, also opposing US allies in the region.
Jones said he believed that the rise of the jihadists was also due to the growing sectarian conflict in the region, particularly in Syria, Iraq and Lebanon. For example, he said that fatwas – Islamic religious decrees – had been issued in Egypt, calling on fighters to go to Syria to participate in the jihad.
He added that the sectarian nature of the conflict has led to a surge in resources, money, and fighters flowing to battle zones.
On a positive note, he said that there has been pushback against jihadists in Somalia and Mali, where the terrorists have lost ground.
Regarding Israel, Jones said the biggest threats tend to be from groups in the West Bank and Gaza, as well as the growing jihadist threat from Sinai. He said that Al-Nusra has training camps not far from the Israeli border, and that while the group is focused for now on the Syrian regime, they definitely view Israel as an enemy.
“A concern would be if any of these groups would be able to cooperate in the long run. If I am sitting in Israel right now, I am worried about Hamas and Hezbollah,” he said, adding that the al-Qaida groups are a secondary threat to keep an eye on.
Jonathan Schanzer, vice president for research at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, told the Post that in his estimation al-Qaida and its affiliates are on the rise, and that “the al-Qaida network was neither decimated or weakened when the administration said it was last year.”
Commenting on the Brotherhood, he said that the group has lost some of its luster in recent months. “But there does not appear to be any ideology or political movement capable of countering it. So, the Brotherhood is basically grappling with itself. If it is able to regroup and rebrand, it will find a way to reassert itself in politics around the region,” he said.
Daniel Pipes, president of the Middle East Forum, spoke at the conference held by the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies this week at Bar-Ilan University, and presented the original thesis that the events over the past few months may mean that Islamism has peaked in the region and has begun its decline.
He cited the popular opposition to Islamist-led governments in Turkey, Iran, Egypt, Tunisia, and Sudan.
“The more you know it, the less you like it,” he said in reference to Islamism. “It is not popular in the long-term.”
Another important point, he said, is that Islamists cannot get along with one another. Turkey and Iran had grown closer only to have relations cool because of the Syrian war. Meanwhile, in Lebanon and in the region there is a Shi’ite-Sunni clash as well as divisions within each of these camps. In Turkey, there is a growing division between President Abdullah Gul and Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan; in Syria, there are Sunni Islamists fighting each other; in Egypt, there are divisions between the Salafists and the Muslim Brotherhood; and in Tunisia, there is a conflict between the Salafists and the ruling Islamist Ennhada party.
In an interview with Pipes after the conference, Pipes told the Post that if there is a concern for people getting killed, then al-Qaida should be the focus; but that he sees this battle as heavily one-sided.
“Who is going to win, the US versus al-Qaida? The answer is very clear,” he said, pointing out that the success of the former Soviet Union was not based on terrorism. “Terrorism is a strategy when you have no real options.”
In the short-term there is obvious danger, he said, but there is “no way they are going to win.”
It is much more dangerous when Islamists decide to work through the system, and rule a state like in Turkey, where they can do real damage to US interests, he said. But on the other hand, “can Boko Haram take over Nigeria?” asked Pipes, adding that in Somalia, al-Shabaab controls a small swath of the country – they can wreak havoc, but have no shot at gaining wider power.
He pointed out that the September 11, 2001 attacks turned out to be counterproductive, as they woke people up about the threat of radical Islam. Similarly, "Going on a rampage in a mall in Kenya does not impress me as a victory for Islamists but rather as an indication of their failure to convince people of their message,” asserted Pipes.
Remarking on Egypt, Pipes said that “the size and vehemence of anti-Islamist opposition is mind-numbingly large, verging into anti-Islamic sentiment – it is extraordinary, and for civilization this is positive.”
Pipes hedged his argument, noting that things are fluid, and that recent events could reverse themselves. “I am not suggesting the Islamists are finished, but from a long ascent from the late 1920s and a sharp increase in the late 1970s and in 2002, it may be that they have peaked.”