EMF Conference Part 9: Political Islam in the Eastern Mediterranean – Professor Farid Mirbagheri 5-7 December, 2016

by on January 08, 2017

EMF Conference Part 9: Political Islam in the Eastern Mediterranean
Professor Farid Mirbagheri – Department of International Relations, University of Nicosia
EMF Conference 5-7 December 2016
Larnaca, Cyprus

The Eastern Mediterranean is a strategically important region which constitutes a buffer zone between Europe, North Africa and the Middle East. The region, riven by conflicts and mired in chaos is also home to political Islam, which is currently one of the most powerful political forces in the Islamic world. While internally driven by religiosity and devotion to God, the recent rise of political Islam is to a great extent fueled by the power struggle between fundamentalist regimes of Saudi Arabia and Iran, reinforced by wrong policies of the US, and its withdrawal from the region.


Marta Murzanska (M.M.): Welcome to the East Mediterranean Forum. I have with me Professor Farid Mirbagheri from the University of Nicosia, an expert in international relations and in the Middle Eastern politics in particular. Professor Mirbagheri will be talking about political Islam in the Eastern Mediterranean. Professor, thank you very much for joining us today.

Farid Mirbagheri (F.M.): You’re welcome, you’re welcome. I’m very glad that you invited me.

M.M: Professor, how can we define political Islam and what role does it play in the Eastern Mediterranean?

F.M.: How can we define political Islam? It’s a very interesting question. Political Islam can be characterized by three very important characteristics. One is, it’s monopolistic. Political Islam believes it has a monopoly of the truth and it alone has it, and nobody else can share it. It’s very all-consuming. Christianity has the same quality that they have the whole truth. In fact, it’s a feature of Abrahamic traditions. Abrahamic religions generally are very monopolistic, unlike Buddhism that you can be a Buddhist and perhaps still have your denomination. But in Abrahamic religions you are either a Christian, and a Muslim or a Jew, and you can’t be anything else. That’s the first feature. And political Islam is very much that.

Second, it’s absolutist. It’s not relative to time and place. It’s not something for here and now. It’s something for everywhere, all of the time or all of the conditions. There is no relativity as such and it doesn’t compromise on rules and regulations what they call Sharia. They’re very absolutists.

Thirdly, they are universalistic. They think what they say applies to all over the world on this planet. Perhaps if we go further, maybe to other planets, I don’t know. These three features: monopolistic, absolutist and universalistic – which is again a trait that Islam shares with Christianity – that they believe they must be adopted by the whole of mankind. These are three important features of political Islam that I will refer to here just now.

What we have in terms of Eastern Mediterranean, we have political Islam, the most important one that we all know is ISIL, Islamic state in Iraq and the Levant, or ISIS, in Iraq and Syria – the names change. That’s one and it came about after the untimely withdrawal of US troops from Iraq and it is now engaged in bloody battle with very different factions: with the Kurds, with Shias, with the Syrian government – the Assad government.

There is the al-Qaeda which claimed responsibility for 9/11 and other such terrorist acts, the difference being with ISIL that ISIL now claimed the central command for all Muslims: the khilāfah, or as they say in English ‘caliphate’. They want to revive that and their leader claimed to be the ruler of all Muslims. Al-Qaeda didn’t actually claim that.

ISIL is in Syria and in Libya. Al-Qaeda is in Syria again, in Libya. One of the significant features of ISIS is that despite its very fundamentalist nature, it has not said much about Israel, which has traditionally been perceived and considered as – because of the Arab-Israeli dispute, because of the Palestinian issue – as the enemy of the Arabs and Muslims. But ISIS is rather quiet on that.

Another feature of these Islamists is that they have centralized command, but have a very decentralized execution system. So they have these cells all over the world that are independent, autonomous, even though they are given codes, I suppose, what the nature of their act should be on the actual type and place. And I think they maintain a degree of autonomy and independence, which makes it a lot more difficult for them to be traced.

