Why Saudi/UAE views on radical Islam during the Trump era will be more influential than the Qatari narrative of the Obama years

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Given the new administration’s focus on rebuilding damaged alliances with traditional Middle Eastern allies,  Israeli, Emirati, Saudi and Egyptian views on issues such as terrorism and whatever relationship the Muslim Brotherhood has to that, will have more influence in the US in the coming years than the Qatari narrative that had much weight during the Obama years.

On that note, this is a fascinating article that was published in Al-Hayat, a major regional newspaper, by a distinguished Saudi anthropologist. It sheds some interesting light on those perspectives mentioned above, so I decided to translate it.

There’s alot in here – but I mark in blue what I think are the more noteworthy points, with my commentary at the end on what this may mean from a Trump administration Counter-Terrorism perspective.

The Soft Terrorism of the “Brotherhood” is the Foundation of violent religious movements

Al-Hayat Newspaper. 17 January 2015. Abdullah Hamidaddin

The phrase “soft terrorism” entails a totalitarian vision of the world, the self, the “other,” and history. This causes the individual to be in a state of continuoius existential struggle with himself and his society, if not the entire world. By contrast, “hard terrorism” takes the form of traditional violence.

While it may be true that “Soft terrorism” isn’t violent per se it does create a climate that is conducive to people committing various acts of social and political violence, given that the rejection of the “Other” may lead all the way to that person committing actual violence.

Soft terrorism includes two components. The first is the formulation of this totalitarian vision. The second is its spread.

These two factors first began to take shape in the late 19th century as a reaction to Western imperialism, and the fragmenting of the Ottoman Empire.  However, it was only with the emergence of the Muslim Brotherhood [late 1920s] that they developed into a comprehensive ideology propagated by political and cultural activists. The “Brothers” were inspired from their beginning by the ideas of National Socialism in its Nazi formula and the Leninist version of the Marxist vision.

This process reached its climax with Sayyid Qutb.  Readers of his famous books “Signposts in the Road” or “In the Shade of the Quran” got the feeling they were actually reading  “What Is to Be Done” by Lenin or “Mein Kampf” by Hitler.

In fact,  the most dangerous thing the “Muslim Brotherhood” did – whether intentionally or not – is their fusion of the Leninist/Nazi vision of the world with  [the Muslim] religion. This meant that the sanctity of Islam was lent to a violent, exclusionary ideology. As a result, what is now known as Political Islam is little more than Nazi/Leninst ideology with an Islamic facade  but with no relationship to Islam itself.

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Picture on side of article

The study of the relationship between the ideas of the “Muslim Brotherhood” and the ideas of Nazism/Leninism is not something new. Unfortunately, however, it has not gotten  quite the attention it deserves because most analysts uncritically accept that Islam is the inspiration of Political Islam.

For example, when Sayyid Qutb put forth his ideas using references from the Koran and the Hadith, too many people just assumed that Islam is in fact the inspiration for his ideas. They don’t imagine that Qutb would have taken the ideas he already had in his head before writing his books and attributed them to Islam. As if Qutb himself even thought that’s what he was doing! 

The result is this: whenever a terrorist issues a statement explaining the reasons for his suicide in religious terms, the common assumption is to take their word for it and that religion was in fact the inspiration. Or if a Daesh member kills someone after accusing them of being an infidel,  we conclude that the religious concept of Takfir was in fact what caused the physical and social violence.

This distinction between the religion [of Islam] and political Islam does not become clear to the observer until they make comparisons between the discourse of these ideologies and the discourse of other totalitarianisms. By studying the ideas that had an influence on Islamism during its formative period, like the ideas of Alexis Carrel, author of  Man, The Unknown  in cooperation with the French Vichy Government during the Second World War, we learn that Political Islam is merely a totalitarian ideology in clever disguise.

Furthermore, the distinction between the religion [of Islam] and Islamism is made even more clear when we consider the difference between justifying an action, and the motivations for a action, when we learn that the motives and the intent don’t always overlap.

