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Who’s afraid of an 'Islamic state'?

- October 2, 2014

Trying to make sense of the patterns of alignments in the Middle East, especially since the Iraq war that began in 2003, is not easy. Allies and enemies line up in shifting coalitions of support and opposition across any number of conflicts – from the Syrian civil war, to the Iranian nuclear question, to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Although much ink has been spilled on the role of sectarian rivalry and the balance of military power, one reliable predictor of how political coalitions shake out in any given situation remains one of the least explored: The ideological threats presented by non-state or quasi-state actors such as Hamas, the Muslim Brotherhood, the Islamic State and other Islamist regimes may be just as, if not more, potent than the military challenges they pose. Shifting alliances in the Middle East and North Africa are difficult to understand, but if seen through the lens of ideological threat perception, the landscape becomes more intelligible. Put simply, ideas matter, and they can be serious national security threats.

One example is the 2014 Gaza war, in which many observers were surprised by a number of Arab states’ silent backing of Israel’s efforts to crush Hamas. Saudi Arabia blamed Hamas for the deaths of innocent civilians in Gaza because of Hamas’s reckless behavior. Egypt, similarly, said Hamas could have prevented the deaths of Palestinian civilians had it accepted the terms of a cease-fire much earlier, a message echoed by its state-sponsored media, which was harshly critical of Hamas and its supporters. This peculiar alignment of interests and policies certainly isn’t driven by a need to stand by Israel. Cairo and Riyadh’s staunch anti-Hamas stances did not preclude Saudi Prince Nawaf from accusing Israel of “crimes against humanity” and it didn’t keep Egyptian officials from accusing Israel of using unjustified, excessive force in Gaza. However, both regimes stopped far short of endorsing Hamas, a group that has broad support among Arab people for its resistance against Israel.

Why do these states condemn Hamas? My research shows the answer may lie in how states perceive ideology as a national security threat. The Islamist regimes that seized power in Iran in 1979 and Sudan in 1989 were regarded by neighboring states, including Muslim-majority countries, as national security threats even though these “Islamic states” did not have significant military capabilities when they came to power and in some cases never acquired them. For example, Iran’s military capabilities actually decreased immediately after the revolution that brought Islamists to power, yet the Islamic Republic became the primary enemy of many of its former Arab allies, including Egypt and Saudi Arabia. A similar pattern of events occurred after Islamists seized power in Sudan. Militarily weak and war-torn Sudan became a national security threat to its former allies Egypt and Saudi Arabia. Thus, Cairo and Riyadh feared Islamist regimes’ projection of culturally resonant symbols, which could alter the commonly held beliefs about the targeted regime’s legitimacy and create domestic political instability.

Thus, these regimes, quasi-regimes and non-state actors are not considered threats by merely claiming to be “Islamic” or because they are composed of Islamists. Instead, they become threatening when their ideas and symbols are projected during times of societal and political crisis.

These dynamics demonstrate what is at stake for states such as Saudi Arabia and Egypt with regard to Hamas. Many Arab publics consider Hamas a beacon of resistance not just against Israel, but also as a challenge to their own rulers’ policies – which often align with U.S. and Israeli policy. And to show how these popular sentiments, particularly around the Palestinian issue, can trump sectarian loyalties and political boundaries, one need look no further than to Sheik Hassan Nasrallah, the spiritual leader of the Shiite group Hezbollah, who was highly popular across the Sunni Arab world during the 2006 Israel-Lebanon war.

Arab authoritarian regimes often fear the domestic political effects of these symbols of resistance because they are vehicles to challenge their legitimacy. The projection of these culturally resonant symbols can communicate what a regime does and does not represent, ideas that often are transmitted through both nascent social media technologies as well as satellite television, to disrupt the authoritarian state’s grip on official narratives and information-sharing. But the core of the issue is that neighboring authoritarian regimes are wary of an Islamist regime in the region coming to power and engendering envy within their own borders – and potentially fomenting political change, or worse, revolt.

In response to perceived ideological threats such as these, states attempt to provide ideational “balance” by counter-framing the actions of these actors that are political threats. These status quo states seek to create counter-narratives to win over popular allegiance and quell public unrest that may develop. Controlling the national narrative is vital for political stability and national security. Moreover, “official stories” can be a powerful strategy in sustaining a regime.

How regional players responded to the successes of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt exemplifies this lesson. Over a short period, the Muslim Brotherhood experienced a meteoric surge in popularity, culminating with Mohamed Morsi’s brief presidency, beginning in 2012. Qatar became its primary international supporter, pledging billions of dollars to try to stabilize Egypt’s fledgling economy and using Al Jazeera, arguably the most important media force in the Arab world and based in Doha, to assault the Morsi regime’s foreign opponents. Turkey also celebrated the Muslim Brotherhood’s electoral successes and decried Morsi’s overthrow in Egypt.

But Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and other countries remained wary of Morsi and praised the military takeover of the government by then Gen. Abdel Fattah al-Sisi in July 2013. Saudi Arabia used its ideological apparatuses including its satellite media arm, Al Arabiyya, as well as international newspapers to project images that aimed to strengthen the legitimacy of Sisi’s actions, and those of the military-backed government. Saudi Arabia and other Gulf Cooperation Council countries applied massive pressure on Qatar to stop supporting the Muslim Brotherhood, going as far as cutting diplomatic ties at one point. Many states even view Qatar’s support of the Brotherhood around the region as well as other activist foreign policies through the lens of their tense relationship with Saudi Arabia or as a way for Qatar to claim a regional role for itself.

These anti-Islamist, Arab states also used administrative and security measures to mitigate the potential pernicious effects of the spread of these ideas and worked to counter-frame their struggle as one against disorder and violence. Egypt, along with a number of Gulf countries, declared the Muslim Brotherhood a terrorist organization, and pressured others to follow suit. Saudi Arabia was among the countries that blacklisted the Brotherhood. In the 1950s and ’60s, the kingdom welcomed Brotherhood members with open arms as they were being imprisoned and exiled by the pan-Arab socialist republican governments in Egypt and Syria.

Why the policy switch? It may appear that Saudi Arabia is being inconsistent – flip-flopping in its support of a group with which it has had no major falling-out. But through a different lens, the Gulf kingdom’s actions make more sense. Assuming regime survival as a primary goal of the state, and acknowledging the role of ideology in undermining particular regimes, then Saudi Arabia’s actions can be read as a reaction to where it saw its greatest threat. At that time, the Muslim Brotherhood didn’t pose a substantial threat, no matter its populist ideologies, which run counter to Saudi Arabia’s monarchical agenda. Pan-Arabism posed a much greater threat – it was a highly contagious idea in the Middle East, one that had toppled some regimes and could have toppled the monarchy if it had taken root in the country. Additionally, Islamist principles like those espoused by the Brotherhood, were and often have been an ideological rival of the secular, pan-Arab nationalism – thus the Brotherhood’s Islamism provided ideational balance against the ideals of Arab nationalism. Today, however, the popularity of pan-Arabism has ebbed substantially and Islamism now constitutes the most significant and best-organized political ideology in the Arab world, as evidenced by the Muslim Brotherhood’s electoral successes in the aftermath of the Arab Spring, not to mention the precipitous rise of the Islamic State.

It is partly owing to the current popularity of Islamist ideas and the contested legitimacy of national leaders that it comes as little surprise that the Islamic State has registered red flags on most states’ radars. Although the Islamic State has proved itself militarily, with its stunning weeks-long blitz of arsenal-building and territorial expansion, it is not just the group’s military successes that concern many Arab (and non-Arab) states in the region. They are not just concerned about the Islamic State penetrating their borders and challenging the resolve of their conventional armies. In the long term, these states fear the consolidation of a political territory that already wields exceptional ideational reach – having successfully recruited would-be jihadists the world over – promoting a religious doctrine that transcends borders and facilitates mobilization in other countries.

Comparing the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) in 2013 to IS in 2014, the “Islamic State” became a much greater threat when it claimed to be a political unit. With a newly formed political unit, the leaders who comprise the regime can make new claims about themselves and their mission and have a new platform from which they can project their messages.

Although regional responses to the Islamic State have been predominantly military, ideational balancing is taking place. Arab states are marshaling their ideological resources to mitigate the Islamic State’s attractiveness and potential challenge to local political authority. Prominent Islamic clerics from across the Muslim world have strongly condemned the Islamic State, almost going as far as practicing Takfir (calling the militants non-Muslim). For example the Grand Mufti of Saudi Arabia claimed that ISIS represented the No. 1 threat to Islam. This war of ideas is not just about convincing potential jihadists not to join the Islamic State; rather, this ideational balancing is a way to counter-frame the political challenges to local regimes’ legitimacy.

It’s unclear how long the Islamic State will last, but looking to the future, ideology is likely to play an equal if not greater role as a tool of conflict. As long as military power projection capabilities remain weak and domestic politics contested, ruling elites of states and non-state actors will use ideas to threaten their adversaries. States and non-state actors alike can now more easily penetrate others’ public space through social media. Regional peace and security will be determined by how states balance against their adversaries’ ideas, not necessarily their guns.

Lawrence Rubin is assistant professor in the Sam Nunn School of International Affairs at the Georgia Institute of Technology. He is the author of “Islam in the Balance: Ideational Threats in Arab Politics” (Stanford University Press, 2014).