(Source: Reuters)

(Source: Reuters)

Middle East Autocrats, Islamophobia, and “Reverse Orientalism”

Published on 15 Jun 2023

The legacies of entrenched orientalist frameworks and dispositions continue to influence  scholarship and discussions of the Middle East and Muslims. In his iconic work on the subject, Orientalism, Edward Said defined this notion as “a Western style for dominating, restructuring, and having authority over the orient.” The hegemonic position of the West, coupled with an epistemological and ontological distinction made between the “Occident” (West) and the “Orient” (East), has allowed the former to dictate scholarship on the latter. Through the production of knowledge, orientalism has propagated, reinforced, and reproduced narratives dominated by stereotypes and prejudiced generalizations that have subsequently shaped academic and policy conversations regarding the Middle East and those who live within the region.

The ideas that the people of the Middle East are not “ready” for democracy, or that Islam is not “compatible” with a democratic system of governance are some of the most prominent orientalist tropes that have permeated academic and policy debates concerning the Middle East for decades. Such reasoning was historically weaponized to justify Western imperialism and colonialism in the region and simultaneously led to Western policymakers viewing authoritarian actors in the Middle East as the best guarantors of “stability” and the actors most capable of advancing the interests of Western political elites in the region. Such views are well captured by Bernard Lewis, who argued at the beginning of the Arab uprisings in 2011 that democracy is “a political concept that has no history, no record whatever in the Arab, Islamic world…they [Arabs and Muslims] are simply not ready for free and fair elections.”

However, such stereotypes and generalizations are often mirrored by political elites in the Middle East who maintain a vested interest in the sustainment of the undemocratic status quo. Some of the loudest voices arguing that the Middle East or Muslims are not “equipped” for democracy are the autocratic governments that dominate the region politically, economically, and socially. For example, the President of the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Mohammed bin Zayed (MbZ), expressed in a leaked U.S. diplomatic cable that “the Middle East…is not California,” explaining that “while members of the U.S. Congress and Senate are loyal to their states and their constituencies, the masses in the Middle East would tend to go with their hearts and vote overwhelmingly for the Muslim Brotherhood and the jihadists represented by Hamas and Hezbollah.” Similarly, in a 2011 interview with CNN following the Arab Uprisings, the ruler of Dubai, Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al-Maktoum, stated “we have our own democracy. You cannot transport your democracy to us.”

It is imperative to recognize how these local actors weaponize a form of “reverse orientalism” to maintain support from their Western allies and benefactors. These efforts are designed to reproduce and perpetuate the “myth of authoritarian stability” that has underpinned Western, particularly U.S., policy toward the Middle East. Central to this strategy of “reverse orientalism” weaponized by Middle East autocrats is the strategic promulgation and manipulation of Islamophobia. Western fears and misunderstandings of Islam are easily exploited by Middle East autocrats – as well as religious scholars and institutions connected to these regimes – who depict themselves as the only actors capable of guaranteeing regional “stability” in the fight against “extremism.” Critical here is the construction of arbitrary categories of what Mahmoud Mamdani referred to as “good” and “bad” Muslims. The Islam that autocratic regimes in the Middle East practice and promote is presented to the West as “good” and “moderate,” and is designed to depict these governments as the best – perhaps only – partners capable of working with the West to combat “bad” and “extremist” Islam.

By keeping conversations centered around the supposed “deficiencies” of the people of the Middle East or Islam, these autocrats are able to deflect attention from how their authoritarian policies are often the underlying catalysts for regional instability while sustaining Western support their own authority and painting any change to the prevailing status quo as “extreme.” By equating all forms of religious or political practice and interpretation outside of state control as forms of “radicalism,” these autocrats seek to repress any who challenge the status quo under the guise of preserving “moderation” and “stability.”

Islamophobia and “Reverse Orientalism” after the Arab Uprisings

Middle East autocrats are experts at exploiting these orientalist frameworks and Islamophobia more generally within the West to advance their own interests. The roughly 12 years since the Arab uprisings exemplifies this strategy of “reverse orientalism” and how these autocrats seek to sway discourse surrounding politics and religion in the region, as well as Western policies, in their own favor.

The Arab uprisings represented an existential threat to the political, economic, and military elites in the region who have sought to uphold the illiberal status quo that has dominated the Middle East for decades. The wave of mass mobilization that swept the region in 2011 and toppled several regimes dealt incredible damage to the domestic legitimacy of the authoritarian old guard, with almost every country in the region witnessing some form of protest calling for political, economic, and/or social change. Fear amongst the region’s ruling elites intensified as mass mobilization deposed dictators in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, and Yemen; seriously challenged government control in Syria and Bahrain (resulting in direct external intervention to save these regimes); and spurred calls for change in Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Morocco, and other states.

A significant outcome of the Arab Uprisings was the rise to power and increased prominence of political Islamists in the wake of this mobilization, despite these actors not having led or initiated the uprisings. Mainstream Islamists – specifically the Muslim Brotherhood (MB) and its regional offshoots – rose to power peacefully in both Tunisia and Egypt in 2011 (as well as in Morocco, albeit in a monarchical system); voiced calls for change in numerous other states including Saudi Arabia and the UAE; some have taken up arms in Syria, Libya, and Yemen following the descent of these countries into civil war. Salafi political parties also made significant electoral gains in places such as Tunisia and Egypt. Militant Islamists – particularly the “Islamic State” (ISIS), al-Qaeda, and various splinter/affiliated organizations – were able to take advantage of state disintegration in places such as Syria, Libya, and Yemen, and project their own influence throughout the region, culminating in the declaration of an “Islamic caliphate” by ISIS in 2014 after the group conquered large swaths of territory in Iraq and Syria.