Even the concept of Takfir that is attributed to the culture of terrorism is innocent of this. Takfir is a repugnant practice but Takfir as practiced today differs from how it was understood in previous eras. Takfir in the past was aimed at those who did not believe in Allah. However, the Islamist Takfir of today is aimed at those who oppose the efforts of the saving  vanguard of mankind.

This new Islamist-version of Takfir is far more dangerous. It is what takes the individual to the level of committing terrorism because it creates a personal enmity as massive as the Umma, history, and even existence itself between the person doing the Takfir and the one being Takfired. Contemporary  Islamist Takfir has its roots in the terrorism of the French revolution, Naziism, Stalinism, and Maoism, but not the Takfir of Mohammed Abdel Wahab.

In their 2007 study  titled  “Radical Islamism and Totalitarian Ideology: a Comparison of Sayyid Qutb’s Islamism with Marxism and National Socialism” Hansen and Kainz stated that  “Despite all the differences between them, their arguments  are all very similar: the history of mankind is viewed as a struggle between life and death, between good and evil, and where evil threatens humanity. Those who encapsulate “good” must act as messengers to save humanity from mankind and to realize the utopian society.”

Hansen and Kainz note the commonalities in the Nazi, Leninist and Islamist vision towards mankind. For example, each believe in the central problem of the world being the presence of a group that exploits other groups. They believe that history trends towards decadence/decay and the Islamist world view is that the world is at war against Islam and Muslims and want to prevail over the religion. And that the world is in a state of “ blind ignorance.”

The Islamist, Nazi and Leninist ideologies also believe in the need to create an elite  vanguard capable of changing the trajectory of this path. They also believe that the dominant values of the world, such as freedom and human rights are merely ways for the arrogant to exploit the weak. Or from the Islamist viewpoint, Western values aim to overcome Islam internally.

What is so dangerous here is that the Nazi/Leninist worldview, carried out in Islamist garb, has had gained tremendous influence throughout the Muslim World. The great success of the “Muslim Brotherhood” lies in the fact that they “Brotherhoodized” the majority of the Islamic world.

For example, the Revolutionary Shia Political movements were inspired by their vision, but with a Shia cloak.

The Salafi movements, which even though they excommunicate the “Muslim Brotherhood,” adopt the Brotherhood vision completely even if they reject the activist angle of their approach. In other words, Contemporary Salafism is the Muslim Brotherhood free of the organizational structure.

Jihadists are merely “Muslim Brothers” who believe in the necessity of speeding up the stages of reform, through war against ‘Jahaliya” of their societies, and against the enemy of Islam that is the West. Even the enemies of the “Muslim Brotherhood” from the religious non-affiliated, adopted this vision or at least some of it.

The versatility of the “Muslim Brotherhood” and especially Sayyid Qutb, is taking the Nazi/Leninist principles of Totalitarianism, and giving them religious cover but with a smoother and more attractive style.

Two factors assist in that process: First, that process of formulating this [Islamist] Vision occurred in a period of struggle against Imperialism. At that time the focus of all movements was on formulating an ideology to be used to combat colonialism.

The second factor in Islamism’s success was that Arab Nationalism that dominated the region for this period, also adopted this basic [Nazi/Leninist] vision, but with a facade of pan-Arabism. In other words, the climate  [in the Middle East] was favorable to such a Nazi/Leninist vision and the political powers and governments adopted it as well. This vision was a fundamental part of the collective Islamic and Arab conscious, then it became a fundamental part of the religious education curricula.

So in essence, when pan-Arabism collapsed politically, Political Islam was there to quickly rise in influence, because all it was doing was putting forward a more attractive version of a vision that was already firmly entrenched.

Another factor even more important is that this ideology was formed to combat Colonialism, but after Colonialism ended the focus gradually changed its focus to resisting local regimes. Arab Monarchies fell in the Arab nationalism period, and Al-Khalifa Al-Rashida was established in the Islamist period, for which we can essentially point to the beginning of this period with the victory of the Islamic Revolution in Iran, where it gave hope to the possibility of reimplementing the model of the the Rashidun Caliphate set by the first generation of Islam.  In response, various political Islam movements spread, cloning that experience.

