If we listen to the press, the jihadist threat has all but disappeared. Nineteen years after the attack on the New York World Trade Center, Al Zawahiri, Bin Laden’s successor, the theorist and cofounder of Al Qaeda, has long since been missing. Only the Somali branch of Al Qaeda’s military power remains. And from its most successful spin-off, the Islamic State, there remain autonomous bands and branches with specific successes in Libya and now in Mozambique. It therefore seems most logical for the USA to announce that it will leave only 3000 soldiers in Iraq and 4000 in Afghanistan. They would have succeeded in achieving the goals of an endless 20-year war. But, if we look a little closer, the first goal of those wars, the Afghan Taliban, are negotiating on a one-to-one basis with the United States the terms of their recovery of dominance over the country. And if we look to the West, the governments of the Maghreb closest to the United States are very careful not to upset the Muslim Brotherhood and its allies, who defend the government of Tripoli. And a little further south, Russia, France, and the EU are embroiled, with troops and weapons, in a Sahelian war in which the differences between jihadists, Islamists, and some local chieftains have long been blurred. From the Philippines to Trinidad and Tobago, through France itself, jihadism has been in retreat, but Islamism, especially the one encouraged by the Muslim Brotherhood, seems to be more globalized than ever. What do the two have to do with each other? What happened?
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From Islamism to Jihadism
Islamism is in its essence a movement of feudal reaction embraced later by the petty bourgeoisie adrift. Its modern form is due to Sayyid Qutb. Qutb, who was integrated into the Muslim Brothers by al Bana, the founder, brought two major influences to the organization. The first was the delusional anti-Semitism of Jerusalem’s Mufti. The second was his years spent in the United States.
Qutb lived in the United States between 1948 and 1950, where he gained the conviction that the United States was “governed by the Jews”. Upon his return to Egypt, he joined the Muslim Brotherhood, to which he gave its definitive ideology. During those years, Qutb met with none other than Abdelkrim, the great predecessor, Mufti Al Husseini, the pioneer, and Al Bana, the founder, in the Islamist underground. All of his work is actually an extension of the Mufti’s anti-Semitic re-reading of the Quran. He creates an account of the “cosmic jihad” in which the whole history of the Umma – the community of believers – since 622 (Mohammed’s arrival in Medina) is nothing but a permanent war against “the Jew”. […]
Qutb, who continually cites “the protocols” represents “world Judaism” as the source of evil acting in a raving conspiracy throughout history against the Muslims and their political expressions, mobilizing “in the shadows” “crusader” armies and provoking schisms (the “fitna”) among believers, “fighting the war of ideas through intrigues, suspicions, slander and maneuvers”. The “international Jewish conspiracy” had found a haven. Qutb was executed, apparently on Nasser’s direct orders, in 1966. His influence did not emerge from the minority and marginal Islamic milieu until more than a year after his death. […]
With the death of Pan-Arabism in 1967, in Egypt the “Muslim Brotherhood” became for the first time the mouthpiece of mass discontent. The Egyptian petty bourgeoisie, especially the rural one, had embraced the Nasserist visions and although it had distrusted the Russian advisors and the great public works, it was confident in leading economic development. Instead, they obtained expropriations of lands, sacrifices for war, fallen children and family tensions with the liberation of customs. The new state bourgeoisie was nourished by the army and engineering schools, decidedly secular, where women and Coptics were abundant, while the children of local chieftains who went to the most prestigious Islamic university in the world, Al Azhar, were left out. The change of bloc removed the Russian advisors from the midst, but it did not change anything in the feeling of that generation of provincial young people who arrived in the capital.
The Muslim Brotherhood, which according to Sadat was then financed by Russia through Syria and Libya, was gaining strength, and with it the conspiratorial anti-Semitism Islamized by Qutb. To the Egyptian provincial petty bourgeois, to his son who felt inferior in a capital that treated him like a fellah, the military defeat and the disasters of the country could only be explained by a conspiracy. The role of the US, allied with Israel and Egypt at the same time, unable to decide the Yom Kippur war in Sadat’s favor and forcing recognition of Israel confirmed to them that the Americans were pieces of an “international Jew” who moved the pieces behind the scenes. Some of the young people will not even find satisfactory enough the path of the Muslim Brotherhood, which “sometimes agrees with the government”. One faction, following the theses of Al Qubt, opted to begin the jihad immediately by overthrowing the secular “puppet regime of the Jews”: the Egyptian Islamic Jihad that in 1981 tried to provoke an Islamist insurrection by assassinating Sadat. Among the militants of the group at that time was a young Al Zawahiri, who in the following years would become the inspiration for Al Qaeda, Bin Laden’s number two and finally his successor in command.
