Like any social movement, in order for Political Islam to succeed, it will need to grow from the grassroots. It will need to express and address not only the genuine concerns of the general public, but it will also have to reflect their understanding, interpretation, and their relationship with Islam. Islamist leadership is going to have to learn to preach less and listen more.
But we have a problem.
Gulf money has created a class of career Islamists; people who make their living promoting a version of Islamism that suits the ideology and interests of rich Khaleeji shaykhs, even if it does not adhere to the views of the masses. We know from extensive polling data that the majority of Muslims support making Shari’ah the law of the land. Most Muslims would like to see their governments become more Islamic. But at the same time, most Islamist parties are losing their appeal for the general public, who tend to view them as either too extreme or too obsequious. The Islamists are becoming increasingly disconnected from the people who should be their constituency; and I believe a major reason for that is that they no longer have to depend upon them for their financial survival.
Instead, Islamist organizations and individuals rely on the patronage of wealthy men from Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Kuwait, and the UAE. The GCC has become a giant ATM machine for them, and it is much easier and more lucrative to go to the Gulf for a handout that will be given in huge bundles of cash rather than to collect a few coins here and there from the generally impoverished Muslim community at large. But this affects the entire discourse of Political Islam, and this discourse affects the extent to which the idea resonates with the Muslim community; or alienates them.
Political Islam is becoming a propaganda project rather than a social movement. The vision of Islamism is being determined, not from the grassroots, but from palaces in the Gulf States. It is not a “peoples’ Islamsim”. It is an Islamism of elites. And this is reflected in how impractical, utopian, narrow-minded and absolutist the discourse is becoming. It reflects a vision of people who live in a bubble of relative privilege. It is anti-democratic, pro-capitalist, intolerant, and astoundingly uneducated about the real dynamics of geopolitics, economics, and international affairs in general. And, it is worth noting, it is a vision which is never applied to the Gulf States themselves.
To some extent, we can assume that Islamism’s Gulf sponsors are sincerely driven by ideology. They genuinely believe in their interpretation of the religion, and really think that the Muslim masses are astray to one degree or another; so they use their wealth to try to purge us of our misunderstandings. Most Muslims believe in following the approach of the first three generations of Islam; but most of us are not Najdi, “Wahhabi” or “Salafi” or whatever term you want to use for their puritanical, literalist interpretation of the Qur’an and Sunnah. Following the example of the Sahabah and the Salaf means different things to different people. I am not criticizing the Salafi minhaj, but it is not the only acceptable minhaj. It developed as a necessary reformist response to the particular circumstances at a particular time and place. The “Najdi da’awah” did not gain much traction in the wider Muslim world for over 100 years; basically, not until the region’s oil wealth began to flow. For even most of my life, the Salafis were associated with the view that Muslims should not involve themselves in politics. They were the people that focused on the length of someone’s beard and trousers, and they thought Sayid Qutb was a deviant.
Today most of the Islamic organizations in the world, from humanitarian relief to schools, from websites to satellite channels, depend on money from the Arabian Gulf. And, yes, Islamist parties from across the spectrum, from the Ikhwan to the jihadis, all turn to the GCC for considerable portions of their budget. And this trend of dependency has had an accompanying trend of intellectual ossification, if not outright petrification.
One would be forgiven for suspecting that the Khaleej decided to begin funding Islamism in order to control and undermine it. Whatever the case may be, the Gulf is in a position to dominate the discourse of Political Islam today, and unless we begin to build a grassroots popular Islamic movement, I fear that the entire Islamist project will become increasingly irrelevant to the lives of most Muslims.