A contemporary history of the Muslim world, part 1


I wrote this because, in the aftermath of the attacks in Paris on 13 November, I wanted to provide as concise and clear an account as possible of the events which have led us to this impasse. I wanted to do this, because I noticed it was hard to find a good source online that explained, in a way accessible to non-specialists, the emergence and rise of radical Islamism in an historically accurate way, illustrating (and not merely asserting) its relationship with foreign intervention in the Muslim world over the last century. Having said that, what follows is, in truth, far from brief. These are complicated issues, and if we demand explanations that can only be squeezed into a tweet or a facebook post, we are truly doomed to ignorance. If you really want to understand, read on. If you haven’t the patience, please don’t go around asking why the next time some lunatic blows himself up in a crowd of people in some European or American city.

Most of all, I was moved to write this because the official ‘explanation’ of the horrific violence meted out by Islamic extremists against innocent civilians has, for many years now, seemed to me deeply unconvincing, and ignores so much of the historical context of our relationship with the Muslim world. Such ‘explanations’, dribbled out continuously by the 24-hour news media, usually lay stress on the religious ideology of groups like IS and Al-Qaeda, arguing that the root cause of the conflict is something intrinsic to Islam, that makes them ‘hate our freedoms’ and want to wage unending war against us. Many people are satisfied with this narrative: ‘radicalised’ fanatics are the motive factor behind this conflict, which is a ‘clash of civilisations’ that has been going on for centuries between ‘them’ (backward, intolerant, implacable) and ‘us’ (liberal, free, peace-loving). The evidence at hand simply does not support such conclusions however.

In what follows, it may appear that I am at pains to exonerate Islam of responsibility for the violence carried out in its name. This is not my intention. Exoneration, vindication or justification are not the point here, but explanation. That said, it often happens that those who seek to explain the roots of Islamist militancy are accused of justifying it. It seems clear to me (and I remember well how this was the case in the weeks and months after 9-11) that such accusations are usually nothing more than an attempt to shut down debate and prevent discussion of the historical context of these events. Those who would wish us to blindly support our rulers’ attacks on ‘them’ have good reasons for not wanting an open and broad-ranging discussion of these issues.

To lay my cards on the table, I am in fact temperamentally ill-disposed to religion as a general rule. If I found the evidence suggested it was the primary motive factor behind the rise of violent Islamism, I would be all too willing to reach that conclusion. I am also a historian, however, and a historian must take account of the evidence, even when it leads her/him to conclusions she/he would rather not reach. On a very basic level, it seems impossible to ignore the context in which this movement has emerged, and to conclude that other circumstances beyond religion have fostered its growth. While violent sects will always attract a few individuals, the simple ideological attractiveness of militant Islam alone seems insufficient to account for the droves of people, so filled with hate they are prepared to take their own lives to take revenge on their enemy. It is the conditions from which these people have emerged that I wish to describe in what follows.

This is no more than a sketch, a potted history of political Islam in the modern world, which  tracks its genesis and growth as a reaction to western intervention in the Muslim world over the last century. The modern period will be focused on here, because a longer view, stretching back indeed to the beginnings of Islam in the seventh century, quickly disabuses us of the notion that ‘the west’ and Islam has been at loggerheads, locked in some kind of titanic struggle for supremacy ever since the time of Muhammad. A passing familiarity with the history of the Islamic world in the centuries since will also reveal as false the idea that Islam has always been an aggressively militant and expansionist religion, intent on winning new converts by force and exterminating infidels. Certainly in its early centuries, with the creation and expansion of the Caliphates, this was the case. From the first Christian Crusades at the end of the eleventh century, however, the conflict in which Islam found itself in with ‘the west’ could more accurately described as defensive than aggressive.

Furthermore, and even more interestingly, as the Crusades petered out in the fifteenth century, Islam as a whole exhibited far more tolerance and religious pluralism than European Christianity. While Christians were burning heretics and engaging in endless religious wars up until the seventeenth century, religious minorities within the Ottoman empire (the main power in the Muslim world up until modern times) were guaranteed, under the ‘Millet system’, freedom of worship and to be judged according to their own legal codes. For the Ottomans, no doubt brutal and imperialistic in their political and military ambitions, religion and the expansion of Islam seems to have played little part in their calculations.

