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Islamism, the Arab Spring and Iran: A Conversation with Shadi Hamid

Temptations of Power book cover(Oxford University Press).

Editor’s note: Earlier this month, Brookings hosted a launch for Shadi Hamid’s new book: Temptations of Power: Islamists & Illiberal Democracy in a New Middle East. In a conversation with Iran@Saban, Shadi -- a fellow with the Project on U.S. Relations with the Islamic World in the Saban Center --  discussed the upheaval in the Middle East, and the political durability among Islamist movements in the region as they relate to Iran’s own experience with the 1979 Islamic revolution.

Your book Temptations of Power: Islamists and Illiberal Democracy in a New Middle East argues for a new understanding of how Islamist movements change over time. Can you discuss some of dynamics and drivers of change?

The Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and Jordan became more moderate over time – prioritizing democratic reform, de-emphasizing sharia, reaching out to secular groups, and democratizing internal organizational structures – precisely as repression intensified, particularly in the 1990s and 2000s. In other words, the process of moderation – and I focus on “relative moderation” rather than absolute moderation – took place not because of democracy, but before it. Of course, correlation is not causation. I track these changes and try to identify a set of causal factors that push Islamists in this direction, responding to regime repression in unexpected ways.

I began researching Islamist movements when I was living in Jordan from 2004-2005. Back then, I assumed, and it made intuitive sense, that the more Islamists were included in the democratic process, the more moderate they would become –also sometimes known as the “inclusion-moderation hypothesis” or the “participation-moderation tradeoff.” However, my research in subsequent years didn’t quite bear this out. No one has to like it – and I myself am uncomfortable with it – but it’s what I found and I have to reflect that, regardless of anything else. In other words, I’m making a descriptive argument about the causal effects of repression (under certain circumstances), not a normative one. This doesn’t make repression “good” in the literal sense; it just means that repression has the power to distort Islamist behavior.

Underlying my arguments about how Islamists change over time is the recognition that Islamist movements are, in some sense, “exceptional.” These are not traditional western-style parties. Most political parties, after all, do not double as states-within-states, with parallel networks of mosques, clinics, foundations, businesses, and even Boy Scout troops. This social infrastructure is the Islamist lifeline. As a result, Islamist parties are particularly sensitive to regime repression and, perhaps more importantly, the threat of repression. As a result, Islamist groups do whatever in their power to minimize repression (Islamists can tolerate a degree of political repression, less so the kind of repression that extends to their social infrastructure). In an effort to paint government crackdowns as unjustified and disproportionate, they go out of their way to portray themselves as committed to democracy, pluralism, and women’s rights. They seek to build cross-ideological coalitions. Alone, Islamists are particularly vulnerable. But the support of “respectable” parties and individuals provides a layer of protection. To build these alliances, Islamists must prioritize the call for democracy and de-emphasize the more divisive cultural and religious aspects of their program.

The Wasat Party, a “centrist” Brotherhood offshoot founded in 1995, is an interesting example of the counterintuitive effects of repression. The case of Wasat mimics, to a large degree, the process of “forced moderation” that transformed Turkish Islamists into so-called conservative democrats. Wasat was founded on the heels of what was, up until then, the worst four-year period for the Brotherhood since the 1960s. The hope was that Wasat – which was at first backed by Brotherhood leaders – would be able to evade the repression that had hobbled the parent organization in the preceding years. Yet despite Wasat’s democratic bona fides and its friendlier, more moderate visage, the government denied its application for legal status. Wasat responded by becoming even more moderate, moving to reform its program, further distancing itself from the Brotherhood, and bringing on more female and Christian founders.

Do you see any parallels or distinctions between the dynamics of Arab spring and Iran’s experience with Islamic revolution and theocratic rule?

