Has Military Suppression of Political Islam ever Worked?

The Egyptian military’s obvious determination to crush the Muslim Brotherhood involves serious human rights violations, apparent in the appalling scenes of the siege of members in a mosque on Saturday. A separate question, which any political pragmatist would ask, is, can it work?

If we look at long term attempts to limit political expressions of religion in modern history, it is a mixed bag. But mostly, no, it doesn’t work in the long run.

Saddam Hussein in Iraq attempted to suppress Shiite religous parties such as the Islamic Call (Da’wa) Party, the Supreme Islamic Council of Iraq, and the Sadr II Bloc. He made membership in Da’wa a capital crime and executed thousands. He also suppressed the Sunni fundamentalists, which is why the Bush administrations charges that he hooked up with al-Qaeda were so funny. Now Iraq is ruled by the three Shiite parties (the prime minister is from Da’wa) and they are being contested by the Sunni fundamentalists. It is true that the US overthrew Saddam, but if eradication had been successful, these groups could not have come back so quickly and taken over.

Zine El Abidin Ben Ali attempted to uproot the Renaissance (al-Nahda) Party in Tunisia, and organizationally speaking largely succeeded. But the party came back to win the 2011 elections for the constituent assembly. Not wiped out.

The Baath Party in Syria tried to eradicate the Muslim Brotherhood at Hama in 1982, and after. Political Islam now rules parts of northern Syria. It may lose out, but it is unlikely to go away.

Reza Shah and Mohammad Reza Pahlavi tied to repress political Islam in Iran. It came to power in 1979 and still rules.

The Soviet Union tried to destroy political Islam in Afghanistan and failed, despite igniting a war in which a million people died.

The Kemalist regime in Turkey tried to forcibly secularize the country for decades. The Islamically tinged Justice and development party came to power in 2002 and has ruled ever since.

Algeria’s generals did in the 1990s to The Islamic Salvation Front exactly what Gen al-Sisi plans to do to the Muslim Brotherhood. 150,000 or more died, and the generals largely prevailed. The Algerian state and society are still fragile.

It seems to me that the preponderance of the evidence suggests that religiously based political movements are almost impossible to eradicate by force. Families transmit religious commitments, to which political entrepreneurs in each generation can appeal.

Even the Soviet Union, with its official atheism campaigns, could only weaken but not destroy the power of the Orthodox and Muslim religious establishments. The Orthodox Church is now one of the pillars of the rule of President Vladimir Putin, and he had members of the punk rock band Pussy Riot sentenced to hard labor for desecrating a church with a protest performance, to make the hierarchy happy. Most ex-Soviet Muslims are not very religious, but in Chechnya, Daghestan and the Ferghana Valley of Uzbekistan, Sunni radicalism has emerged.

Not to mention that the Egyptian government banned the Brotherhood in 1948, as a result of which it assassinated Prime Minister Mahmoud al-Nuqrashi; and in 1954-1970 because it tried to assassinate Col Gamal Abdel Nasser. Anwar El Sadat rehabilitated it because he wanted to offset the Nasserist Left, then Hosni Mubarak used it to deflect the Muslim extremists of al-Gamaa al-Islamiyya and the zegyptian Islamic Jihad. It always came back.

The only places where hard line repression of political Islam had medium-term success (Syria, Iraq, Algeria), very heavy losses of life were involved. And even that did not always work (Afghanistan)

So the Egyptian generals are likely trying something that can’t be done in the long term, and can only be accomplished in the short term by genocidal techniques.

28 Responses

  1. I have a separate question. Since 1952, Egypt’s military has exercised an outsized influence on the national stage. Yes, there were “civilian” administrations but dressing Nasser, Sadat & Mubarak in suits didn’t turn them into democrats (small d.) As in Turkey, the military views itself as a national guardian, ready to leave the barracks when necessary. Is there any combination of circumstances in which that sort of influence and control disappears?

    As to the point of Juan’s column, yes, the track record is clear about the failure of repression over the long term. Unfortunately, repression seems the order of the day. I doubt that the MB demonstrations will beat back the military, now or in the future.