The religion of Islam – as it is understood by Muslims – like others need a Revision. But Islam – especially Takfir and Jihad – does not explain terrorism. Daesh and Al-Qaeda will not be overcome with a closer look at the religious passages, or an increase in religious tolerance or even a religious renewal. The number one way to combat terrorism is combatting the Leninist/Nazi ideology which has become a part of our collective consciousness and in which we have started believing in it’s vocabulary.

To combat terrorism we must first combat the soft terrorism which spreads the totalitarian Leninism/Nazism in an Islamic spiritual cloak. We must also put forward a discourse criticizing this Totalitarian vision. Perhaps the first part of this is to criminalize the Muslim Brotherhood, considering them the chief manifestation of this soft terrorism. However, it’s not enough because this soft terrorism has become practiced by the majority of the religious currents and non-religious, and all the while we have been so neglectful!


(1) To What Extent are the roots of Political Islam “Islamic” or not? 

This is one of the most interesting and critical  points of the article. The author claims that violence committed by Islamists has nothing whatsoever to do with Islam. That’s certainly a line that many would agree with to varying degrees in pro-government circles in Saudi Arabia, Egypt and the UAE.

I would definitely agree with the author in his historical comparisons between Nazism, Leninism and what he calls “Political Islam (but a term I think is just as good is “anti-Establishment Jihadism”).

As I write in my Jihadism Reading List the key is to look  not at what people and movements say but what they do.  At many levels, there is virtually no difference between what Communists and Nazis did, and what Jihadists are doing today.

If Mr. Hamidaddin says it has nothing to do with Islam, Professor Gorka -the  senior Trump advisor whose important and nuanced book I reviewed last week– argues that it’s entirely or at least primarily related to the ideology of Islam.

What if both are right?  Here is how I would frame it:

So-called Political Islam (especially anti-establishment Jihadism) is a rebellion against the Muslim Establishment. On that basis,  the Leninist/Hitler comparisons are apt given their record as the two most “successful” anti-establishment movements of all time – which serve as a model for other similar movements.  But “Islamism/JIhadism” is “religious” in the sense that those who are unhappy with the “establishment” status quo, adopt anti-establishment interpretations of Islam. Those who are content, are fine with the Establishment interpretation of the religion.


(2) Do we beat Ideologies or the CAUSES of ideologies? 

Let’s turn now to the issue of what can governments like Saudi Arabia, Egypt, the UAE and the US do about stopping Jihadist ideology?

The problem with this overall excellent article from a Counter-Terrorism perspective,  is that it avoids a discussion about why people freely choose to embrace radical Jihadist ideologies. Both call for a strategy of simply attacking the Jihadist ideology.

As I wrote previously though it comes down to this:

Do you believe that  people adopt ideas and beliefs because they seek them out and agree with them because they best explain their predicament?  They offer the most meaning?  Or do  you believe that people adopt ideas because they are told to believe them?   Do people choose ideas? Or do ideas choose them? Do you trust people to choose what they think?

I  happen to believe 100% of decisions to join Jihadist groups or to “become an extremist” are “rationale” and “logical.” (totally different story than whether it’s a smart idea or a “good thing”).

But every single recruit is influenced by their surrounding social-economic, cultural, and political circumstances that lead to their CHOICE to embrace the ideology. Nothing ever happens in a vacuum.

Therefore, to beat the ideology, the focus has to be on the various circumstances leading people towards the ideology. No counter-ideology is possible unless it addresses those conditions.

If Jihadism is similar to Nazism and Communism, as both Drs. Gorka Hamidaddin argue (and which I agree), did we not drain those movements of support post-World War Two by massive focus on developing the economies and the socio-economic problems that led so many people to embrace these movements? Why is it different with Jihadism?

