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Has military suppression of political Islam ever worked?

Political Islam

A friend shouts "Allah is the greatest" during a burial service for Ammar Badie in Cairo on Sunday, Aug. 18, 2013.(AP Photo/Manu Brabo)

As the death toll in the Egyptian military’s bloody crackdown nears 1,000, aside from any criticisms of human rights violations and the crushing of civil liberties, questions are being raised on a more pragmatic level: Has military suppression of political Islam ever worked?

That’s the provocative issue raised by Juan Cole, the Richard P. Mitchell Collegiate Professor of History at the University of Michigan, whose Informed Consent blog is one of the most widely read Internet sources for comment and insight on the Middle East.

“It doesn’t work in the long run,” Cole concludes.

He notes that Saddam Hussein in Iraq attempted to crush Shiite religous parties such as the Islamic Call (Da’wa) Party, including making membership in the party punishable by death and executing thousands. Now the prime minister is from Da’wa and he in turn is fighting a bloody resurgence of  Sunni fundamentalists. 

In Tunisia, dictator Zine El Abidin Ben Ali tried to crush the Renaissance (al-Nahda) Party but it surged to power in the 2011 elections.

The Baath Party in Syria tried to wipe out the Muslim Brotherhood back in the 1980s – but now, a civil war in that country sees radical Islamists tightening their grip in the parts of the country.

In Iran, Cole points the despotic Shah for decades tried to repress political Islam  -- but the Ayatollah came to power in 1979 and his followers still rule.

In Turkey too despite attempts to “forcibly secularize” the country, what Cole describes as the “Islamically tinged” Justice and Development Party came to power in 2002 and has ruled ever since. 

“Algeria’s generals did in the 1990s to The Islamic Salvation Front exactly what [Egypt’s] Gen al-Sisi plans to do to the Muslim Brotherhood. 150,000 or more died, and the generals largely prevailed,” Cole says – but Islamist forces remain present, as recent terror attacks have shown.

Of course, in Egypt itself, the government banned the Muslim Brotherhood in 1948. But despite decades of jailings, repression and assassinations, “it always came back.”

“It seems to me that the preponderance of the evidence suggests that religiously based political movements are almost impossible to eradicate by force,” Cole writes. 

“So the Egyptian generals are likely trying something that can’t be done in the long term, and can only be accomplished in the short term by genocidal techniques.”


Julian Sher is a foreign affairs and investigatuive reporter with the Star and can be reached at [email protected] and on Twitter @juliansher.


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