By Faisal Devji
Khashoggi’s murder by Saudi agents in Istanbul doesn’t just cast a harsh light
on the authoritarian and reckless behavior of Prince Mohamad bin Salman of
Saudi Arabia; it also highlights the rivalry between Turkey and Saudi Arabia,
which represent competing forms of Islam.
Arabia is a monarchy that allows Islam to define all social relations as long
as it makes no political claims. Turkey, led by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan
and his Justice and Development Party, is a republic whose government was
brought to power by the votes of many conservative Muslims.
being an influential Saudi voice, Mr. Khashoggi had over the years embraced
these competing visions of governance and the place of Islam in politics. He
had been a loyal adviser to Saudi rulers, but he also, like Mr. Erdogan and his
party, is widely believed to have subscribed to the Islamist ideal of power
democratically achieved — an ideal represented by the Muslim Brotherhood.
is seen as an existential threat by the region’s monarchies, which apart from
Qatar and to a lesser degree Oman and Kuwait were frightened by the Muslim
Brotherhood’s coming to power in Egypt after the Arab Spring protests. Saudi
Arabia and the United Arab Emirates bankrolled and backed the Egyptian
military’s crackdown and coup against the Brotherhood government; Turkey and
Mr. Erdogan backed the Brotherhood and provided refuge to the group’s leaders
and members after the crackdown.
Khashoggi straddled this dangerous fault line, and it might have played a part
in his assassination. “The eradication of the Muslim Brotherhood is nothing
less than an abolition of democracy and a guarantee that Arabs will continue
living under authoritarian and corrupt regimes,” he wrote about the
Saudi-backed coup and crackdown.
battle between monarchical and republican Islam goes back to the Cold War, when
Arab monarchies backed by Western powers saw secular and sometimes socialist
Muslim states as their main rivals. In those days both sides deployed the
Islamists against one another. After the fall of Saddam Hussein’s Iraq and
Muammar el-Qaddafi’s Libya, both through Western intervention, Syria is now the
last significant representative of secular dictatorship — a political form that
had once dominated the Middle East and parts of North Africa.
drawing upon Cold War ideas about ideological states, Islamism enjoyed its
greatest victory with the Iranian revolution in 1979 and took control of Sudan
a decade later. While Islamism has since come to power electorally in Turkey
and Tunisia, it also appears to have lost its way, allowing social
conservatives a place in the public life of these countries while mutating into
something barely recognizable with the Taliban in Afghanistan.
remnant of a much larger struggle, the competition between Muslim republicans
and monarchists represents a politics in terminal decline. Most of the region’s
royal houses are modern creations, encouraged if not implanted by colonial
powers. They possess no worked-out political idea or theory to legitimize
themselves, relying instead on a transactional mixture of privileges, payoffs
and punishments to secure the allegiance of their subjects, much like
corporations do with their workers, shareholders and boards. This is why Islam
as a form of social control is so important to them.
for its part, has become a red herring in accounts of Middle Eastern politics.
The Muslim Brotherhood was not at the forefront of the Egyptian revolution but
caught unawares by it. The party was furthermore brought down by a movement as
popular as the one that had put it in power, thus allowing the army to
intervene and impose its dictatorship on the country. The Brotherhood’s
opponents were as religiously observant as its supporters, which meant the
dissolution of a narrative that pitted popular Islamists against secular
elites. The democratization and fragmentation of Islam has shifted it beyond
the grasp of any party or group.
torn their religion from the grasp of its traditional authorities among both
clerics and mystics, Islamists were themselves set aside by the rise of jihad
movements in the 1990s, which reject their visions of electoral democracy or
even revolutions to set up Islamic republics. And like the Islamists before
them, these militant outfits are now used by the region’s governments against
one another even when they cannot be fully controlled.
decline of Islamism can be gauged by the way in which the Turkish government
has crushed its former ally, the Gulen movement, which it accuses of fomenting
the attempted coup in 2016 with foreign help. Turkey retaliated like other
Middle Eastern governments to eliminate an Islamist threat with international
links and foreign sponsors. In doing so it demonstrated that Islam will be
tolerated only if it is put in the exclusive service of the state,
paradoxically setting more limits upon religion than either the most secular or
theocratic of countries.
Iran today poses the chief ideological rather than simply military or economic
threat for the Gulf monarchies, it is probably because its unexportable Shia
revolution must stand in for an Islamism that no longer appears to have a
political future in the Arab world. Or its future may be that of Tunisia’s
Ennahda Party, which has rejected the Brotherhood’s internationalism in the
Arab Spring’s only successful revolution.
is so frequently invoked precisely because it is in decline, its supporters as
well as opponents eager to enlist the Brotherhood and lend their rivalries some
the West, freedom of the press and human rights are advanced as reasons for
concern about Mr. Khashoggi’s end, while in the Middle East the struggle is
over the possibility of a regional relationship that does not involve Western
powers or geopolitics.
outrage in the West over Mr. Khashoggi’s killing has led to calls among
columnists and politicians for yet more intervention in the Middle East by way
of sanctions and other threats against Saudi Arabia, as if prompted by the fear
of being shut out from its politics. But even this reaction cannot conceal how
bereft of ideological features the event is, indicating instead the brutal
secularization of politics in a region marked by the desire for hegemony of its
three remaining powers — Turkey, Iran and Saudi Arabia.
all three deploy religion in their quest for dominance, its very
universalization in these and other ways has made Islam increasingly
recalcitrant to such uses, as it slowly comes to constitute nothing more than
the national character of Muslim societies in the region.
Faisal Devji is a professor of history and fellow
of St. Antony’s College, University of Oxford.