Last year, it seemed like an Islamist super-bloc was forming in the Middle East. Secular regimes fell and others faced uprisings. Turkey grew closer to Iran and Syria. The Iranian regime produced an End Times documentary depicting the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood as the fulfillment of prophecy. Now, pro-Western governments remain unstable but the Islamists are turning their daggers on each other.
The division in the Islamist ranks is most clearly seen in Syria. The Iranian regime has deployed the Revolutionary Guards to help the Bashar Assad regime crush the uprising. Hezbollah and the Shiite-led Iraqi government are sticking by Assad’s side. On the other side are genuine secular democratic forces but also the Muslim Brotherhood, Libya, Qatar and Turkey. Turkey is demanding that Assad resign and is hosting the Free Syria Army, the rebel forces who are violently trying to overthrow him. The Emir of Qatar has just endorsed sending Arab military forces to Syria to stop the regime’s crackdown.
The Libyan government sent an Islamist militia leader to advise the Free Syria Army. There are reports that the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group has even dispatched fighters to Syria. The Muslim Brotherhood is a direct participant in the uprising. Sheikh Yousef al-Qaradawi, who is the Muslim Brotherhood’s top theologian and is based in Qatar, branded the Assad regime as “heretical.” Qaradawi even declared that it was permissible for a U.N.-led intervention to take place and says that Assad’s soldiers are religiously obligated to defect to the Free Syria Army. “If you want the welfare of your people and intend to go to paradise after death, please join the Free Army,” he preached.
This puts Hamas in an awkward position. The terrorist group belongs to the Muslim Brotherhood, which is fighting Assad, but Hamas has long enjoyed the generous support of Assad and Iran. Hamas’ political bureau is based in Damascus. Hamas suppressed anti-Assad protests in the Gaza Strip but that was not enough to satisfy Iran, which demanded that pro-Assad rallies be staged.
In recent months, Hamas began moving staff out of Damascus and to Egypt, Gaza, Sudan, Jordan and Qatar, presumably in preparation to break relations with Assad. Iran threatened to end all support for Hamas if it left Syria, so Khaled Mashaal, the chief of the Damascus office, stayed along with a reduced staff. After a long silence, he endorsed Assad in late December, saying he had “supported the Palestinian resistance and the Palestinian people in every possible away.” Mashaal tried to tow a middle line by stating that he still supports democracy and “the rights of the peoples,” insinuating dissatisfaction with the regime’s oppression.
Hamas also reportedly fears Iran’s nuclear ambitions. Journalist Aaron Klein was told by “one of the most senior Hamas officials” that he privately hopes that Israel stops Iran from getting nuclear weapons, even if it means the use of military force. The leadership of Hamas is reportedly even debating not retaliating if Iran is attacked by Israel. The Palestinian Islamic Jihad, however, remains in Iran’s back pocket.
There are indications that the Iranian-Syrian relationship is being tested. In September, Ahmadinejad surprisingly and hypocritically called on the Assad regime to end its crackdown, saying a “military solution is never the right solution.” He pressured the Syrian regime to undergo reforms in order to alleviate the crisis. At the same time, the Iranian regime reached out to a Syrian opposition group called the National Coordination Committee that is dead-set against foreign intervention. The group rejected Iran’s overtures. It appears as if Iran was pressuring Assad to cut a deal with the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood. In late October, Ahmadinejad tried to convince the Muslim Brotherhood to support Assad in exchange for having its representatives appointed to four high-level positions. Iran was turned down.
Iran, Hezbollah and Syria are also on the opposite side of the Muslim Brotherhood in Bahrain, a situation that may flare up as the one-year anniversary of the start of last year’s uprising approaches. The Shiite Islamists back the mostly-Shiite population demanding change. Sheikh Qaradawi, on the other hand, shows his selective support for democracy by endorsing the Bahraini Royal Family. “There is no people’s revolution in Bahrain but a sectarian one,” he pronounced. He accused “foreign forces,” meaning Iran and Hezbollah, of stoking the unrest.
There are other important inter-Islamist struggles in the Middle East. The biggest one is between Iran and Turkey as both compete to be the dominant power. Turkey is lashing out at Iran, accusing it of moving the region towards a “new Cold War.” Iran is threatening to attack Turkey if it is bombed by the West. Iran also criticizes Turkey for its “secularism” and argues that its model of governance does not belong in the Arab world.
In Egypt, the Muslim Brotherhood and the Salafists are clashing. The Salafists are enraged that the Brotherhood supported a Coptic Christian candidate over a Salafist. Turkey and the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood also butted heads recently when Turkish Prime Minister Erdogan visited Cairo. He spoke in support of secularism, saying that it does not mean an “irreligious state.”
The deputy-leader of the Brotherhood, Essam el-Erian, told him to back off. “We do not think that he or his country alone should be leading the region or drawing up its future,” he responded. There is still an enormous amount of good will between Turkey and the Muslim Brotherhood, though. Sheikh Qaradawi compliments Erdogan’s party as an “excellent” model that “won over secularism calmly.” The Syrian Muslim Brotherhood flatly says it is “impressed” with Turkey’s governance and does not want to follow in Iran’s footsteps.
In Sudan, the ruling dictator, Omar Bashir, supports Hamas and has pledged to turn his country into a full-fledged Sharia state. The Muslim Brotherhood leader in Sudan, Hasan al-Turabi, is talking about a revolution to overthrow him. In Yemen, the Iranian-backed Houthis and the Salafist militants are again fighting. On Thursday, four Salafists were killed. In Iraq, Iran’s proxies are competing against each other. A new rivalry has started between the Asaib al-Haq and Moqtada al-Sadr, both of which receive extensive Iranian support. Ironically, al-Sadr is ridiculing Asaib al-Haq for being an Iranian proxy, even though he has long acted as one.
This doesn’t mean that the West will be able to win one side over. Sheikh Qaradawi, though he declares Shiites to be “heretics,” calls on Muslims to fight on the side of Iran if it is attacked. The different Islamist forces may compete and even kill each other, but they’ll always be willing to come together against the infidel.
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