The first thing that we must realize is that the war on terrorism and extremism is a regional one. This is a war that has extended across the Middle East, while it also represents a threat to regional states, not just in terms of violence, but also division, fragmentation, and civil war. This war is placing the Arabs on one side, and the rest of the world on the other.
The second fact is that we are facing a proliferation of terrorist organizations, radical militias, and extremist ideology, and this includes the Takfirist ideology of Sayyid Qutb promoted by the Muslim Brotherhood. These organizations are leading a battle for hearts and minds; a process through which they recruit their followers, distorting a tolerant and moderate religion.
This issue is our topic for today, and this is something that is not new to the Arab and Islamic world; we have known this phenomenon since the emergence of the Kharijites. Following this, we saw the rise of Islamic extremism and extremists. It was only after people resorted to the sword that we saw the rise of groups fighting the entire world in the name of Islam.
In Egypt, we saw the rise of terrorism in the 1990s until we witnessed the Luxor Massacre, the brutal slaying of 58 tourists. Years later, we have witnessed the cold-blooded murder of unarmed Egyptian soldiers in Sinai. Terrorism has not left any Arab state untouched, and this is something that can be clearly seen in Palestine, Sudan, Iraq, Afghanistan, and elsewhere. In some cases, this phenomenon has led to social fragmentation and division. When this reached New York, London, Madrid, Paris, and Moscow, the watching world failed to distinguish between those who follow a tolerant and humane religion, and the misguided few who have distorted our faith and been led astray.
A story we know well
The story of terrorism is well known and has now entered its fifth decade. During this period, there has been much talk among Arab and Muslim intellectuals across the world about extremist groups hijacking Islam and interpreting and understanding its provisions according to their own desires and interests. This hijacking of our religion took place when the world began to view these extremists and radicals as representatives of Islam, not to mention our own Sunni Muslim youth.
The essence of the battle for hearts and minds is the process to “renew” religionAbdel Monem Said
Major Islamic institutions in different Arab states were ineffective in their confrontation of extremist ideology and groups, either out of weak capabilities, an inability to deal with the challenges of the time, or because these institutions found it useful to go even further than these radicals in terms of espousing extremist views. Islam appears vulnerable to attack in the current global clash of civilizations. We are witnessing a stage of escalation and aggravation; however the price for this confrontation is being paid by the Arabs and Muslims, who are also its primary victims.
The essence of the battle for hearts and minds is the process to “renew” religion. This does not mean promoting heresy, but rather promoting a different reading of Islam. Islam would not have been able to spread across the globe and survive until today if it did not have the capacity to absorb and contain different readings and understandings.
As we move deeper into the twenty-first century, issues such as globalization, participation in decision-making, equality, and partnership, in a world that contains different doctrines and ideologies, has become the main task of this Islamic “renewal.” The Muslim Brotherhood successfully dominated the post-Arab Spring political arena by pulling off a major trick, namely putting on the mask of democracy, modernity, and the ballot box. However when the Brotherhood did indeed come to power, they took off the mask to reveal their true despotic face. What happened in Egypt was an important lesson for everyone, namely that such deceptions cannot last forever. As for now, we must ensure that this scenario is not repeated, while such deceptions must be exposed wherever they are. This cannot happen unless we understand the requirements of the age, and this is not just the task of religious scholars, but everybody. If we are wise, we will ensure that we spread knowledge and understanding throughout the Arab and Muslim world. Here, the “renewal” of Islam will be a message of civilization, promoting knowledge and understanding, particularly regarding the modern world and what is required today.
If it is true that this “renewal” of Islam is our priority, then promoting development and growth is not far behind. This is because religious extremism thrives amongst ignorance, poverty, and social inequality—not just between different social classes, but also geographic regions.
The economics of terrorism
I do not know much about the social and economic conditions in other Arab states, yet the reality in Egypt is glaringly clear. During the major wave of terrorism that beset the country throughout the 1990s, 97 percent of those responsible for this came from Upper Egypt. Of this figure, 77 percent came from a single governorate, Minya governorate—the most underdeveloped of all Egypt’s provinces.
As for today, the situation remains largely the same. Two-thirds of those who took part in the pro-Mursi Rabaa al-Adawiya sit-ins came from three southern governorates: Minya, Beni Suef, and Fayoum. While the majority of those who voted for Mursi in the Egyptian presidential elections also came from Upper Egypt. As for the rest of those who voted for him, they simply did not want to see a return of Mubarak’s National Democratic Party.
The bitter fact of the matter is that 62 percent of Egypt’s poor live in the country’s southern governorates.
Therefore, there is a clear link between vulnerability to futile extremist ideology and economic and social conditions. In any case, there is a dire need for more studies to be carried out regarding the geographic areas where extremism and violent ideologies thrive. If results back up the analysis from Egypt, then we are at least halfway towards a cure.
There is another approach to handling this battle for hearts and minds—after we have “renewed” religion and sought to secure development and growth— namely to think of the future. The world has been turned upside down in the past few years, and we are still witnessing the repercussions of this upheaval. The world is not as it was before, when changes took place gradually over centuries. Now, the status quo can change several times within an individual’s lifetime. Indeed, phenomenon such as the Arab Spring are now a part of our past as much as our future; the well-known proverb that the future starts now is not an exaggeration. Perhaps one of the dilemmas facing youth today is that they have to deal with the future while they are still living in the present, or indeed the distant past. This is precisely what the Muslim Brotherhood is trying to impose, namely for our present to be controlled and defined by our past. However what we want is for the present to live in our hearts and minds, and our consciences.
This article was first published in al-Sharq al-Awsat on Oct. 26, 2013.
Abdel Monem Said is the director of al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies in Cairo. He was previously a board member at Egypt’s Parliament Research Center at the People's Assembly, and a senator in Egypt's Shura Council.