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Politics, Society And Religion In The Middle East And North Africa – Analysis


The Arab world is one of the most volatile regions in the world and plays a central role in global politics today. (1) With its great diversity of peoples, languages, and cultures, it is also home to the fastest-growing religion in the world: Islam. (2)  Add to that immense socio-economic and political transformation, the highest percentages of youth in the world, and massive financial and strategic mineral resources, it certainly is one of the most crucial areas of global studies today.

Overview of the Arab region

The Middle East extends from Libya to the Hindu Kush, a mountainous region bordering Afghanistan and Pakistan. North Africa lies between the Mediterranean and the Sahara Desert. These two areas are home to some twenty countries where both assets and difficulties abound. (3) The assets relate to cultural, civilizational, and symbolic factors, to the wealth of hydrocarbons, (4) or to the plural character of the region from the geographical, ethnic, linguistic, demographic, political, economic, and religious points of view.

But the other side of the coin is less glamorous. Indeed, the Middle East and North Africa face a plethora of problems. Authoritarian regimes, Islamist terrorism, and conflicts are legion: insurgency in Afghanistan, inter-state conflicts (Iran-Iraq, Iraq-Kuwait), struggles for independence and civil wars (Yemen, Iraq, and Syria), the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, foreign interventions, etc. In addition, the region has a poorly diversified economy – with the exception of Israel and Turkey – that is essentially dependent on hydrocarbons; low population growth and a young population – one-third of the population is under 15 years of age – which poses enormous challenges in terms of education and employment; poorly performing agriculture; a high unemployment rate; and scarce water resources. Among the difficulties facing the region, one must point out the weakness of national unity and state legitimacy, and the fact that the national borders inherited from colonization do not correspond to ethnic and religious realities. (5)

Concerning challenges faced by Arab countries, Joël Ghazi and Ziad Abdel Samad argue vehemently that: (6)

“Arab countries that witnessed uprisings are currently at a pivotal phase. They are facing tremendous political, social and economic challenges. Indeed the different groups that took power failed to lead the transition period. They were unable to reach a consensus on the state’s new framework and to address the citizens’ immediate needs. More specifically, the objectives of the transitional period were supposed to be the elaboration of a holistic new social contract endowed with political, economic, social and cultural dimensions, as well means for implementing participatory, transparent and accountable governance.

However, due to decades of oppression and weak and unaccountable institutional structures, people in these countries have no previous experience and limited capacities to democratically manage diversities and differences; which are pre-conditions for engaging properly in political processes. Adding to that, remnants of the old regimes are still omnipresent among the political echelons and the state’s institutions: Corruption, nepotism, narrow-mindedness and grabbing of state’s institutions hinder a country’s ability to provide for citizens and to guarantee their rights.  On the other hand, violence and foreign interventions in certain countries, such as Bahrain, are preventing peaceful transition, while the turmoil in others, especially in Syria, Yemen and Libya, has taken a violent turn, one from which peace is hardly feasible and where the death toll is exponentially rising. It is also worth noting that while writing this report, tensions in Egypt and in Tunisia are on the rise and this threatens any potential consensual agreement. “

Religion, society, and politics

Islam, Christianity, and Judaism, the three monotheistic religions, coexist there. Islam, the dominant religion in the Middle East (370 million Muslims, 75% Sunni and 25% Shi’a), is an element of cohesion, but also of rivalry between its two main currents, Shi’a and Sunni. Paradoxically, the rivalries are becoming more acute as Islam gains strength in the region. The current conflicts in Iraq and Syria illustrate this. Also, geographically and territorially, diversity is both an asset and a nightmare. For example, the desert, the predominant geographic form in the region, is a commercial space (previously used by gold and slave caravans), an oil field, a favorite place for terrorist groups and trafficking of all kinds (as in the Sahel and the Sahara), as well as an area of geopolitical rivalry (between Algeria and Morocco over Western Sahara, between Saudi Arabia and Yemen over the oil slicks). (7)

In the Middle East, as in North Africa, there are many states aspiring to hegemony, but none of them is strong enough to be the undisputed leader, despite considerable assets. The strategy of Iran, the only Shiite power in the heart of the Middle East with a large population (77 million), seems to be reduced to hostility towards Israel, which it accuses of being a relay for the United States. Turkey, a member of the G20, well-positioned in Eurasia between land and sea with a diversified economy, and Israel, a country with a predominantly Jewish population and the only democracy in the region with a well-equipped and professional army, could not do better. In the Arab world, the same is true of Saudi Arabia and Egypt. In North Africa, Algeria, with its considerable energy resources, and Morocco, with its strategic and diplomatic advantages, would like to become leaders. However, the competing interactions between Algiers and Rabat pose obstacles to regional integration in the Maghreb. Moreover, all of the above countries, whether Arab or not, have to deal with the turmoil of minorities: the Iranian cultural mosaic, the Kurds in Turkey, the Palestinian enclaves in Israel or in the occupied territories, the Saharawis in Morocco, or the Kabyles in Algeria. (8)

This state of affairs leads the states of the Middle East and the Maghreb to favor bilateral relations with external powers. In any case, the strategic position of the Middle East, its symbolic stakes, and its natural resources make it, unquestionably, “the epicenter of world geopolitics” and a place of competition for world powers. While China exerts increasing influence in the region in response to its energy dependence, Russia wants to neutralize its support for Sunni radicalism in Chechnya and break the encirclement it feels it is under from the United States. The United States, for its part, wants to reduce instability, secure its oil supply, provide military defense for its suppliers such as Saudi Arabia, contain Iran, protect Israel, fight terrorism and promote democracy. (9) For their part, the European Union states are taking advantage of the colonial legacy, with the aim of warding off illegal immigration and maintaining their presence and a favorable trade balance, thanks to the export of high value-added finished products to the Middle East and North Africa, especially to the southern and eastern Mediterranean countries, which they have tried to integrate into a Euro-Mediterranean regional space. (10)

The current Islamist dynamic does not necessarily mean that the religious precepts are ready to dominate the Arab world. In Tunisia, Egypt and Libya, tensions between secular and Islamist actors continue to exist. Number of lay people and liberals question the democratic commitment of Islamists, while parties belonging to this current continue to strive to reassure their domestic adversaries and the international community of their democratic legitimacy. In Tunisia, Ennahda insists on a fundamental role that religious rules must play in the country, even as secular parties reject this direction.

