One of the by-products of the wave of change in the Middle East in the last decade, known in the media as the Arab Spring, was the empirical consolidation of a theoretical argument: Political Islamists seeking power target national armies.
Continuous carnage in Libya, Syria and other trouble spots is due to the struggle between the so-called Islamist groups with their terrorist militias and national armies trying to regain the state.
These wars go along with propaganda campaigns trying to distort the image of national armies in the eyes of its citizens. This is easily picked up by NGOs and western media to further undermine the armies’ efforts in fighting terrorism by magnifying what’s claimed to be human rights violations. Yet, this is not about defending military in such countries rather than stressing their just mission of eradicating terrorism.
No wonder that such groups and militias get the support of two regional powers, claiming “religious” leadership: Turkey and Iran. The third regional power aiding some groups is also claiming to be a “religious state”: Israel.
Islamists can’t accept any other loyalty order than what their command structure stipulates, thus the army should be scrapped to have only one disciplinary system augmented by religion.
Since its beginning in the forties, Ikhwan (Muslim Brotherhood) targeted the Egyptian army trying to infiltrate and recruit. In 1952 they tried to ride the revolution led by the military that overthrew the monarchy but failed. By the late seventies they resurfaced after the late president Anwar Sadat used them to counter leftist activism. At the end, one their militant officers assassinated Sadat.
The resurfacing of Ikhwan coincided with the ‘Islamic’ revolution in Iran that overthrew the Shah. Yet, Iranian Islamists benefited from previous experience of like-minded groups and started a parallel militia (the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps – IRGC) that became more powerful than the official army. IRGC was recently designated by the US a terrorist organisation.
Army vs militia
In Turkey, Ikhwan-allied Erdogan targeted the Turkish army since he came to power in 2002, and almost emptied it of all nationalist leaders. By purging tens of hundreds of generals and officers, he’s got a sort of ‘domiciled’ army now.
The Iranian example is more consistent with Ikhwan’s approach, replacing ‘state’ with ‘group’ and ‘army’ with ‘militia’. They replicated the IRGC elsewhere: Hezbollah in Lebanon, Hashd militia in Iraq, Al Houthis in Yemen, etc.
The first violent struggle between Islamists and a national army in the region was in Algeria in the nineties. Though terrorist militia killed many civilians, its main target was the army and security forces. CIA analyst Graham Fuller published a study through RAND, Algeria: The Next Fundamentalist State? depicting the rise of militant political Islam and its struggle against the national army. Islamists in Algeria sought to strip the military of their legacy in leading the liberation of the country from French colonisation.
That was a development from Ikhwan tactics in Egypt in 1952 and a culmination of violent struggle that started in Egypt in the seventies and eighties. The fundamentalists in Afghanistan, sponsored by the US and financed by some countries, had the bulk of its recruits from Ikhwan and its offshoot groups in Egypt, Palestine and Jordan. As these militias, later termed terrorists by their patrons, drove Soviet occupation out and eventually replaced the non-existent national army in Afghanistan that the trend of ‘militia instead of army’ emboldened.
Political Islam opposes the notion of ‘nation state’ and replaces patriotism with a vague idea of ‘Fighting for the Umma’. And as the military in most post-colonial states in the region plays a central role in the ‘state’, destruction of the army is a prerequisite for Islamists to grab power. But the antagonism between Islamists and armies is deep-rooted and not merely about violence and counter-violence.
It goes back to old bureaucracies thousands of years ago. In Pharaonic Egypt, the Pharaoh was first god and ruler – ultimate authority in Heaven and on Earth, yet he’d to rule with the chief rabbi on his right and chief of the army on his left. Since then, both struggled for more influence on the top authority; be it political or religious.
From first-hand experience with Ikhwan, one of the main principles of loyalty within the group is blind obedience “veiled with illusive religious explanations”. Armies are built on strict discipline and order. Islamists can’t accept any other loyalty order than what their command structure stipulates, thus the army should be scrapped to have only one disciplinary system augmented by religion.
Hamas in Gaza is an exemplary case. Though they claim to be fighting the occupation in Palestine, their country is “nothing” to them as one of Hamas leaders said recently. When they took arms against Palestinian National Authority (PNA) security forces in the strip, they were in a ‘jihad’ more than that fighting the Israeli occupation. That was not because PNA controlled Hamas’ so-called resistance, but mainly because these forces were the nucleus of yet to be formed Palestinian national army – if it’s ever to be.
Once PNA forces left Gaza, Hamas militia had their own security forces that’s giving Gaza residents a hard time with the same – or even harsher practices – than the national security forces.
Political Islamists’ main quest is to destroy national armies, either by political means if they’re in power or by terrorism and violence if they’re in opposition.
– Dr Ahmad Mustafa is an Abu Dhabi-based journalist