The Brotherhood’s liberal opponents in Egypt often bring up the specter of Iran. This is intended to cast the Brotherhood as somehow foreign to the Egyptian experience and Egyptian “personality” – idealized as moderate, tolerant, and conservative perhaps but basically non-ideological. Morsi and the Brotherhood were attacked for trying to open diplomatic channels with clerical Iran, as if this suggested something about their own ambitions for Islamizing Egypt. Whatever the case may be, the comparisons with Iran are misleading. Iran’s Islamists came to power through revolution, not democratic elections. The path of reaching power is a key determinant of Islamist behavior once in power. Revolutions, by their very nature, are supposed to be radical and radicalizing, and that helps to explain the uncompromising nature of Iran’s Islamists, at least in the early years of post-revolutionary Iran. It’s also worth noting that the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, and really all Brotherhood-like groups, are fundamentally gradualist in nature, seeing change as coming in fits and starts. Under Mubarak, despite their role as leaders of the opposition, Brotherhood officials sought some degree of accommodation with the state. In power, they could rightly be accused of many things – but being revolutionary was not one of them.    

Can you say a few words about transnational ties among Islamist movements in the Middle East? What if any connection has evolved between some of these movements and Iran?

There is a Muslim Brotherhood international, but it doesn’t have much power or control over individual branches, which are very much products of their particular local contexts. More generally, mainstream Islamists across the Arab world, and even those in Turkey to an extent, all descend from the same “school of thought.” This ideological affinity, along with a shared sense of struggle against secular regimes, binds them together, even if their actual policies and positions differ considerably. Iran on the other hand has always been viewed as removed from this sense of shared experience. In my interviews and conversations with Brotherhood leaders and activists over the years, it’s not so much that they criticized Iran; it just didn’t come up – it wasn’t particularly relevant to their experiences. Early on, the Iranian revolution did embolden Sunni Islamists, and Tunisia’s Rachid Ghannouchi in particular, hailed Iran’s experience as an inspiration and a victory for the Islamist cause writ large. But he, and others, soon soured on the Iranian “model” as it became more brutal, exclusionary, and more explicitly Shi’ite (animated by the doctrine of wilayat al-faqih which has no real corollary in Sunni Islam).   

What policies do you advocate for Washington in terms of promoting moderation of Islamist movements? How can Washington play a positive role, particularly with its allies, in political transitions that advance truly democratic outcomes?

Washington should support the inclusion of Islamist parties that are committed to nonviolence and the democratic process. The Brotherhood and like-minded groups have long met these two conditions. Beyond this, I’m a bit uncomfortable with the notion that it’s our job as outsiders to try to transform Islamists into “post-Islamists,” liberals, or whatever else we want them to be. As I argue in Temptations of Power, Islamists are Islamists for a reason. They are, by definition, at least somewhat illiberal. It’s a waste of time and energy to think that we can fundamentally change them if we do this or that differently. But, more generally, I don’t think we should be taking sides in the cold (and sometimes hot) war between Islamists and non-Islamists in the Middle East. That’s not our job. We should support democratic processes and hold to that. And then it’s up to Egyptians, Tunisians, or Libyans to decide who they want to vote for. Once they make that choice, it’s something we need to respect. At first, we expressed support for democratic outcomes even when Islamists won – and that was positive – but, after the military coup in Egypt, we saw senior officials, particularly Secretary of State John Kerry, saying things which suggested otherwise, whether it was the bizarre notion that the Egyptian military had “restored democracy” by staging a coup against the first democratically-elected president, or claiming that the Brotherhood had “stolen” the Egyptian revolution, despite having won five consecutive elections.

You argue that “obituaries” for political Islam, written in the aftermath of the 2013 coup in Egypt and subsequent crackdown, are premature. How do you see Islamist politics evolving in Egypt and elsewhere in the Middle East?

“Islamism” – in its varied manifestations – is deeply entrenched in these societies. There’s a reason it has proven quite resilient in the face of forced secularization, brute, unyielding repression, and a generally hostile regional order. For whatever reason – and this deserves a whole different discussion on its own – Islam has been somewhat immune to secularization, despite efforts and expectations to the contrary. Of course, support for Islamism doesn’t necessarily translate into support for specific Islamist organizations, but the widespread support for Islam and Islamic law playing a more central role in public life will remain.