The Uncertain Future of Political Islam

FEATURES | February 18, 2011     

featureipoliticalislamAs a philosophy of statecraft, political Islam has proved ill-equipped for the complexities of modern government. With the recent Middle East insurrections, it may well become a spent force

The strength and vitality of political Islam in the Middle East have, until very recently, appeared incontrovertible. Political Islam is associated with powerful Middle Eastern regimes like the Iranian revolutionary government and the Saudi monarchy. The Turkish Justice and Development Party (AKP), which has been shaped by Islamist influences and has been in power since 2002, is thriving. Nearly 10 years after the attacks of 9/11, Al Qaeda still manages to grab the headlines across the globe. Hamas and Hezbollah are leaders of ‘resistance’ against Israel. And until the recent uprisings, Islamist movements like the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt outshone secular groups in constituting the strongest opposition against authoritarian regimes. These movements take incumbent regimes to task for not being sufficiently ‘Islamic,’ and seek to capture power in order to reform society and expiate corruption.

However, this vibrant image hides a number of important weaknesses. In the recent protests that have rocked the Middle East, the Islamists, at this time of writing, do not appear to have played a central role. This is because, beneath the facade, political Islam has had its day. The reasons are twofold. First, political Islam has failed to put forward a political programme that would constitute a real alternative to existing ideologies. Its concentration on social and ethical issues – primarily concerning women and the protection of Islamic morals and values through censorship and control – are evidence of an inability to offer a political programme. Second, and partly as a result of the first failure, a trend is emerging in the Middle East toward the rise of an apolitical Islam. What this trend entails is the spread of a strong personal conservative religiosity, combined, however, with a general aversion to formal politics.

It is erroneous to view ‘political Islam,’ or ‘Islamism,’ as others prefer to call it, as an undifferentiated whole. Even within the Middle East – the Muslims of which constitute only a minority of the wider Islamic world – political Islam comprises a mind-boggling variety of entities, movements and ideologies. Islamist movements can pursue discrete social, political, cultural and military activities and functions. They are sometimes in control of government. In most cases, however, they are in opposition to secular regimes, which constitute the majority in the Middle East. Islam can be widely interpreted, and Islamist movements concomitantly range from extremist on the one hand to liberal on the other. In some infrequent cases, these movements use violent – even terrorist – tactics. For the most part, however, they adopt a moderate tone and non-violent methods in their struggle against incumbent regimes.

Still, there are among these movements some common elements that allow us to describe them, collectively, as ‘political Islam’ or ‘Islamism.’ They all adhere to the belief that ‘Islam is the solution,’ and that the ideal society is based on Sharia (Islamic) law. Political Islam, as with all ideologies, is very much a modern phenomenon. This is because it rests on the belief that human beings have the power to mould society, and to promote society’s ideal form through engagement and struggle. The fact that political Islam purports to offer a blueprint for society means that it must not be conflated with Islam as religion.

But what is the actual content of this ideological programme? What would perfect Islamist society and polity look like? Despite their claim to be offering guidance on how to create the ideal society, Islamists have actually failed to deliver an alternative political programme. This is not a new critique of political Islam. The eminent French analyst, Olivier Roy, suggested it in the early 1990s. Since then, in the fullness of time, Roy has been vindicated.

Let us start with Islamist movements as opposition movements in the Arab core of the Middle East. The Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, Jordan and Kuwait are all moderate organizations that operate within existing political systems in their respective societies. (By contrast, Tunisia’s Islamists have mostly been in prison or in exile since the early 1990s.) In Morocco, the Justice and Development Party has won parliamentary representation within a multi-party electoral system. These settings are politically discrete – with some, for example, being republican and others monarchical. Although they are all authoritarian to varying degrees, they also all allow for some political space within which Islamist opposition movements can function either in legality or quasi-legality, and indeed participate in politics. The result, in many cases, is that we are given the opportunity to observe the ideas, policy proposals and solutions put forward by Islamist movements. It is clear that these movements and formations have concentrated – both in their discourse and activities – mostly on social and moral issues. These pertain to women and social mores, such as the segregation of the sexes, the banning of alcohol, and protecting society from ‘corruption’ and the defacing of Islamic values through the institution of controls, such as censorship. The more conservative among these Islamist movements also sometimes call for the reinstitution of the harsher Islamic punishments, including amputations and floggings. In a number of instances, they argue for restrictions to be imposed on non-Muslim minorities, with a view to enhancing the position of the dominant, Muslim majority.