The point of this foray into the more distant past is to show that there is no continuity between modern political Islam and the militancy that characterised the religion in its early history, although both IS and western elites (for different reasons) would like us to believe that. In fact, it is a thoroughly modern phenomenon, and emerged from a specific set of historical circumstances which many of us are blissfully ignorant of. It is these events that have created the conditions by which religious fanatics who, under normal circumstances, would be seen as laughable fringe members of society, have come to be regarded as a credible alternative by people who have lost faith in all other ideological alternatives.

The post WW1 ‘settlement’

To describe these circumstances, the best place to start is the aftermath of the First World War, and the break-up of the Ottoman empire in the decade after its conclusion. The Ottoman’s had already lost a number of its territories in the decades before the war. The following map shows the territorial arrangements that were reached between the allies, France (purple) and Britain (pink), dividing the Levant into their own zones of control. The dates indicate the year in which the respective territories broke away from Ottoman control and into the sphere of British or French influence.


Many of the Arabs living in these territories, who had helped the allies defeat the Ottoman Turks, had been led to expect some form of independence after the war was over. Having made commitments to support such aspirations, the British and French secretly negotiated the Sykes–Picot Agreement, by which they agreed to carve up the spoils of the Ottoman collapse between them without taking into account local interests. Not surprisingly, the disappointment and sense of betrayal was therefore acute among some Arabs on account of this. This resulted in uprisings against both their new British and French rulers, in Kurdistan (1919), Iraq (1920), Jordan (1923) and in Syria (1920 and 1925-7), all of which were brutally suppressed by the colonial powers. Egypt, which had passed from Ottoman to British control several decades earlier, was nominally granted independence as a constitutional monarchy in 1922, but the British retained control over defence, imperial communications and the protection of foreigners within the country, as well as the territory of Sudan to the south. Egypt’s so-called independence was therefore severely restricted, something the Egyptians were themselves only too aware of. We will return to Egypt after the Second World War. Other parts of North Africa were likewise subject to the dictates of imperial politics; Algeria and Libya in particular will feature in this story later on and it is there the early background history will be filled in.

The situation was even more complicated in the newly-created British ‘Mandate’ of Palestine, due to the presence of another significant religious minority, namely the Jews. While the Arabs in the region had been led to believe they would be granted self-government after the war, the British government had also, in 1917, promised the Zionist movement support in their campaign to establish a homeland for the Jewish people in the region, the ‘Balfour declaration’, named after the British foreign secretary at the time, Arthur Balfour. At the same time, it will be remembered, they and the French were secretly negotiating to divide up the region between them.

It is no surprise then that the Israel/Palestine region therefore was plagued by instability, as two different ethno-religious groups campaigned for their own independent states and increasingly came into violent confrontation with each other and the British authorities. In the 1930s, the Arabs led an armed uprising, attacking both the British and Zionists. As the Nazi persecution of the Jews in Germany intensified in the 1930s, the number of Jewish refugees coming into the area swelled and further exacerbated tensions. This led the British to impose restrictions on Jewish immigration and land purchases, and ultimately led to an armed campaign by Jewish underground groups against the British during the Second World War. This would ultimately lead to the establishment of the state of Israel (1948) and the expulsion of about 700,000 Arabs from the area. These would form a huge Palestinian refugee population which exists to this day. The foundation of Israel was to have huge significance for the relationship between Muslims and the west, most immediately in the Arab-Israeli war which marked its birth. But we are running ahead of ourselves. Before we address this, we must first return to the inter-war period and note two important themes which it is important to take into account. One is the way local elites were sometimes rewarded by the colonial power to ward off resistance by the Arabs. The other is the growth of Arab Nationalism.

Arabia in the inter-war period

You may be wondering what the story is with the large blue area on the map above. Was this enormous area of the former Ottoman empire allowed go its own way by the British and French after the war? Well, yes and no. While the post-war arrangements did provoke armed insurgency in the region, a number of powerful figures in the region were allowed by the new overlords to found their own ‘independent’ kingdoms and emirates. Two dynasties are important in this respect, the Hashemites and the Saud. This is Hussein bin Ali (left), and his two sons, Abdullah (centre) and Faisal (right).