Islamist ideology triumphed in the 1970s and 1980s and forced Arab secular rationalist thinkers to consider the question of authenticity and modernity. (11) Contemporary thinkers, critical of both Arab nationalism and Islamism, seek to preserve elements of the Islamic tradition, to rally the Arab-Muslim masses while adhering to the principles of modernity (rationalization, secularization…). Muhammad ʿAbid al-Jabiri (Morocco) proposed the most elaborate answer to the question of authenticity and modernity: a comprehensive critique of Arab reason in its political, epistemological, and ethical manifestations, and its reconstruction on the basis of the peripatetic philosophical heritage of Islam. (12)

The conciliation between authenticity and modernity is not unique to al-Jabiri; in the 1990s, a wave of liberal thinkers of conciliation, who defend democracy and human rights while conceding a spiritual and ethical role to Islam, became prevalent. Mohammed Jaber Al-Ansari (Bahrain) has been particularly critical of this conciliatory trend. Mohammed Daher (Lebanon) stipulates the need to return to the secular modernist experience of Mohammed Ali and Nasser. On the Islamist side, a move towards the middle way (wasatiyya), synonymous with moderation, is emerging to counter radical and fanatical Islamic thought. (13)

Secularism and Islamism

The first word revealed to the Prophet of Islam was “Read”. (14)  At the heart of this verb, conjugated in the imperative, lies the seed of secularism. This verb does not only mean “to pronounce aloud” or “to decipher”, but “to take reason as the measure in all things”.

Islam, as a religion, is not resistant to secularism, but rather has become so as an institution. In other words, it is the Muslims themselves as well as the regimes (military or religious dictatorship) that block the emergence, construction and promotion of secularism.

The lack of legitimacy – characteristic of all Arab-Muslim regimes – generates two major facts: the politicization of religion and the sacralization of politics. The first contributes (oh so much!) to the erasure of the essence of man while the second takes God for a killing machine. Faced with these obstacles, the construction of secularism requires a relentless struggle, a relentless fight and uncompromising intellectual debate. (15)

Thus, throughout the Arab world, the majority ideology that commands modernization tends to reconcile local traditions and modern values and to avoid an open debate on the question of secularism. While opposing, often fiercely, conservative and sacralizing interpretations of religion, and despite the de facto separation of spiritual and temporal powers, this ideology is careful not to talk about secularism. On the contrary, it relies on the renovation of religious interpretation to reinforce the policy of modernization and to legitimize secularization. All the aspects that Western modernity placed under the sign of secularism were defended, justified and encouraged, here, by a religious discourse reformist or nationalist. It is about a compromise and an ambiguity skilfully maintained to dissimulate the tensions and to tolerate the cohabitation of secular, semi-secular and anti-secular expressions.

The term secularism (cilmâniyya) is a latecomer to the Arabic language. Occulted today by the predominance of fundamentalists, a current of Arab-Muslim thought had, since the beginning of the 19th century, reflected on the secular, clearly distinguishing between reason and faith. There is no need to look for it in the great dictionaries, the Lisân al-carab or the Tâj al-carous. The Mounjid includes it in an appendix of words coined in the 20th century. It was only in the mid-nineteenth century that the term cilmâniyya made its appearance, surreptitiously, when it was used by the men of the Nahda (the Arab Renaissance)  to plead the cause of a distinction between the religious and civil powers. They intended to separate religion, as a personal and private belief, from politics, as a non-discriminatory public sphere, thus translating the slogan that has since gained currency: “Religion is God’s business and the homeland is everyone’s business.” They induced by this the rejection of the Ottoman sultan, who wanted to be caliph and spiritual and political leader of all Muslims wherever they are.

In fact, the word “cilmâniyya”, secularism, appeared in Arabic at the end of the 19th century, first to designate a political orientation taken by France and then, from the 1920s, by Kemalist Turkey. But if the word is the same, these two models of secularism are poles apart: in France, it is the separation of religion and the state, and in Turkey, the political and bureaucratic subordination of religion to the state. A dirty word, even an insult. Such is the perception, in most of the contemporary Arab world, of secularism. Often confused with atheism or anti-religious sentiment, it can also be associated with communism or even Judaism.

Many Muslim scholars and jurists consider Islam to be “Religion and State, belief and regime”, and therefore they refuse any “separation” or “distinction” between the temporal and the spiritual, between the state and the religion. (17) They therefore reject any project of a secular state and, for some of them, they aspire to the construction of an “Islamic state”, based on “Islamic law”. However, a number of intellectuals, including men of religion, have thought about secularism, some of them convinced that Muslims could take this step towards the distinction between the temporal and the spiritual. 

Today, in spite of the doctrinal refusal of which it is the object by the majority of Muslim scholars and jurists, secularism is still debated and, sometimes, experimented with in majority Muslim societies. It appears there as a recourse to the upheavals induced by the phenomena of secularization, or in the management of religious pluralism. The problem of secularism is also posed in a broader way for Muslims: it is not only limited to societies with a Muslim majority, but is imposed on Muslims who live in non-Muslim societies, secularized and secular states, all over the world.

