Rethinking Political Islam

Muslim man reading Koran during Ramadan
Editor's note:

Led by Shadi Hamid and Will McCants, Rethinking Political Islam is an initative of the U.S. Relations with the Islamic World project.

The rapid succession of events of the past four years have challenged conventional wisdom on political Islam. After the democratic openings in 2011, mainstream Islamist groups—affiliates and descendants of the Muslim Brotherhood—rose to newfound prominence after decades in opposition, but grappled with the challenges of governance and political polarization. The subsequent “twin shocks” of the coup in Egypt and the emergence of ISIS are forcing a rethinking of some of the basic assumptions of, and about, Islamist movements, including on: gradual versus revolutionary approaches to change; the use of tactical or situational violence; attitudes toward the state; and how ideology and political variables interact.

Rethinking Political Islam is the first project of its kind to systematically assess the evolution of mainstream Islamist groups across 12 country cases—Egypt, Tunisia, Morocco, Syria, Yemen, Libya, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, JordanPakistan, as well as Malaysia and Indonesia. Each author has produced a working paper that draws on on-the-ground fieldwork and engagement with Islamist actors in their country of expertise.

Authors then write reaction essays focusing on 1) how reading the other country cases has made them think differently about their own country of focus, and 2) broader observations on regional commonalities and divergences. These are presented on the Brookings website in a real-time format, so readers can track responses and reactions between the authors as they grapple with each other’s cases.

We then ask Islamist leaders and activists to respond and offer their own perspectives on the future of their movements. They will have the opportunity to disagree (or agree) with some of the leading scholars of political Islam, in the spirit of constructive dialogue. Authors will then produce final drafts incorporating additional insights gleaned from months of discussion and debate.

We are also asking a select group of outside scholars to respond to the overall project. We’ve had contributions from Jacob Olidort (with a response from Raphaël Lefèvre), Jonathan Brown, Andrew LebovichOvamir AnjumMustafa Gürbüz. We are also experimenting with a number of innovative formats, such as this email dialogue between Shadi Hamid and Andrew Lebovich.

Islamists on Islamism Today

Read the latest interviews and responses from Islamist activists and leaders:


Steven Brooke, University of Louisville
Since July 3, 2013, Egypt’s government has embarked on an extensive campaign to dismember the Muslim Brotherhood’s formidable network of social services. With electoral participation, civic activism, and social service provision now foreclosed, street activism has become the lone vehicle for Brotherhood mobilization. This paper uses the lens of the Brotherhood’s schools and medical facilities to show how regime repression and the rise of alternative models of social service provision are incentivizing the Brotherhood to adopt more confrontational methods of opposition.

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My paper for this project focuses on a very specific episode: the fate of the Muslim Brotherhood’s social services under Egypt’s current military regime. In the papers, and in our discussions at the June 2015 workshop, one issue that came up was how social service provision plays into discussions over Islamist groups’ decisions on how to manage the distinction between an inclusive, mass-based political party (hizb) and a hierarchical, exclusive social movement (haraka), and whether these can coexist. Social services, and in particular the way that they are targeted by the regime, serve as an ideal lens through which to examine the issue. This, in turn, helps highlight the dilemmas Islamist groups face as they attempt to build mass support.

Regimes in Syria, Tunisia, and Libya heavily repressed the Muslim Brotherhood, forcing it to operate clandestinely and largely underground. This historic alienation from society renders the task of building broad support in post-authoritarian situations difficult. It seems that to bypass these difficulties, today these branches tend to piggyback on existing social relations, such as familial networks, to build support. While this is most prevalent in Tunisia, it also finds parallels in Syria and potentially Libya. To the extent that this facilitates the maintenance of a high-quality, committed membership, it benefits the haraka. But because it replicates existing networks instead of activating new sources of support, it works to the detriment of the hizb. Indeed, in many contexts these two approaches are diametrically opposed. Islamists in democratizing Tunisia are grappling with this dilemma most directly, although one can see it potentially looming in the future for Islamists elsewhere in the region.