  2. It will work this time though for sure. Everything will be alright. Egyptians are the oldest country in the world, 7000 years don’t you know. The rules of history or logic do not apply to us. The economy will grow magically and everyone will forget those 1000s killed and wounded and realize when Great Father, General of Generals, The Son of Nasser, Terrifier of Jews and Americans, Hero of Arabs General Abdul Fattah Al Sisi leads us to a new future!!!!!

  3. Putting in a quick note:

    I think, beyond the counter-revolutionary impulse to prevent a repeat of the upheaval, the secondary motivation for the aggressive response by the coup leaders is to reduce political risk (local variant of “confidence fairy”) from impinging on aid, economic inflows. The longer this goes on, the more dramatically the conflict impacts Egypt’s economic situation.

    I think that given that I believe Egypt’s economic situation is terminal–an economy is more than just money, and just having a spare $15B from GCC will not actually fix the economic issues. As these issues like unemployment and fuel and all that gets worse, the money needed to paper over these problem grows to a larger figure. Therefore, I suspect Egypt will undergo a severe current account crisis in the reasonably near future. The MB’s tactics may simply be a reflection that they understand that the military *must* purchase their peace.

    Another quick comment:

    I think it behooves on everyone not to assume Egyptians are for this side or the other. I think that the Military does not have the level of support people seem to be taking for granted. Just because people hate the MB, doesn’t mean they are for the counter-revolutionary Tammarod. Morsy won explicitly because people didn’t want Shafik. As usual, the bougie types and their masters dominate communications…

  4. The answer to your rhetorical title is a resounding no.
    It would seem Bin Laden learned his lessons well in his dealings with the U.S. in the Soviet era in Afghanistan.
    As near as I can tell his plan is on track (as regards the U.S.[we’re being soundly defeated by the radical elements of Islam]) and our surrogates in the M.E. are impotent and, like us, self defeating.
    We think/believe our superior technology is toughness; we’ve no idea what true toughness is; we’re wimps.
    Putin is a genuine tough guy; Al Qaeda is tough.
    I would venture in the present world we’re not only not tough; but fail utterly to understand what true toughness is.
    It’s what we’re up against and we don’t get it; thus we are in our death spiral.
    We, in our lust for control, will soon realize there is another super power; the rest of the planet.
    Islam is not our natural enemy; our hubris is that, in spades…

  5. Knocked right out of the park. Sending this to everyone I know that thinks banning the Muslim Brotherhood is a necessary idea.

  6. Saddam Hussein in Iraq attempted to suppress Shiite religous parties such as the Islamic Call (Da’wa) Party, the Supreme [Islamic Council of Iraq, and the Sadr II Bloc….
    The Baath Party in Syria tried to eradicate the Muslim Brotherhood at Hama in 1982, and after….
    The Soviet Union tried to destroy political Islam in Afghanistan and failed, despite igniting a war in which a million people died…]

    In these 3 important examples, the West helped the Sunni Islamists quite a lot, not to mention the pro-Western GCC countries. And GCC is an important promoter of Sunni extremism in all cases. Not to mention Turkey’s role in Syria and now in Egypt.

    So, yes, MB in Egypt can rely on the outside help, although GCC and Turkey use to play the double game.

  7. Strongly recommend book “Dirty Wars” by Jeremy Scahill.

    It took years and many people to write a book like this.

    It focuses on the covert operations and special operations groups like JSOC and how they are operating at the top levels of the government including Obama.

    At Chautauqua last week, an ex diplomat, who I later saw on CNN, Aaron David Miller, 40 years working on Middle East, said that Obama is the most hands on president on foreign policy that he has seen.

    “Dirty Wars” is so well written to interleave tracking down particular people and then back to the policy decisions and doing things like putting McChrystal, the one responsible for torture and killings in Iraq, putting him as the head of the war effort in Afghanistan.

    McChrystal ran both the regular COIN effort and stepped up the JSOC effort. Mathew Ho, former military man who joined the State Department and whose resignation in 2009 received wide coverage, pointed out that the dual strategy of two kinds of forces was often making things worse. One of the things that happened is that a clan would tell the US intelligence that someone from another clan was a terrorist and a JSOC team and drones, etc. killed them. In other words, tribal fights engaged the JSOC and other US efforts. We all recall the “terrorists” turned in by bounty hunters some of whom have been in Guantanamo for a dozen years with out charges. I bring up Mathew Ho because of his place in the “Dirty Wars” book.