We have – again, I’m referring to Eastern Mediterranean – the political Islamist group Hezbollah that is a religious Shia Muslim group, is armed militia group. It’s supported by Iran, it actually pays homage to Iran and Iranian government, is based in Lebanon and actually is a very powerful political power broker – we saw that lack of agreement with Hezbollah kept Lebanon without a president for two and a half years; recently they chose president Michel Aoun – that is regarded by many in the West, particularly, as an Islamist group, a group that believes in political Islam

The other one, in Egypt, we have Muslim Brotherhood. 1928 it was established in Egypt by al-Banna and it’s very powerful. They were in power for a year and half after the toppling of Mubarak government and now, as you know, the leader is in prison, and now there is a secular government. We will talk more about this later because it’s very important.

We have also another Islamist group called Salafists. Salafists basically means people who are very conservative traditionalists. They are all over: they’re in Tunisia, they’re in Libya, they’re in Egypt and Syria. They are perhaps not as flexible as some other fundamentalists, they just believe in very strict application of Sharia in one’s social and even private life. But not as vociferous politically as some other Islamist groups.

We have then Hamas in Gaza – a Palestinian group, Sunni.

All these are Sunni fundamentalists, the exception was Hezbollah which is a Shia fundamentalist group, or militia group. Hamas is in Gaza, it’s a Palestinian splinter group that has its own government, its own structure and it’s separated itself from Fatah – the mainstream Palestinian Authority which is recognized by the world – and that is regarded by many as fundamentalists.

One thing that I should say in very, very broad terms. I gave these three features of monopolistic, absolutist, and universalist, but I should add one important quality here and that is, in fundamentalist political Islam duties to God overwhelm and are prior, more important than the rights of human beings. A kind of situation that the Western Christian world may have experienced some six hundred, seven hundred years ago, when duties were far superior and more important – duties to the Almighty – than any rights one could have. And then later human rights were discovered and now in the West there are human rights that even God cannot take away. Now, in the Islamic world by and large, particularly with regard to political Islam, our duties to our Creator and maker are far more important than any human rights that we may claim for ourselves – that’s extremely, extremely important. And that’s, you can say, the conflict and contrast with the West and political Islam.

Allow me to say a few words about Eastern Mediterranean, why I think it’s such an important region. It’s an important region because it’s a kind of buffer zone border between Europe and North Africa, and West Asia which we traditionally call Middle East. If you look at Eastern Mediterranean, there is much that is happening and is important not just in the region, but perhaps the entire world. We have two very urgent crises: we have the Syrian civil war which is, I think, maybe the biggest civil war in human history, after, I think, what happened in Sudan. Six point six million people have been displaced. Some over four, nearly five million now refugees gone to Turkey, Iraq, Lebanon and Jordan. And I think around a million are seeking asylum in Europe. This is a huge, huge issue.

And we have in Libya also a crisis. Now, the country has de facto been partitioned between government in the east and the west, and again we have people trying to leave the country. Both these issues present first of all a humanitarian crisis. A lot of these people are suffering. And suffering is extremely, extremely sad and tragic. And a lot of them trying to leave their countries and come to Europe, they died on the way to Europe – they drowned or by other calamities. Secondly, they have a political impact, these refugees, on Europe, on European cohesion, European Union cohesion. The question of migration and migrant workers has become an important, a very sensitive issue for the European voters. We saw recent referendum in the UK and people voted to leave the EU. A lot of them put the issue of migrant workers as a reason for voting to leave the European Union. We know that’s going to be an issue in France, we know it is issue in other European countries. So this refugee crisis has a huge potential to bring about, to disrupt the European Union cohesion. So in essence, it should be taken very, very seriously as well.

Apart from the refugee crisis, apart from that, there is a battle between statism and tribalism that’s taking place in Libya right now, in the sense that a problem in Libya is that people do not feel as Libyan as one expects them to. Tribalism proceeds and it’s more important than any loyalty that one may have to the state. That is common between many tribal countries in that region. To a degree it’s prevalent in Iraq, to a degree in Yemen. And we see in all these countries there is strife, there is a dispute, there is conflict. And we have that in Syria, but in Syria it’s not tribalism but sectarianism. Again, sectarianism versus statehood, part of this problem is that when the Europeans that had colonized much of the region left, they established new countries, actually, with no regard to the cohesiveness of the people that live within those borders. In Egypt that has a very strong identity, we see that the so-called Arab Spring has been relatively less bloody. Tunisia, which is not tribal, had the most successful transition to democracy. But in countries that are tribal this transition hasn’t taken place and is very, very bloody. We have to wait and see the outcome of this pattern, the loyalty to the tribe and loyalty to the state.