The problem of how to rebuild mass social support after a long absence is not unprecedented. The Egyptian Brotherhood encountered a similar dilemma when they re-emerged in the 1970s under Anwar al-Sadat. In that case, the Brotherhood’s open and legalist social service provision helped to rebuild the organization’s mass appeal—it benefitted the hizb over the haraka. Indeed, the group’s ability to deliver social services to broad swathes of Egypt’s public was a vital component of its electoral success both under Mubarak and during the brief democratic interlude that followed. Yet following the military coup, as my paper details, the Egyptian government’s broad crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood is forcing the organization to emphasize organizational survival and cohesion over mass political appeal. For social services, this potentially means a reorientation away from the traditional legalist, above-ground emphasis on non-discriminatory provision and towards a “club good” model, in which members of the Muslim Brotherhood have priority.

Coming out of long periods of political repression, Tunisian Islamists are forced to confront this dilemma directly. For decades, the group’s social services were bent to the club good model. But now, as the organization increasingly emphasizes the importance of electoral competition and struggles to institutionalize a mass-based political party, the pull to reorient their social service networks towards the hizb style provision will only grow. This issue will potentially come to a head early next year as the movement debates whether to formally erect a firewall between the party and the movement. I suspect that the incentives for electoral competition will be so powerful as to make any distinction between the party and the movement essentially meaningless, as happened in Egypt.

In terms of broader themes that emerged from the papers, one consistency was an emphasis on how Islamism—as an ideology or system of governance—interacts with pre-existing structural cleavages. These cleavages differ in type and influence across multiple country contexts. In Jordan, for instance, the ethnic tension between Jordanian and Palestinian members in the Jordanian Muslim Brotherhood seems to play a large role. In Yemen, the country’s geographic schism potentially plays a larger role. In other cases, it may be tribal or socioeconomic divides.

Perhaps the most obvious cleavage is between Sunni and Shia Muslims. In some places, Islamist groups have been able to overcome this divide. In Kuwait, it is the Muslim Brotherhood which allies with the Shia blocs in parliament, while the Salafist parties abjure cooperation in principle. In Yemen too, the Brotherhood there and other mainstream Islamists downplayed the sectarian angle, at least initially. In other cases, however, the polarization has sucked in Islamist groups. Saudi Arabian Islamists fell in behind the King in support of the war in Yemen, painting it as a necessary intervention to push back Shia encroachments. In Syria, the influence of Said Hawwa and Ibn Taymiyya on the group’s internal educational curriculum, and in particular their demonization of the Alawites, combines with the ongoing polarization in the country to supercharge the country’s sectarian conflict. Indeed, in his paper on Pakistan, Matthew Nelson suggests that sectarian conflict—rather than ideological convergence—is one potential area where The Islamic State can make inroads and gain influence among South Asia’s militant groups.

In terms of a research agenda, the interaction of underlying structural cleavages with an overarching ideology of Islamism recommends the continuing importance of comparative research, either cross- or sub-nationally. For instance, why have Kuwaiti Islamists been relatively more able to overcome the sectarian divide than their Saudi and Syrian counterparts? How do tribe, Islamist movement, and political party interact in Jordan, Libya, and Yemen? Why have the Damascus, Aleppo, and Hama-based factions in the Syrian Brotherhood developed their own distinct identities, but comparable subnational or regional identities have never emerged in Egypt?

The question Stacey Philbrick Yadav poses in her introduction suggests a second broader theme: how do Islamists who, for years have situated their activism inside the institutional structures of the state, cope with the collapse of these structures? While not the only point of emphasis, the question of violence speaks directly to this dilemma. It seems that, at least in terms of how they conceptualize the use of violence, the ideological impact of the Egyptian coup and the rise of the Islamic State have been minimal: the Brotherhood has for so long been a gradualist, accomodationist movement that it cannot easily reorient to a revolutionary, confrontationist approach to political contestation. Indeed, it seems almost inconceivable to think of a takfiri trend re-emerging in the Islamist ideological corpus, even after the political failures of the past two years.