The question of the relationship between Islam and secularism has so far been approached mainly in two ways. Studies are devoted to secularism and secular experiences in the framework of majority Muslim states, such as Turkey and Tunisia. The other question considered is that of the relationship of “Muslim minorities” to secularism in European countries, especially France. First, research in France on secularism in Muslim societies is often confined to the Arab-Mediterranean area, neglecting the fact that Muslims are present on all continents, the majority of them living in Asia. Secondly, studies on secularism in majority Muslim states are conducted within the national and state frameworks except for “authoritarian secularism. ” (18)

In this regard Abderrezak Dourari argues quite rightly: (19)

“The term ‘laic’ attribute of modernity in the Occident, is struck by anathema in the Arab and Islamic world. It is even curiously taken for a synonym of atheism. Mohammed Abid Al-Jâbirî ; a Moroccan philosopher, devoted a whole article about it and seems in a tactical insight probably, to want to around this strongly connoted term by suggesting to replace it by democracy, and rationalism. To show that this term excites a false problematic and is inadequate for the Arab and Islamic world, he looks for an authenticity of his in sight in ancient islamic history that of the inaugural period, precisely the episode of political conflict named “saqîfat banî sâ’ida”, relative to the prophet’s succession and the way in which this was solved ; then that of the well-directed caliphs and the way in which the succession took place under various forms ; to finally culminate in the period called ‘Mu’âwiyya’ and its famous discourse on governance rid of all theological grounds. The multiplicity of historical forms for succession in countries of Islam corroborate the effective absence of a form of state prescribed in the sacred texts (Koran and Sunna). More over a theocratic state corresponds to a political sociology that one can’t reproduce today. “

And goes on to say:

“Jâbirî is without doubt, right to affirm that Islam hasn’t a church so that one has to separate it from the state. It remains not less however, that the ‘fatw’a’ -religious decree ordered by a recognised Moslem authority- is supposed to be executed for all Moslems whatever the place of residence. Recent experiences have rendered this idea more precise. One sees it well, for the concept of supreme religious authority in a country of Islam is not the state or positive fundamental law, but it’s theocratic norm such as that under stood and represented by the nomenclatura of the ‘fuqhâ’. In fact, in these countries, the question of autonomization of the political sphere by assigning the religious sphere to the realm of private is asked today more than ever, because one mustn’t lose sight that auto censure has no doubt more efficacy than institutional censure. “

Political Islam

The Islamist ideology proposed to replace capitalist modernity is more political than theological. It does not seek to substitute religious aspirations for secular ones, but it proposes a counter-project of modernity capable of satisfying the secular aspirations of all people. The proposed Islam is, in this case, the opponent of any liberation theology. Political Islam calls for submission, not emancipation. Political Islam insists on the collective identity of Muslims, on a social application of the religion, inviting respect for the religion in its integrity. (20)

At first glance, Islam appears to be hegemonic in social activities; in reality, the word imbrication would be more appropriate because politics also exerts domination effects on religion – and on economics – and it is questionable whether Islamism is primarily a religious movement with a political objective or a political movement using religion for mobilization purposes. What is certain is that it is not a preoccupation with the sacred and it is not a party as defined by political science. It is a politico-religious reaction, expressing contradictory expectations that borrow from both modernity and tradition in undifferentiated societies. Religious discourse is strongly present throughout society with political pretensions, giving authority to everyone to pronounce on what is right or wrong, on what is legitimate and what is not. (21)

For Robbert Woltering, the Islamists strong desire to Islamise society: (22)

“For all their diversity, what all Islamist groups have in common is the desire to ‘Islamise’ society: their desire is to change the very basics of the social fabric. It is the belief of Islamists that today there is no society in the world that lives according to the principles of Islam, and that this is a bad thing. So they state their goal in religious terms: there should be more Islam in society. As to the political aspect of their desire, all Islamists have in common the conviction that sooner or later the realm of politics will have to be altered fundamentally. Islamisation may start at the bottom, or it may be implemented from above, but it is clear that any Islamisation of society cannot be complete until the existing political system of the country in question is replaced with a—usually undefined—Islamic one. Ideally, such a replacement would result in an ‘Islamic state’. Although this desired result is rarely satisfactorily defined, and the proposed road towards it varies with each separate Islamist group, the implementation of shari’a is an almost constant factor in the advocated goal of Islamisation. “

In Arab societies, the competition for power will remain violent and anarchic as long as one type of legitimacy – religious, electoral, etc. – is not accepted by the vast majority. So there is not only a struggle for power, there is also a competition between different legitimacies (historical, religious, military, electoral…) which produces a messianic or charismatic authoritarianism, depending on the case.

In non-secularized societies, political expectations are formulated in a religious language through the categories of good and evil and “us” and “them”. This assumption was tested during the anti-colonial struggle for independence by nationalist elites who found in Islam a powerful mobilizing ideology. The objective, however, was not to Islamize the colonizer, but rather to expel him in order to assert independence. The same dynamic is reproduced today with the national state accused of turning its back on the expectations of the people. One must therefore be attentive to the nature of the aspiration, beyond the language that conveys it. 

The resurgence of Islamism in the 1980s seems to be a rebirth of populism, which was undermined by the corrupt practices of government officials. Having deserted the spheres of the state, populism, born of the anti-colonial struggle, found refuge in the mosques where it drew new strength. (23)  These considerations make it necessary to be cautious in the political analysis of Muslim societies, because it would be truncated if it only retained the language of the actors, i.e. if it took their conscience for the reality of their social being. (24)

At the end of the 19th century, the first movement describing itself as Salafi developed among historians and so-called reformist Muslim intellectuals, whose leading figures were the Persian Jamal ad-Din al-Afghani, the Egyptian Mohammed Abduh, and the Syrian Rachid Ridha. They advocated a return to the sources of Islam in order to oppose a double existential threat: European colonization and the Ottoman presence. Elitist and resolutely modernist, this first Salafist current is at the origin of the creation of the Muslim Brotherhood by Hassan al-Banna in 1928. (25)

Thus, the Muslim Brotherhood wants to be in the continuity of the reformers of the previous decades. In this, they maintain that Islam must set the guidelines for their society and that they are opposed to the blind imitation of the European model. They wanted to be innovative, not by inventing a new Islam, but by strengthening and sticking to dogmatic religious principles. To do this, the movement gives a significant place to home-grown ijtihad, an effort of reflection for the interpretation of religious texts by adopting severe interpretations. The ijtihad depends largely on the Islamic jurisprudence adopted fiqh and allows, or not, to go towards certain innovations bid’a. Finally, if the Brothers have remained close to Sufism for a long time, their doctrine has gradually pushed them away from pietism in favor of political and social commitment. In particular, they were opposed to the secularization movement that was then taking place in Egypt. (26)

The main guidelines of the movement were established during the twentieth century and were based on three characteristics:

  • A conservative Islam, which claims to be the reformist Salafism mentioned above.;
  • A program of Islamization from below with proselytism based on the social values of Islam: equality, charity, and sharing. Finally,
  • Legalism; and
  • The condemnation of violence.