This was the Hashemite dynasty, one of the most powerful ruling families of Arabia, and were induced to assist the British in the war against the Ottomans by the promise of rule over the own kingdoms after the war. The patriarch, Hussein, was initially sceptical of co-operation with the British, but following correspondence with the British High Commissioner in Egypt, Henry McMahon, he  agreed to support a revolt against the Turks in 1916, in return for independent rule over a vast span of territory from Egypt to Persia. The British, with reservations, agreed to this, but as has already been seen they simultaneously made contradictory promises to  both the Jews in Palestine and their allies the French. It may be asked why the British went to such lengths to win over a local ruler in a region which, for much of the previous centuries had been a backwater with little importance in geopolitical considerations. The answer is that they were anxious to secure oil supplies from Persia, which the Turks could potentially cut off.

It is worth reflecting for a moment on the tremendous importance that oil and petroleum products were assuming  in modern industrial society at this time, on account of the invention of the internal combustion engine and the boom in car production, among its other uses. It is surely no co-incidence that Arabia suddenly became of vital importance in western power politics at the same time. Just before the First World War, the Anglo-Persian Oil Company had been set up to secure a supply of oil for the British in what is today Iran. The British navy, under Winston Churchill, was converting its ships from coal to oil in this period; to secure a supply of oil was therefore doubly important.

To return to Hussein bin Ali, with the defeat of the Turks, he was only recognised by the British as ruler of a relatively small area of western Arabia called the Hejaz, although this area did include the very prestigious cities of Mecca and Medina. The Hashemites had been, for some years, in conflict with the rulers of neighbouring Nejd (see map above), the Saud dynasty. In 1924, when Hussein’s kingdom was attacked by the Saud, the British declined to assist him and he was defeated, fleeing into exile. The Saud dynasty, led by Abdulaziz Ibn Saud, had been expanding their territory for some years from a core area around Riyadh, which would become the capital of the state they founded (1932) from their conquered territories, Saudi Arabia.

By the sheer scale of his conquests (by the end of the 1920s he dominated almost the entire Arabian peninsula) Ibn Saud made himself indispensable to the British in the increasingly important region. Recognising this, he undertook not to threaten British territories in the region, in return for which he was supplied with money and weapons. With these, he was able to further strengthen his hold over the peninsula. This is Ibn Saud, talking to President Roosevelt on board an American warship anchored in the Great Bitter Lake, Egypt in 1945.


As the Second World War drew to a close, an exhausted Britain was clearly on the decline and its imperial interests being eclipsed by American ones. That an American president was prepared to make a detour after the Yalta conference attests to the importance they now placed upon friendly relations with Saud, even more so after the discovery of vast oil reserves in 1938. It cannot be stressed enough that the necessity of securing control over the oil supply became of primary importance in the region. The following graph shows the relative explosion in oil consumption in the decades after 1920:


Ibn Saud and his sons (each subsequent king of Saudi Arabia would be one of his estimated 45 sons) were thus able to sell their co-operation to the highest bidder, and became the United States’ most important strategic ally in the region, besides Israel.

Besides the importance of oil, it is also vital to our story to recognise the fact that Saudi Arabia, assisted by the west, has been a bulwark of conservatism and religious fundamentalism in the middle east. This is largely on account of an alliance between the ruling Saud and the adherents of a movement within Islam called Wahhabism. This religious ideology is a strand within a wider movement known as Salafism, which calls for a rejection of innovations and heretical practices that they argue have crept into Islam in the centuries since it was founded. They call, therefore, for a return to the practices of the first three generations of Muslims, known as the Salaf (ancestor), hence the name of the movement as a whole. The alliance between the Saud and Wahhabism goes back to the eighteenth century, originating in the Nejd region. Fuelled by petrodollars, the movement has expanded throughout Arabia since the mid-twentieth century.

In the early years of Ibn Saud’s consolidation of power, he did find himself in conflict with some of the more strict Wahhabis, who wished to keep foreigners and modern technology out of the country. These elements were defeated by Saud, and a trade-off accepted by the Wahhabis, that in return for its promotion by the ruling dynasty, it would accept Saud’s dealings with outsiders on which his power was based, and the modernisation of the country to the extent that it was necessary to extract the oil. It is an irony of Saudi religious policy that a movement which regards as objectionable the trappings of modern life, such as technology, as well as and dealings with non-Muslims, should become dependant for its vitality on these very things. The efforts of Wahhabism to expand its influence beyond Arabia, and the support which it will give to militant Jihadist groups later on make it a crucial part of this story. It should be noted at this stage, however, that these Jihadists are only a small minority within the Salafi movement, but for obvious reasons have received far more attention than other strands, who either avoid politics altogether or expressly disavow armed force.

