Political Islam: Various links


Here are a few links for those interested in political Islam in different Middle Eastern states. The first link is to a study of Shi’a militias in Syria and their regional impact. It is from the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. Like much of WINEP’s material, it is arguing that Iran is the greatest threat to US and Israeli security in the region. Whether you buy into that argument or not, there is some interesting details in the study, particularly organizational charts.
The second group comes from a series produced by the Brookings Institute. In addition to the links below, there are further studies on Jordan, Kuwait, Pakistan and South East Asia.

Washington Institute for Near East Policy
“The web of Iran-backed Shiite proxies is exceedingly complex, with much overlap and many changing aliases. In this new Institute study…. exploring topics such as the narrative of pan-Shiite jihad, the range of Shiite clerical views on the jihad, recruitment techniques, and weapons used.”

The Brookings Institute
Egypt: http://www.brookings.edu/~/media/Research/Files/Reports/2015/07/rethinking-political-islam/Egypt_Brooke-FINALE.pdf?la=en
Steven Brooke, University of Texas at Austin
Since July 3, 2013, Egypt’s government has embarked on an extensive campaign to dismember the Muslim Brotherhood’s formidable network of social services. With electoral participation, civic activism, and social service provision now foreclosed, street activism has become the lone vehicle for Brotherhood mobilization. This paper uses the lens of the Brotherhood’s schools and medical facilities to show how regime repression and the rise of alternative models of social service provision are incentivizing the Brotherhood to adopt more confrontational methods of opposition.

Tunisia: http://www.brookings.edu/~/media/Research/Files/Reports/2015/07/rethinking-political-islam/Tunisia_Marks-FINALE.pdf?la=en
Monica Marks, University of Oxford
A series of regional and local challenges—including the rise of Salafi-jihadism, the 2013 coup in Egypt, and local suspicions over its aims—have prompted Tunisia’s Ennahda party to narrow its range of political maneuver and rethink the parameters of its own Islamism. Ennahda has assumed a defensive posture, casting itself as a long-term, gradualist project predicated on compromise, a malleable message of cultural conservatism, and the survival of Tunisia’s democratic political system.

Morocco: http://www.brookings.edu/~/media/Research/Files/Reports/2015/07/rethinking-political-islam/Morocco_Spiegel-FINALE.pdf?la=en
Avi Spiegel, University of San Diego
Moroccan Islamists have proven resilient in the wake of the Arab Spring and have offered a different model of Islamist participation that partly reflects the country’s unique monarchical context. The Brotherhood-inspired Justice and Development Party (PJD) has secured a foothold in government through an accommodationist posture towards Morocco’s monarchy, while the anti-monarchical popular movement Al Adl Wal Ihsan has sustained its appeal and access through non-violent activism.

Syria: http://www.brookings.edu/~/media/Research/Files/Reports/2015/07/rethinking-political-islam/Syria_Lefevre-FINALE.pdf?la=en
Raphaël Lefèvre, Carnegie Middle East Center
After 30 years in exile outside of Syria, the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood has become an important component of the western-backed Syrian opposition. Despite its influence, the expansion and radicalization of the Islamist scene in Syria challenges the legitimacy of the Brotherhood’s gradualist approach and constrains its presence on the ground.

Yemen: http://www.brookings.edu/~/media/Research/Files/Reports/2015/07/rethinking-political-islam/Yemen_Yadav-FINALE.pdf?la=en
Stacey Philbrick Yadav, Hobart and William Smith Colleges
After the country’s uprising against President Ali Abdullah Saleh, Yemen’s multi-factional Islamist party Islah enjoyed new opportunities for institutional power, joining a coalition government in December 2011. But, while the Muslim Brotherhood faction within Islah initially seemed ascendant, it has since found itself targeted by the Houthi movement, weakened in relation to other factions within the party, and increasingly dependent on external actors to retain its political relevance.

Libya: http://www.brookings.edu/~/media/Research/Files/Reports/2015/07/rethinking-political-islam/Libya_Ashour-FINALE.pdf?la=en
Omar Ashour, University of Exeter
Libya’s diverse Islamist actors played a substantial role in the 2011 armed revolution against Moammar Gadhafi and the subsequent collapse of Libya’s democratization process into armed conflict. The advances of ISIS in Libya and the breakdown of Brotherhood electoral activism in neighboring Egypt, however, present an ideological and recruitment challenge to Libya’s Muslim Brotherhood and Salafi factions.

Saudi Aarbia: http://www.brookings.edu/~/media/Research/Files/Reports/2015/07/rethinking-political-islam/Saudi-Arabia_Matthiesen-FINALE.pdf?la=en
Toby Matthiesen, University of Cambridge
Saudi Arabia’s fragmented Islamist field has displayed a diversity of responses to the coup in Egypt, the conflict in Syria, and the Saudi-led war in Yemen. While a group of younger Saudi Islamists and intellectuals have embraced elements of democracy, the war in Syria, the authoritarian political system, and domestic sectarian tendencies have rallied support for the ISIS model of violent political change.