In parallel, Salafism was born in Saudi Arabia in the 1920s. The latter, rejecting rationalism, has an antipathy to the Salafi theologians of the 19th century, with whom it should not be confused. It claims to be the heir of the thought of the thirteenth-century theologian, Ibn Taymiyya, as well as that of the founder of Wahhabism, Mohammed Ben Abd al-Wahhab (18th century). As early as 1936, the Saudi authorities claimed the term “Salafism” instead of “Wahhabism”.

The two main currents of Sunni Islamism were thus born at the end of the 19th and the beginning of the 20th century and, already, significant ideological-religious divergences are visible. In order to understand its fundamentalist or modernist character, the study of a current of thought in Islam requires looking at the place it gives to ijtihad. This is the effort of reflection that believers undertake to interpret the founding texts of Islam. While the modernist Salafists of the late 19th century advocated a reinterpretation of the Qur’an and Sunnah in accordance with the principles of scientific rationality and liberal governance, contemporary Salafists, rejecting rationalism, are said to follow the Hanbali school, which advocates a rigorous literal reading of the texts without interpretation. (27)

The role of religion in Arabs’ transitions

Long before the “Arab Spring”, religion was recognized as an essential force in Arab political life. 2011 election results confirm that the (relatively) free elections that took place in the Arab world make to appear strong popular support for political Islam, as one had already seen in Algeria in 1990, in Egypt in 2005 and in the Palestinian territories in 2006. 

In 2011, new Islamist parties emerged and others, already firmly established, consolidated their positions. In Tunisia, Ennahda won the biggest number of seats in parliament. In Egypt, the Muslim Brotherhood and several Salafist parties together captured two-thirds of the seats in the Legislative Assembly. The role of Islamist forces in Yemen remains uncertain, but their influence in Libya is obvious. In Jordan and Morocco, Islamist political actors play an increasingly important role. The victory of the Justice and Development Party (PJD) in the Moroccan elections of 2011 led to the nomination for the first time in the country of an Islamist prime minister. (28)

The fact that the Arab world is predominantly Muslim does not mean that it must automatically adopt Islamic rule or reject secularism. Islamists benefit from their exclusion and/or persecution by the deposed rulers. The search for strong alternatives to the old regime has encouraged people to support sectarian parties. Their history of opposition to and persecution by recently overthrown authoritarian regimes has given the Islamist movements credibility and legitimacy, which they used to great effect in their election campaigns. Meanwhile, it may be that liberal and secular parties may have lost ground for not opposing in a sufficiently vigorous manner the former rulers.

For decades, the rulers of the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) controlled the religious sphere in their countries, either by influencing, as was the case with Egypt’s al-Azhar University and the Muftis in Saudi Arabia and Syria, or by direct interference, as in Iraq under Saddam Hussein, as well as in Jordan, Algeria, Morocco and Libya. However, efforts to eliminate sectarian-based political parties and the use of religion did not diminish its popularity. It became in the public imagination a distinctive feature of movements that challenged authoritarian governments, by whom they were persecuted because of their fear of them. 

The defiant attitude of these religious groups brought them a popularity which was reinforced by their charitable and social activities. The Islamists presented their charitable activities as filling the gaps created by the government’s negligence. For them, this proved that religious movements were best suited to alleviate social and economic ills, as expressed in the Muslim Brotherhood’s slogan “Al- Islâm huwa al-Hall” (Islam is the solution). (29) Thus, when the Arab Spring began to spread throughout the region, the Islamist parties were able to argue that they were the only alternatives to authoritarian rule. This image, combined with access to foreign funds, which originated primarily in Qatar and Saudi Arabia, gave the Islamists a clear advantage in the elections that followed.

Westerners generally consider a strict separation of state and religion as a prerequisite for the establishment of a democratic political system. However, this view is not viable in the context of the MENA region, where religion cannot yet be excluded from the public domain. The divide between confessional and secular political actors in the Middle East is an illusion. Progressive and theoretically secular parties do not isolate themselves from religious beliefs. Any attempt to definitively exclude religion from public and political life would be met with a public outcry. (30) Secularism is not necessarily desirable for the region either, insofar as religion can act as a powerful force for national cohesion, for example by providing a common ground between conservatives and liberals. This is partly because according to the Islamic faith, membership in the Islamic community (ummah) transcends any connection to a nation-state.

The Arab Spring crystallizes geopolitical rivalries between the Muslim Brotherhood and the Salafists

Political Islam was already represented before the emergence of the Arab revolts by political formations that can be described as Islamic-conservative. This qualification had been used to designate Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP), sometimes a source of inspiration for certain formations in Arab countries. In Egypt, before 2011, if it is not allowed to participate directly in the electoral polls, the Muslim Brotherhood Organization is represented in Parliament through other formations of Brotherhood inspiration in the legislative elections (in 2005, this movement won 20% of the seats). In Morocco, the Party for Justice and Development (PJD) is part of the same ideological movement but presents itself as a national party. It has participated in legislative elections since 1997 and became the leading opposition party a few years later. In Algeria, the Movement of Society for Peace (MSP) became the main opposition party. It claims to be based on the Brotherhood’s ideology and participated in various governments in the 2000s. In Yemen and Libya, Islamist groups entered the political game, without becoming the majority. Finally, in Gaza, Hamas, created in 1987, is part of the Muslim Brotherhood movement. It won parliamentary elections in 2006. (31)

The Muslim Brotherhood thus imposed itself as a pole of stability during the Arab Spring. The old Brotherhood was well established in most of the countries of the region and had political experience and even experience of power for certain branches. The democratization brought about by the Arab springs logically enough brought the parties that are part of the Brotherhood to power in new countries: in Morocco, Tunisia, and Egypt. One thing seems to be clear everywhere: it seems impossible to democratize without including the Muslim Brotherhood in the political game.

