It was a baking hot July day in Cairo and my first day in medical school. Like many well-sheltered Egyptian girls, I was shy and introspective; I decided to spend my lecture break in the female section of the university’s mosque, instead of in the public café. In hindsight, that was a turning point in my life. For the first time I was faced with the raw, unfiltered, unapologetic face of Islamism.
It was not prayer time, but the self-appointed niqabi-wearing fellow student had started a preaching session on what she claimed to be “the real Islam.” When she saw me, she was not impressed. “It’s a shame your parents opted to choose such an infidel name for you; to prove you are Muslim, at least you need to wear the hijab,” she added. For the next six years, I heard her and other “sisters and brothers” preaching about the mandatory obligation to wear a hijab, the need for segregation between male and female students, the importance of female “circumcision,” how music is forbidden in Islam, and why it is crucial to return to what they labelled the “puritan spirit of Islam.”
Yes, I heard all those Taliban-style teachings a long time ago, well before the 9/11 terror attacks in New York. Those Islamist colleagues eventually joined the various Islamist movements that spread underground in Egypt during Mubarak’s tenure. Some of them joined the Muslim Brotherhood; some joined various Salafi groups; others went to Afghanistan, and a few of them emigrated to Europe pretending to be “reformers.” The cobweb of Islamists is tangled, diverse, and multidimensional.
Islamists may differ in strategy and tactics, violent or non-violent, but all are united in one goal: Achieving a significant paradigm shift in the minds of both Muslims and non-Muslims. They aim to convince Muslims that Islamism is the real Islam, and to persuade non-Muslims that the concepts of equality and women’s rights are alien to Muslims and should not be imposed by the West.
The handover of Afghanistan to the Taliban, and naming the Taliban’s co-founder, Abdul Ghani Baradar, as one of Time Magazine’s 100 most influential people in 2021 under the “leaders” category is arguably the top real victory of Islamism as a global ideology. Both events symbolise a significant paradigm shift in the minds of top Western policy makers.
Western elites have convinced themselves that their values are alien to Muslims, at least in Afghanistan, and have been preoccupied with finding a “moderate” path, even within the most radical oppressive puritan groups such as the Taliban. Baradar represents a more moderate current within the Taliban, “one that will be thrust into the limelight to win Western support,” Time’s profile explained. As Afghan-Canadian entrepreneur Sara Wahedi tweeted: There was a clear campaign to sanitize the Taliban from the very beginning of the peace process. Think tanks vis-à-vis consultants, journalists, and “experts” were tasked with planting the seed of neutrality, at the cost of destabilizing a nation.
One might argue that the choice is merely political, because the fall of Afghanistan to the Taliban is arguably the biggest political event of 2021. Nonetheless, that “victory” of the Taliban is hardly a credit to Baradar and his clan, but is largely an American political move. It is the United States that decided to withdrew from Afghanistan, regardless of the implications of such a decision, or the negotiation skills of Mr Baradar and his team.
Shortly after Time Magazine’s prestigious selection, it was revealed how the Taliban, defying international calls for diversity, inclusion, and gender equality left women out of the line-up of ministers and deputies and accommodated few ethnic minorities. Moreover, a Taliban official has revealed that the group will once again carry out strict punishments and executions. Many Western pundits, however, claim that Baradar is moderate and that he has been ‘side-lined’ by radicals within the group on the mere basis of the flowery cheap words he uttered during his negotiations with US officials.
In an attempt to look balanced, Time Magazine also included a female Afghani entrepreneur, Roya Mahboob, in its prestigious list. But this quest for balance is farcical, to say the least. One does not put a drug dealer and an anti-addiction champion in one list, with the aim of presenting a balanced list of global influencers. Only a cruel, soulless editor can do that without a shred of shame.
Thus far, however, the success of Islamists in conquering the minds of Muslims seems limited only to their core supporters. Many have noted the images of desperate Afghanis clinging to the side of a moving US military plane leaving Kabul airport, the decisive defeat of an Islamist party in a free and fair election in Morocco, and the rising resentment against the Mullah regime in Tehran and Erdogan’s ruling party in Turkey. Even Western-based Islamist political thinkers who are applauding the Taliban did not move to Afghanistan and bask in the laws of sharia. Instead, they prefer to resume their lives enjoying the freedoms and liberties guaranteed by democratic and secular laws in the West, as Hany Ghoraba highlighted.
The battle for the soul of Islam in the modern era will continue, but despite the paradigm shift within many Western institutions in support of Islamism, such ideology will not prevail. Islamists may rule and oppress their opponents. They may also be glamorised by prestigious Western magazines. Nonetheless, their inability to provide a successful formula for governance will eventually lead to their defeat in every corner of the Muslim world.