Both mainstream and militant Islamist movements seriously undermined the authority and legitimacy of the authoritarian old guard, ushering in a contest for “hermeneutical hegemony” (i.e. the rightful authority over religious interpretation and propagation) between these various state, non-state, and transnational actors. However, different Islamist movements undermined state authority in different ways. Militant Islamist movements such as al-Qaeda and ISIS denounced regional governments as apostates and puppets of the West, emphasizing the need to engage in armed conflict against them. Mainstream Islamists decried these regimes for preventing democracy, denying their people basic human rights, and constructing economic systems built upon systemic inequality and cronyism. The rise of these Islamist actors set off an intense battle for religious authority and seriously jeopardized the legitimacy of state-controlled Islamic institutions throughout the region.

Although militant Islamists tend to receive the majority of attention in media and policy circles within the West, mainstream Islamists such as the Muslim Brotherhood and Ennahda are viewed by the majority of autocratic states in the Middle East as a more substantial threat to their rule than militant organizations due to the ability of these mainstream groups to peacefully mobilize large amounts of people around notions of democracy and human rights against the status quo.

Middle East autocrats painted the uprisings as an attempted Islamist takeover in order to maintain Western support for their own authority as they moved to crush this wave of mass mobilization while reestablishing a state monopoly on religious and political discourse and activity. As I have argued previously, critical to such a strategy is the portrayal of all forms of Islamism – whether mainstream or more militant – and all forms of political opposition as manifestations of “extremism” and “radicalism” in order to eliminate all independent or dissenting religious and political voices capable of challenging state authority. Such framing allows these governments to monopolize discussions surrounding Islam, reform, governance and politics in the Middle East.

According to these rulers and their allied religious scholars and institutions, it was the drive for democratic change that ushered in the instability that continues to plague the region. They allege that such forces seek to use narratives of democracy, human rights, and so on in order to capture the state. A common argument advanced by these autocrats is that if citizens were to be granted the right to vote, they would immediately elect anti-Western Islamists to power and, once in power, would eliminate the democratic process via what the administration of George H.W. Bush famously referred to as “one person, one vote, one time.” Speaking on the Muslim Brotherhood to The Atlantic, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MbS) argued:

“[The] Brotherhood is another extremist organization…they want to use the democratic system to rule countries and build shadow caliphates everywhere…then they would transform into a real Muslim empire.”

According to Sheikh Abdullah bin Bayyah, the head of the UAE Fatwa Council and a leading counterrevolutionary Islamic scholar with strong ties to the West, “in societies that are not yet ready, the call for democracy is essentially a call for war.” The Arab Uprisings, bin Bayyah argues, “deviated from reason, human dignity, morality, and societal benefit.” Another leading counterrevolutionary Islamic scholar and the Vice President of the UAE-based Forum for Promoting Peace in Muslim Societies, Hamza Yusuf, argued that the uprisings “represented a loss of reason, morality, and human dignity, and led to widespread chaos, confusion, and civil wars.”

This fear mongering is often extended to the West by these same actors, arguing that the ambitions of such groups extend far beyond the Middle East and that these autocratic actors are needed to control them. In April 2018, MbS told TIME Magazine:

“You know what’s the biggest danger? They’re [the Brotherhood] not in the Middle East because they know that the Middle East is taking good strategy against them in Saudi Arabia, Egypt, UAE, Jordan, and a lot of countries. Their main target is to radicalize Europe. They hope that Europe in 30 years will turn to a Muslim Brotherhood continent, and they want to control the Muslims in Europe by [manipulation]…so this will be much more dangerous than the Cold War, than ISIS, than al-Qaeda, than whatever we’ve seen in the last hundred years of history.”

Likewise, in June 2017, the Foreign Minister of the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Abdullah bin Zayed, issued the following warning to the West:

“There will come a day that we will see far more radical extremists and terrorists coming out of Europe because of lack of decision-making, trying to be politically correct, or assuming that they know the Middle East, and they know Islam, and they know the others far better than we do…I’m sorry, but that’s pure ignorance.”

The purpose of such framing is to deflect attention away from any focus on politics or policies and instead present the region’s problems – and therefore, solutions – as inherently religious in nature while stirring fears in the West of not an “Arab Spring,” but rather an “Islamist Arab Winter” if these governments were to be removed from power.

Such reductive and essentialist framings, which advance Islamophobia, serve to mask the widespread and legitimate grievances and reformism that mobilized people within the Middle East across the political spectrum against the prevailing status quo. Middle East autocrats leaned heavily into these frameworks, attempting to present a picture to the West that the greatest fault lines within the region are inherently religious in nature – both between faith traditions and internally between “moderates” and “extremists” – in order to deflect attention away from what is actually the great divide within the region: that between the masses and these autocratic governments.

Jon Hoffman is a Foreign Policy Analyst at the Cato Institute and holds a Ph.D. in political science from George Mason University.