Enduring repression and insurgency in Egypt’s Sinai -BBC


A good analysis of the violence in the Sinai:

“Between 2004 and 2015, the Sinai insurgency has grown from mainly an urban terrorism campaign of bombing soft targets (such as the Taba Hilton in 2004) to a structured, low-to-mid level insurgency, aiming primarily for “hard” targets (such as Battalion 101 Camp in el-Arish, the HQ of the military campaign, dubbed “Sinai’s Guantanamo” by locals).”


What ISIS Really Wants -The Atlantic


The following article is a long, detailed discussion of ISIS’ ideology, how it influences their policies, and what the implications are for the West’s attempts to deal with the threat they pose.

“The Islamic State, also known as the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS), follows a distinctive variety of Islam whose beliefs about the path to the Day of Judgment matter to its strategy, and can help the West know its enemy and predict its behavior.”


There are a number of things to consider when reading this article. First, how accurate is the description of the groups ideology. Although the article does give a good account of how ISIS explains its ideological position, there have been critiques of the way the article deals with Islamic thought (see: http://thinkprogress.org/world/2015/02/18/3624121/atlantic-gets-dangerously-wrong-isis-islam/).
Second, are ISIS’ goals derived from their ideology, or does ideology just provide legitimacy to mundane political goals after the fact.
Third, are there ideological schisms within ISIS and if so, what could they mean for ISIS’ policies? Ideological movements (communists in the USSR and Khomeini’s Islamist followers in Iran) looked monolithic at first but it did not take long before deep divisions became apparent. We actually know very little about what is happening inside of ISIS right now. It is possible that ideological divisions may lead to moderation, with soft-liners diluting the ideological zeal of the movement. But it is also possible that divisions will lead to more extreme behavior as competing factions try to out-bid each other for ideological legitimacy.
Fourth, there is a tendency to see ideologies as static, when in fact they may evolve over time. It may evolve because of internal divisions and debates. Or, it may evolve as the organizational needs of the movement change. Right now, ISIS is in its formative stages. The extremism and violence provides the group with an identity, improves solidarity and intimidates internal dissent.However, if ISIS survives over the long term, it will likely begin to function more and more like a regular state, with regular institutions etc… In the Iranian case, the day-to-day demands of running a state and keeping it safe had an important moderating effect on the ideology of the leadership. This may, or may not happen with ISIS.

The logic of violence in the Islamic State’s war -The Monkey Cage (WP)


In a departure from its usual practice of beheading its captives, the Islamic state recently burnt a Jordanian prisoner alive, and of course, distributed a video of the killing via social media. The act seems to represent an escalation in barbarity and begs the question: Why? To begin understanding why this is happened we must ask ourselves a broader question, what is the purpose of such violence, and violent spectacle, in a civil war?

This discussion reexamines a number of our ideas about the causes of violence in civil wars and suggests that it is a radical identity rather than an Islamic identity that drives the brutality. The violence consolidates identity,and identity provides organization and commitment within the organization which leads to success on the battlefield. But it also may lead to a backlash…


Are All Terrorists Muslims? It’s Not Even Close -The Daily Beast


This is the second of two posts providing some statistics about two topics getting a lot of coverage in the media: Islamic terrorism and Islamophobia in the EU. This article is a little simplistic in the way it explains how the media works, and there is a tendency toward hyperbole but the basic argument deserves consideration:

“So here are some statistics for those interested. Let’s start with Europe. Want to guess what percent of the terrorist attacks there were committed by Muslims over the past five years? Wrong. That is, unless you said less than 2 percent….. the vast majority of terror attacks in Europe were perpetrated by separatist groups. For example, in 2013, there were 152 terror attacks in Europe. Only two of them were “religiously motivated,” while 84 were predicated upon ethno-nationalist or separatist beliefs.”

“Back in the United States, the percentage of terror attacks committed by Muslims is almost as miniscule as in Europe. An FBI study looking at terrorism committed on U.S. soil between 1980 and 2005 found that 94 percent of the terror attacks were committed by non-Muslims….. as a 2014 study by University of North Carolina found, since the 9/11 attacks, Muslim-linked terrorism has claimed the lives of 37 Americans. In that same time period, more than 190,000 Americans were murdered”

and for some hyerbole: “in 2013, it was actually more likely Americans would be killed by a toddler than a terrorist. In that year, three Americans were killed in the Boston Marathon bombing. How many people did toddlers kill in 2013? Five, all by accidentally shooting a gun.”


There Are More French Muslims Working for French Security Than for Al Qaeda -Huffington Post


A sober analysis by Olivier Roy, an expert on Political Islam and broadly consistent with an earlier post:

“Radicalized young people, who rely heavily on an imagined Muslim politics (the Ummah of earlier times) are deliberately at odds with the Islam of their parents, as well as Muslim culture overall.