    And I went on the web and from 2 days ago there is an article by HO

    Time to Take the U.S. Out of the Afghanistan Equation
    link to huffingtonpost.com

    How much of what is going on in Egypt is the 80 year old fight between the military and the Muslim Brotherhood? Did you know that an Islamist is a terrorist? The Egyptians are using the same logic to frame their massacre as the US and others have used to frame the “war on terror”

    And as I am writing this comment, I looked up Stanley McChrystal and find him with a VP of HP giving speeches on leadership. Both business and military are about people, he says. NPR and CSPAN have had long segments about the big drone conference in DC this week. The military experience comes home to the domestic scene. As Norman Solomon, who presented the Bradley Manning application for the Nobel Peace Prize noted this week, the military state and the surveillance state are two sides of the same coin.

    I apologize for how long this comment is, but while have read Juan Cole’s blog the first thing every morning for a decade, it took “Dirty Wars” to get me back into our military activities. I am not good at remembering details and following events in the many countries like Yemen and Somalia so too often I just read quickly, or sometimes just glance at articles and have not read the many books about our wars. In short, it takes a lot of time and effort to be informed and even with the time I spend, I fall far short of really understanding.

    Here is the link to the article where business consultant Stanley McChrystal is treated like a hero.

    link to tech.fortune.cnn.com

    The theme of “Dirty Wars” is how the US effort has a major component of murder in our military efforts. The use of high tech weapons, like the video games look in the video of the precision bombs being dropped on Iraq years ago, has expanded to video games of drones.

    In summary, the military in Egypt, is using the cover of terrorism to settle old accounts? The US involvement in these counties and the increased weapons around the world (an earlier link from Juan pointed out how Egypt military aid is in fact a direct sales subsidy to US military contracting companies) — this military effort has failed to help the countries or to make the world a better place.

    But the effort has helped the MIIC – military, industrial, intelligence complex.

    And the lessons learned have been used to attack the constitution as seen in the NSA documents that show that the constitution has been bypassed in the name of terrorism. And along with the Occupy Group and Environmental groups being treated as terrorists, we have the continued protection of the oligarchy and the tactics of disruption used here in the US.

    Where will the conflict in Egypt go?

    For that matter, where will the US go? Can’t really call it the conflict in the US yet because of the successful propaganda supported by the corporate media and still the basic faith in America that the pendulum will swing back to the center like it has in the past. Our form of government is able to recover from “temporary” repression or problems like the decline of the middle class.

    Jeremy Scahill was in Columbus OH a while back for a showing of his film “Dirty Wars.”

    Anyone who sees the film with even a semblance of a moral sense, should be shocked at who we have become and what we are doing in the world.

    During the question and answer session, I asked about this indirectly.

    My question was: Are the revelations of NSA leading to a reduction of American exceptionalism? His immediate answer was NO. American exceptionalism is so deeply buried in our character that he is unsure what can pry it loose.

    In order to have fundamental change in the US, we will have to deeply realize that American exceptionalism has been used to turn the country into the corrupt entity that props up the oligarchy throughout the world.

    A further insight from “Dirty Wars” which is dedicated to journalists. Without the committed journalists around the world it would have been impossible to piece together this story of what our military and foreign policy has become. Twice as many journalists have been killed in the war on terror as were killed in WW II. And with the collapse of the media, there are by some estimates 25,000 fewer journalists so it is even harder to get reports from the front line.

    • “American exceptionalism is so deeply buried in our character that he is unsure what can pry it loose.”

      Utter, total, scorched-earth defeat.

      That’s what finally did in German exceptionalism, in 1945.

      I hope that the people in charge of the nukes manage to avoid setting them off while the US is losing.

  8. One possible reason why these movement often eventually find a path to power after violent repression is that the very police state tactics used to fight against them ends up destroying the popularity of them regimes the strategies are meant to defend. That gives the religious-political movements an opportunity to reformulate themselves in a new guise at a later time.