To return to the Sauds’ rivals, the Hashemites. While Hussein bin Ali had been deposed by the burgeoning Saudi state, Hussein’s sons were to prove more astute in their dealings with the west. Faisal (most westerners familiar with him will probably picture Alec Guinness, who played him in the film Lawrence of Arabia) was an active leader of the Arab campaign against the Turks and, with the British, led the liberation of Damascus from Ottoman rule in 1918. He then set himself up, with British recognition, as the head of a Syrian kingdom. British concessions to the French, however, sacrificed Faisal’s interests, and Syria was handed over the the French in 1920. French attempts to control Syria had already provoked an armed revolt the previous year, and Faisal now led a brief military campaign to resist the imposition of French mandatory rule. This failed, and he was forced to flee to exile in Britain.

Faisal’s ambitions to rule an Arab kingdom were far from over however. The territories east of Syria and the Levant had been conquered and occupied by the British at the end of the war. These had originally been three Ottoman provinces: Mosul, Baghdad and Basra. They contained a variety of ethnic and religious groups, and to bunch them together in one ‘country’ like this was a classic example of colonial powers creating nations-and problems for the future-with little regard to the identity of the people actually living there. This is exactly what the British did with these territories. They called the new country Iraq. Initially, the plan had been to make the area a British mandate territory called Mesopotamia, but the local Arab population, as well as the Kurds in the north of the country, revolted in 1920.

After initial successes, due to the scarce British resources in the area, the British brought in aircraft and extra troops, and this turned the tide against the Iraqis. A sense of the contempt in which the Arabs were held by the British can be gauged from the serious discussions which took place to use poison gas against them, if the ‘need’ should arise. Winston Churchill (who had by now been made Secretary of State for War) wrote in 1919: “I am strongly in favour of using poisoned gas against uncivilised tribes” for its “moral effect”, that is, to “spread a lively terror”. Lest it appear that Churchill was singular in this respect, the British Manual of Military Law at the time stated that the rules of war did not apply  “in wars with uncivilized States and tribes” in which commanding officers were advised to use their own discretion.

Although it continues to be the subject of debate, poison gas does not appear to have been used in the event. The campaign as a whole, however, cost the British more than the entire Arab revolt against the Turks had, and made them modify their plans for the region. Realising concessions had to be made to aspirations of Arab independence, the British chose instead to create a monarchy in Iraq, although maintaining indirect rule (let’s not forget the oil!) through the mandate. They chose Faisal, who was practically unknown to the locals, as their puppet king. Faisal attempted to foster pan-Arab unity, bringing in many Syrians and Lebanese to the Iraqi kingdom (which was resented by the locals) and maintaining hope of a unified Arab state at some future date. With the mandate expiring in 1932, the British negotiated a treaty of alliance with the newly-independent kingdom, especially important after discovery of a huge oil-field in the north of the country in 1927, found by a consortium of companies, the largest of which was the aforementioned Anglo-Persian Oil Company.

Oil gusher spouting near Kirkuk, c.1932

Faisal died, possibly poisoned, while visiting Switzerland in 1933. His successors lasted until 1958, when a coup removed the king and created a republic. This was part of a movement rejecting colonial domination by Arab states, personified most famously by Gamal Abdel Nasser in Egypt, who shook off British rule in 1952. These events will be discussed in the section below concerning Arab nationalism.

One entity created in this period that would prove more enduring than the Iraqi kingdom was that of Jordan. This was awarded as an emirate in 1921 to Abdullah, Hussein bin Ali’s other son, and subsequently made a kingdom in 1946. Abdullah was given this as a reward by the British for not intervening in support of Faisal when the French took Syria from his brother. Abdullah ruled Jordan with an iron fist, and he and his successors (his great-grandson rules today) would be seen as one of the west’s more dependable allies in the region. Jordan’s role would become particularly key in the events surrounding the creation of Israel and the dispossession of the Palestinians. Before we examine this, however, it may be useful to stop and take stock of the situation following the end of World War Two.

