The Decline (and Attempted Rise) of the Sunnis in the Middle East

Israeli scholar Martin Kramer has written an interesting essay about the decline (and attempted rise) of  the Sunni Islamic position and aspirations in the middle east (excerpts at the end of this post). The first (and longer) section of the essay is well worth reading because it (to quote comrade Hamid Dabashi) “jolts our historical imagination and suddenly places it on the right, though deeply repressed, axis”. Almost for the first time in a popular Western essay (though not at all the first time in an Islamist essay), Kramer looks at the last 100 years of Middle Eastern history in a way that almost every Islamist will recognize in some form, i.e. as a story of the decline and fall of Sunni Islamic power and then of attempts to restore that power. The Ottoman Sultanate was a decrepit and declining power for centuries before it fell, but even in 1914 it was a power that could field armies that could fight (sometimes with great tenacity and surprising success) in conventional warfare against the dominant European powers of the age. This was certainly not true of any other Muslim power (or for that matter, any non-European power not named Japan) at that time and had not been true for over a hundred years. Within the Sunni Islamic universe, it was a symbol of Islamic civilizations continued presence at the table of world history.

With its fall and dismemberment, 1300 years of Sunni Muslims imagining themselves as one (and sometimes many) of the most important military powers in the world came to an end. There may not have been a single Sunni power that united nearly ALL Sunni Muslims since the decline of the Abbassids, but Sunni Muslims belonging to many rising and falling powers all saw themselves (with some justification) as capable and fearsome warrior peoples. As Arabs, Turks and Mughals they had conquered vast lands and ruled over many peoples, always as the dominant religion (even when rare rulers, such as Akbar, lost interest in being purely “Islamic rulers”, the Muslim elite remained a ruling elite). This position had started to fall apart in the 18th century (Mughal India, for example, had splintered and much of India had fallen under the domination of Marhattas and Sikhs; a change of circumstance that the descendants of the old Sunni ruling elite felt very acutely, and which they eventually tried to remedy in part by creating Pakistan). With the fall of the Ottomans, the true extent of the relative decline of Sunni Muslim civilization stared Muslims in the face. And it was felt that way by all intellectuals not completely converted to the Western gaze (and to some extent, even by those apparently converted to Western ideas and brought up immersed in Western learning).
This is the decline that was accentuated by the post-great-war division of the Sunni Arab heartland into multiple states by the British and the French (though the divisions were by no means completely artificial) and the temporary rise of Western-inspired socialist and nationalist ideas in the middle east. This is the story Kramer describes well.

Now, with the fall of Saddam, the ancient heartland of Islam has no Sunni state that can represent Sunni hopes or face down Shia Iran, much less Jewish Israel or the superpowers (old, decayed or rising). Recurrent attempts by Islamist movements to reverse this trend can be seen as part of the response to this century long fall. ISIS is just the most extreme and most vicious of these attempts. So vicious that most Sunnis do not support it. But drawing on the a narrative of decline and revival that less vicious Sunnis can also share. 

Now for the weaknesses of his argument. One, he restricts himself to the Sunni crescent (Palestine, Syria, Iraq, the Arabian Peninsula), in which those trying to pick up this flag include insanely extreme ISIS, a slightly less extreme alqaeda and a significantly less extreme Saudi Arabia. But there are other states dreaming of becoming the vanguard of the Sunni revival. Egypt under the brotherhood certainly had such dreams, but their attempt seems to have been set back for now. But Turkey’s neo-Ottoman dreams are real and they are by no means dead. And then there is Pakistan, more populous than any of these states and founded on a dream that may be sometimes contradictory and vague, but that has always included pan-Islamist overtones. Finally, don’t count out Bangladesh, Malaysia or Indonesia. To varying extents, there are Sunni Islamist dreamers in all these countries. And their dreams may catch fire too..

The second “weakness” is the last section, with its specific analysis of Israeli policy. I paid no attention to this section and have nothing to say about it. It is too close to his immediate policy concerns and it is probably going to be hard to disentangle his tactical needs from his strategic analysis. Anyway, I did not try.

