Former Israeli Deputy National Security Advisor Eran Lerman (now at the Begin–Sadat Centre) has penned a 30-odd-page summary of the strategic environment of the Middle East, which he has dubbed the ‘Game of Camps’. It almost exactly matches the assessments made in this blog, which means I like it very much!
The key difference in the report is, whereas Lerman (and others, including another of my favourite academics, Jonathan Spyer) divide the Middle East into four camps, I say there are three. I combine Lerman’s Islamic State (‘and other al-Qaeda offshoots’) with his Muslim Brotherhood camp, into what I call the Sunni Islamist continuum (‘bloc’ is too strong a term).
Lerman makes the distinction between the two in how they use or don’t use violence, and accept or reject existing state structures – one wants to break them down, the other does not. (Another way to make the distinction is to classify them as being either salafi or otherwise). Both are legitimate ways to make such a distinction, but I’m not sure that such a distinction needs to be or should be made. Groups like the Brothers want to, eventually, combine Muslim states into a regional or global caliphate. But, for now, they’re willing to work peacefully within the physical and administrative/political bounds of their own countries. But is this an ideological rejection of violence, or a tactical decision due to a perception that violence doesn’t work? I think the latter, and my evidence is the pride of place pro-jihadi figures like Sayid Qutb have in the Brotherhood pantheon and, of course, the fact that hamas is officially part of the Brotherhood.
It’s worth remembering that part of al-Qaeda’s founding concept was that violence against strong states like Egypt didn’t work to advance the caliphate. In a way, both the Brotherhood and al-Qaeda came to the same conclusion – the Brothers in Egypt don’t use violence because it doesn’t work and al-Qaeda in Afghanistan used violence against America because violence against the ‘near enemy’ didn’t work.
So, for me, a member of the Sunni Islamist continuum is a person or group that believes that their interpretation of Islam takes precedence over political/state institutions (as we in the West perceive them) and who are willing to act on this belief. Hence, the continuum ranges from groups like the Brothers, to hamas and through all the way to Islamic State.
But all of this is rather academic. Lerman’s work has more parallels with my thinking than differences, only he writes with more and better examples and decades of experience. If you’ve got an hour or so spare, and want to learn about the coming years in the Middle East, read Lerman’s work.