Of course, the Eastern Mediterranean is also home to the Arab-Israeli dispute which is the longest lingering dispute in the world. It is home to the Cyprus problem, which has the only divided capital city in the world and has got two NATO members -Turkey and Greece – by extension involved in this dispute. We have Egypt. Egypt is home to a political Islam in a way – Muslim Brotherhood. Yet it is Egypt that has delivered the most devastating blow to political Islam by people actually wanting Morsi to be removed. So that’s a huge, huge challenge in itself, and that’s Eastern Mediterranean. And we have Tunisia that is home to the most successful transition yet to democracy.

Before I finish, I’d like to say a few words about internal and external players. Political Islam is driven by and large by two factors: internal, as I said, and external. Internally, by this religiosity and sense of devotion to God and eagerness to go to heaven or however one may phrase it. But there is the external element. And the external element refers to the Shia-Sunni divide, which of course is rooted in people’s beliefs, the way Protestants and Catholics fought each other in several centuries ago in Europe. But also we have Iran and Saudi Arabia: Iran home to Shias, the main country with a Shia majority and Saudi Arabia competing for power. And this dichotomy, this division between Shia and Sunni has got a real-politic dimension embedded in it.

Beyond that, internationally, I’d like to bring the United States and say that United States has rather been guilty of several, I think, wrong policies, beginning in 2003 – the invasion of Iraq. But then by President Obama that evacuated, took the troops out of Iraq in a very speedy fashion – untimely fashion – which created a vacuum that’s led to the emergence of ISIL. And generally the unwillingness in the past at least eight years of President Obama’s administration to get involved in conflicts in the region. The most poignant, the most, I think, tragic example was when in Syria President Obama has very openly stated that use of chemical weapons would be his red line, and then chemical weapons were used in Syria, and the United States failed to take any measures. That was very, very tragic because it kind of told leaders in the Middle East that everyone is for themselves, that the United States is unwilling to play the role of the hegemon, is unwilling to stand by its own word, and therefore the kind of maxim that realists have ‘might is right’ came back to actually hold this region. We saw Saudi Arabia sending troops to Bahrain. And even, I would say, the very traditional ally of America – Israel – found a bit of distance between itself and the United States, a lot more than before. So this withdrawal of the United States and of isolationism – I don’t want to overemphasize it to give the wrong message – but I’m overstating it in order to make the point that this withdrawal from the region wasn’t welcome in the fashion that was executed by President Obama and led to the establishment of Isis, and what you’re witnessing sadly in the region.

The other thing, other factor, is the willingness of President Putin to reassert Russia and Russian interests in the region, and in the world. I’d like to refer to one particular example, and that is West of Syria, when President Putin has deployed after the downing of the Russian jet fighter by Turkish army, President Putin deployed S400 anti-aircraft missiles, which are one of the, I understand, very, very sophisticated anti-aircraft weaponry in the world. And this happened with almost no objection, at least no publicly raised objections by Western leaders. Why is that strange? Because you may remember that around twenty years ago or so late President Clerides of Cyprus was trying to bring S300 missiles to Cyprus and that went terribly badly with the West, and the West applied pressure to make sure they were not delivered. And they did not come to Cyprus, because effectively the presence of such system in this very sensitive region – strategic region – would give a lot of leeway to the Russians. We have sovereign bases here by the British, and generally it would have given them a lot of leeway. Now, we see that Russia in not too far distant land from Cyprus – I don’t know, maybe a hundred kilometers or so – to the east of Syria, they actually do not have S300, they have even more advanced S400. And the West is rather quiet about it. That shows the degree to which Russia wants to reassert itself, and to a degree it shows Washington’s willingness to allow Russia to play a role in the region.