    It does not make sense to sacrifice freedom to fight against a political movement through genocidal techniques. Doing so guarantees that it will resort to the type of violence that the techniques were allegedly meant to stop. The real reason to do so is to keep the cycle going for those who benefit and feed off of such conflict. I have doubts that it will work for long in Egypt.

  9. Isn’t it the case that as long as a religion in itself exists, it will take political forms whenever it is allowed to? Given that politics (especially in democracies) is a lot about trying to prevent others to do immoral things, and given that, almost by definition, religious people believe they know what is moral, it is no surprise that religion is a major force in politics.

    However, to balance your examples of the long-term failures of repression, countries and regions have been successfully forced to switch religions or even abandon religiosity. For instance, Spain has been islamic. It does take considerable brutality, though, and taqiyya will remain for generations.

    Also, it seems to me that the Soviet Empire’s repression of religiosity actually was fairly successful. Have a look at this map of religiosity’s importance in different countries:
    link to upload.wikimedia.org

    My take is that a dictator would need to repress the religion itself, not just the political branches, to make a dent in its long-term political capabilities. (Of course, I am by no means advocating any of this.)

  10. Lebanon and Israel are two additional examples.

    The Israeli-backed attempt to establish a Maronite state in Lebanon brought years of civil war and the Shi’ite, but largely secular, Amal Party became the most powerful party in Lebanon during the late 1970s and 80s until the radical Hezbollah Party won large numbers of seats in the parliament and became a state-within-a-state. Hezbollah became an important political force within Lebanon due to its popularity in driving out Israel and Saad Haddad’s South Lebanon Army.

    The secular Fatah-dominated Palestinian Liberation Organization was largely ineffectual since its founding in 1964 to establish a Palestinian state. It was the Muslim Brotherhood in Gaza that initiated the organized revolt against IDF occupation in Gaza that culminated in Israeli withdrawal in 2005. Much of the insurrection in the West Bank can be attributed to Islamic Jihad and Hamas actions.

    When the First Intifada began in earnest over two decades ago, the Shamir government in Israel turned to Christian Arab MK Tawfiq Toubi to initiate negotiations with the P.L.O. The Israelis saw the secular P.L.O. leaders as preferable to Islamic fundamentalists as negotiating partners.

  11. Good reason to oppose these developments if mass murder is the method.This conclusion seems to have escaped the notice of those that should know.

    Who knew that there protests outside the US Embassy in Jakarta? (So I am told).

  12. You never fail to open my eyes, Professor. I don’t know why, but this reminds me of your warnings that the 1979 Islamic Revolution in Iran was going to be a bad thing (as mentioned in the biography on this site). In that case, the world thought that it would be a great thing for Iranians. But the dozens of Persians that I’ve met who have since fled the tyranny in their homeland say otherwise. In Egypt’s case, the MB’s popularity is at an all-time low, deservedly so, but many want to wipe them out. Your article provides a sobering warning that doing so will not provide solutions.

  13. While the analysis is correct one has to point out a few things…

    1) Unlike Soviet Union, the Arab regimes in the ME never had an atheistic plan. In fact if I am not mistaken (And Dr. Cole please correct me on this) Turkey was the only country in the ME whose laws were in no way connected to Sharia. The family law was taken from the Swiss code etc.

    2) The ME leaders used religious rhetoric whenever it fit their needs.

    3) Even Turkey after the death of Mustafa Kemal they made a big deal about the religiosity of the man. He was a deist at most and a freemason. Yet propaganda about his religious beliefs goes on. Turks were never pushed to question the silliness that is organized religion either.

    4) And as another example from Turkey… It was the military coup of 1980 that tried to increase the role of Islam in the country by controlling it more tightly. This was part of American plans of creating pro-Western Islamists across the region… the so called “Islamic Green Belt Theory”.

    So what did the so called oppressive military do in Turkey? They opened 1000s of state run religious schools. What did the graduates do in 20 years? They took over the system, imprisoned the generals and created a country that many educated Turks started to see as intolerable to live in.

