THE Jamaat-i-Islami might consider itself a vanguard party in the Leninist style but there is no escaping the fact that its Islamist platform has never found great electoral resonance in Pakistan. Even if it can claim to have had a disproportionate influence on the development of Pakistan’s polity, its election results have never put it close to winning power.
In the Middle East, it’s a different story. There the Muslim Brotherhood — also committed to achieving an Islamic system of government through, for the most part, parliamentary politics — attracts the support of countless millions. Before Egypt’s Gen Sisi threw it out of power, the Brotherhood had won every election it contested in the post-Mubarak era.
The Brotherhood’s popularity helps explain the current crisis concerning Qatar which, time and again, has given sanctuary to members of the Brotherhood chased out of other countries. That’s not to say the Muslim Brotherhood is the only issue driving the diplomatic stand-off. There is also Al Jazeera which, from the day it was set up, has irritated governments throughout the Middle East. Its role in fomenting the Arab Spring has been neither forgotten nor forgiven. And then, there is the growing sectarianism in the region that means any suggestion of Qatar having a less than hostile relationship with Iran is bound to cause problems.
Anxiety about the Muslim Brotherhood runs deep in the ME.
But the Brotherhood poses a particularly profound challenge to not only the Middle East’s autocratic rulers but also to violent jihadists and Western governments. Both Al Qaeda and the militant Islamic State group denounce the Brotherhood, fearing that its more peaceful approach to achieving Islamist goals might attract too much support. For them, the Brotherhood is too moderate. The West, meanwhile, wonders whether it’s too extreme. Critics point out that even if most Brotherhood members have, for most of the time, in most countries, remained committed to parliamentary politics, there have been times and places where the organisation has embraced violence. Then there are the final goals that it espouses. The West worries that the Brotherhood remains committed to Islamic punishments and to the eventual achievement of Sharia more broadly. It wonders whether any election won by the Brotherhood would be the last, as it moved to clerical government. But, at the same time, it fears that if the Brotherhood were completely closed down, Arab youth might be driven into the arms of Al Qaeda and IS.
A multi-year review of the Muslim Brotherhood, commissioned by former prime minister David Cameron, concluded that, as far as the UK was concerned, the Brotherhood should not be described as a terrorist outfit. But, perhaps for fear of upsetting Middle Eastern governments with large defence budgets, he did not give it a completely clean bill of health. “The main findings of the review,” he said, “support the conclusion that membership of association with, or influence by, the Muslim Brotherhood should be considered as a possible indicator of extremism.”
Many in Saudi Arabia and the Gulf — thought to be any to have insisted on the review in the first place — lamented that fudge. For them, the issue was rather starker. Muslim Brotherhood activists, after all, have long been trying to take power off them: and given the degree of support they enjoy, they are a genuine threat.
The poster boy for an Islamism acceptable to the West is Tunisia’s Rashid Gannouchi. His variety of the Brotherhood — Ennahda — is a political party, or indeed movement, which, in the face of considerable provocation, has held on to the idea that if Tunisia is to be Islamicised, it should be through persuasion rather than force: “through the heart”, as he puts it.
President Trump, however, is not convinced. When he said that Qatar should “stop teaching people to kill other people, stop filling their heads with hate”, and stop funding terror, he showed that he had listened to the concerns raised by the Middle Eastern leaders he met in Riyadh last month. Given permission by President Trump to give voice to their long-standing grievances against Qatar, they haven’t hesitated to do so.
Given that it is home not only to a US military base but will also host the 2022 football World Cup, Qatar must have thought it was pretty much immune from the sort of buffeting it is now receiving. But anxiety about the Muslim Brotherhood runs so deep that no amount of deft diplomacy and strategic positioning has been enough to protect Qatar from the isolation it is experiencing.
It seems as if profoundly important new alliances are emerging with military leaders and royal families opposing a Turkish-led Islamist bloc which take in Qatar, Tunisia and maybe others in the future. The Brotherhood may have been kept out of power but it still managing to shape the future.
The writer is a British journalist and author of Pakistan: Eye of the Storm.
Published in Dawn, June 15th, 2017