Arab nationalism

Given the intentions I expressed at the beginning of this piece, you might expect that I would link grievances among Muslims with the genesis of Islamic fundamentalism. In fact, the overwhelming response of the Arab world to European imperialism in these years did not take a backward-looking or religious form at all. The ideological challenge to British and French rule in the region came instead from Arab nationalism. This was a secular movement, often vaguely-socialist in character, which sought to imitate European nation-building and combine the benefits of western technology, while championing Arab identity. It often included a Pan-Arab dimension, and sought to establish a large and unified state stretching across North Africa to Iraq. What is important to remember at this point is that the Arab nationalists were rivals to the Islamists, and would become bitter rivals. Outside Saudi Arabia, secular nationalists held overwhelming power in most Muslim countries until the Iranian revolution of 1979, and brutally suppressed Islamist organisations. Indeed, there would develop a kind of religious fanaticism in the way governments like Nasser’s in Egypt and Assad’s in Syria dealt with the Islamists’ movement, a brutality that no doubt fostered the militant tendency in political Islam and hardened its resistance.

But this repression would intensify later on, when the secular nationalists were on the defensive against a growing Islamist threat. Immediately after World War Two, they were in the ascendancy, and Arabs across the middle east placed their faith in leaders who represented modernising, secular, anti-imperialist leaders. No leader was more emblematic of this movement, its rise and downfall, than Gamal Abdel Nasser.


Nasser was an officer in the Egyptian army under the British-backed King Farouk. In the 1940s, he and other military personnel grew increasingly dissatisfied with not only British domination of Egypt, but the king’s rule as a whole. While nominally independent, the extent of British control over Egyptian affairs can be seen in the fact that the British Ambassador, in 1942, forced the king to dismiss his prime minister for having pro-Axis sympathies. Nationalists like Nasser, and his fellow officers in the clandestine group, which would become known as the ‘Free Officers Movement’, naturally saw such incidents as a humiliation, and indicative of the degenerate state of the country under the king. Defeat in the 1948 war against Israel further fuelled public discontent with the regime. The success of a 1949 coup in Syria (see below) further emboldened the officers, and they finally deposed the king in 1952 and established a republic.

At first Nasser, while the power behind the coup, remained in the background, allowing the older General Muhammad Naguib to assume the post of first President. He had Naguib (who would remain under house arrest for 18 years) removed in 1954 and became President himself. Both the coup, and Nasser himself, were tremendously popular among the Egyptian people. The Islamist movement, the Muslim Brotherhood, supported the revolution, even though their ultimate objectives were quite different from Nasser’s secular nationalist ones. They took Naguib’s side in the power-struggle of 1954, however, and after one of its members attempted to assassinate Nasser that year, they were suppressed and thousands of its members (as well as communists and other opponents) were arrested and some sentenced to death. Mistrusting his plans for the modernisation of Egypt to the vagaries of free elections, Nasser banned opposition parties and instituted a one-party state. Despite all this his popularity, not only in Egypt, but among Arabs elsewhere, soared. A great deal of this had to do with his role in the Suez canal crisis of 1956.

This crisis, often read in the west as the swansong of British imperialism, arose when Nasser announced that the Suez canal, which was in the hands of a private European company, would be nationalised and run by the Egyptian republic. His army immediately occupied the canal and closed it to Israeli shipping. This move was widely seen as a response to the British and Americans’ abrupt withdrawal of a loan to build the Aswan dam. Nasser now promised that funds generated by Egypt’s execution of sovereignty over the dam would provide the necessary funds (the dam-a huge engineering project, was completed in 1970). This move enraged the old imperial powers, who (despite a UN security council resolution supporting Nasser’s move) made an agreement with Israel to re-occupy the canal and remove Nasser from power.

Britain and France were not what they had once been, however. Both exhausted by the war, the United States and the Soviet Union had now superseded them as the real power in the region, and this was soon made abundantly clear. While Israeli invaded the Sinai desert, and British-French forces took Port Said, the tripartite invasion was condemned by President Eisenhower of the United States, and the three countries were forced to withdraw. Despite the poor performance of the Egyptian military, Nasser was left, not only in power, but in possession of the canal, and he became an icon of Arab nationalists across the middle east. One of his great ambitions had been the creation of a pan-Arab state, and what was hoped would be the first step in this process took place in 1958 with the unification of Egypt and Syria as the United Arab Republic.