    We saw this discontent at the Gezi protests.

    So the problem is perhaps not that the military could not control Islamists but they tried to pacify them too peacefully. That fascistic Turkey under the generals still had a country where the education system created the minds that run the economy. Exclude the gas and oil exports Turkey exports more commodities to the world market than the totality of Middle Eastern countries.

    But hey maybe political Islam will create a wonderfully creative societies! Allah willing!

  14. THIS IS NOT JUST THE MUSLIM BROTHERHOOD: Salifiyya-jihadiyya and other jihadis are openly involved. Take a look at the dudes with RPGs who slaughteed the policemen in Kerdassa! Various parties have been shipping in serious weaponry for months.
    PARENTS AND RELIGIOUS COMMITMENTS: Remember, Stalin’s daughter was raised aChristian right under her father’s nose. With Russia’s change, top leaders like Putin eagerly admitted that they too were raised in the faith.
    MORSI’S OUSTER WAS INEVITABLE, THIS MASSACRE WAS NOT: With one ill-considered move after another and the economy, it was obvious that theree would be an intervention. No way this would or could go on for three more years. Egyptians gave him til the end of the year….if that. His call for young Egyptians to go to jihad in Syria to fight the kufar and that he was sending the army over there too was the end. But the massacre may just be the undoing of the magical spell of the army.

  15. The rhetoric coming out of the Salvation Front is horrifying. Clearly these “liberals” are absolutely barking, working themselves up into a rage appropriate to public executions or possible concentration camps. There is also a fair amount of lying going on, along with media suppression and 24/7 media demonizing of the MB. Most interesting is the charge, rather common now among pro-coup Egyptians, that the West (especially its journalism) is secretly in league with the Muslim Brothers. Equally interesting is the pro-coup’s demand for the ouster of AJ.

    Most Islamophobes in the USA believe that all US Muslim organizations are simply fronts for the Muslim Brotherhood. If the Egyptian MB is in fact crushed, who or what will the American anti-Muslim bigots blame in their campaign against American Islam?

    Irony aside, its very hard not to conclude that the Arab Spring is now over, not just because of Black Wednesday but also because of the incredible lying, the psychotic propaganda campaign, and outright denial that the interim government has made, or ever could make, any mistakes.

    The two power centers were the MB and the military. Their goals were incompatible, but they balanced each other out. There is now nothing to stop the military for seizing power in the form of a military dictatorship, especially since Saudi money has now replaced US dollars. If you doubt that, just think ahead a bit to the “next elections.” Does anyone seriously think that they’ll allow anyone from the MB to run? And if they don’t, how can anybody claim that the election is representative?

    That being the case, the military will probably decide not to bother about elections at all. Then when the “liberals” complain, the military can say, “Well, we’re very sorry, but you see if we have elections the MB will only use that as an excuse to win power back. You wouldn’t want that, would you?”

    • The NSF spokesperson, Khalid Daoud, resigned a few days ago. He had come into the movement as a follower of Baradaei.

  16. Thank you for pointing out the close ties between the Moscow Patriarchate and the Russian State.

    However, while you suggest that President Putin prosecuted the members of Pussy Riot in order to appease the hierarchy of the Russian Orthodox Church, it seems more likely that the cooperation was in the opposite direction, that is, that the hierarchy of the Russian Church cooperated, with apparent enthusiasm, with action initiated by the Russian State. It is, at the very least, very convenient for the current Russian regime to have been given a means to send a threatening message to artists in opposition which can be framed as a defense of a sacred space.

    As, even by the Moscow Patriarchate’s own figures, over 90% of Russians who identify themselves as Orthodox Christians never worship at a church of the Moscow Patriarchate, the Moscow Patriarchate has very little authority to speak for the Russian people, but is a very useful tool for projecting the State’s goals within Russia, and perhaps even more outside of Russia, where there is less understanding of the situation of the Russian Church, and greater hesitancy to assign corrupt political motives to a religious institution.

  17. An equally important question is whether a Political Islam party can ever accept democracy, which includes protection of minorities, freedom of religion and speech (including “blasphemy”). Recent examples would suggest that the answer is no. In Pakistan, even when the party in power is not explicitly a Political Islam party, there is no protection of minority freedoms.

