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The Sunni Divide: Understanding Politics and Terrorism in the Arab Middle East
Reviewed by Norvell B. DeAtkine
Text Box:

Samuel Helfont, The Sunni Divide: Understanding Politics and Terrorism in the Arab Middle East, Center for Terrorism and Counterrorism at the Foreign Policy Research Institute, November 2009, 68 pp. Available free of charge on the FPRI website at http://www.fpri.org/pubs/Helfont.SunniDivide.pdf.

By understanding the Muslim Brotherhood and Wahhabism not as two similar manifestations of a single movement but as two separate movements, US policy makers can address each group separately, forming distinct policies for each. This will help to neutralize the most nefarious elements of each movement while not empowering an equally problematic element of the other or dangerously destabilizing the regional balance of power.

In this conclusion paragraph the author summarizes the crux of his monograph. He makes the argument that the great divide in Islam is not the Shi’a–Sunni conflict, as numbers of Arab leaders have voiced, but rather the division within the Sunni Islamist community. To make his point Helfont narrows that divide to the philosophical and political differences between two radical Islamist movements, the Muslim Brotherhood and the Wahhabists, or Salafists as some call them. The fact that the Sunni, from which most terrorism originates, constitute about 85 percent of the Muslim population extending from Morocco to Indonesia supports the author’s focus on Sunni rather than the more diffuse “Islamic” terrorism. In concentrating on the two radical divisions of the Islamist movement, he is focusing on the philosophical underpinnings of militant Islamism most important to combating terrorism. This is an important issue because, as Helfont observes, there are many shades of grey in assessing Islamism. It is not monolithic or usefully defined by terms such as “moderate” or “extremist.” The complexity of Islamist movements, he writes, is compounded by a tendency for Western scholars and policymakers to lump Wahhabists and the Brotherhood together. The value of this monograph is to carefully depict the differences between them, recommending ways in which Western anti-terrorism strategists can drive a wedge between them and use the one against the other.

As Dr Paul Jureidini, an astute analyst of Middle East politics, has observed, Islamism is the major source of political discourse in the Arab world today. Pan Arabism, socialism, communism, and even democracy (though largely untried) have been largely discredited as ideologies cogent to the Arab culture. Therefore it is imperative that the political aspects of Islamism, or political Islam as some choose to call it, be more closely examined. This is unlike an examination of the philosophical and religious divisions within Sunni Islam as exemplified by juxtaposing the views of fundamentalists and Islamic modernist reformers. Helfont observes that much of the Western analysis of Islamism has been plagued by lack of clarity in definitions of Islamic political terms. For instance, the use of the term Salafism as a synonym for Wahhabism is misleading because early Salafism was more liberal than the increasing orthodoxy imposed by later Islamic scholars.

Helfont introduces his monograph with a historical sketch of both Wahhabism and the Brotherhood and a discussion of their respective ideologies. Tracing the origins of Wahhabism from the isolated Nejd region of today’s Saudi Arabia, he depicts Wahhabism as a reform movement dedicated not to modernism but a purer version of Islam. On the other hand the Brotherhood had its origins in a more cosmopolitan venue, within a colonialist era, and sought to implant Islam as a superior ideology to all the other ideologies such as nationalism, socialism, etc. It was a movement to establish Islam as the prevailing political identity of the people.

In part two, Helfont assesses the influence of each movement in the Middle East, tackling the issue of the Sunni–Shi’a divide and outlining the arguments of those who see it as the salient ideological struggle in the Middle East. In refuting these arguments he describes the mutual support that Shi’a and Sunni radical organizations provided one another in several conflicts. Here the reviewer believes Helfont assesses the Shi’a-Sunni divide a bit too lightly. There is much evidence that it is growing, partially fueled by the emergence of the Sunni radicalism and potentially just as destabilizing.