They invent an Islam which opposes itself to the West. They come from the periphery of the Muslim word. They are moved to action by the displays of violence in the media of Western culture. They embody a generational rupture (parents now call the police when their children leave for Syria), and they are not involved with the local religious community and the neighborhood mosques.

These young people practice self-radicalization on the Internet, searching for a global jihad. They are not interested in the tangible concerns of the Muslim world, such as Palestine. In short, they are not seeking the Islamization of the society in which they live but the realization of their sick fantasy of heroism (“We have avenged the Prophet Muhammad,” claimed some of the killers at Charlie Hebdo).”


Should we be “Charlie Hebdo”?


In the aftermath of this week’s “Charlie Hebdo” attack, many editorialists and much of the public have adopted the slogan: Je Suis “Charlie Hebdo” (“I am Charlie Hebdo”) in solidarity with the slain cartoonists and to demonstrate that they will not be intimidated into giving up their right to freedom of speech. Yet many others are conflicted. While they support the right to freedom of speech and do not advocate censuring publications such as Charlie Hebdo, they find the publication’s material offensive and do not want to let themselves be goaded into proclaiming “Je Suis Charlie Hebdo”.
Here are a couple of articles from both positions:

“The right to blaspheme religion is one of the most elemental exercises of political liberalism. One cannot defend the right without defending the practice.”
“Charlie Hebdo and the Right to Commit Blasphemy” By Jonathan Chait http://nymag.com/daily/intelligencer/2015/01/charlie-hebdo-and-the-right-to-commit-blasphemy.html

“I am offended when those already oppressed in a society are deliberately insulted. I don’t want to participate. This crime in Paris does not suspend my political or ethical judgment, or persuade me that scatologically smearing a marginal minority’s identity and beliefs is a reasonable thing to do. Yet this means rejecting the only authorized reaction to the atrocity.”
“Why I am not Charlie” http://paper-bird.net/2015/01/09/why-i-am-not-charlie/

ISIS Has Almost No Popular Support in Egypt, Saudi Arabia, or Lebanon -Washington Institute



Recent polling data shows some interesting patterns:
“ISIS has almost no popular support in Egypt, Saudi Arabia, or Lebanon — even among Sunnis. Among Egyptians, a mere 3 percent express a favorable opinion of ISIS. In Saudi Arabia, the figure is slightly higher: 5 percent rate ISIS positively. In Lebanon, not a single Christian, Shiite, or Druze respondent viewed ISIS favorably; and even among Lebanon’s Sunnis, that figure is almost equally low at 1 percent.”

However, when questioned abut other groups or governments, there was a strong relationship between identity and attitudes. In Lebanon, “Hezbollah, as expected, is rated favorably by 92 percent of Shiites. Among Christians, that figure drops dramatically, yet still hovers near 40 percent. But among Lebanon’s Sunnis, a mere 8 percent have a positive view of Hezbollah.” and “Among the country’s Shiites, both the Iranian and even the Syrian governments enjoy a 96-97 percent approval rating. Conversely, among Lebanon’s Sunnis, Iran gets just 12 percent favorable reviews and Syria just 14 percent. Interestingly, however, Lebanese Christians fall somewhere in the middle on this measure: over a third (37 percent) give Iran at least a “fairly positive” rating, and nearly half (47 percent) say the same about Syria, where Bashar al-Assad’s regime is sometimes viewed as their protector against ISIS and other Islamic extremists.”

A final point: “shared opposition to ISIS does not mean high ratings for the United States. In Egypt and in Saudi Arabia alike, America now has a dismal 12 percent approval number. In Lebanon, that number doubles to 25 percent, but again along a sharply polarized sectarian gradient: from 39 percent among Christians, to 30 percent among Sunnis or Druze, down to a measly 3 percent approval among the plurality Shiite population”

Foreign fighters flow to Syria -Washington Post


The link below provides a graphic explaining the number and origins of foreign fighters in Syria. The number of Canadians is noted as 70, with 130 more from the US. The numbers, of course, need to be taken with a grain of salt.


Its hard to say what the impact of these fighters will be on their home countries. There has been a lot of concern that they will return home to carry out terrorist attacks. However, the evidence suggests that the threat of ‘blow-back’ is relatively marginal. According to the Norwegian Defense Research Establishment, the ratio of returning fighters who plan to attack their home countries is between one in twenty and one in one hundred.
See http://www.vox.com/2014/9/2/6096767/americans-isis-europeans

The Brookings Institute also just published a fairly sober analysis of the threat of foreign fighters. See Homeward Bound? Don’t Hype the Threat of Returning Jihadists By: Daniel L. Byman and Jeremy Shapiro http://www.brookings.edu/research/articles/2014/09/30-syria-foreign-fighters-byman-shapiro

The biggest impact will likely be in the Middle East, where the political systems are fragile and radical networks are already in place ready to integrate returning jihadists. Tunisia, the most successful of the Arab Spring states has also been one of the largest points of origin with 3,000. That is not good in the long run….