As it would transpire, this was the closest anyone ever got to the formation of a united Arab state, and it lasted only three years. To look at how it came about, it is worth backtracking a bit and looking at events in Syria after the Second World War, a period and country little understood by western observers. The process by which Syria became an independent country was a lengthy and messy one, involving the negotiation of an independence treaty in 1936, which the French parliament refused to ratify, the taking over of the country by Vichy France in 1940, and its liberation by Free French and English forces the following year. Once again declaring its independence, Syria was not recognised as a sovereign state until 1944, by everyone…except France. Even after admittance to the United Nations in 1945, France bombed the country in order to pressurise its leaders to grant them economic privileges after independence. Later that year, the French were forced by a U.N. resolution to withdraw and the country was finally and unambiguously independent. The numerous revolts against French rule, dating back to the 1920s, as well as the persistent attempts of France to treat Syria as a colony, even after it had been become clear that its independence was inevitable, left a legacy of bitterness towards the French in Syria, and an awareness of the unnecessary violence and death inflicted on the country. It is worth remembering in the context of French bombing of the country today that, while this legacy is little remembered by the French, Syrians are acutely conscious of it.

The towering figure of Syrian politics in its early years of independence was Shukri al-Quwatli, who had been a leader of the struggle against the French since the 1920s. He is a difficult politician to pin down on a left-right spectrum. He is best understood as a nationalist and anti-imperialist, for whom the fight for independence dominated his career. Here he is in 1943, looking grumpy after his election as president of the country:

Portrait of Shukri al-Quwatli in 1943.jpeg

While the Americans assisted in freeing Syria from French control, in the years after independence, Quwatli’s relations with the United States became increasingly strained, not least because of the Americans’ support for Israel. The Americans for their part, were concerned at Quwatli’s increasingly friendly relations with the Syrian Communist Party. The final straw was his blocking of American plans to build an oil pipeline through Syria, to transport oil from Saudi Arabia to the Mediterranean. Not for the first time, the American secret services helped organise a military coup to remove Quwatli from power and install rulers who would prove more amenable to their interests. Defeat in the Arab-Israeli war the previous year no doubt contributed to Quwatli’s deepening unpopularity and, in 1949, the army’s chief of staff, Husni al-Za’im, took power and the president was imprisoned. Needless to say, the passing of the Trans-Arabian Pipeline through Syrian territory was immediately given the go-ahead after the coup. The new military rulers of the country clamped down on leftists and communists into the bargain.

Husni al-Za’im, however, only lasted until August of the same year, before he was deposed and executed by his fellow officers. In December, the third military coup of 1949 was carried out, bringing Adib Shishakli to power, although in the following years he would use a number of civilian figures to front his government until openly assuming the title of president in 1953. In these years Shishakli essentially operated a dictatorship, in which all opposition was silenced and, although elections took place, their legitimacy can be gauged by the result of the 1953 presidential election, in which Shishakli was the only candidate permitted, and won 99.7% of the vote. This is Shiskali, in a portrait by the Time magazine cover artist, Boris Chaliapin.

Adib al-Shishakli by Boris Chaliapin

Although not a close ally (because of his opposition to Israel) Shishakli was nevertheless closer to the Americans than the Russians. If the Americans thought they had decisively brought Syria into their sphere of influence, however, they were mistaken. Events in the country did not follow the usual script, because Shishakli was deposed in 1954 by (yet another) military coup. While the army continued to exert a great influence on the direction of Syrian politics, free(ish) elections were held in the following years. Quwatli even returned as president in 1955.

The years following Shishakli’s removal saw Syria drift into the Soviet sphere of influence. One of the most decisive events to cause this was the assassination in 1956 of a leading army officer, Adnan al-Malki, who was known to be hostile to American and British plans for Syria, by a member of a nationalist party who was widely believed to be acting at the behest of the CIA. In addition to this, it was discovered that the former dictator Shishakli was actively plotting a return to power with American/British assistance. The plot was foiled and Shishakli was later murdered in Brazil by a fellow Syrian who tracked him down in his place of exile. Syria, meanwhile, began to receive arms and assistance from the Soviet Union, although it would be misleading to view the country at this point as a communist satellite. The Soviets were content at this stage to use Syria, as well as Egypt, as a bridgehead of influence in the region. Friendly relations were enough, and their attitude is indicated by their acceptance of Nasser’s refusal to legalise the communist party in Egypt. Speaking of Nasser, his popularity among Syrians skyrocketed after Suez, as did the attractiveness of union with Egypt which, as seen above, was declared in 1958, Quwatli stepping aside to allow Nasser to assume leadership of the United Arab Republic.


