By Faisal Devji
Oct. 24, 2018
Jamal Khashoggi’s murder by Saudi agents in Istanbul doesn’t just cast a harsh light on the authoritarian and reckless behavior of Prince Mohamad bin Salman of Saudi Arabia; it also highlights the rivalry between Turkey and Saudi Arabia, which represent competing forms of Islam.
Saudi Arabia is a monarchy that allows Islam to define all social relations as long as it makes no political claims. Turkey, led by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his Justice and Development Party, is a republic whose government was brought to power by the votes of many conservative Muslims.
Despite being an influential Saudi voice, Mr. Khashoggi had over the years embraced these competing visions of governance and the place of Islam in politics. He had been a loyal adviser to Saudi rulers, but he also, like Mr. Erdogan and his party, is widely believed to have subscribed to the Islamist ideal of power democratically achieved — an ideal represented by the Muslim Brotherhood.
Islamism is seen as an existential threat by the region’s monarchies, which apart from Qatar and to a lesser degree Oman and Kuwait were frightened by the Muslim Brotherhood’s coming to power in Egypt after the Arab Spring protests. Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates bankrolled and backed the Egyptian military’s crackdown and coup against the Brotherhood government; Turkey and Mr. Erdogan backed the Brotherhood and provided refuge to the group’s leaders and members after the crackdown.
Mr. Khashoggi straddled this dangerous fault line, and it might have played a part in his assassination. “The eradication of the Muslim Brotherhood is nothing less than an abolition of democracy and a guarantee that Arabs will continue living under authoritarian and corrupt regimes,” he wrote about the Saudi-backed coup and crackdown.
The battle between monarchical and republican Islam goes back to the Cold War, when Arab monarchies backed by Western powers saw secular and sometimes socialist Muslim states as their main rivals. In those days both sides deployed the Islamists against one another. After the fall of Saddam Hussein’s Iraq and Muammar el-Qaddafi’s Libya, both through Western intervention, Syria is now the last significant representative of secular dictatorship — a political form that had once dominated the Middle East and parts of North Africa.
Itself drawing upon Cold War ideas about ideological states, Islamism enjoyed its greatest victory with the Iranian revolution in 1979 and took control of Sudan a decade later. While Islamism has since come to power electorally in Turkey and Tunisia, it also appears to have lost its way, allowing social conservatives a place in the public life of these countries while mutating into something barely recognizable with the Taliban in Afghanistan.
As the remnant of a much larger struggle, the competition between Muslim republicans and monarchists represents a politics in terminal decline. Most of the region’s royal houses are modern creations, encouraged if not implanted by colonial powers. They possess no worked-out political idea or theory to legitimize themselves, relying instead on a transactional mixture of privileges, payoffs and punishments to secure the allegiance of their subjects, much like corporations do with their workers, shareholders and boards. This is why Islam as a form of social control is so important to them.
Islamism, for its part, has become a red herring in accounts of Middle Eastern politics. The Muslim Brotherhood was not at the forefront of the Egyptian revolution but caught unawares by it. The party was furthermore brought down by a movement as popular as the one that had put it in power, thus allowing the army to intervene and impose its dictatorship on the country. The Brotherhood’s opponents were as religiously observant as its supporters, which meant the dissolution of a narrative that pitted popular Islamists against secular elites. The democratization and fragmentation of Islam has shifted it beyond the grasp of any party or group.
Having torn their religion from the grasp of its traditional authorities among both clerics and mystics, Islamists were themselves set aside by the rise of jihad movements in the 1990s, which reject their visions of electoral democracy or even revolutions to set up Islamic republics. And like the Islamists before them, these militant outfits are now used by the region’s governments against one another even when they cannot be fully controlled.
The decline of Islamism can be gauged by the way in which the Turkish government has crushed its former ally, the Gulen movement, which it accuses of fomenting the attempted coup in 2016 with foreign help. Turkey retaliated like other Middle Eastern governments to eliminate an Islamist threat with international links and foreign sponsors. In doing so it demonstrated that Islam will be tolerated only if it is put in the exclusive service of the state, paradoxically setting more limits upon religion than either the most secular or theocratic of countries.
If Iran today poses the chief ideological rather than simply military or economic threat for the Gulf monarchies, it is probably because its unexportable Shia revolution must stand in for an Islamism that no longer appears to have a political future in the Arab world. Or its future may be that of Tunisia’s Ennahda Party, which has rejected the Brotherhood’s internationalism in the Arab Spring’s only successful revolution.
Islamism is so frequently invoked precisely because it is in decline, its supporters as well as opponents eager to enlist the Brotherhood and lend their rivalries some ideological meaning.
Yet in the West, freedom of the press and human rights are advanced as reasons for concern about Mr. Khashoggi’s end, while in the Middle East the struggle is over the possibility of a regional relationship that does not involve Western powers or geopolitics.
The outrage in the West over Mr. Khashoggi’s killing has led to calls among columnists and politicians for yet more intervention in the Middle East by way of sanctions and other threats against Saudi Arabia, as if prompted by the fear of being shut out from its politics. But even this reaction cannot conceal how bereft of ideological features the event is, indicating instead the brutal secularization of politics in a region marked by the desire for hegemony of its three remaining powers — Turkey, Iran and Saudi Arabia.
While all three deploy religion in their quest for dominance, its very universalization in these and other ways has made Islam increasingly recalcitrant to such uses, as it slowly comes to constitute nothing more than the national character of Muslim societies in the region.
Faisal Devji is a professor of history and fellow of St. Antony’s College, University of Oxford.