My last point is to do with a very important element in this region and globally – the question of energy. Russia, if I’m not mistaken, has a monopoly on gas supply to Europe, or a near monopoly. We know that one of the richest areas for gas is in Persian Gulf, and Iran and Qatar have gas fields. And if my information is correct which was given to me by a diplomat, there were plans for gas to be, through pipelines laid from the Persian Gulf – Iraq – Syria – Mediterranean – and then to Europe, for the gas from there to go all the way to Europe. In fact – again my information comes from this diplomat – there was an agreement signed to the amount of billions of dollars for the laying of these pipes, but that was before the Syrian crisis began. Now, for as long as that civil war rages in Syria, there cannot be any pipelines obviously in Syria, and therefore Russia will keep its monopoly of gas supply to Europe. Therefore, there is that element as well which we should take into account. But I haven’t gone over my time. I finish on that note.

M.M.: Professor, just a few questions regarding your presentation. Islamism has claimed to reject democracy since in their view God can be the only sovereign and the only legislature. However there are Islamist parties which do participate in democratic process. Are Islam and democracy ever compatible?

F.M.: Well, depends on your interpretation, like everything else in life. A very dogmatic, rigid, interpretation would not allow compatibility between democracy and Islam. But if we agree that religion is fluid thing that basically lays above politics and temporal affairs and it just provides a code of ethics, and the kind of spirituality for the individual, then the questions of relationship between human beings becomes a matter of reason. You see, relationship between one and one’s maker is a realm of religion. My relationship with you and other human beings is the realm of reason. And if people can appreciate that difference and acknowledge that, of course then Islam and democracy can be compatible. And to my view, I mean one very, very famous Muslim of some 1,000 years ago, Ghazali – the Iranian thinker, philosopher – believed that in matters of religion he obeys the Quran, in matters of temporal affairs he follows reason. So yes, I think it is possible. But then we must agree that in relationship between human beings we decide by the command, and by the faculty of reason and not by other codes.

M.M: In case when democratic elections are held in the Middle East, Islamist parties either win or get significant popular support. Where does the popularity of political Islam among the Middle Eastern population stem from?

F.M.: It comes from a number of factors. One is, I should say, the Arab-Israeli dispute. There was a time in the fifties and sixties when Arabism and pan-Arabism was very popular, and nationalism. But after the defeat of the Arabs by Israel in their military confrontation, then pan-Arabism became rather defunct, bankrupt, and weak. And then Islamism took over as a means by which the Arabs could regain their pride and their honor. And honor is an extremely important thing, in particular in tribal lives that the Arabs – a lot of them even – have maintained since the beginning of Islam and before Islam. So one element is that.

Second element is, I’m afraid, the colonial administrations of Western powers didn’t leave much for the local population to grab and be proud of. In other words, the benefits of modernity and modern life that could have enticed the population away from dogmatic views on religion and on Islam, those benefits were far short in coming. And therefore, the population came to believe that the (inaudible) is something against ‘us’ – the Muslims – and they want to deprive us, and therefore as a kind of reactionary, they went back.

Connected to that is the fact that sometimes in the process of fast urbanization, modernization has somewhat happened in Iran, in the seventies. It could have happened in Turkey, but the army didn’t allow it. When you get huge influx of people from the villages to the cities, these villagers come and they get a lot of money by doing semi-skilled or unskilled work. But whilst they get money, they seem to lose identity because they are not villagers, peasants, farmers anymore, and they are not citizens either. And they get caught in this state of limbo that they are neither, and they feel bereft of identity and devoid of meaning. There suddenly religion comes as “I fill the void for you, I give you meaning, I give you back your identity,” and “Come with me.” And “Your enemy is this West, is this modernity that has tried to rob you away of your identity and your personality.” So a combination of these have given rise to this reaction.

M.M.: In the recent years the West has experienced a significant growth in Islamist terrorism. However, most of the jihadists carrying out attacks in Europe and in the West in general seem to be Sunni Muslims. They are never Shia. Is the Shiite branch of Islam less prone to radicalization?