The Brotherhood also faces practical problems in the effective deployment of violence. As one of the participants in the June 2015 workshop noted, “the Muslim Brotherhood does not do violence well,” meaning that the group lacks the leadership and skill for a sustained and organized campaign of violence. In Syria, for instance, the Brotherhood’s networks could not engage in effective offensive operations, even though the resources and opportunities were available. Some, frustrated with the group’s military impotency, have defected to avowedly violent groups such as Ahrar al-Sham and the Nusra Front (Jabhat al-Nusra).

Prior to July 2013 the lack of this capacity for violence was, for many Islamist groups, a boon for the way that it helped demonstrate their commitment to the electoral process. Yet the Egyptian coup and subsequent repression of the Brotherhood complicated, if not reversed this calculus. After July 2013, Islamists’ political progress was subject to the caprice of those with the guns. In terms of “Rethinking Political Islam,” one potentially interesting research agenda is to further probe Islamists’ divergent responses to their political opponents’ ability to deploy—or threaten to deploy—violence to circumscribe their political ascent. For instance, why did political crisis cause Tunisian Islamists to back down and aggressively disavow and even clamp down on armed Salafi groups, while in next-door Libya it caused Islamists to ally with armed actors to preserve their political gains?

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Read Muslim Brotherhood youth activist Ammar Fayed’s reaction to the working papers »

Read Muslim Brotherhood leader Amr Darrag’s reaction, followed by Steven Brooke’s response »

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Monica Marks, University of Oxford
A series of regional and local challenges—including the rise of Salafi-jihadism, the 2013 coup in Egypt, and local suspicions over its aims—have prompted Tunisia’s Ennahda party to narrow its range of political maneuver and rethink the parameters of its own Islamism. Ennahda has assumed a defensive posture, casting itself as a long-term, gradualist project predicated on compromise, a malleable message of cultural conservatism, and the survival of Tunisia’s democratic political system.

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Conferences on the Muslim Brotherhood and related Islamist movements generally address dynamics in just one or two countries. This project, though, enabled me to consider in a detailed way how the twin shocks of Egypt’s 2013 coup and the rise of ISIS affected Brotherhood analogue movements spanning Morocco to Malaysia. This broad survey emphasized to me, more than ever, the sheer diversity of these movements and the primacy of structural and contextual factors in shaping their evolution and responses.

What we have here is a multiplicity of Islamisms. Just as scholars have begun exploring the concept of “multiple secularisms,” we have much work to do in looking comparatively at various iterations of Islamism, and the factors that spur Brotherhood-inspired movements to rebalance religion and politics in very different ways from one socio-political context to another.

A major takeaway for me was the realization that we as scholars and analysts need to reflect more deeply on the comparative costs and benefits of partification, or the process of morphing what were originally religious movements into “normal” political parties. For many social movements—unionists, feminists, Islamists, etc.—the choice of whether, when, and how to become a political party incurs various costs and benefits depending on the political context. I was especially struck by Avi Spiegel and Steven Brooke’s papers on Morocco and Egypt. Brooke suggests that the Sissi regime’s crackdown is forcing the Brotherhood to move away both from further investment in electoral politics as well as its more traditional club goods model of above the ground, non-discriminatory service provision. Writing on Morocco, Spiegel asks us to consider whether non-electoral forms of activism, represented by movements like Al-Adl wal-Ihsan, may in fact be more effective or advantageous than the party political structure we associate with Islamist groups like the Justice and Development Party (PJD).

I found Spiegel’s encouragement to focus more on non-electoral activism quite prescient. Indeed, it has often seemed to me that, as political scientists, we assume the superiority of hizb (party) over haraka (movement)—the notion that, as movements become more sophisticated, they naturally develop into parties, and that parties are more effective, evolved counterparts to movements. That’s not necessarily the case. As many of the papers and interventions in this project demonstrate, the extent to which Islamist groups invest in haraka (movement activities, often including religious study groups and “club goods” model service provision) vs. hizb (party activities, including mobilization for electoral competition and bargaining with other political actors) varies depending on the carrots and sticks available in different political contexts. Haraka and hizb are not totally separate categories—indeed, for social movements of many stripes, movement and party activities melt into one another. But the extent to which movements, particularly confessional movements, choose to invest in party style organization over “movement” activism is a fascinating question for comparative researchers, and one that I think has been quite undertheorized in the existing literature on Islamist movements.