Helfont paints a picture of conflict between the Brotherhood and the Salafis throughout the Arab world, examining regional fallout with an examination of the ideological and political struggle between the antagonists. He reinforces the importance, perhaps unwittingly, of the Shi’a-Sunni factor in the comparative strengths of the Brotherhood versus the Salafis. In Yemen, Iraq, Lebanon, and Kuwait the conflict is embedded in sectarian identity and reinforced by Sunni radicalism. To the Salafis, the Shi’a are little more than infidels, while the Brotherhood takes a somewhat more tolerant view.

In part three, the author assesses the place of Jihad in the ideology of both movements. To the Muslim Brotherhood the central focus of Jihad is defensive, revolving around the concept of resistance to Western imperialism and colonialism. However, despite claims to the contrary the Brotherhood does not avoid violence, straying from the more pacific preaching of founder Hassan Al-Banna and adopting the philosophy of violence espoused by Syed al-Qutb as demonstrated in Egypt. The Wahhabi/Salafist concept is more of an offensive expansionist design, although often cloaked in communiqués stressing the defensive character of Al-Qaeda attacks around the world. Non-Salafist Muslims are often depicted as heretics with few distinctions loosely drawn between combatants and civilians. Thus the attacks of September 11th were seen as legitimate. Salafists basically view the world in two spheres, the House of Islam (or peace) and the House of the Unbelievers (or war). The duty of each true Muslim is to see the House of War absorbed by the House of Peace, though not necessarily by violent means. 

In his conclusions, Helfont categorically rejects the idea that U.S. policymakers should favor one over the other, writing it would only create a monolithic radical power. While positing that open, stable societies are the best antidote to Islamic radicalism, he sees pushing democracy in these societies as likely to result in more radical regimes. This ironically flies in the face of previous conventional wisdom that depicted democratization as one of the answers to Islamic radicalism.  

The remainder of the author’s conclusions and recommendations are somewhat pedestrian. He urges greater understanding of Islamic rules of war, enabling us to refute Wahhabist Islamic interpretations. These, he writes are so important to the Wahhabists that we can undercut their motivation. Other experts obviously disagree. In a very well researched analysis done by the U.S. Army Strategic Studies Institute the authors conclude, “Recognize the simultaneous impracticality of armistices and reconciliation with Islamic militants and the Islamic rationale for attempting such solutions.”4

Helfont sees the Muslim Brotherhood as amenable to dialogue given its more cosmopolitan and modernist origins. While not supporting dialogue with the Wahhabis, the Brotherhood is seen as open to accommodation with the West.

A reader might differ on a number of points, nevertheless this monograph is valuable in that it explores the specifics of radical organizations, staying away from some of the more esoteric and legalistic tomes on Islamic radicalism. It refutes the concept of monolithic Islamic radicalism, and urges a more subtle and a more diffused approach to counter Islamic terrorism.

Helfont is the author of Yusuf al-Qaradawi: Islam and Modernity and is a Foreign Language and Area Studies Fellow in Princeton University’s Department of Near Eastern Studies, where he is pursuing a Ph.D.  An Iraq war veteran, he continues to serve as an intelligence officer in the U.S. Navy Reserve.bluestar

  1. From notes at seminar at the US Army John F. Kennedy Center and School, December 2005.

  2. Vali Nasr, a member of President Obama’s advisory team, has made this point in a number of articles. See http://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/61733/vali-nasr/when-the-shiites-rise.

3. See Cheryl Bernard at http://www.rand.org/pubs/monograph_reports/MR1716/MR1716.pdf.

4. See Youssef H. Aboul-Enein and Sherifa Zuhur in ihttp://www.rand.org/pubs/monograph_reports/MR1716/MR1716.pdf. p32.



Norvell B. DeAtkine is a retired Colonel, a graduate of West Point with an M. A. from the American University of Beirut in Arab Studies. His extensive overseas service includes combat service in Vietnam, an assignment in Korea, and 8 years in the Middle East. Among his positions held were as an artillery battalion commander and deputy commander of a Corps Artillery. Following his military service he taught for 18 years as the director of Middle East studies at the John F. Kennedy Special Warfare Center and School.

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