Despite the reductionist perspective on many themes in a recent report from The Economist, “A Religious Revolution is Under Way in the Middle East,” it contributes to stimulating and driving a deep discussion about the region and the impact of events in Gaza on more than one level. The first concerns the political future of the Middle East, the second focuses on the expected role of Islamists in light of the war and realistic developments of the Israeli aggression, and the third examines what form of political Islam may emerge from these events and developments. Is it the Muslim Brotherhood formula, which Hamas is an extension of, or the Jihadist formula? Is it the Al-Qaeda approach, an ISIS-like approach, or a new mixture? Or is it the spiritual-Sufi formula of Islam that seeks to focus on individual and spiritual matters and stay largely away from political affairs?
On the other hand, another equally important question in terms of regional policies relates to the foreign policies of Islamist movements. What is the fate of the alliances of Islamists in the region following the Israeli aggression? Will the axis of resistance strengthen, resulting in an alliance between Hamas, Iran, Hezbollah, Jihad, and the Shia forces who have become effective and influential “semi-state actors” in the region? Has the Turkish incubator for political Islam receded regionally after the Arab Spring? Will the Sunni-Shia divide strengthen after this aggression if there is no direct and comprehensive intervention by Hezbollah to support Hamas and Jihad in Gaza?
The answers to these questions will significantly influence the dynamics of policies in the region in the coming stage, as has been observed in other critical historical events that led to shifts in ideological and religious trends, especially among the youth. The definition of the “political generation” is generally associated with a period after a major event that affects the awareness of that generation, representing the beginning of a new intellectual wave or a turning point in an existing ideological or intellectual trend.
Regarding political Islam, the events of the Arab Spring in 2011 represented a crucial and major turning point. Initially, it led to Islamists coming to power and winning elections in many Arab countries, expanding the popularity and political influence of popular movements. On the broad Salafist level, it led to their engagement in democratic and political processes, which they had long rejected. Additionally, there was a phase of “ideological revisions” among the leadership of Al-Qaeda during that period (Osama bin Laden, Anwar al-Awlaki, Ayman al-Zawahiri, and Abu Yahya al-Libi). Islamists were at the peak of their political power, and regional incubators were formed for them, especially in places like Turkey and Qatar. This led to discussions among the American political elite about the position of the “Islamic alternative” to autocratic regimes, as there were indications of a shift toward dialogue with Islamists and giving them the opportunity to govern. A significant conference was held in Washington in 2012 by the Carnegie Foundation for leaders of Islamist movements. A delegation from them subsequently met with officials at the US State Department, indicating a new phase in the region.
However, this phase did not last long due to the regional and local environment in many countries. Samuel Huntington referred to this as the “counter-revolution,” which usually occurs after historical democratic revolutions, formed by local and regional forces who were not welcoming the concept of the Arab Spring. The promised spring turned into a ‘harsh autumn,’ marking the end of the era of political Islam in Egypt, the eruption of internal wars in Syria, Libya, and Yemen, and Islamist electoral setbacks in Morocco and eventually overturning the democratic process in Tunisia.
How did the counter-revolution affect Islamic trends in general? Many predictions were made on this matter, especially by Arab and Western experts who believed that the Muslim Brotherhood would return to violence and armed action. Despite the emergence of a trend within the Brotherhood towards radical action, embracing the ideas of Sayyid Qutb, and confronting despair toward the democratic path, the overall direction of the main body of the Brotherhood in Egypt and most Arab countries remained peaceful, adopting a democratic discourse. However, this did not deny the emergence of other strong and violent trends. The first was the rise of the Islamic State organization, which weakened Al-Qaeda’s presence and influence among Arab jihadists, causing a global security and media earthquake, and spreading terror worldwide. This was a result of the collapse of the dream of democracy in Syria and Iraq, and the increased youth anger following the Arab Spring uprisings and coups.
Additionally, other trends emerged, including a complete departure from religiosity and religion, and the rise of a new trend pushing towards Sufism, spirituality, and individual religiosity. These trends were evident in several opinion polls and studies, especially those conducted by the Friedrich Ebert Foundation in two consecutive sessions, showing a tendency towards individual religiosity, which means approaching the Sufi pattern and moving away from political Islam. Such a trend may not be far from attempts at manipulation and employment by official anti-political Islamist Arab policies, which sought to use Sufism to serve despotism and dictatorship. In the same context, certain Salafist trends were harnessed in the past. However, this process of engineering and manufacturing does not necessarily mean that the trend towards Sufism and individualism is entirely manufactured; it may be a significant and logical part of the frustration and despair from the experiences of Arab political ideologies.
Now, what is the most likely formula or face of political Islam after the aggression on Gaza, and what formula will the upcoming wave take? The answer to that is still linked to field developments, symbolic and political nuances, as well as factors that can tilt the military battle in one direction or another. If Hamas narrates a strong story, it will revitalize Islamist movements. If the outcome is the opposite, it will reinforce radical trends, whether in the form of a new wave of political-religious radicalism, which I expect to be a composite methodology of Al-Qaeda and ISIS, or it may also reinforce trends of youth and society towards Sufism and spirituality as an escape from the state of despair, frustration, anger, and tension that fills hearts after these catastrophic massacres.
Regardless of the upcoming military results, we are facing a new wave in the region, certainly with a youthful character, likely to be associated with the dominance of one of the colors of political Islam or a mixture of these colors.