The point is, if classical Islam means anything, then it cannot but give rise to such hopes and dreams. This is not something an Edward Said (who spent a lifetimes trying to ignore Islam and Islamism) or any intellectual brought up in the Western academic tradition represented by Said and his followers, likes to see. And  “Westoxicated” Muslims who are trained to think in modern Western terms (class struggle, racism, postcolonialism, capitalism, communism, whatever), are disproportionately likely to be our “native informants” in Western languages, explaining their homelands to their Western mentors and supporters. It is not surprising that this subculture has consistently failed to see the power of the Islamist dream or predict its growth and staying power.
But the times they may be changing…

Excerpts from Kramer’s essay:

It began with the fall of the sturdily Sunni Ottoman empire in which the Arabs of the Fertile Crescent had been securely nestled for 400 years. In 1914, the Young Turks blundered into the world war, putting the empire on the side of Germany and Austro-Hungary and against Britain, France, and Russia. In 1916, Sharif Hussein, a Sunni grandee in Mecca, declared the famous “Arab Revolt” against the Ottoman empire in coordination with Britain. In return, he demanded an Arab kingdom in expansive borders (see this map). Had he gotten it in one piece, there might indeed have been some prospect of a continued Sunni ascendancy.

Yes, that kingdom would have included Iraq, with its large Shiite population. But it would also have included Syria, with its solid Sunni majority, as well as Palestine and the sharif’s own Hijaz, both entirely Sunni. This kingdom would have possessed a decisive Sunni majority as well as the traditional capital cities of Sunni Islam.

The sharif thought such a kingdom was exactly what had been promised to him by the British in return for his open revolt against the Ottomans. But he didn’t get it. The Arabic-speaking provinces didn’t separate from the Ottoman empire in one piece. As a result of power rivalries, above all between Britain and France, they broke off in many pieces.

The Anglo-French Sykes-Picot partition, contra Haivry, didn’t work to establish “the hegemony of Sunni Arabs,” nor were its “borders aimed at ensuring Sunni Arab predominance.” For one thing, the French did everything in their power to undermine that dominance. In Syria, which they seized as their share in 1920, they parceled the country into even smaller statelets, including Alawite and Druze “states.” The French also privileged non-Sunnis, especially in military recruitment. By the time France unified Syria in 1936, abolishing the statelets, Syria had a sizable proportion of minorities who had tasted independence and power.

Next, the British also undermined traditional Sunni Arab ascendancy. True, they established a Sunni-dominated regime in Iraq, ruled from Baghdad by Faisal, one of the sharif’s sons. And they gave another son, Abdullah, a desert emirate in Transjordan. But by their support of the Jewish National Home policy adumbrated in the 1917 Balfour Declaration, they subtracted Palestine from the Sunni sum. Jerusalem had been a jewel in the Ottoman crown; now the Jews threatened to take it.

The British would also stand by as ibn Sa‘ud and his Wahhabi followers seized the Hijaz and deposed the sharif, their former ally. Today we regard the Saudis as mainstream Sunnis. But at the time, mainstream Sunnis regarded them as fanatic rebels who had constantly denied the legitimate Sunni authority of the Ottoman sultan. The Saudi seizure of Mecca and Medina in 1926 sent shock waves through the Sunni world.

To this must be added the earlier 1924 decision of the Turkish nationalist leader Mustafa Kemal Atatürk to stop pretending to defend the Ottoman caliphate and instead simply abolish it. Decrepit the caliphate may have been, but it symbolized the unity of Sunni Islam. Despite the vicissitudes of Islamic history, there had always been a caliph somewhere, a successor to the Prophet Muhammad and the heir and upholder of Sunni Islam. For the previous four centuries, the name of the Ottoman sultan-caliph had been mentioned in the Friday prayers in Baghdad, Damascus, Aleppo, Jerusalem, Mecca, and Medina.

..What we have witnessed these past few years, and especially since 2011, is not a Sunni collapse after a century of dominance. It is a Sunni revival after a century of slow but steady erosion. The rise of al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI), the outbreak of the (largely Sunni) Syrian revolt, and the rise of the Islamic State (IS) are the most violent expressions of this broader revival. 

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