The IHT seems to have finally caught on to something I have been saying for the past couple of years.
[. . .] Iraq runs counter to trends of rising religiousness among young people across much of the Middle East, where religion has replaced nationalism as a unifying ideology. While religious extremists are admired by a number of young people in other parts of the Arab world, Iraq offers a test case of what could happen when extremist theories are applied.
In 2005 I wrote that that it might “take a war” for Islamism to be discredited in the same way that various nationalisms were during the Cold War (which paved the way for religion to arise as the dominant form of identity). It is my view that Islamism is not a spiritual movement — though it does have spiritual origins. It is first and foremost a sectarian movement. As Iraqis become disillusioned with their sectarian leadership, sectarian politics could either dissipate all together, or become the responsibility of the laity and become especially vulgarized and diffuse.
Islamism is the assertion of cultural and political Islam ahead of personal, spiritual Islam. It is the result of weak national and ethnic identities in a region where for centuries the highest level of social organization was the sect, be it be derived from a variation of Islam or Christianity. Secular identities were articulated with the express purpose of overriding sectarian loyalties and building national cohesion so that the imported nation-state infrastructure could be viable. While individuals became largely secularized during the twentieth century, their identities did not. Islamic modernism allowed for Muslims to live their lives almost independent of the religious establishment’s edicts all the while maintaining their Islamic identity.
Islamic reformism, which sought to restore the authority of traditional religious elites which had been undermined by elements of the modernist movement, stressed outward expressions of Islamic identity and adherence to ritual. Dismissing “popular Islam” (the Sufism, mysticism, and Islam of the hoi polloi; “traditional” Islam as practiced outside of the urban centers and elite circles), reformism called for a return to the Islam of Muhammad’s time. This salafism is the tradition of Wahhabism, the Muslim Brothers, and al-Qaeda. It has attracted young men and women educated in secular institutions in secular fields (often medical students, and engineers) more than those versed in popular Islam or the traditional centers of Islamic learning in Tunisia, Morocco, or even Damascus. Anti-Western in its rejection of secular forms of identity (which are seen as imports from the West), political organization, and cultural expression, this “revivalist” Islamism is less about following the spiritual commands of Islam than its most base and superficial ones. This is perhaps why Islamism becomes so dissatisfying when its followers are given free reign, as in Afghanistan, Algeria, and militia controlled Iraq; it becomes an edifice of corruption, murder, gore, and hypocrisy without any deep spiritual backing.
But before Westerners and so-called “liberal” or “moderate” Muslims start cheering over the decline in “interest” in Islamism among the Iraqis, it should be remembered that nothing has yet to arise in its place as a form of identity or solidarity. Islamism is still the strongest popular political force, and nationalism’s record has been dearly tarnished and greatly weakened by repeated military defeats on the part of Arab nationalist armies and sectarian infighting in Lebanon, Egypt, Iraq, and elsewhere. Nationalisms or patriotisms revolving around the various Arab and Muslim states established by the former colonial powers is a possible alternative. Often labeled “Sadatism” (“the country first“), this alternative is often undermined by the remaining loyalties related to Arab and other nationalisms, for instance the fact that while the Arab polities have been moving away from one another politically they have been converging culturally at a rapid pace in recent years (and by the fact that it is encouraged by the United States, in a divide-and-rule effort, as many see it). On the other end, sectarianism remains high (and does not seem to be going anywhere) in many areas of the Arab world, and this leads to cross border solidarity and suspicious attitudes towards presumed compatriots. Only in the oldest Arab states — Morocco, Oman, Egypt (though its identity is increasingly undermined by Muslim and Coptic sectarianism), and to an extent Syria — is state nationalism strong. The only movements calling for the abolition of state borders in the Arab world are the Islamist movements (with the aim of establishing a universal caliphate) and the surviving Arab nationalist ones (towards the goal of a unified Arab entity). The region is still in the making.
There is no post-Islamist narrative or movement that can supplant Islamism, and the resultant void might be filled by a strengthening of state identity or by a dangerous period of chaos in which the region’s level of civilization decreases drastically into wars over borders, sectarianism, and prestige. This goes back to Iraq. Is there a viable national narrative that can take the place of the sectarian ones presently at work? The only alternative narrative is offered by the Kurds, but this is one that only fits the Kurdish circumstance and its fruition will be at the expense of the rest of Iraq, its Christian and Turkomen minorities in particular. Many Shias identify Arab nationalism with Sunni domination, and many Sunnis identify Iraqi nationalism with Shia domination, especially because such a frame of thinking is often seen as being driven by Shia religious leaders. What will follow? What will post-Islamism look like?