This seizure of power by the brothers is supported by the Turkish-Qatari axis. The AKP, which combines Muslim ethics with the spirit of capitalism, was a reference point for Washington under President Obama. For the gas-rich but sparsely populated Qatari emirate, it is an opportunity to have demographic relays that will enable it to stand up to its powerful Saudi neighbor, which on the contrary sees the Brotherhood as its major rival for the hegemony of Arab Sunnism. For Ankara, support for the Muslim Brotherhood has a double logic. On the one hand, it is a question of encouraging the emergence of Islamist governments, responding to a base of common values. On the other hand, it is a way to have a relay of regional influence capable of encouraging Turkey’s hegemonic ambitions. This game of regional power rivalries led to a diplomatic and economic rupture between Doha and Riyadh in July 2017.

The Salafists are therefore used by counter-revolutionary forces to reduce the influence of the Muslim Brotherhood wherever possible. The Brotherhood was dissolved in several countries (Egypt in 2014, Jordan in 2020) or the Salafist networks were able to occupy a political space that had become vacant. While Saudi Arabia exerts a diffuse influence on the Salafist nebula in the Arab and Muslim world, Riyadh’s control over them remains limited, which explains the risk of “jihadization” of Salafist lands. For example, Salafism is doubly represented in Tunisia, on the one hand by small groups represented in the National Assembly, and on the other by dissidents from Ennahdha who have created an organization that advocates violence, Ansar ash-Shari’a, which is listed as a terrorist organization.

Second, according to the U.S. NGO Coptic Solidarity (2017), Egypt is increasingly becoming an “ecosystem” conducive to jihadist violence. President Sissi is allowing Salafists to dominate the public sphere, spreading their hate speech in state media and school curricula. This leads to increasing violence against Egypt’s Coptic Christian minority. The eradication of Christian festivals and places of worship being a constant in the Salafist doctrine, the jihadists implement it simultaneously in all the territories they control (Syria, Libya, Iraq, Egypt). Under the regime of Sissi, jihadism has begun to proliferate again, particularly in the Sinai Peninsula. (32)

Faced with the Arab Spring, the reaction is therefore centered on military or civilian autocrats (Sissi, Haftar, Hadi) and Salafist political parties. They are supported by Saudi Arabia and its allies, who see the Muslim Brotherhood as an existential threat. Indeed, it is likely to challenge the religious and political legitimacy of the Saudi monarchy. Close to its regional competitors, the Muslim Brotherhood advocates a political model that threatens the durability of Saudi hereditary monarchical power. In addition, they challenge the legitimacy of the Saudi monarchy to rule over the holy sites of Mecca and Medina.

Arab Springs and the democratization process

Because of the great chaos, they generated in the region, the Arab Springs were quickly considered a failure. With the notable exception of Tunisia, these revolts led to civil wars (Syria, Libya, Yemen) or strict authoritarian backlashes (Egypt, Bahrain). In the eyes of the West, they even had the bad taste of putting the societies of the region in a dilemma: authoritarianism or Islamist dictatorship? However, this overly simplistic analysis deserves to be qualified insofar as the Arab Springs deserve to be understood in the long term. (33)

The Arab Springs began in late 2010. They stemmed from the demand of the liberal youth for an in-depth reform of their country’s political system and of a part of the population for improved economic development and social justice. From then until the summer of 2011, the process led to three different scenarios:

  • The timid protest movements in Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Jordan, and Algeria were quickly curbed;
  • Elsewhere, communal rivalries exploded in states where social cohesion was only a facade: in Yemen, Syria, and Libya; and
  • Finally, the Arab Spring led to a democratic transition that resulted in the political integration of Islamist parties derived from the Muslim Brotherhood in Tunisia, Egypt, and Morocco. Within a year, democratic elections were held in these three countries. However, the culture of democracy has not yet been achieved, as electoral practice alone is not enough to establish it. In Egypt, the Islamists have taken hold at all levels and won the parliamentary elections in January 2012 and the presidential elections in June. But their inexperience with power and lack of strategic vision cost them their legitimacy: they were overthrown in July 2013. Conversely, Islamist parties have obtained a lasting parliamentary majority in Tunisia and Morocco: without ever governing, Ennahdha has become the leading political force in Tunisia, while the PJD has headed the Moroccan government since 2011 until 2021.

Despite the return and modernization of authoritarian models coupled with the use of Salafist religious conservatism as a tool to control emancipation demands, the democratization process initiated by the Arab Springs has not disappeared. New visible or clandestine spaces of protest exist today, and the revolutionary experience continues to act thanks to a generation that has not consumed its youth. The construction of a truly democratic culture requires, among other things, the structuring of civil society, an awareness of its citizenship, and the overcoming of ethnic and religious divisions. These themes have animated the many demonstrations that have emerged again in Tunisia and Morocco in 2018, and that have shaken Algeria, Iraq, Lebanon, and Sudan in 2019. Thus, the democratization process has not said its last word. The Arab springs are infusing the societies of the region and are bound to cause new upheavals. This is why we cannot speak of the “failure” of Arab Springs. History is not over. (34)

National developments and regional outlook

It is true that the Arab springs did not immediately generate a genuinely democratic culture, but they did give concrete expression to democratic practices. They have opened up a new space for visible or invisible speech that authoritarian regimes are trying to curb by various means. On the population side, there is a growing structuring of civil societies, an awareness of citizenship, and an overcoming of ethnic and religious divisions. The demand for citizenship, and the rights that flow from it, are among the slogans that are regularly heard in demonstrations from Baghdad to Beirut. The process of democratization of societies and their ruling classes is infusing the countries of the region at unequal speeds. When the political regime allows it, the Brotherhood formations are also developing their democratic culture. A “post-Islamism” hybrid between its Islamist origins and the democratic system would then find its place in the wake of the “Arab springs”. (35)

We have seen that where free elections have been held, their results have shown that the Brotherhood-inspired formations are a significant political force in the region. However, their political integration is not self-evident and, after the hopes raised by the Arab Springs, the reactions against democratization have limited their integration. Currently, the Muslim Brotherhood is considered a terrorist organization by Egypt, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Syria, and Bahrain. In July 2020, the Jordanian branch of the organization was banned. Yet it appears that by closing the path to democracy, authoritarian powers are providing indirect, but very real, support to the most radical organizations. (36)

The return and strengthening of dictatorial governments, embodied by the figure of al-Sissi in Egypt, and the repression against the Brotherhood, risk fueling more radical Islamism. The assimilation of the Muslim Brotherhood with jihadist terrorist organizations (Islamic State, al-Qaeda) is driving many Brotherhood militants underground. This amalgamation strengthens the arguments of radical movements that hope to recruit among the Brotherhood’s supporters who are most inclined to turn to violence. In an even more pessimistic scenario, in the same way as with Said Qutb in the 1960s, the Brotherhood could see an internal split of one of its branches ready to embrace jihadism.