These questions have real relevance for my own case study, Tunisia’s center-right Islamist Ennahda a party whose internal dynamics I’ve been studying since 2011. Unlike the Egyptian Brotherhood and most of its regional analogues, Ennahda did not have the powerful network of social service provision typically associated with Islamist movements. The party began as a religiously oriented movement inspired by the 1970s sahwa (revival), and developed throughout the 1970s and 1980s as an increasingly religio-political actor whose roots were in theological study circles and religiously oriented community-building activities. Regime repression during the 1990s and 2000s, however, made it virtually impossible for Ennahda to operate openly in Tunisia, curtailing its ability to develop and sustain a strong organization of haraka-oriented activism. Ennahda’s activities during the 1990s and early 2000s focused mainly on providing limited, underground forms of support to its beleaguered activists in Tunisia.

This absence of a strong, above ground system of social service provision, however, proved partially advantageous. When Ennahda re-entered the political scene following Tunisia’s January 2011 revolution, it came back as an essentially political party, nimble and unburdened by the demands of a competing parallel movement. This allowed Ennahda to act more flexibly and pragmatically than Egypt’s Freedom and Justice Party (FJP), for example, which functioned as a constrained auxiliary to the larger Muslim Brotherhood movement.

The writings and discussions we’ve shared in the Rethinking Political Islam project have also inspired me to think more deeply about two other issues: the oversimplification of “hawks” vs. “doves” dichotomies, and the importance of generational tensions in magnifying certain intra-party cleavages and shaping group recruitment.

As David Patel pointed out in his paper on the Jordanian Muslim Brotherhood, and as many other contributors echoed in their writing, traditional modes of analyzing Islamist groups’ intra-party tensions often fail to capture the lived realities of the actors themselves. Patel focused on the importance of ethnic cleavages (Palestinian-Jordanian vs. “indigenous” Jordanian) and the importance of political considerations—namely to what extent the Brotherhood should engage in politics on the monarchy’s terms—in shaping intra-party tensions and cleavages. In this respect, the main sources of disagreement between Jordanian Brothers don’t seem as closely linked to religious or “ideological” divides as previously assumed. Traditional dichotomizing methods of discussing intra-party Islamist tensions, which often employ the snappily illustrative terms “hawks vs. doves” and assume religious or theological issues will often provoke the most important disagreements, often elide Islamists’ lived realities.

This certainly echoes my own experiences with Ennahda leaders and supporters throughout Tunisia. While religious issues have definitely sparked intra-party disagreement, I’ve been fascinated to discover that—more often—the major sticking points for leaders and supporters have been related to political concessions, principally concessions made on “revolutionary,” or revolution-related, issues. These include the leadership’s opposition to a proposed electoral exclusion law that was hugely popular with Ennahda’s base, its decision not to run a presidential candidate in 2014, and its strategy of not just partnering with its major anti-Islamist rival, Nidaa Tunis, but seemingly supporting certain Nidaa policy initiatives that would erode the pursuit of transitional justice, an extremely important issue to Ennahda’s base.

Lastly, I found reflections on the importance of generational tensions—raised most powerfully by Raphaël Lefèvre in his paper on Syria and Avi Spiegel in his work on Morocco—worthy of more sustained reflection. Scholarly work and journalistic reporting on Islamist movements often reflects the perceptions of a handful of those movements’ national leaders – usually older men. Yet, young people, male and female, are at the heart of those movements’ efforts to recruit and to refresh and sustain their activities moving forward. As my paper on Tunisia discussed, generational tensions—concerning religious and revolutionary concessions—have been one of the most prominent axes of disagreement inside Ennahda over the past four years. The party’s leadership acknowledges it has paid insufficient attention to developing a renewed educational curriculum for young recruits, and that it has lost members—especially young members—as a result of some of the party’s concessions

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Avi Spiegel, University of San Diego
Moroccan Islamists have proven resilient in the wake of the Arab Spring and have offered a different model of Islamist participation that partly reflects the country’s unique monarchical context. The Brotherhood-inspired Justice and Development Party (PJD) has secured a foothold in government through an accommodationist posture towards Morocco’s monarchy, while the anti-monarchical popular movement Al Adl Wal Ihsane has sustained its appeal and access through non-violent activism.