Here are some ways I have written about before that can attack those circumstances that lead people to CHOOSE the ideology.


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3 thoughts on “Why Saudi/UAE views on radical Islam during the Trump era will be more influential than the Qatari narrative of the Obama years

  1. Reader in DC

    I agree that the Saudi/Emirati perspective on pol Islam will be more influential than Qatari ones. I think this is manifestly the case, given recent appointments and because they overlap with the language members of the administration adopted publicly during the campaign and since the beginning of the admin. I think it is inaccurate to characterize the Obamian view as being close to or synonymous with the Qatari one. The Qataris actively associate themselves with a Brotherhood-light internationalism, which the Obama people never embraced. They took a view that distinguished between violent versus non-violent Islamists and prioritized the treat assessment of the violent ones. It attempted to avoid taking a position on what were seen as internal debates among Muslims, except to effectively excommunicate the actively violent AQ/ISIL trend. A very incoherent and stifling approach, which is characteristic of agnostic Gen X Obamianism. This benefits the Saudi perspective, which provides the ideological ground for violent jihadi Salafism (walking followers to the edge of the cliff and saying, don’t jump, as many hardliners like to say), because it takes no position so long as those who promote variants of the ideology say “but don’t act on these teachings!” and draws the line strictly at the promotion or execution of violence.

    Analytically, I am sympathetic to the Saudi/UAE perspective on groups like the MB laid out in the piece. Operationalizing that view is problematic and we have seen this play out across the region, in Libya, Yemen, Iraq, Egypt, and elsewhere. There are major trade offs, in terms of agenda setting, human rights, and the responsible use of force. It may be the case that the excesses of the Saudi/UAE corner during the Obama years were the result of fanaticism and paranoia linked to a perception that Washington was too close to the Iranians and unreliable in the wake of the uprisings, and so Riyad and the Emiratis felt they needed to defend their interests in a zealous way. I don’t know. But their efforts against the MB in Egypt have been overwrought and their worldview is likely to continue destabilizing trends there and elsewhere. The Saudis remain a problem at the ideological level and there is not easy solution, especially from the perspective of a country like ours, which is a liberal democracy bound by a non-sectarian constitution whose policy elite is mostly not Muslim and mostly understands Islam and the region in less than optimal ways. The ideological question is a tough one to manage and the potential “off-shore balancers” on this front are not ideal.

    I agree completely with the two points you make at the end, as usual. You are on the money and you identify, what I think is one of the fundamental errors in the view that the admin and many Republicans and Democrats in general have made in their approach to the ideological dimension as related to jihadi Salafism. It is also an error many analysts and public intellectuals make, arguing that that either young Islamist radicals are motivated by poverty or the pressures of their socio-economy or they are motivated by religion (however understood). In my view we have to understand that these men (and women) are composites of their environment. We cannot reduce it all to one thing. Any approach has to understand these and weight them. There is an over intellectualized view that comes into an argument about the nature of radicalism and thus the nature of man and his motivations. I think this is all very silly and that there are probably practical ways of addressing youth radicalism. I think this problem is pronounced among our elites in the following ways for different reasons:

    We find that North Americans on the left often reduce “root causes” to socio-economics and discount the role of ideology and religion, probably because they fear demonizing Muslim minorities in their own country and have a discomfort discussing religion generally. This is in part generational, as this fits into a Gen X distaste for ideological question in the wake of the cold war (the influence of the end of history and secularization among young elites). It also comes from the prioritization of domestic politics ahead of the international scene among many liberals and Democrats (not among all, but many). This can be seen in the content of the Cairo speech Obama delivered back in his first term and in the hollowness of recent US government efforts against radicalism.