One institutional innovation suggested by Islamist movements – for instance, in Egypt – is to place religious leaders or ‘wise men’ in positions of authority. They would then oversee the imposition of moral and social controls, and ensure that political institutions and laws adhere to Islamic principles. However, the establishment of such religious guardianship structures hardly constitutes a political programme. Islamists have not come up with innovative ideas for replacing the bulk of existing political structures or institutions. In terms of the economy – and despite rhetorical flourishes about social justice to the contrary – they are mostly content to retain the fundamentals of the capitalist system. Their solution to social inequities is to cushion the poorest sections of society through their many charity activities and social activism, which target the middle classes and the poor.

Would it be fair to say, in riposte to the above criticisms, that the reason for which Islamists have not developed a proper political programme is that they have not really had an opportunity to do so? Despite the existence of some political openings, are the constraints of authoritarianism in which they have to date been operating not in fact overwhelming – thereby preventing them from developing new ideas and policies? (And might this change with the recent political uprisings in the Arab Middle East?) Not really. For in cases where Islamists achieved power and had occasion to impose a political programme, we observe similar failures and limitations.

The Islamic Republic of Iran is the major case-study of an Islamic political project being implemented. Following the overthrow of Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi, in 1979, by a wide-ranging coalition of social and political forces, comprising socialist and liberal elements, a hard-line Islamist faction emerged triumphant after defeating its allies and outmanoeuvring its challengers. Led by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the new regime proceeded to establish an Islamic system. The first major legal act of Khomeini was to revoke the rights given to women under the Shah. In fact, the bulk of legal reform was in family law and social mores, as well as in respect of the penal code. It became apparent, in the new Constitution of 1979, as well as in the subsequent failed attempt to completely ‘Islamize’ Iran’s laws in following years, that Sharia law did not offer substantial detailed guidance on how to run a complex state and society. The reality in the Islamic Republic was that secular laws continued to exist and to constitute an important part the legal corpus, with exceptions in family and penal law.

One area where Islamists have always scored points over their opponents is corruption – a theme now taken up, par excellence, by the protesters of recent weeks, albeit not under the aegis of Islamism. Their message has concentrated on this scourge of Middle East politics. The promise that pious men would be more ethical and upright than their non-pious counterparts has wide appeal and credence. But ensuring moral edification hardly constitutes a political programme. It rests largely on reform of individual behaviour, and is often about one’s own conscience. Having said this, moral edification is not a sufficient guard against corruption. The only thing that works against it is putting in place checks and balances, and structures of transparency and accountability. The Islamic Republic of Iran is proof of this fact: corruption has increased, rather than diminished, in the three-plus decades since the Revolution.

What about the other apparent Islamist success story – the AKP in Turkey? The AKP won an outright majority in the 2002 elections, and an even greater one in 2007. It has presided over a thriving economy, and over an increasingly assertive and wide-ranging foreign policy. However, the AKP reaped the economic successes of an IMF-led programme that was implemented following Turkey’s 2001 financial crisis; that is, before it came to power. The AKP must be given credit for staying within the IMF parameters and for managing the economy well; still, the AKP was not in itself the cause of Turkey’s economic well-being over the last few years. In its second term in office, the AKP has concentrated on loosening restrictions on the veil, and – informally – on other issues of social reform. What it has not done is propose an alternative ideology of government. In fact, the electoral success of the AKP has been contingent on the fact that it accepted the secularist framework of the Turkish state, and indeed moved away from Islam as a political programme. The leader of the AKP, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, himself suggested that his aim was not the creation of an Islamic state, because the Koran did not offer guidance on how to run a state – only on how the rulers ought to act. The party moved away from calling itself ‘Islamist’ or even ‘Muslim democrat’ to the more neutral appellation of a ‘conservative democratic party’.

What do the failures of political Islam indicate for the relationship between religion and politics in the Middle East of the 21st century? Political Islam remains popular, and may yet have a role to play in the evolution and future of the current set of political crises in the region. Nevertheless, the growing realization that political Islam offers no genuine and practical political alternative reinforces a growing trend towards a personal, conservative religiosity that is apolitical. The figure of the conservative, pious man and – even more often – woman, who veils and is generally modestly dressed, prays and otherwise rigorously implements the rules of Islam, is, with few exceptions, becoming extremely widespread.

