The Politics of the Muslim World

Two cases one can use to assess what political outcomes generally are in Muslim countries are Egypt and Afghanistan. To understand the general political outcomes of Muslim countries in this day and age and to determine where Islamists stand in these different countries, one would have to trace the relatively modern political history of Muslim countries. For example, during the early stages of the Cold War, both Egypt and Afghanistan were ruled by largely secular regimes. Beginning in 1952, Egypt came under the control of the famous Gamal Abdel Nasser, a military general that became the face of Arab secular politics until his mysterious death in 1970.

At around the same time as the rise of Abdel Nasser, in 1953 Afghanistan also came under the control of a secular military general by the name of Sardar Muhammad Daud Khan, otherwise known as Daud Khan. The difference in the political outcomes of the two countries, however, rests on a turning point at the peak of the Cold War during the late 1970’s and early 1980’s. Egypt under Anwar Sadat continued on a secular path in the late 1970’s, and after Sadat’s assassination in 1981, Hosni Mubarak sustained Egypt’s secular identity until his overthrow in 2011. After a brief stint of Muslim Brotherhood rule between 2011 and 2013, Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi’s rule over Egypt can be characterized by secularism on steroids. Whereas Egypt sustained secular rule through the aforementioned Cold War turning point with the backing of the United States, Afghanistan saw an upsurge of Islamist and “Mujahideen” activity with the backing of the United States to dislodge a Soviet-backed secular government in the 1980’s. Because of the Cold War context, Egypt continued with secularism, and Afghanistan took on the Islamist identity that still persists in that country to this day.

Abdel Nasser, during his eighteen-year rule in Egypt, waged war to a certain extent against the Muslim Brotherhood. For example, Nasser ordered the execution of the infamous Sayyid Qutb, who was the ideological father of the modern-day Islamist-Jihadist movement. Many other members of the Muslim Brotherhood were jailed under Nasser as well as under successive Egyptian regimes. It is rather phenomenal that Egypt, the birthplace of the Muslim Brotherhood, is where the Muslim Brotherhood has seen the greatest onslaught against itself from Nasser all the way down to today’s Egyptian secular military dictatorship led by Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi.

In Afghanistan, Daud also sought to gradually undo agrarian manifestations of Islam in Afghanistan through secular initiatives during the 1950’s, 1960’s and 1970’s. For one, Daud banned the customary headscarf for women in major Afghan cities in 1959. Between 1953 and 1963, Daud led the country and implemented a pronounced secularization and westernization agenda, with the urban areas being the petri dish for his social experiments. Daud encouraged the mixing of different ethnicities, and one of his social policies was to relocate tribal Afghans and to disperse them all throughout the country so they could mingle and mix with other ethnicities in the spirit of creating social harmony amongst Afghanistan’s various ethnicities.

Between 1963 and 1973, Daud stepped aside and allowed Afghanistan’s monarchy to experiment with democracy and electoral processes. Between this period of democracy, known by Afghans as “The Golden Age”, Afghanistan witnessed the rise of various political groups that included the Muslim Brotherhood-inspired “Jamiat-e-Islami Afghanistan”. Communists and Islamists saw relatively little success during this “Golden Age” of democracy. Traditionalists, modernists, and moderates dominated the system during the “Golden Age.” Nevertheless, Daud – as the secularist that he was – thought that the Islamists had gone a step too far by entering the system, and in 1973 Daud reversed Afghanistan’s political system to one-man rule with the help of a number of Afghan military officers with leftist and secular leanings. Many of Afghanistan’s Islamist figures were on the run as a result of Daud’s return to power in 1973, and a number of them sought refuge in neighboring Pakistan. Daud, like his secularist counterparts in Egypt, deemed the Muslim Brotherhood and its affiliates in Afghanistan as bandits and outlaws that needed to be crushed.

Much of the world today is still picking up the pieces from the destruction brought on by the Cold War of the 20th Century between the United States and the former Soviet Union, and Afghanistan is one of those countries. In connection with the Cold War, another difference between Egypt and Afghanistan is that Egypt remained stable and secure in terms of basic human security during the Cold War, whereas Afghanistan experienced death and destruction during the Cold War, first as a result of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979 which led to a ten year war between the Soviets and the Afghan Islamists, and then second as a result of an Afghan civil war waged by Afghan Islamists that ensued after the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan in 1989 and the political vacuum in Afghanistan that the Soviet withdrawal caused.

Afghanistan, as a result of the Cold War, falls within what Sir Paul Collier calls “The Bottom Billion” of the world’s socioeconomic hierarchy. What characterizes the “Bottom Billion” from the top 80 percent of the world socioeconomically is that the “Bottom Billion” underwent severe civil conflicts during and after the year 1980, which coincidentally was the peak of the Cold War. Because the United States had consolidated Egypt in the 1970’s, Egypt did not fall into Collier’s “Bottom Billion”, whereas Afghanistan had to be violently consolidated into the U.S. orbit during the 1980’s and 1990’s, thus falling into Collier’s “Bottom Billion”.

Thus, to determine political outcomes in the Muslim World and to understand the differences in the success of Islamists in various countries, one would have to incorporate what is known as “The Great Game” or major power competition as the most significant analytical factor in the overall study of Muslim politics. Egypt still stands today as a secular regime because the secular regime of the 1970’s led by Anwar Sadat decided to join the U.S. orbit as opposed to the Soviet orbit. Afghanistan is still dominated by the Mujahideen and the Taliban to this day, simply because the Mujahideen and the Taliban joined the U.S. orbit in the late 1970’s and early 1980’s to fight an Afghan government backed by the Soviets at the peak of the Cold War.

To the winner goes the spoils, and because the United States defeated the Soviet Union at the end of the Cold War, the Mujahideen and the Taliban prevailed over the Soviet-backed Afghan communists; thus, the Mujahideen and the Taliban are still in power in Afghanistan with the backing of the United States, who happens to be the winner of the Cold War. The Muslim World is a strategically important location of geopolitics because of the military positioning that it provides for superpowers like the United States, Russia, and China, and also because of the natural resources that the Muslim World provides for the world. Whether Muslims like it or not, geopolitics and major power conflict will be the most important factors in the political outcomes of their respective countries. Emile Durkheim, a French sociologist, spoke of what is known as an “external coercive force” in every society that has the most impact on the operations of a society. It is indeed major powers and geopolitics that act as the biggest “external coercive force” in the affairs of Muslim countries.

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