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In my paper on Morocco, I interrogate the possibility of a Moroccan “model” of political Islam—especially considering the apparent durability of the country’s main Islamist party, the Party of Justice and Development (PJD). After all, the only sitting Islamist prime minister in the Arab world resides in Morocco.

In this short reaction essay, I will outline some observations and questions that have impacted my own thinking of the Moroccan case and of Islamism writ large. These are culled from reading the numerous country studies for this project, from taking part in the June 2015 workshop and discussions with fellow working group members in Washington D.C., and from participating in a three-day working group on the next generation of political Islam with Islamist activists in Doha, Qatar.

In general, the notion of Islamist “success” needs to be problematized. As Western social scientists, we seem particularly drawn to the study of elections. The data sets are available, and, indeed, we tend to reflexively study “them” the way we study “us.” We love measuring and tracking “democracy,” focusing on winners and losers, on horse races, victories, and defeats. We study these things, I suspect, because we are guided by the belief, perhaps even the zeal, that these outcomes matter—that the winners of elections actually win something. Yet, in authoritarian contexts—even post Arab Spring contexts—does electoral success translate into success writ large? What if longstanding regimes have stacked the deck—rigged the rules—to such an extent that electoral success might not mean what we think it does? In the Moroccan context, it becomes necessary to ask whether the PJD is really able to enact a far-reaching political agenda or affect widespread social change (or any kind of social change for that matter) in a context when the king still dominates the political sphere—specifically when it comes to religion.

Conversely, and more critically, what about non-electoral or extra-electoral means of political activism? This is an especially important question in a post-coup moment where the Egyptian Brotherhood’s experiment with electoral participation (post-Mubarak) appears to have been nothing short of abject failure. Is it perhaps conceivable that parties and movements that do not participate in elections are actually having a more dramatic effect on society? In this regard, I was particularly fascinated by Matthew Nelson’s paper on Islamist activism in Pakistan. Pakistan is a context where the leading Islamist party appears—at least on paper—to be struggling (garnering relatively low electoral results). Yet despite (or perhaps because of) these poor electoral outcomes, the party is massively influential in ways that electorally “successful” Islamists such as the PJD are not: in influencing judicial appointments, religious tradition, educational mores, and societal norms writ-large.

Given this, it is now necessary to pay special attention to Islamist groups that might eschew electoral participation or at least those who are active in domains outside elections. In this regard, Steven Brooke’s highly timely account of the challenges facing the Egyptian Brotherhood in terms of social service allocation is a critical case study. Another such group that demands more attention is Al Adl Wal Ihsane in Morocco. Reading the other papers emboldens me to study Al Adl anew—to appreciate that the successes of Al Adl’s extra-electoral activism as something that demands further attention and to interrogate the diverse ways in which Al Adl has become the largest Islamist group in Morocco without participating in elections. PJD gets the headlines, the ministry appointments, the fame, the international attention, but perhaps Al Adl’s activism is more durable? Perhaps the more critical model is the one that we don’t see everyday.

Another issue that demands further investigation is the relationship between movement and party (between haraka and hizb) in the modern Islamist project. Navigating this terrain—between longstanding Islamist movements and their newly formed parties—is a primary challenge for both scholars and Islamists alike. And this remains a topic that has not merited the amount of attention it deserves. In this regard, Morocco may also very well offer a critical case for study.

