The late President Anwar El-Sadat of Egypt was assassinated in 1981 by a faction of Egypt’s leading Islamist organisation, the Muslim Brotherhood. The irony is that this was the same organisation that Sadat had purposefully patronised.
He had replaced the charismatic Egyptian leader, Gamal Abdul Nasser as the President of Egypt after Nasser died in 1970. Nasser had ruled the country as a popular president between 1952 and 1970, leaving behind a legacy of staunch secular/socialist Arab nationalism.
Though Nasser remained popular till his death, the glow of his influence across assorted Muslim and Third World countries was somewhat dimmed when Egyptian and Syrian armed forces backed by the Soviet Union were decimated in the 1967 war against Israel. Though Sadat had helped Nasser in toppling the Egyptian monarchy in 1952, and was also an integral part of Nasser’s socialist/secular policies, he initiated a shift. In Sadat’s view, Nasser’s socialist model could not sustain the new sombre realities that had surfaced after the 1967 war.
Sadat’s move towards the western economic model was welcomed by the country’s urban bourgeoisie, but it was vehemently challenged by the pro-Nasser and left-wing student groups and the Arab media. To neutralise the pro-Nasser and left-wing challenge to his shifting policies on campuses and in the print media, Sadat brought back to life one of the staunchest anti-Nasser and anti-left forces in Egypt: the Muslim Brotherhood.
The Brotherhood had been greatly radicalised by its second generation leadership led by the teachings of Syed Qutb. He had posed the biggest challenge to Nasser’s socialism and the regime’s pro-Soviet and secular make-up. However, after Nasser’s death, Sadat tactfully let loose the Brotherhood, using state power to help the organisation infiltrate campuses and the media.
To appease the organisation, Sadat instructed the state-owned radio and TV channels to not only start regular religious programmes, but to also show as many images as possible of him saying his prayers at a mosque. Sadat also lifted the ban on various Muslim Brotherhood magazines and newspapers. All this was done to soften Egypt’s pro-Soviet and Nasserite image and to mollify concerns of the West and Egypt’s new allies such as the oil-rich Saudi Arabia.
Immediately after Egypt’s 1973 war with Israel — in which Sadat (falsely) claimed to have defeated the enemy — he completely pulled Egypt out from the Soviet camp. However, in 1977 when Sadat, in an unprecedented move, agreed to make formal peace with Israel, the Brotherhood became Sadat’s biggest enemy. Eventually, in 1981, he was assassinated by members of the Brotherhood — ironically the very organisation he had encouraged to nullify the perceived communist threat to his regime.
Something similar happened in Pakistan as well. In the 1970 elections, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto’s Pakistan People’s Party had routed the Islamic parties. But by 1973 Bhutto was under pressure from the PPP’s leading ideologues, asking him to hasten the regime’s socialist agenda. In response, Bhutto purged the PPP of its radical founding members. He then came under the influence of the party’s ‘conservative wing’ that encouraged him to appease his staunchest opponents, the Islamists, (especially the Jamat-i-Islami), which had declared the PPP’s socialism as ‘un-Islamic.’
Though in private, Bhutto accused the Islamic parties of being ‘anti-socialist American stooges,’ in public he went along with some of his advisers’ counsel and declared the Ahmaddiyya community non-Muslim, naively believing this concession would appease and contain his Islamist opponents. The truth is, the Islamists were only emboldened by this gesture.
Also, while purging the left-wing radicals in the PPP (from 1974 onwards), Bhutto is also said to have ‘allowed’ the student-wing of the Jamat, the IJT, to establish a strong foothold on campuses which, till then, were mostly dominated by radical left-wing student groups such as the NSF.
Bhutto, like Sadat, had ignored the Islamist challenge to his regime, and seemed more concerned about imaginary ‘Soviet/ Indian-backed groups.’ His pragmatic indulgence in this regard had the reverse effect. Instead of containing the Islamist parties, his constitutional concessions only emboldened them. Not surprisingly, he was toppled by a reactionary general whom he had handpicked himself, shortly after the Islamist parties unleashed a countrywide movement against the PPP regime in 1976, calling for Sharia rule.
These are just two brief examples of the blunders committed by certain leading secular Muslim leaders that annihilated the over-blown left-wing and secular challenges by regenerating and using Islamist forces against them. This created daunting political and ideological vacuums in societies that were eventually filled by reactionary military regimes, rejuvenated Islamist forces and, eventually, a new breed of extremism — the sort that now worked towards grabbing state power and carving out a theological hegemony, based on mythical and Utopian illusions about an eternal ‘Islamic State.’
Pakistan and Egypt are prime examples; two of the many Muslim republics now desperately trying to reinvigorate moderate and secular forces to open a consensual front against extremism that was once state-sanctioned, to bludgeon opposing secular forces.
One wonders if it is already too late to do that; or if there are any worthwhile progressive sections in society today, in these countries, who can once again demonstrate the same boldness and imagination that they exhibited in the construction of their respective countries’ nationalism before their downfall.
February 18th, 2010