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বসন্ত আরব বসন্ত

December 17, 2015

Resuscitating the Fossil: How the Conflict in Syria is Bringing Alqaeda Back to Life

Note: This initially appeared as a “tweet session” on August 30, as a follow-up to an even longer “tweet lecture” about the dynamics of Islamism in the post-Arab Spring world, especially Syria. It was compiled into article form by Anas Abumais and Don Caliente, independently. I’m grateful to both. I haven’t gotten around to editing it, so I’m posting it as-is since you’ve been asking where to find it.

I want to talk about the march of Islamism across the‪ Arab Spring‬, and what ideas ‪Syria‬ is implanting in our psyche.

A few days ago I said that the Muslim Brotherhood is where it is today because true‪ Arab Spring‬ alternatives aren’t ready. I wanna pick up this thought. There’s a lot of anxiety about the Muslim Brotherhood and Salafi parties and while I don’t think it’s unfounded, I think it’s short-sighted.

I’ve said several times that Islamism is a very wide spectrum. On this spectrum the Muslim Brotherhood is a range rather than a point. It’s important to note that the Muslim Brotherhood was initially formed in the crucible of the late 1920s and shaped through to the 1960s.

The MB is not the child of the Arab Spring, or the father of the Arab Spring, and wasn’t formed in the crucible of the Arab Spring. Until the Arab Spring, the Muslim Brotherhood had a grudging truce with the tyrants, like a long-nagging couple who just learned to live with each other.

When the Arab Spring started, the Muslim Brotherhood was merely the most politically organized non-state group at the time. Tweep ‪@APHClarkson‬ described it as a crisis of organization, that ideological alternatives to the Muslim Brotherhood exist but are simply not organized:

“The alternatives to the Muslim Brotherhood are there but, with exception of Libya’s NFA, have not built mass parties.”

I’d like to challenge that, though. I don’t think an ideological alternative is truly ready. And if one was, it probably should wait. The Muslim Brotherhood goes on because there’s no alternative to the Brotherhood. That says a lot about our intellectual crisis and not much about the Muslim Brotherhood.

The Islamism of the Age of Tyranny is on the way out, and it shouldn’t be obstructed. It should be allowed to run itself into the ground. I truly believe that standing in a way of an idea prolongs its run; better just step out of its way and let it fall on its face.

Several Islamisms are around today that were forged in an Age of Tyranny, born of the same womb as the Mubaraks, Assads, and Gaddafis. With the Mubaraks, Gaddafis, and Assads (almost) gone, these “Islamisms” think they own the scene. But they’re actually in hostile waters.

The Arab Spring has low tolerance for authoritarians and totalitarians. But it also longs for a reconnection to (or rediscovery of) Islam. So these ideologies in the Arab Spring are like a huge salt water fish in a river. It’s thinks it owns the place, but it’s actually dying.

When you remove a fish from water it thrashes around a lot. This isn’t a sign of vivaciousness. It’s a sign of imminent death. That’s why I’m not worried about the MB or Salafism. As per the analogy above, they’ll have to either grow fresh-water lungs, or just die.

What I’m truly worried about, though, is the reintroduction of the idea of change through violence into the Muslim psyche. This is where we get to Syria‬, and this is what I’m really worried about.

To truly understand what I’m saying you should know I’m more concerned with ideas than events. I’d rather if the idea of liberty wins decisively 30 years from now, than if it takes parliament today but last no longer than a generation.

What Tunisia and Egypt said, very loud, was that we don’t need violence to achieve change. Libya and Syria challenged that.

I hereby declare that it was naïve of me to think that someone like Assad or Gaddafi can be removed peacefully. In fact, I truly believe that if Ben Ali or Mubarak or Saleh had the chance, they’d have done what Assad and Gaddafi did.

Libya introduced the idea of a national liberation war not from a foreign enemy but from a tyrant of our own flesh & blood. Libya also introduced the idea that the international community can sometimes do the right thing and answer a call of humanity.

Syria, however, is reintroducing some very dark ideas into the Muslim psyche. (By “Syria” here, I mean the Syrian conflict/situation as it stands today.) Syria is saying: The world doesn’t care, even if you all get slaughtered.

Syria is saying: You are on your own, not only against your tyrant but against the world behind him. Syria is saying: Foreign powers want us to remain subjugated. They are not a friend, they are an enemy.

Syria is saying: The West only talks of your liberty and your human rights if you live in an island of oil. Syria is saying: If your land has no oil, then the West does not deem you worthy of liberty or human rights.

Syria is saying: The chemical weapons the tyrant has are more important to the world than the blood of all those women & children. The Syria situation is, in short, saying all these things that Alqaeda and the Jihadists have been saying for decades.

What I’m arguing here should not be construed as an argument that Alqaeda has infiltrated the Syrian conflict. In fact, I’ve argued before that there’s no proof that Alqaeda has operational links with any groups in Syria, although there definitely are scattered Jihadist groups in operation.

What I’m arguing here is how ripe the situation is, and how badly it can deteriorate, if the right “talented liar” comes along. After all, it was this kind of perfect storm that helped forge the Taliban out of seething cauldron of Pashtun anger and calls for vengeance.

Ideas die when events disprove their logic, and live & grow when ideas confirm them. That’s why fighting Alqaeda circa 2003-4 was so frustrating; no matter how many the US would kill in Iraq, it was proving their logic.

That’s also why a single man, Mohammad Bouazizi, did more to challenge the idea of Alqaeda than the entire US army.

The Syria stalemate is vindicating all of the ideas that made Alqaeda and Jihadism popular. These ideas weren’t born yesterday – they were with us for generations – but after being temporarily weakened they are being reinvigorated.

As the West worries about Alqaeda finding safe haven in Syria, I worry about it finding safe haven again in the Muslim heart & mind.

Shortly after Bin Laden’s death, I argued that when he died, Alqaeda was already a fossil. The Syria stalemate has resuscitated that fossil and blew new life into its lungs, and new blood into its veins.

So once again I say, if something isn’t done about Syria, Alqaeda’s idea (if not Alqaeda itself) will live again. This isn’t about something that’s happened, but about something that may well happen.

But it may be already too late.

বর্তমান আরব জাগরণের রাজনৈতিক ‘স্পিরিট’ নিয়ে একটি ছোট্ট পোস্টআমাকে একপা আগাতে দিন যেন আমি দুপা পেছাতে পারি।

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An uprising in Tunisia

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