Where is the political root of the divergence between the central body of the Muslim Brotherhood and al Zawahiri? The difference does not lie in the myths. We can spend hours rummaging through Horsemen riding under the banner of the Prophet, the best known text of Al Zawahiri, and get nothing out of it. Nor does it have anything to do with the use of armed violence. Hamas, the Palestinian arm of the Muslim Brotherhood, holds a powerful military organization and has never opposed mafia practices or the violent repression of any social dissent in Gaza.
When jihadists accused the Brothers of agreeing with the government, they were pointing out that their aspirations were fundamentally nationalist. If they agreed, even sometimes with Sadat, it is because they put themselves in the position of defending national capital. The Muslim Brotherhood always aspired to govern, arriving at the political leadership of the state by the most convenient method at each moment. Their discourse, even if it was plagued by anti-Semitic conspiracies and caliphal dreams, did not cease to be essentially a discourse that could be adapted and adopted by Egyptian imperialism.
The jihadists, and especially Zawahiri, went into exile. And in exile they found Jordanians, Qataris, Kuwaitis and Saudis like bin Laden buying their speech. This was, on paper, fundamentally anti-national. But their own situation as exiles, each damned by their government, led them now to reinterpret it literally. Qutb’s diatribes about the global Jewish conspiracy against the Muslims gave a sense of the whole of everyone’s hardships and battles and allowed them to feel part of the same thing. And thus that small group of uprooted people inadvertently went on to pose something completely different from what their referents had intended: the enemy to be attacked would no longer be the puppet governments of Zionism and the Crusaders, but the ghostly hand that would move them. The unification of the Ummah (the community of believers) under a caliphate was no longer a distant imperial dream but became a primary political objective. Their dream was no longer to take power in each country, and even less so by the most convenient means in each. It was to confront them all at once in a feudalistic counter-revolution whose antagonist was the bourgeois revolution and its scope that of the once-Islamized lands, Dar al-Islam.
Thus, the ideological and strategic bases of Al Qaeda were born, which in good measure were later inherited its Syrian-Iraqi split, the Islamic State. For its founders the doctrinal differences with the Muslim Brotherhood were fundamental: it was not at all the same thing for the political subject to be the national community, however Muslim it might be, instead of the universal community of believers. The goals changed: an Islamic republic that would inherit and reform its national laws as opposed to a newly formed caliphate. The main enemy was changing: national governments or non-Muslim powers. And as a consequence of both, the strategy: to maximize what would bring the Brotherhood closer to power or to promote a war that would show as clearly as possible a confrontation between the crusaders and the horsemen of the prophet.
9/11 was an otherwise successful and inexpensive way for Zawahiri, bin Laden, and their sponsors and supporters to arrive at this scenario… the same sponsors who hoped that their own imperialist interests would flourish in the ensuing chaos. It also served to rescue armed Islamist groups and trends, such as those in Algeria or Tunisia, that were in decline and were being rejuvenated by joining a global brand as autonomous franchises. And to a part of the Muslim petty bourgeoisie it also gave an epic reference in its revolt. The formula had its course, but like all manifestations of the petty bourgeoisie it was condemned to political impotence. In the end, jihadism ended up being a neutral ball in the imperialist game used by one and all to hit each other. And it failed because it did not succeed in winning over the great masses of the population, not even in Syria or Iraq, destroyed and fractured into small dominions by the policy of the American occupier.