The challenge for Islamist movements is how to structure or even conceive of this relationship—between haraka and hizb. When the haraka is too influential, when it looms too large, then the party is limited in its ability to act autonomously. This may have helped spell the demise of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood—or at least doomed its ability to govern effectively. Conversely, when a party lacks a social movement organization to aid in mobilization and activism, when it lacks an organized social foundation, then the party is more vulnerable to external shocks. Based on my reading of the papers in this series, this appears, in part, to explain the continued struggles of Islamist parties in Libya and Yemen—or at least their inabilities to regroup or rebuild in the face of massive setbacks.

The Tunisia case offers a fascinating case of Islamists trying to navigate this new terrain in real time. In Monica Marks’ explication of the challenges facing Tunisia’s Ennahda, she suggests that the movement is now at a critical moment: about to decide whether to separate themselves into a haraka and a hizb. The risks, of course, for a new party are profound: a haraka helps it maintain order and discipline (especially when a young person’s activism in the party is dependent on being “accepted” into the larger movement). Yet, this all-or-nothing approach might also impair a party’s ability to attract broad swaths of new members, especially those who might be interested in electoral politics, but not in full scale social movement activism.

As I detail in my new book—Young Islam: The New Politics of Religion in Morocco and the Arab World—Morocco’s PJD faced this very predicament in 1997 in the wake of newfound electoral success. New prospective members, young people outside of its established haraka networks, quickly became interested in the party and, thus, the party had to figure out how to grapple with, and integrate, these people “off the street.” In light of other parties’ similar challenges and internal debates around the region, I will expand further on this in my continued work. I look forward to considering these and other points in the coming weeks and months.

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Raphaël Lefèvre, Carnegie Middle East Center
After 30 years in exile outside of Syria, the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood has become an important component of the western-backed Syrian opposition. Despite its influence, the expansion and radicalization of the Islamist scene in Syria challenges the legitimacy of the Brotherhood’s gradualist approach and constrains its presence on the ground.

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The Muslim Brotherhood often portrays itself as a “peaceful” movement focused on religious education, political activism, and charity work. This has to a large extent held true in recent decades. Yet the highly repressive contexts which followed the Arab Spring led some Muslim Brotherhood members to rethink their approach and consider the use of violence. Members have already taken up arms in Syria, Libya, and Yemen. The trend could now be about to affect Egypt.

There, Brotherhood leaders have largely insisted on the need for protests to remain peaceful since the July 2013 overthrow of Mohammed Morsi. But, under pressure from growing levels of state repression, the movement could sooner or later embrace violent tactics too. Historical precedents and a cross-country comparison suggest that this dynamic could well be self-defeating. It would increase levels of popular mistrust and intensify internal tensions–without actually raising the prospect of bringing down the military regime in Cairo.

Option of last resort

In his paper on Libyan Islamists, Omar Ashour argues that the effect of the military coup in Cairo spread well beyond Egypt. It sent a powerful message throughout the region that “only arms can guarantee political rights – not the constitution, democratic institutions and certainly not votes.” In Libya, that dynamic pushed the local Muslim Brotherhood branch, itself threatened by Khalifa Haftar, a rogue army general, to facilitate the rise of the Libya Dawn militia. In Syria, it may have encouraged the Muslim Brotherhood to temporarily increase their support for the Shields of the Revolution Commission and other pro-Brotherhood rebel groups.

Already in 1979 the Syrian Brotherhood had declared a “jihad” against the regime of Hafez al-Assad who, at the time, was cracking down on the movement throughout the country. Research suggests that other branches in Libya, Tunisia, and Egypt have, at various points in their history, also adopted the use of violence as a tool to face repression. Their attacks included the targeted killing of symbols of authoritarian regimes such as senior security officers or high-level party officials. The contrast is stark with the indiscriminate bombings and killing of civilians that characterize attacks carried out by extremist groups like the Islamic State or al-Qaida.

The “blood factor”

What is most striking about the involvement of the Muslim Brotherhood in past acts of violence was their utter failure to bring about tangible military results. Brotherhood leaders tasked a “military branch” or a “secret apparatus” with carrying out special operations. But militant cells were often small in size and composed of lawyers, medical doctors, or engineers. Their fairly elitist make-up restricted popular appeal and their lack of genuine military expertise limited operational effectiveness.