F.M.: Probably, it could be to a degree that Shia emphasizes the importance of edicts and ijtihad, which is basically that religious leaders can decide on new rulings and issue edicts to that effect, whereas by and large in the Sunni world, particularly in Saudi Arabia, this kind of intervention and new rulings by religious leaders is not allowed. In other words, there is a group that believes whatever we need for eternity is already there in the Quran and in the sayings of the Prophet, so we don’t need anything else. And there’s a group that says new situations arise and we need to use our reason based on religious principles, but we have to come up with new rulings. For instance, cigarettes did not exist, tobacco didn’t exist during a time of the Prophet of Islam. So what is the ruling now? Is it allowed? Should it be allowed? So there comes old time situations in which religious leaders… So that element, that interjection of reason to some degree one may think allows Shiism to be flexible and to be able to adapt itself to the requirements of time and place. To a degree I would go along with that, that the kind of rigidity and dogmatism that you see at least in some sects within Sunnism – I mean Hanbalism, or Wahhabism – they’re extremely strict in their application of Sharia and in their interpretation of Sharia. In Shiism, no, there is openness. Under it is possible to come up with new rulings that may vary from time to time.

M.M.: What role does Shiism play in the Salafi-Jihadi school of thought?

F.M.: Salafists are Sunnis by and large. A lot of them we have in North Africa, we have them in Syria. We have Salafism in Shiism as well – people who do not want to allow for any change at all in the fundamentals. I’ll give you an example for you to see what I mean. Blood, for instance, is to be washed away immediately. If you’re bleeding, you’re not supposed to have blood on you and the only way you can cleanse it is by rinsing it in water. This is an old Islam Shia (inaudible). But for instance we have now some new non-traditional, if you want to call it like that, non Salafi religious rulers who say, no, if there is blood, as long as it’s cleaned and wiped and you do not see blood anymore on it, it is ok. So Salafis in Jihad are those who believe in the beginning of Islam the Prophet used necessary violence in defense, or that to keep… And then we can apply the same principles for here. That is how they would see the world. But in that they wouldn’t be much different from Sunnism in the world view that they see. You can use what you need to use in order to implement, execute the Word of God on earth through peaceful diplomacy – sometimes not so peaceful – treaties or otherwise. The aim is to implement the Word of God the way that the Prophet did it 1400 years ago. This analogy that the perfect state – utopia – existed 1400 years ago when Prophet himself was a ruler and governor of Medina, this is a bedrock of all Salafists, Shia or Sunni, that we had perfect government then therefore by emulating the actions of the Prophet we can bring about perfect government here and now, anywhere, anytime. This is a Salafi interpretation. In Shiism this Salafi interpretation can be interjected every now and then with edicts by the religious rulers that we can bring slight variations. In Sunnism this is not so. I mean, this is much less welcome. But by and large Salafis look to what was then, and we can bring about a perfect government by doing exactly the same thing here and now.

M.M: But the Sunni fundamentalists seem to be extremely anti-Shiite. Where does it come from?

F.M.: Yes, this comes from… Well, there’s a historical background to this. Shias believe that successors to the Prophet, which is what is referred to by all Muslims, by the Sunnis I mean, the Rightly Guided Caliphs, Shias do not accept the four, Shias only accept one of them – the last one, Ali, who was the Prophet’s close relative. And they believed the three intervening caliphs between the Prophet and Ali should not have been there. This is the most fundamental difference between Shias and Sunnis, which still causes a lot of bloodshed.

M.M.: Sunni extremist groups receive large amount of funding from the Gulf States, and especially from Saudi Arabia and Qatar. But is it individual donors or the governments who sponsor them? What’s your view on this?

F.M.: Well, recently I heard that some Qatari official on behalf of the government – I cannot document it because I’m not sure where I saw it, so I may stand to be corrected on this – but they said that whatever the President Elect Trump’s policy may be in Syria, we shall continue to support forces opposed to the Assad regime. I think the money I would say is both: it comes from official sources – state sources – and from wealthy individuals who are usually connected to the state. So it would be both. But I guess it would be preferable for the states to have their money given to those groups via individuals rather than directly.

M.M.: Professor, once again, thank you very much, thank you for your time. Thank you for being with us.

F.M.: Thank you for having me.


See: The Islamist Challenge to the Eastern Mediterranean and Europe

See: Political Islam in the Eastern Mediterranean and Beyond

See: The Many-Faced Ideology of Political Islam and Its Challenge to Liberal Democracy

See: Democracy and Rule of Law Videos