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An Introduction to the Civil War within Islam


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White Rose Magazine

Aryeh Tepper

Dec. 2023

This essay introduces the civil war within Islam. To understand the battle between Israel and Hamas, it is necessary to see the central rift that defines this civil war. It is overly simplistic to refer to “the Israel-Palestine conflict.” Hamas belongs to the Islamist “resistance” camp, whose ideology began to leave its stamp on the Islamic world in general, and Palestinian society in particular, during the first half of the 20th century.

There is a tolerant camp in the Islamic world that opposes the Islamists. This diverse camp is constituted by future-minded regimes, traditionalist scholars and state-sponsored clerics who want a pluralistic future for the Middle East and North Africa (MENA). Peace with Israel fits into this vision. The tolerant camp drew a line in the sand with the 2020 Abraham Accords. 

We will begin our examination of this civil war by exploring the thought of the most influential Islamist writer of the 20th century, Sayyid Qutb.  The essay’s second sub-section traces the connection between Qutb and the Islamic Republic of Iran, while the third sub-section highlights the main initiatives and perspectives of the tolerant camp. We conclude by emphasizing the necessity of thoroughly defeating Hamas.

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The goal and the path for Qutb are clear, Shari’a. So too is the price. The world being as it is, i.e., Jahaliya, anyone who aims to please God must be willing to lose his or her life. Qutb was hanged by Nasser in 1966. We can imagine him in court holding an open Quran in one hand, signalling victory with the other and smiling, “We love death more than you love life.”

Qutb’s influence, it’s important to note, isn’t restricted to the Sunni world. His works also inspired Islamist revolutionaries in Iran. A little known but astounding fact is that Ali Khamenei, the “supreme leader” of the Iranian regime since 1989, translated four of Qutb’s books into Persian. Khamenei didn’t translate four books by anyone else.

II

There is an overlooked but very consequential line of influence that transcends the traditional Sunni-Shi’a divide and connects Sayyid Qutb to the Islamic Republic of Iran. Qutb met with and encouraged Iranian revolutionaries and his writings played an important role in the Iranian Islamist revolution. One scholar recently summed up the issue concisely:

The influence of Sayyid Quṭb on the Islamist movement and the revolutionaries of Iran is still not acknowledged sufficiently and remains largely unknown in the West.

(“Sayyid Quṭb in Iran: Translating the Islamist Ideologue in the Islamic Republic” Yusuf Ünal, Journal of Islamic and Muslim Studies, Vol. 1, No. 2 (November 2016), pp. 35-50).

Qutb’s connection to Shi’ite activists dates back to the early 50s, when Iranian cleric Navvab Safavi, leader of the Iranian “Fedayeen of Islam,” visited him in Egypt. Safavi was impressed by Qutb, imported his ideology back to Iran, and then promoted the vision of an Islamic state among Iranian revolutionaries. Translations of Quṭb’s works soon followed. In many cases, the Persian-language translators were also activists who went on to play important roles in the Iranian revolution, the most prominent being Safavi’s student, Khamenei. Among the books that Khamenei translated was The Future of This Religion, a work in which Quṭb:

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In line with the Charter of Makkah and as head of the MWL, Al-Issa initiated contacts with non-Muslim organizations. In May, 2019, one month before officially submitting the Charter, Al-Issa and the Muslim World League joined forces with the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations and the American Sephardi Federation to sign the “It Stops Now Agreement Against Hate, Bigotry, and Fanaticism.” In a June, 2020, interview with the Saudi Al-Arabiya network, Al-Issa justified these contacts on religious grounds:

Humanity stems from the same source, which makes it a brotherhood, even if it has split to different faiths. Allah says: ‘Oh mankind, We have created you from male and female and made you peoples and tribes that you may know one another.’ This is the source of the term ‘brothers in humanity.’

A little less than a week after the interview, Al-Issa publicly led a delegation of senior Islamic scholars and members of the American Jewish Committee to Auschwitz and Srebrenica. Two months later, the Abraham Accords were announced. On Sept. 15th the normalization agreement between Israel, the UAE and Bahrain was signed on the White House lawn, and the Israeli-Moroccan normalization agreement followed in December. 

The tolerant camp’s anti-Islamist strategy is not limited, however, to the theological plane. The UAE is betting on a tough-minded pursuit of national self-interest marked by good governance, an advanced, tolerant educational system, and a pluralistic society that attracts talent from around the world to best demonstrate to good-natured Muslim youth that it is possible for Muslims to be, in the words of Omar Saif Ghobash, the UAE’s Assistant Minister for Cultural Affairs, “strong successful men and women who have done great things and at the same time are open.” 

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Conclusion

It feels like a lifetime ago, but in March 2022, the foreign ministers of Israel, Morocco, the UAE, Bahrain, and Egypt, aka “The Anti-Islamist League,” met in Sde Boqer, a small town by the edge of a stark canyon cliff one hour south of the Biblical city of Be’er Sheva, deep in the Negev desert. They came together to project a strong and united front against Islamist extremism.

Today, as Israel seeks out Hamas fighters hiding in Gaza’s labyrinth underworld, Islamist forces remain in their positions. Hizbullah exploits Lebanon like Hamas exploits Gaza, carving out tunnels, nesting within civilian populations and aiming more than 150,000 missiles at Israel. To the south, the Houthis use Yemen to disrupt shipping along the Bab el-Mandeb Strait and fire missiles at the Red Sea resort town of Eilat. On Israel’s east side, Hamas is deeply integrated into the West Bank, but the IDF is integrated as well, watching, listening and capable of responding to problems when they arise. 

The Israeli military presence is part of what, in pre-October 7th times, was called “The Occupation.” Today many Westerners (and Israelis) realize that, as the Islamists clearly said from the start, “The Occupation” means “from the river to the sea.” And beyond the Jordan River further to the east, beyond even the Land of Two Rivers, the revolutionaries ruling Iran are plotting to transform Sayyid Qutb’s dreams into practical schemes of death and destruction of existing regimes. All the while, the post-colonial left runs interference for the Islamists around the globe under the fruitfully ambiguous banner of “Resistance.”

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Additional Reading and Viewing:

“2021 S R Nathan Distinguished Lecture”
Omar Saif Ghobash, the UAE’s Assistant Minister for Cultural Affairs, delineates his vision of tolerant Islam.

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