Islamist movements have paradoxically played into the hands of authoritarian governments. Their concentration on a moral and social agenda has reinforced the trend toward personal religiosity – and away from political engagement. Witness Egypt (before the current unrest): in the period from December 2009 to January 2010, the Muslim Brotherhood elected a new conservative leadership, marginalizing more pragmatic elements. The conservatives argued that political engagement had been counterproductive, and that it should be replaced by more focus on religious, missionary activity to spread the Islamic message.

In Iran, the corruption, inefficiency and hypocrisy of the revolutionary regime, and the imposition of an Islamic system over more than 30 years, have together led not just to a preference for delinking religion and politics, but to a turn away from the religion of Islam altogether. As a result, Iran is, at present, the most profoundly secularized society in the Middle East.

Having discussed the relationship between growing personal religiosity-cum-conservatism (particularly in the Arab core of the region and in Turkey) and the region’s authoritarian governments, we might ask: what of Islamist terrorism?

Following the 9/11 attacks, the Bush administration suggested that there existed a close connection between Middle East politics and Western security. More specifically, it argued that the phenomenon of Islamist terrorism had roots in the lack of democracy in the Middle East. According to this narrative, repression and political exclusion drove Islamist movements to take up terrorist tactics, as they had no alternative to achieve their aims through peaceful political action, and because they were brutalized by torture and imprisonment.

There were, of course, many problems with this view. A careful analysis of the history and development of Islamist movements in the Middle East reveals that the decision to opt for terrorist tactics is not, for the most part, determined by reasons of political exclusion and repression (or, indeed, by socio-economic causes), but is due to instrumental and strategic considerations made by the leaderships of particular Islamist movements. In policy terms, insofar as it was ever implemented, the US policy of democracy promotion in the Middle East reached its peak by 2005, and went downhill after that point. The Obama administration has not done away with democracy promotion, but has largely toned down its rhetorical flourishes and suffused it with greater realism – including in its management of the recent uprisings in the region.

With reference to Western interests and policy, the possible connection between a more de-politicized Islam and terrorism is difficult, at this stage, to determine. The trend toward personal conservative religiosity may well add to the pool of candidates for terrorist operations. Such individuals appear to be easy prey for those plotting terrorist attacks, because they are obedient and respectful toward hierarchy and authority. However, the trend toward personal religiosity, insofar as it prevents individuals from joining larger groups and coordinating with others, could also lead to an overall reduction of terrorist activity by changing its very nature. One possible outcome of such a trend would be an increase in instances of ‘lone wolf’ attacks, such as the one that occurred in Stockholm in early December 2010. Such attacks tend to be botched operations, with small numbers of casualties and limited destructive impact.

The most important, albeit uncomfortable, conclusion of the above analysis may be that, for the foreseeable future, there is no unilinear, straightforward relationship between Middle East politics and Western counter-terrorism efforts. We know only that the politics will likely be less religious, the individuals more religious, and that a host of internal and external factors (including the momentous changes in Tunisia and the mass protests in Egypt and other Arab states) will make for a hard-to-predict near future for this difficult region.

Have recent developments in Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen and elsewhere signified a shift toward greater political engagement? Possibly so – but two points are to be made here. First, the Middle East is, quite evidently, a bigger geopolitical theatre than these countries alone. It is comprised of very different societies and states, each of which may respond differently to these challenges. Secondly, although the overthrow of existing regimes may well lead to a re-engagement in political activity, such a future scenario is by no means manifest. Taking part in street protests and venting frustration are not evidence that a people is ready to engage in political processes that demand that a citizenry participates in political activities and civil society in the long-term. At the moment, the jury is out with respect to the prospects of real political reform in the Middle East. But it does appear likely that, insofar as such reform will take place, the Islamists will play second fiddle in it.

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Katerina Dalacoura is Lecturer in International Relations at the London School of Economics and Political Science. Her book, Islamist Terrorism and Democracy in the Middle East, will be published by Cambridge University Press in May 2011.

(Illustration: Keith Negley)

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