The attitude of the leader of the jihadist network al-Qaeda, Ayman al-Zawahiri, speaks for such a move. This Egyptian religious figure has long vilified the Brotherhood, notably in a document entitled “The Bitter Harvest”, in which he describes the Muslim Brotherhood as “traitors” and “apostates”. He criticized them for being accomplices of ungodly political regimes that accept secularism and democracy. Moreover, in 1992, he joined Hassan at-Turabi in Khartoum in an attempt to form an international rival to the Muslim Brotherhood by bringing together all the radicals. Al-Zawahiri may not have forgotten this project when he addressed the Egyptian Brotherhood in the aftermath of al-Sissi’s coup of July 3, 2013, telling them in essence: we told you so, the democratic path is blocked.

Despite criticism of their authoritarian tendencies (shared with many other political forces in the region), their sectarianism, or their neoliberal economic agenda, it is undeniable that the Muslim Brotherhood is now part of the political landscape, and if repressing them sets back democracy, it does not set back their ideas. On the contrary, by demonizing them, one forgets the difficulties they had in governing when they were in power between 2012 and 2013 with Mohamed Morsi as president. Thus, in the eyes of the population, the illusion persists. The more repression and demonization there is, the more the myth, the fantasy of the Muslim Brotherhood, remains intact.

According to a survey, a third of the Egyptian population continues to have a positive view of the Brotherhood despite the official communication of the regime. While it may appear to be effective, the strategy of banning, criminalizing, repressing, and demonizing the Muslim Brotherhood may prove to be double-edged. On the one hand, it does not reduce the social influence of the Brotherhood, and on the other hand, it risks pushing its members towards a more radical vision of their commitment.

In parallel, the Salafist movements are not in the same boat. At the call of the culamas close to the Saudi regime, a good number of Salafists have distanced themselves from the Muslim Brotherhood by stripping their religiosity of any protest expression. The Salafist movement, which has its origins in the Hanbali school of jurisprudence, is predominantly quietist and advocates obedience to any ruler, even one who is “corrupt and autocratic,” as long as he does not refuse to call himself a Muslim. Thus, from Yemen to Egypt or Morocco, the Salafists, in many respects less modernist than the Brotherhood, have paradoxically been able to win the favor of regimes reputed to be modernizers, which saw in this electoral abstinence an instrument for weakening their opposition.

Interaction of society and Islam

Cultural westernization refers to the propagation of modes of thought placed under the sign of scientific rationality but also of economic calculation, without forgetting the legal dimension. The rights related to the status of the human person become objects of democratic claims and are associated with a form of individualism that is found in the demand for the right to individual dignity. (37)

Faith, for its part, is increasingly seen as an integral part of the personal, rather than the social and traditional, sphere. All this is the result of the cultural westernization that is taking place on a planetary scale in an uneven but definite way, and which is reflected in the figures of the survey that you mention.

But this process of cultural mutation is not without its counterpart. It generates an identity, religious and political reaction.  It is this rejection of Western penetration that is reflected in re-Islamization.

The societies of the Arab world have undergone profound shocks and considerable changes: (38)

  1. Strong demographic growth over the past forty years; 
  2. Illiteracy in some countries, including the most populous of them all, Egypt; 
  3. Youth unemployment; 
  4. Sudden arrival of modernity, via television and the internet (including social networks); and
  5. Massive waves of migration.

Most of the time, we find at the center of these challenges the eminent role of women. It is certainly the woman who will make these societies evolve in the long run, because the mother transmits the values and organizes the life in community.

One of the main currents of thought in the Arab renaissance Nahda is Islamic reformism, which is expressed in many ways. Muslim reformism, first of all, is part of a tradition established by a Hadîth of the Prophet according to which each century would see a new iHyâ’, a “revivifier” of Islam: it is thus a question of reforming Islam itself. Thinkers such as Rifa’a al-Tahtawi (1801-1873), Jamâl ad-Dîn al-Afghâni (1839-1897) and Muhammad ‘Abduh (1849-1905) advocated a “purification” of Islam by returning not to the letter but to the spirit of the fundamental texts, namely the Qur’an and the Sunnah.

It is not a question of denying the Muslim tradition in order to import foreign ideas and institutions, but rather of reflecting on how Islam – the foundation of Ottoman society – can reform itself in the light of these new ideas. This reformist ideal has, in the Muslim world, an always positive connotation: the word ‘islâH, which means “reform”, is the corollary of progress, of not only social, but also religious and moral advancement. (39)

Rifa’a al-Tahtâwî thus enjoins the culama to adapt the sharica to the circumstances: it is thus a certain flexibility that is put forward. Muhammad ‘Abduh, who taught at al-Azhar from 1877 onwards, advocated individual ijtihâd: those who had a certain amount of knowledge had to modernize the interpretation of the Qur’an in order to answer questions on which the texts were too vague. The Muslim reformers, in their diversity, thus intend to affirm the compatibility of Islam and modernity.

If the reformism of the Nahda is often Muslim, we are also witnessing an increasingly important reflection on the question of secularism. Imported from Europe, the concept of secularism is very new in a world that is both deeply structured by Islam and marked by multi-culturalism, (40) institutionalized in the Ottoman Empire through the millet system. Lebanese Christians play an important role in this question, but Muslims also reflect on it – for example Qasîm Amîn (1863-1908) or Lutfi al-Sayyid (1872-1963).


A look at the early beginnings of the religion quickly reveals that there are already inter-ethnic conflicts within Islam as early as the second century. The developments are very tense. There are even conflicts that emerge between people of non-Arab ethnic origins, who converted to Islam more than a generation ago. They just want to be treated equally, but they are having a hard time gaining political power.