Nasser was an authoritarian figure and immediately banned all other political parties in Syria. This did not necessarily dampen his immense popularity in Egypt, but in Syria, the relationship quickly soured. Even groups who agreed with Nasser’s pan-Arab vision, such as the Ba’ath party, were banned, and the overbearing attitude of Egyptian officials rankled Syrians, especially within the army. Realising it was not a union of equals, army personnel began to plot secession and in 1961, a section of the military (supported by Saudi Arabia and Jordan and a business community alienated by Nasser’s nationalisation programme) staged another coup in Damascus which detached Syria from the union and restored party politics in the country. In the elections that followed, the two largest parties were those who had dominated Syrian politics in the 1950s. In the long term, the third and fourth largest parties are more important: in third place, the Ba’athists won 20 seats, and the Muslim Brotherhood won 10. As noted above, Ba’athism shared many values in common with Nasser, but had become to view itself as a rival movement with common, pan-Arab goals. It was more overtly socialist in Syria than Egypt and, as will be later seen, will dominate the country from this point on until the present day. We will look at its ideology and roots later on.

The Muslim Brotherhood will come to represent the great rival of the Ba’athists in Syria. For a blog that purports to tell the story of political Islam’s development, it will seem strange that it has hardly been mentioned. This is because, within the period covered up to now, it was a relatively marginal presence, politically-speaking. It did, however, have its roots in the same anti-colonial struggle from which the Arab nationalists emerged. The difference was that, whereas nationalists wanted to resist European domination by the selective co-option of European administrative and technical methods, the Islamists sought their model for a future society in the Quran and a rejection of not just European domination over their countries, but western culture as a whole.

Revivalist or purificatory movements were nothing new in Islam (witness the Wahhabis in Arabia), but what distinguished the Islamists was a growing conviction that they should engage in the worldly business of politics, and that Quranic (Sharia) law represented a basis on which to organise the legal and political system of a country. Once again, because it’s often assumed the Islamists advocated violent means, it must be stressed that political Islam and Jihadism are not synonymous. Although it has flirted with violence, for much of its history, the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt has sought to achieve its ends through the peaceful propagation of its programme, charity work, offering social services and healthcare in a country where the state’s provision of these was sorely lacking. This distinguishes them from a group like Al-Gama’a al-Islamiyya for example, which sought in the 1990s to overthrow the Egyptian government by violence and the often-indiscriminate killing of civilians.

One of the big problems with the view of Islam in the west is that very often, little account is taken of deep and significant fissures and rivalries within both Islam, and even within political Islam. The fact that Saudi Arabia once funded the Muslim Brotherhood, but now regards it as a terrorist organisation should alert us to the fact that the term ‘Islamist’ covers a range of political positions, often in deadly rivalry with one another. Another misconception is that the Islamists have always been in an antagonistic relationship to the west, which has sought to promote progressive values and secularism in the region. Nothing could be further from the truth. Indeed, Saudi Arabia, the bastion of conservative Islam in the region, has been the most steadfast ally of the west in the region, excepting only Israel. As will be seen, a number of the most progressive modernising regimes in the Arab world have been undermined and even overthrown by western intrigues.


The Muslim Brotherhood was founded in Egypt in 1928. Its founder, Hassan al-Banna (above), initially intended the movement as a means of fostering Islamic identity amongst workers for the multinational companies operating the Suez canal. Over the years, the movement grew into a part of the anti-colonial struggle, and elements within it sanctioned violence as well as social work and preaching. As noted above, it was initially allied with Nasser’s campaign to dethrone the king, but was later suppressed by him when it became clear their objectives were incompatible. In the fifties and sixties, therefore, while no doubt an important political entity in the consciousness of Egyptians and other Arabs, Islam was effectively shut out of influence on politics.

Branches of the Brotherhood have of course existed in most Sunni Muslim countries. In Syria, it would come to form the main opposition after the takeover of power by the Ba’athists in 1963. This rise to power of the Ba’ath party in both Syria and Iraq, their conflict with the forces of political Islam in these countries as well as other secular states like Egypt, will form a major part of the next episode. But to place all these events in context, it is necessary to look more closely at an issue that, perhaps more than any other, has been a bone of contention between the west and the Muslim world. This is the creation and expansion of the state of Israel.

End of part 0ne.


Featured image: Ibn Saud and Winston Churchill, meeting in Egypt, 1945.

A contemporary history of the Muslim world, part 1