As recently as 2012, it appeared that Islamists could overcome their many internal dissimilarities – sectarian (Sunni, Shi'ite), political (monarchical, republican), tactical (political, violent), or attitudes toward modernity (Salafi, Muslim Brotherhood) – and cooperate. In Tunisia, for example, Salafis and the Muslim Brotherhood (MB) types found common ground. Differences between all these groups were real but secondary, as I put it then, because "all Islamists pull in the same direction, toward the full and severe application of Islamic law (the Shari'a)."
Ali Khamene'i and Mahmoud Ahmedinejad in better times.
Islamist internecine hostilities have flared up in many other Muslim-majority countries. Sunni vs Shi'i tensions can be seen in Turkey vs Iran, also due to different approaches to Islamism; in Lebanon, where it's Sunni vs Shi'ite Islamists and Sunni Islamists vs the army; Sunni vs Shi'ite Islamists in Syria; Sunni vs Shi'ite Islamists in Iraq; Sunni Islamists vs Shi'ites in Egypt; and Houthis vs Salafis in Yemen.
Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and Fethullah Gülen, once close allies.
Clashes between the various Islamist groups in Tripoli, divided between the March 8 and March 14 political movements, are on the rise. ... Since the assassination of March 14 figure and intelligence chief Brig. Gen. Wissam al-Hasan in October, disputes between Islamist groups in Tripoli have been heading toward a major conflagration, particularly following the killing of Sheikh Abdel-Razzaq Asmar, an official from the Islamic Tawhid Movement, just hours after Hasan's death. The sheikh was shot dead ... during an armed clash that erupted when supporters of Kanaan Naji, an independent Islamist figure associated with the National Islamist Gathering, attempted to take over the headquarters of the Islamic Tawhid Movement.
This pattern of fracturing brings to mind the 1950s divisions of pan-Arab nationalists. They aspired to unify all Arabic-speaking peoples, as the expression then went, "From the [Atlantic] ocean to the [Persian] gulf." However appealing the dream, its leaders fell out as the movement grew in power, dooming pan-Arab nationalism to the point that it eventually collapsed under the weight of kaleidoscopic and ever-more minute clashes. These included:
- Gamal Abdul Nasser of Egypt vs the Ba'th (or Baath) parties ruling in Syria and Iraq.
- The Syrian Ba'th party vs the Iraqi Ba'th party.
- The Sunni Syrian Ba'thists vs the Alawi Syrian Ba'thists
- The Jadidist Alawi Syrian Ba'thists vs the Assadist Alawi Syrian Ba'thists.
Omar al-Bashir and Hassan al-Turabi, also once close allies.
Reflecting deep Middle East patterns, dissension among Islamists likewise prevents them from working together. As the movement surges, as its members approach power and actually rule, its cracks become increasingly divisive. Rivalries papered over when Islamists languish in the opposition emerge when they wield power.
Should the fissiparous tendency hold, the Islamist movement is doomed, like fascism and communism, to be no more than a civilizational threat inflicting immense damage but never prevailing. This possible limit on Islamist power, which became visible only in 2013, offers grounds for optimism but not for complacency. Even if things look brighter than a year ago, trends can quickly turn around again. The long and difficult job of defeating Islamism remains ahead.
Mr. Pipes (DanielPipes.org) is president of the Middle East Forum. © 2013 by Daniel Pipes. All rights reserved.
July 22, 2013 addendum: The 1950s subdivisions of pan-Arab nationalists recall a skit by American comedian Emo Philips (slightly adapted for reading):
Once I saw this guy on a bridge about to jump.
I said, "Don't do it!" He said, "Nobody loves me."
"God loves you. Do you believe in God?" He said, "Yes."
"Me, too! Are you a Christian or a Jew?" He said, "A Christian."
"Me, too! Protestant or Catholic?" He said, "Protestant."
"Me, too! What franchise?" He said, "Baptist."
"Me, too! Northern Baptist or Southern Baptist?" He said, "Northern Baptist."
"Me, too! Northern Conservative Baptist or Northern Liberal Baptist?" He said, "Northern Conservative Baptist."
"Me, too! Northern Conservative Baptist Great Lakes Region or Northern Conservative Baptist Eastern Region?" He said, "Northern Conservative Baptist Great Lakes Region."
"Me, too! Northern Conservative Baptist Great Lakes Region Council of 1879 or Northern Conservative Baptist Great Lakes Region Council of 1912?" He said, "Northern Conservative Baptist Great Lakes Region Council of 1912."
I said, "Die, heretic!" And I pushed him over.
Oct. 3, 2013 update: I shall track further Islamist fracturing in a follow-up weblog entry, "Islamism in Disarray."
Jan. 4, 2016 update: I offer a new take on this topic today in the Boston Globe at "Two Weaknesses Could Undo the Islamist Movement."