Within the Muslim world, a kind of ethnic segregation was practiced at the time. Muslim Arabs had more privileges than Malawi, that is, non-Arab Muslims. The three important early periods – those of the early caliphs (632-661), the Umayyads (661-750), and the Abbasids (750-1258) – are colored by Arab hegemony.

The concept of ethnicity in the Arab world needs to be clarified. The majority of Arabs are Sunni Muslims. Some subgroups differ in religion, but are Arab in language and culture (Arab Christians and Jews); others differ by sect (Shi’a Muslims), others by language or culture (Kurds, Amazigh/Berbers, who are predominantly Sunni Muslims, but also include Shiites), and others by a combination of several factors (populations of southern Sudan, various groups that have fled persecution in Europe). (41)

A single concept of ethnicity can hardly bring out the most fundamental aspect in all these situations. Especially since the differences between some of these groups are not cultural differences. The historical minorities in the Arab world, those who were already present before independence and whose language is Arabic, are often referred to as “ethno-confessional” or “ethno-religious” to emphasize that it is religion that is the basis of their “ethnic” specificity. These various communities have in common language and culture – the fact that they have retained many of the characteristics of traditional: patriarchal societies. (42)

The ethno-confessional group in the Arab world is the most important group in the world, and it is the most important group in the world. The ethno-confessional group in the Arab world is a “natural” extension of the extended family. It is possible to mobilize powerful solidarities which allow the survival of the individual. As Elisabeth Picard7 points out these communities share the same structures and, to a large extent, the same social values; they differ very little in culture. In many cases, the distinctions between these communities pass between clans and tribes of the same ethnic group. The ethnic group, for the historical communities, is much more related to the patriarchal structure of these communities.

The MENA region is located at the intersection of four major geo-linguistic areas: (43)

1-The Arabic cultural area (a Semitic language) is the most widespread: it counts about 200 million speakers and is also spoken outside the region, notably in the Maghreb. Arabic enjoys a privileged status insofar as the Arab ethnic group has a specific relationship with Islam. It is the language of “Revelation”, the language of God. It is in Arabic that in the Muslim world the Qur’an is chanted. Within the Arab world, there are numerous ethno-linguistic minorities. Aramaic (or Syriac), a language that predates Arabization, is still used in some communities in Syria, Lebanon and Iraq. This is the case of the Circassians and Turkmen in Iraq and Syria, who were driven out of the Caucasus by the Russian conquest in the 19th century; of the Armenians who fled repression in 1915; and, more recently, of the Jews who settled in Palestine in the 20th century. 

2-The Turkish cultural area. The Ural-Altaic languages are very varied. The main one, Turkish of Turkey (75 million speakers), has had a Latin alphabet since 1923. Other Turkish languages or idioms are spoken by minorities of unequal importance: the Azeris (10 million in Azerbaijan, 14 million in Iran), the Turkmen of Iraq or Iran. 

3-The Persian cultural area. Persian is an Indo-European language written in the Arabic alphabet. Its cultural area extends far beyond the Middle East into Central Asia: Afghanistan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan. An important ethnolinguistic minority, the Kurds (probably 40 million speakers), is found at the intersection of these three major cultural areas. The Kurdish people are divided among four states: Turkey, Iraq, Iran and Syria. 

4-The Amazigh/Berber cultural area in North Africa known among the autochthonous Berber population as Tamazgha. When the Muslim Arabs brought Islam to Ifriquia in 656 with Uqbah Ibn Nafi, only very few settled in the area. It is the Berbers who took upon themselves to spread Islam in the Iberian Peninsula under the commandership of the able general Tariq Ibnou Zayyad in 711, after whom Gibraltar is named (Jabal Târiq), and the Almoravids and Almohads to arabize the population and spread Islam south in Africa. Today, North Africa knows a revival of Amazigh ethnicity and the governments of Morocco and Algeria have officially recognized the language and the ethnicity and in Libya, for now, the ethnicity. (44)

The Sunni-Shia conflict

The Sunni-Shiite conflict has been the breeding ground for conflicts in the Near and Middle East since the early 1980s. The Sunni/Shiite divide is primarily a theological divide. The 656 schism between Sunnis and Shiites was reactivated by the Iranian revolution of 1979. Today, Daech claims to be a Sunni Muslim, the majority of Islam. Its most determined enemies are the Shiites, whether in Iran or in Iraq. But in the complicated East, where Islam is dominant, the Sunni/Shiite divide also hides rivalries between powers, social and national issues.

The split of Islam into three branches has its roots in the early history of the religion. In the course of time, the divergences concerning both dogma and rites became more pronounced. It was in 656, with the advent of the fourth caliph, successor to the Prophet Muhammad, that the community of believers (ummah) was divided. Ali, the fourth caliph, although son-in-law and cousin of the prophet, was not unanimously accepted. As soon as he was appointed, Ali’s legitimacy was questioned. The governor of Damascus, Moawiya, accused him of having been involved in the murder of his predecessor. He raised an army against the new Caliph. This army was defeated but Ali, after hesitating, granted him a truce. This truce was rejected by opponents who wanted to secede (the Kharijites). The latter are partisans of a meritocratic caliphal succession. One of them assassinated Ali in 661. There are still Kharijite minorities in Tunisia (Djerba), Algeria and Libya.

After the assassination of Ali, Moawiya proclaimed himself caliph and established a dynastic caliphate faithful to the tradition (sunnah) of the Prophet. Ali’s sons Hassan and Hussein refused to pledge allegiance to Moawiya, probably for political reasons but mostly for religious and spiritual reasons, which gave birth to Shiism. The difference will gradually become doctrinal. In this way, the Shi’ites were able to develop their own interpretative efforts (itjtihâd), as soon as Islam broke up (fitnah) into three branches in the seventh century (Kharijites, Sunnis and Shi’ites). It is this itjtihad that inspired the constitutionalists in Iran in 1916 or that installed Ayatollah Khomeini at the head of the Islamic Republic in 1979, after his return from exile in France.

