WASHINGTON—Last week, online media outlets used by radical Islamists posted a new message by al Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri. In it, al Qaeda — employing language clearly informed by the “Arab Spring” — presented a common mission for Islamists worldwide, representing its first credible attempt to reorient the Arab transformations toward its vision for the region. Zawahiri’s previous statements on the Arab Spring had been verbose and unremarkable, seemingly detached from the actual challenges facing Arab societies. His last communication, however, is concise, and seeks to imbue his organization with new initiative. It is not the first time that radical Islamism has attempted to change the terms of policy and discourse to its advantage.
For much of the 20th century, Arab political culture experienced the successive failures of several grand narratives promising a path to a new golden age. But modernist liberalism, nativist nationalism, and revolutionary socialism delivered only disappointment. In the early 1980s, Islamism built upon both the unfulfilled nativist and revolutionary promises of its predecessors to offer a supposed break from the compromised past. But by the late 1990s, political Islamism seemed to preside over only mayhem and destruction. With Iran, Afghanistan, and Sudan stumbling as models of political Islamism, a sober realism instilled itself across much of the Arab world. Despite endemic corruption, the autocratic Arab political order offered some dividends, including improved national infrastructure and some meager opportunities for socio-economic mobility. Then came September 11, 2001.
In an act of global jujitsu, radical Islamists plunged the world into a cascade of conflicts that provided them with multiple opportunities to increase recruitment and leverage. While prior to 9/11, Islamism had seemed slated for the long death experienced by preceding ideologies, it was able to reposition itself as the sole source of credible resistance to the West. Nearly a decade passed before the aftershocks of 9/11 could be contained. Now, with much of the leadership of violent Islamist networks decimated, the West once again focuses on its economic crises while the Arab world experiences unprecedented transformations.
In many senses, the Arab Spring represents a continuation of the political dynamics of the 1990s, interrupted by the tactical success of radical Islamist asymmetrical warfare. The slogans of protestors, from Tunis to Damascus, reflect the universalism of the civil society movement that the post–Cold War era fostered, and builds upon new forms of communication that helped cement a common Arab cultural space at the turn of the millennium. Radical Islamism was but one subculture in this pre-9/11 Arab cultural space, and the attacks on the United States may have extended its life term and enhanced its visibility. The uprisings in the Arab world proved, however, that radical Islamism has no command of the Arab street. Protestors were mobilized by peaceful challenges to autocratic rule, and called for freedom, empowerment, dignity, inclusiveness, and social justice — not the usual Islamist agenda.
For nearly two years since December 2010, Islamists of all stripes — accommodationists, radical quietists, and radical jihadists — endeavored to appropriate the Arab Spring by maximizing their considerable organizational and financial advantages. The Muslim Brotherhood was the entity best entrenched in the social fabric of the region and the democratic mission at the heart of the protests. The Brotherhood’s structural and cultural readjustment to these new developments may, however, result in fragmentation and loss of ideological coherence. Radical Islamists faced a steeper slope to regain relevance. The language of their ideologues may have evolved to absorb some new discourse, but their basic framework — rejecting universal values, the international order, and nation states — still stands in contradiction to events and opportunities in the region.
Whether due to a lack of capacity, indifference, or sheer ineptitude, the major world powers have remained largely inactive while the Syrian regime continues its quasi-genocidal repression. This, for al Qaeda, is an opportunity to re-introduce its discredited philosophy. The recent “Pledge of Commitment to Islam” imbues its ideological foundations with the spirit of the Arab Spring. Yet, whether the Pledge succeeds in reintroducing al Qaeda as a meaningful interlocutor in Arab political discourse is more a function of international resolve toward Syria than of the power of Zawahiri’s locutions.