    • If the Religious Right, as close as I can see to being “our” equivalent to the worst of the MB, gets any more of its way in the US, there will be blasphemy trials and auto-da-fes aplenty. Already, these folks, who are grim and determined and know how to organize, have wormed their way into the military leadership — here’s a fun link: link to jewsonfirst.org . And you can bet they are well represented in the state-security apparatus. See how much fun this all can be?: link to theblaze.com And of course over half of the seat-warmers in Congress are shall we say attentive to the noise our American Taliban makes, and the “mother’s milk of politics,” MONEY, that they can deploy, for or against.

      How can we humans, forced by gravity to live in each others’ pockets, wired the way we are, and with the accidents of history as they are, ever develop a set of codes and interests and behaviors that have everyone pulling on the same end of the rope, hopefully not one attached to the noose around some Other’s neck? Especially when killing each other is obviously so much exciting fun, link to syriavideo.net, and so profitable for some of us?

      So far, it doesn’t seem that even an existential threat to all of us can persuade even most of us to stop trying to throttle, stab, shoot or blast all the rest of us, in what the few of us want to reduce to a game of “He who dies with the most toys, WINS! With big bonus awards for being the last one left alive!” It’s more fun to debate little initiatives and stratagems and horrific events, and assign blame, and use all of the above to advance one’s career or one’s tribal preferences…

  18. Lumping AKP in with the Muslim Brotherhood, Ennahda party, and other Islamists is not correct.

    AKP believes in popular sovereignty and secular rule — it does NOT pass laws on grounds of “because Allah said so” but tries to find secular reasoning and justifications for their even if perhaps their real intent is different at times. This is light-years away from discourse in the Arab world where “because Allah said so” is a valid argument and the constitutions enshrine Sharia law, state religion, etc.

    • Thanks for that comment. Of course since I don’t speak Arabic I cannot know the discourse in those countries.

      And I can tolerate AKP’s conservative politics to the extent that they do not infringe on individual rights.

      And considering the lack of free speech, the submission of the legal class to the AKP etc… there is much to be worried about in Turkey.

      What became intolerable was the brutal suppression of very peaceful protesters around the country.

      AKP might be modern in some ways but its cadres are so full of primitive minds that their gut reaction is not much different than Ghaddafi or Saddam’s.

      That’s what we get for being ruled by rude high school graduates…

  19. Don’t forget Bangladesh’s relatively secular political government and courts now taking on the religious political Jamaat-i-Islami party and banning them and convicting their members of war crimes for 1971.

  20. That said– I agree entirely that parties which would overturn democracy if they gain power have no right to participate in democratic elections. Such parties should be banned from registering in elections. ANY parties which are explicitely non-democratic meet this requirement. Since hard line Islamists want to establish a caliphate, they are not good candidates for democratic participation.

    Morsi’s actions after gaining power– trying to rewrite the Constitution and grant himself and the MB sweeping new powers– make it necessary for me to agree with requiring the MB to take a break from elections until they can figure out how to commit themselves to the democratic process. Of course, I also agree that the loss of life is deplorable and violent repression of Islamists is bound to backfire.

    • I’d say the actions of the NSF and other parties attached to the coup have pretty well abolished most of the democratic process, a lot more thoroughly than the MB. Maybe they should disband too.

  21. It seems that the panel revising the constitution intends to reintroduce the article forbbiding parties based on religion, gender, ethnicity, and origin. But will this actually change anything?

    Didn’t the FJP, al-Nour, and the others register when such an article was in place with the 2011 constitutional declaration? It looks like the FJP registered itself as “non-theocratic” and committed to a “civil state.” So, will this really matter much? Will al-Nour really just let itself be disenfranchised? Or maybe the courts are planning to be more aggressive, though religious parties could try to reregister in a new guise.

    Seems like a potential cluster or minefield if parties are restricted on a large and potentially arbitrary scale.

  22. CNN just announced: US temporarily holds up military aid to Egypt.

    So much for the top 10 reasons why the US won’t suspend the aid.

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