It also led to a blowback from society. Most often, regimes in place resorted to collective punishment by taking revenge on whole segments of the opposition and on the entire Islamist movement. In Syria, Hafez al-Assad responded to the challenge of the Brotherhood by ordering the indiscriminate mass killing of hundreds of inmates at the Palmyra prison and of tens of thousands of residents in the city of Hama. This increased levels of resentment and mistrust against the Muslim Brotherhood in segments of Syrian society. Omar Ashour observes a similar process in Libya and wittingly called it the “blood factor.”

Violence and factionalism

The Brotherhood’s armed struggle can also be costly at the internal level. The use of violence is indeed a divisive issue in movements which otherwise place heavy emphasis on gradualist means to change society, such as by spreading religious awareness or engaging in party politics. Possible exceptions include the Palestinian and Lebanese contexts, characterized by Israeli involvement, in which the “resistance” has remained fairly consensual. Yet, elsewhere, the debate surrounding the nature and extent of the use of violence has led to internal frictions.

Stacey Philbrick Yadav suggests that, within the Islamist Islah party in Yemen, it led to a power struggle between a gradualist faction and a more militant one. Matthew Nelson, for his part, argues that debates about violence within Pakistan’s Jama’at-e-Islami added to pre-existing generational and ideological tensions. It led to the departure of members who then formed a more militant organization called Jundullah. A similar process characterized the Fighting Vanguard’s split from the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood in the 1970s.

“Terrorism” or “self-defense”?

The Brotherhood’s use of violence, beyond being operationally inefficient and internally divisive, also carries with it the risk of blurring in the public eye the difference which sets mainstream Islamist movements apart from more radical ones. The line is indeed fine between what some think is “self-defense” and what many consider “terrorism.” Regime figures in Libya and Syria were quick to grasp the opportunity. Until today they refer to the Muslim Brotherhood as “terrorists” who are “identical copies” to extremist groups like the Islamic State.

Omar Ashour interestingly suggests that one way forward may be to devise a new sub-category within the armed Islamist typology. That new category would account for the recent growth of anti-regime Brotherhood militancy but would not necessarily equate it with Islamic State-style ideologies and ultra-violent tactics. It could perhaps model that of the national liberation movements which, most often, used political violence on a temporary and selective basis. A debate has now opened on these concepts. It is unlikely to be closed any time soon.

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Stacey Philbrick Yadav, Hobart and William Smith Colleges
After the country’s uprising against President Ali Abdullah Saleh, Yemen’s multi-factional Islamist party Islah enjoyed new opportunities for institutional power, joining a coalition government in December 2011. But, while the Muslim Brotherhood faction within Islah initially seemed ascendant, it has since found itself targeted by the Houthi movement, weakened in relation to other factions within the party, and increasingly dependent on external actors to retain its political relevance.

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The papers included in the “Rethinking Political Islam” collection offer several core lessons for those of us who study Islamism. These lessons both confirm and expand upon earlier insights in the existing literature on Islamism, and provide new points of analysis as Islamists respond to dramatic region-wide events that remain undertheorized. As I work to revise my original paper on Yemen, there are concepts and approaches worth reevaluating, and other issues where I will dig in with renewed commitment. More specifically, as I outline below, reading others’ work has encouraged me to better attend to the interaction between regional and local dynamics, to more aggressively resist using Egypt as an analytic benchmark, and to think more explicitly about how to balance case specificity and analytic generality in my approach to Islamism.

What we mean by “context”

In my earlier work on Islamists in Yemen and Lebanon, I made the reasonably straightforward (but nonetheless necessary) argument that we cannot understand Islamists only or largely by studying Islamists – that rules of the game, partisan and extrapartisan alliances, and discourses at work in the broader political field all matter critically for the nature of Islamist practice. While this has long been clear to many scholars of Islamism, it has needed restating by many of us in the face of ahistorical accounts that privilege an often-fictional attachment to some kind of essential “Islamist ideology.” (Think, for example, of recent efforts to determine “how Islamic” the Islamic State really is…). To demonstrate the ways in which Islamists are situated actors (“just like everyone else”), scholars working in Comparative Politics and drawing upon the broad and interdisciplinary tradition of Social Movement Theory have explored the widely varying domestic contexts in which Islamists function, and inquired into the many ways in which they both reflect and shape these contexts.

