Stacey Philbrick Yadav, associate professor of political science, Hobart and William Smith Colleges:
Writing about Islamism in 2018 is fundamentally different than it was a decade ago. Then, our research focused on the electoral strategies of semi-tolerated Islamist opposition parties, the welfare work of broad-based social movements, and the ideational vs. instrumental foundations of Islamist alliances with non-Islamists. None of these areas of inquiry have gone away, but the form and function of Islamist organizations in the region has diversified and tracking the relationship(s) between Islamists and the state (or specific states) has become significantly more challenging. Foremost among the changes that account for this are intraregional polarization and the role of transnational patronage, which jointly offer both opportunities and constraints for Islamist organizations. The fragmentation and organizational dispersion of diverse Islamist groups has created a kind of “market” in which client-seeking regimes position for power, profit, and influence.
This fragmentation of the Islamist field may have originated in the aftermath of 2011, but it certainly accelerated after the 2013 coup against Mohammed Morsi. While Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood by no means exercised any kind of monopoly over Islamist politics in the region, the diminution of its symbolic (and material) power since 2013 and the subsequent campaign of suppression in Egypt and in the Gulf has left the field of Islamist politics in many states more militant, less organized, and more subject to a polarized regional environment in which Islamists find themselves needing to respond to domestic and transnational constraints alike.
One of the defining features of post-2013 regional polarization has been its equivocal relationship to state power–and, by extension, to different forms of Islamist organization. The major actors seeking out patronage relationships with various Islamist groups today are state-based (Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Iran, Qatar, and Turkey, in no particular order), but the material and symbolic patronage relationships that they forge range from those with other states and the regimes that order them, to ties to transnational organizations, to non-state, often ephemeral groups that one can barely call organizations. Among the Sunni-majority states, there does not appear to be any clear preference by dominant powers for one type of alliance over another, nor does the ideological basis of these relationships seem uniform–some states are more consistent in their ideological aims, but others far less so. In different countries in the region, for example, Saudi Arabia invests substantial resources in support of anti-Islamist regimes, Islamist republicans with ties to the Brotherhood, and salafi organizations that pose an ideological challenge to both of these. Iran certainly appears to focus its patronage on Shi’i organizations, but there is still considerable ideological distance between Islamist republicanism of the Iranian regime, the politico-religious claims of the Houthis, or the sectarian but secular étatism of the Assad regime in Syria.
From an empirical standpoint, scholars have at least two different ways in which to map this regional polarization: by following the money, or by following the guns. In neither case does a clear and coherent pattern of regional relationships emerges, aside perhaps from the case of Iran. When we follow the weapons, it is clear that patron states are offering military support for a variety Islamists and staunch anti-Islamists actors alike. This is what we might call the destructive work of regional polarization, fueling ongoing conflict across the region.
The flow of aid and investment, however, is more uniformly state-centric and anti-Islamist, and constitutes a kind of reconstructive polarization. In short, the reconfiguration of alliances and the physical destruction that these relationships often enable goes hand-in-hand with a polarized and politicized process of rebuilding that promises to create a new regional reality. To the extent that Islamist organizations are likely to play a role in this reconstructive work, it seems more likely that this system will reward those who participate in power-sharing governments, but many of the groups best positioned to do so have seen their domestic positions weakened by ongoing armed conflict and competition with militant Islamist organizations. Importantly, this deconstructive/reconstructive dynamic is unfolding not “outside” of international institutions, but under the cover provided by sustained multilateral paralysis, particularly at the UN level. Western hubris notwithstanding, this suggests that it is the Gulf more than any other actor or set of actors that is poised to remake the region in the coming years.
This makes understanding the politics of the ongoing Gulf crisis even more pressing. The Trump Administration’s reversals and internal contradictions in regard to the Gulf crisis last summer encouraged regional actors to dig in their heels and adopt medium-term policies that will entrench the rivalry between Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates, especially. Different Gulf actors have pursued different strategies in the wake of the crisis, from Qatar’s expansive citizenship reforms and efforts to attract and retain Western investment, to Saudi Arabia’s Western-facing “charm offensive.” The United Arab Emirates’s quiet investments and changing policies in Yemen and along the Red Sea coast up and to the Mediterranean suggest that the dissolution (in fact, if not in letter) of the Gulf Cooperation Council will exacerbate intra-Gulf economic and military rivalries and give these states even more reason to seek influence over their regional neighbors.
It would be tempting to read this as an exclusively material story. However, the emergent UAE-Saudi rivalry is, of course, not without an ideological dimension, and here one can circle back to the role of Islamism and the changing position of the Brotherhood, specifically. While Saudi Arabia supports an anti-Brotherhood agenda in Egypt through its support for Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, it simultaneously works closely with members of the Brotherhood-aligned Islah party in Yemen. By contrast, the Emirates is quite ideologically consistent in its opposition to the Brotherhood across the region and at home, and Qatar supports the organization internationally because it has neutered it politically at home. The United Arab Emirates’s intolerance is at considerable tension with Saudi pragmatism, leading the former to support salafi militias as a counterweight to Islah-backed militias in Yemen. This has brought the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia closer to open conflict in an arena in which they are putative allies, and it delayed the possibilities for a negotiated peace in Yemen. In other words, even where ideology may play a smaller role than material factors in intraregional rivalries, it can still play some role in empowering (or disempowering) different Islamist organizations in ways that matter for local political outcomes.
A decade ago, writing about Islamists largely meant talking about well-organized institutions responding to rules set by entrenched authoritarian regimes. Today, the transnational politics of patronage by regional rivals plays at least as great a role. A fragmented Islamist field must now respond to the material (and moral) destruction of existing institutions and the demands of regional actors who appear poised to remake the region.