The Sunnis put an end to this effort of interpretation as early as the 11th century by retaining only four legal and theological schools, which are still authoritative today (Malekite, Shafiite, Hanbalite and Hanafi). These schools are part of the tradition of the first Muslims. Malekism is in the majority in North Africa, Egypt and Sudan. Shafiites are also present in Egypt, Indonesia, Malaysia, Yemen and the Sultanate of Brunei. The Hanbalites, the most conservative of the four, are mainly present in Saudi Arabia and Qatar. They affirm the divine origin of law. The Hanafites accept personal opinion when an answer cannot be found in the original sources of Islam. They are very present in Turkey, in the former Ottoman Empire and in the Asian regions located east of Iran (Afghanistan, Tajikistan, Pakistan, India and Bangladesh). In 2016, a council of more than 200 Sunni dignitaries reaffirmed the Hanafi’s membership in the larger Sunni community. (45)

Today 85% of the world’s Muslims are Sunni, 13% are Shi’a and 2% are Kharijite or minority branches of Shi’a. For Sunnis, man is entirely subject to God (Allah) in his essence and in his becoming. For Shiites, man is free and responsible for his actions. The clergy is non-existent in the Sunnites whereas it is very hierarchical in the Shiites. The imam is a Sunni official appointed to lead the community prayer, whereas he is the head of the community in the Shi’a. The rank of clerics in the Shiite community depends on their level of theological study. Among the Shiites, since the beginning, the believer, if he is in danger, is allowed to conceal his true faith and, in this case, he is exempted from the cultic prescriptions of his religion.

The modern confrontation between Sunnis and Shiites was exacerbated in the 16th century with the establishment of the Sunni Ottoman Empire fighting the Shiite Persian Empire. Since then, there has been a certain amount of tension between these two obediences. The 19th century was characterized by two contradictory movements: ecumenical on the one hand, but also identity-based. However, until the Iranian Islamic revolution of 1979, the Shiite/Sunni opposition remained secondary in the Muslim world, where national and social issues predominated. (46)

Since the installation of the Islamic Republic in Iran in 1979, the Shiites have been gaining ground all over the world, from Pakistan to India, from Afghanistan to China, in Yemen, in southern Lebanon (with Hezbollah), in Syria (where the Alawites have been in power since 1966) and in Iraq, where they were strengthened after the American invasion in 2003. The Iranians control the Persian Gulf and the Strait of Hormuz, through which nearly 20% of the world’s oil passes.

Iran has thus become the “homeland” of Shi’ism, the equivalent of what Arabia has long been for Sunnism, even if, for the latter, this role is somewhat contested in the Sunni world by Qatar and Egypt. Despite their small numbers, the Shiites represent a threat to Sunnis in the Arabian Peninsula and beyond. They control Sannaa, the capital of Yemen. They are concentrated in the oil-rich region of the Saudi kingdom. 70% of the population of Bahrain is Shiite, 30% in Kuwait, 27% in the United Arab Emirates. Many Sunnis feel that the Shiites are trying to take over the whole of Islam. In reaction, for example, the Sunni jihadists who defeated the Soviets in Afghanistan quickly theorized their victory to turn against their two other great enemies: the Americans and the Shiites. (47)


Religion has an important role to play in the MENA region. Religious authorities and religious influences dominate in Tunisia and Egypt, a situation that could be replicated Libya and Yemen. Elections in Morocco confirmed the rise of influence of Islamist leaders in the country. Lebanon may be an exception, even though religion is a major reference point for the 18 communities in the country. Western-style secularism is not a realistic option in these countries at the moment. The integration of religious principles into a genuinely democratic order will be one of the major challenges facing these societies in the coming decades.

Finally, it should be remembered that while the ban on the forms of political Islam that the Brotherhood parties embody is one of the conditions leading to the emergence and development of jihadist movements, it is by no means the only one. Socio-economic problems, frustration with great inequality, and corruption are often at the forefront of the causes of the spread of violent ideologies.

In light of this, Egypt today can be considered to have a number of factors that could lead to an increase in jihadist risk and a deterioration of its security situation in the coming years. Moreover, the countries of Central Asia (Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan in particular) are characterized by their strict authoritarianism, leaving little room for forms of political expression, and fragile economies that are often based on hydrocarbon revenues. Therefore, at a time of Islamic revival in Central Asia, they also constitute a potential focus for the proliferation of Salafist-jihadist ideology.

This does not mean, however, that religion will remain the dominant political factor in the long run. Religious parties have taken advantage of their position as serious alternatives to the old regimes, but in the absence of the contrast offered by the authoritarian regimes they have replaced, they will be judged on their performance. If they succeed in charting a better course for their country, they may remain in power for many years. If they fail, however, they will be held accountable. The next round of elections in the young Arab democracies will be a good indicator of the likely longevity of the Islamist political trend. The funding that the international community makes available to countries in transition may also determine the success of Islamist governments that come to power. It could also affect their policies, depending on whether the international community insists on conditionality in exchange for its assistance.

The objectives, as well as the ideological and political influences, of these parties may lead them to choose from a range of political models, from the so-called “Turkish model,” where religious freedom is guaranteed even though a religious party is in power, to a theocratic model such as that of Iran. That said, in the decades since the Iranian revolution, societies have evolved considerably, as has the Islamist ideology itself. Popular calls for change have been based on norms that include the recognition of religious and political pluralism. A growing majority of the population in many Arab countries is young, and few of these young people appear to be willing to merge politics and religion at an institutional level. A move towards a Saudi or Iranian model is therefore possible, but rigid theocratic structures seem unlikely to prevail in the long run.

The most urgent challenge for the MENA region is the building of new modern states that guarantee citizenship and human rights, including freedom of conscience. To ensure the success of this endeavor, the new leaders must strive to encourage transparent and honest parliamentary debate. They must also heed the advice and recommendations of the international community for a peaceful transition and good governance, the maintenance of free and open democratic processes, and the improvement of economic conditions.

You can follow Professor Mohamed Chtatou on Twitter: @Ayurinu

End notes:

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Dr. Mohamed Chtatou

Dr. Mohamed Chtatou is a Professor of education science at the university in Rabat. He is currently a political analyst with Moroccan, Gulf, French, Italian and British media on politics and culture in the Middle East, Islam and Islamism as well as terrorism. He is, also, a specialist on political Islam in the MENA region with interest in the roots of terrorism and religious extremism.

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