May 14th 2016
The Muslim Brotherhood
Founded in Egypt in 1928 during the struggle against British rule, the Brotherhood is a broad-based Sunni movement with branches in many countries. It seeks to transform society through Da’wah (proselytising) and by winning power through elections. Although a Brotherhood government was toppled in Egypt in 2013, moderate offshoots are still in power in Tunisia and Morocco. Its armed Palestinian branch, Hamas, rules the Gaza Strip. It can be pragmatic and gradualist in its approach to Sharia (Islamic law).
An ultra-conservative Sunni movement that seeks to emulate the Prophet Muhammad and his earliest followers, Al-Salaf Al-Salih (the pious forefathers). It seeks to strip Islam of the traditions accumulated over the centuries. Salafists increasingly take part in elections. They are financed by petrodollars from countries such as Saudi Arabia, whose royal family rules in alliance with the puritanical salafi movement, the Wahhabis. The quietist brand of Salafism can be intolerant on social matters and might support military jihad abroad. But such Salafists generally do not challenge Sunni Arab rulers directly in their own countries. “Hard on the people and soft on rulers,” sums up one ex-Wahhabi in Saudi Arabia.
Al-Qaeda and Islamic State (IS), among others, have elevated violent jihad as the main pillar of Sunni Islam. They typically denounce elections as placing man’s law above God’s. Their main foes are the “near enemy” (Arab rulers), the “far enemy” (the West) and Shias. Their ideology is an extreme hybrid of the more radical doctrines of the Muslim Brotherhood and the Salafists, and their tactics are more aggressive than either. Traditional Sunni Islam usually forbids rebellion against a ruler, even an evil one, because, as the Koran puts it, “Fitna is worse than killing.” One way out of the conundrum is Takfir, or the declaration that certain people, or categories, are unbelievers—some of whom may or even should be killed.
Muslim Brotherhood extremists, such as Sayyid Qutb, limited Takfir to Arab rulers such as Gamal Abdel Nasser (who had Qutb jailed, tortured and executed). For Salafists, the unbelievers potentially extend to a much wider group, including the Shias. The question is whether non-violent Islamism acts as a barrier to jihadists, or a gateway.
Rule of the Jurisprudent
Velayat-e-Faqih (rule of the jurisprudent) is a doctrine that supreme political leadership should be exercised by a senior Shia Islamic scholar. It was adopted in the constitution of Iran after the Islamic revolution of 1979 and embodied by the late Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. Overseen by the supreme leader, the system allows for semi-democratic elections for the day-to-day offices of government—though the candidates have to be vetted by the religious authorities.
Iran sponsors a range of parties and militias, ranging from Hizbullah in Lebanon to several Shia parties that dominate the current Iraqi coalition, whether or not they explicitly subscribe to Velayat-e-Faqih.
A distinct and sometimes rival Shia trend revolves around the Marjaa (religious reference), the group of the most senior Shia figures. Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, based in Najaf in Iraq, is the spiritual leader of most Shias, especially Iraqi ones. He appears to regard Velayat-E-Faqih as an aberration from Shiism’s quietist tradition and has backed democracy as the means to consolidate Shias’ empowerment. He tried to restrain Shia militia reprisals for jihadist attacks and gave his blessing to the replacement of Iraq’s divisive former prime minister, Nuri al-Maliki, by the more inclusive Haider al-Abadi. An undeclared battle for the succession to the 85-year-old cleric has started. “Thank God Sistani is here,” says a Western diplomat. “But for how much longer?”