It is important to dwell for a moment on the underlying reason for this failure. The Muslim countries are in their majority semicolonial countries. The petty bourgeoisie in them sees itself, in moments of discontent and revolt, as an alternative to the national bourgeoisie in the leadership of the state. It claims to be heading the people reviving the nation and being the authentic national project, that is, bringing history back to a stage, already overcome, in which national liberation could lead to a capitalist development on the margin of the global conditions of capitalism. It is a reactionary idea because imperialism is a global phenomenon, a stage of capitalism in the essence of which is not allowing the independent development of any national capital. But this is what is important: the petty bourgeoisie of Egypt, Libya, Jordan, or Syria is a product of the national state, it was born from state capitalism as a massive class. Its political projection is reactionary because it is national, not pre-national like the caliphal dream of the jihadists.
From Jihadism to the ribirth of Islamism
The chaos triggered by 9/11 but generated by the development of the imperialist conflict throughout the Arab and Muslim world produced a series of setbacks that revived Islamism. On the one hand, it became an alternative to its own jihadist offspring. On the other, in the context of the great crisis opened up in 2008, it gave the petty bourgeoisie a means of expression free from any suspicion of being foreign. At that time, no ideology linked to the great powers associated with the ruin that the promises of globalization had become for that class in the semi-colonial countries would have had any options. Under the Arab Spring there were not only the forces of the powers moving their chess pieces, there was also and above all, the revolt of a petty bourgeoisie that found in many cases in Islamism the only way to politically express its nationalist project. In other countries, such as Morocco, it had been the state itself which had encouraged the Islamists to create legal parties within a certain order and which, to a certain extent, gave them functions of government.
On the other hand, the new situation of crisis and conflict allowed Turkey -not without contradictions– to play a neo-ottomanimperialist strategy relying on the Muslim Brotherhood. These, favored by Turkish support and Qatari money, expanded since then as never seen before: creating racialist movements in France to the horror of the Republican state, securing by bombing the government of Tripoli, winning ministers in Tunisia or deputies in Indonesia and Malaysia.
Obviously the patronage was not going to come for free. As the Brotherhood, the originator and main Islamist organization in the world, moves forward with Turkish and Qatari arms and funds, the more erdoganist it becomes. Today, most of its branches are not far from playing the role vis-à-vis Turkey that the Stalinist parties once played vis-à-vis Moscow. The Muslim Brotherhood has gone from having its capital in the religious university of Cairo to having it in Istanbul.
Istanbul is today a center of the Muslim Brotherhood. The Turkish state is investing in and supporting the branches of the organization and, more importantly, facilitating efforts to organize and represent them. Dozens of television stations, mostly affiliated with branches of the Muslim Brotherhood, attest to Turkish support for these groups. Even important decisions within the branches of the organization are being made in the Turkish city. Recently, for example, Al-Islah, the Muslim Brotherhood of Yemen, voted in Istanbul for a new leader named Salah Batis. Batis, based in Istanbul, has been criticized by opponents of Turkish influence in the region for his connections to Turkey.
And yet, much of the Arab petty bourgeoisie in rebellion still sees the Brotherhood and its parties as the political form for expressing their particular religious and nostalgic forms of nationalism. This is not surprising: in many countries of Central and South America the same thing happened with the Russian and Cuban branches during the Cold War; and in Eastern Europe and the Baltic it was not so different with the US-funded liberal parties. The paradox of all this is that it shows that all these nationalist movements – religious or not – of the petty bourgeoisie end up being irremediably pieces of the imperialist game. That is, by demonstrating in their actions the impossibility of their own approach without even the need for them to come to power.
The history of Islamism is a journey that must be seen in its entirety: it begins with the anti-colonial movements of the most backward part of the clergy and the Egyptian colonial petty bourgeoisie, it is fed by the movements of the feudal classes inherited from the Ottoman Empire in Palestine financed by Germany; it becomes impotent in the face of the first global scenario of imperialist confrontation, it ends up linking its fate to that of German imperialism, which loses the war; and in the post-war period it ends up renewing itself in a conspiratorial and ultra-prude ideology that is laughable to the very mass of the Arab petty bourgeoisie; in its impotent drift it births a universalist flight forward: Al Qaeda and its derivatives… which only manage to take root by playing brutally in the interstices of the great powers’ game of positions until they are disbanded; the bulk of the movement then returns to classical religious nationalism, but in the conditions to which the imperialist game has evolved, they can only be tools of Turkish imperialist affirmation…