    We find that North American conservatives overstate the importance of religion and ideology, possibly due to a confluence of factors: the dominance of baby boomers on right wing politics and constituencies (one of the most ideologically polarized generations in American history and because they came of age during the Cold War and in the time of Reagan, when ideology was seen a key aspect of national power against communism and the Soviet threat), the dominance of sectarian politics on the American right (with is large Evangelical, Catholic, and dominionist trends) which demonizes Islam and views society through a strong cultural/religious lens, and an ideological aversion to viewing behavior as a product of social/economic circumstance in favor reducing behavior to being a product of culture, values and individual choice. This could be described as putting parochial or local ideological interests ahead of a more sober/secular assessment of the international scene (see the activities of the ACT For America crowd and the Frank Gaffney types, along with those folks we see deliberately stoking hostility to Islam/Muslims in the west) and a seeming belief that the most radical visions of Islam/ISlamism are “correct” or that the conservativism of most Muslim societies present a “threat” where it mostly does not, easily running into the range of conspiracy theorizing, etc.

    This is the cultural context of American counterterrorism at the political level. Things differ the more one must deal with practical matters. On either side there are dangerous, silly, and counterproductive trends. We need to resist the tendency to treat Salafi Jihadism as a strategic threat in and of itself, instead pushing to place it in proper context: identify where it is represents a political threat, versus an operational threat, identifying where it threats specific interests and where it does not in the energy space, the trade space, the general stability/regime survival space, etc. The threat is different in each region and country. We also need to recognize that the remedy has to be more tailiored in each case than it has been. And to deal with the threat posed to North America and the West specifically, a radically different approach is probably needed than what has been done in the past eight years, especially from the one Republicans/conservatives have been advocating until late.

    I am reading a book called The Way of the Strangers, by Graeme Wood. This is methodologically one of the best books I’ve read on the ISIL issue, especially on recruitment. He actually went to meet followers of ISIL in various countries and tries to understadn what appeals to them about the group. It is part ethnography, part journalistic sojourn. Wood also speaks Arabic (and other languages relevant to the subject) and so his insights are keen. He has a good insight into religious philosophy as well. It closely tracks with my findings talking to North African Salafi jihadis. My main critique is that he overstates the religious appeal, putting it above all others, when it is evident from his own writing that there are contextual psychological, socio-economic, and cultural factors that are as strong or stronger in many cases. I strongly recommend reading it and I think you’d write an interesting review of it that would help clarify some of the points you’ve been making.
    Let’s meet up soon.


    1. Nathan

      Pheneomenal comment as always. So much to digest with this comment —

      1. ” Analytically, I am sympathetic to the Saudi/UAE perspective on groups like the MB laid out in the piece. Operationalizing that view is problematic….”

      Really good point. And also operationalizing from the US perspective might mean something different from what that means from a Saudi/UAE perspective.

      2. “It is also an error many analysts and public intellectuals make, arguing that that either young Islamist radicals are motivated by poverty or the pressures of their socio-economy or they are motivated by religion (however understood). In my view we have to understand that these men (and women) are composites of their environment. We cannot reduce it all to one thing. Any approach has to understand these and weight them. There is an over intellectualized view that comes into an argument about the nature of radicalism and thus the nature of man and his motivations”

      Great point.. As I have written dozens and dozen of times, it’s a rough combination of BOTH but “poverty” isn’t the right word. Nobody is joining ISIS for the free food.

      The question to be asking, to measure the stuff that really matters from a CT perspective,should be “are you content with the status quo? The people adopting anti-establishment Jihadist interpretations of religion, are the ones who are angry about the status quo. Those who are content with the status quo, adopt the establishment/moderate interpretation of Islam.

      The way to get people to ultimately stop adopting the radical interpretation is to get them content with the status quo. Which to me, based on everything I am observing, is primarily about the socio-economic domain. Very few people care about elections or constitutions if they can’t get a job, that gets them married and has them a certain status.

      This is why I think stuff like this that I’ve written about before should be incorporated into CT policy long-term, only this kind of stuff will increase the incentives to be angry about the local status quo:




      3. Great tip on the book. Will check it out for sure.

      Will read through this again more because this is such a good comment.


  2. Pingback: A brilliant 1,000 word reader comment worth highlighting

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