Evidence of this research tradition is clear in many of the papers in this collection. Avi Spiegel’s paper on Morocco offers a particularly clear and potentially tractable “three c” rubric of context, control, and competition that is useful for understanding Islamist activism. There are lots of other ways in which we do this, and each of us probably has his or her pet approach in our broader research, whether this is made explicit in these contributions or not. For me, it’s always been the iterative relationship between discourse and institutions. Regardless of the specific categories we use, this focus on the ways in which Islamists engage with regimes and with their primary interlocutors is essential.

What the papers as a whole also help to make clear, however, is that we should not focus too narrowly on these factors solely in their domestic context, as area specialists most often do. The same set of factors can and should be examined at the regional and international level. Indeed, it is precisely at the nexus of these domestic, regional, and international levels that this collection is poised to make the best contribution. This means, for example, that to resist the framing of the war in Yemen as a proxy conflict between Saudi Arabia and Iran by framing it as a domestic civil conflict is to risk mischaracterizing the opportunities and constraints facing central actors, including the Islamists in the Islah party. With Yemen’s transitional government—which includes Islah—in exile (or detention), the party’s relationships to both its fellow Yemenis and regional allies matter in determining its political future, though this is not yet well-elaborated in my working paper.

Yemen scholars have been writing for much of the past year about the factors other than sectarianism that matter for understanding the domestic context of the rise of the Houthi movement. Yet reading Toby Mattheisen’s paper on Saudi Arabia was particularly helpful for me in thinking about how discursive framing across the region is unfolding in relation to Saudi Arabia’s domestic effort to de-Arabize Arab Shi’a. While I stand by the general effort to draw attention to domestic Yemeni factors that often evade detailed analysis, the Saudi-led war in Yemen and the attendant escalation of sectarian rhetoric and violence have undoubtedly made some forms of politics less possible than they might once have been. Rethinking Islah’s options in light of regional dynamics is essential, particularly as sectarian framing seems to grow more rigid the longer the war extends. What this will mean for Islah is not yet clear, but as I move forward with revisions to my own paper, I anticipate that I will devote more attention to the impact of international and regional dynamics than I did in my original draft.

A world beyond Umm al-Dunya

If the first major lesson involves reevaluating and expanding the parameters of a particular approach, the second has provoked me to dig in my heels. Reading the papers as a whole has underscored the necessity of thinking critically about the meaning of “the Brotherhood” as an analytic category, and challenging the (usually-but-not-always implicit) Egyptocentrism that continues to plague our collective analysis. As becomes clear through a reading of these papers, what it means to be a Brotherhood “analogue” or “affiliate” differs in content and in depth across the twelve country cases. Some reference to Egypt seems justified, of course, insofar as it was in Egypt that the first Brotherhood was established, and from Egypt that its intellectual influence spread. Yet the recitation of this particular history has a totemic quality that directs us to assume relationships and establish benchmarks. Perhaps this has also been exacerbated by many Islamists’ self-identification (as in Yemen, where I describe a Brotherhood cohort within the broader Islah party). But we have not more fully examined the meaning of this self-identification, of this intellectual reach.

We seem to be doing something beyond simply giving an account of historical influence or impact and I worry that many of us—myself included—have implicitly treated the Egyptian Brotherhood and its experience as a conceptual ideal type, against which we are evaluating the authenticity of subsequent organizations in terms of their closeness or distance. Is this justified? What does visiting a Brotherhood bookstore in Aden to buy works by Egyptian authors that are banned in Egypt signify for Yemeni Islamists? Certainly, nothing in my research would suggest it indicates that Yemeni Islamists judge themselves in terms of their closeness or distance to the “real thing,” or identify as in any way subordinate to or derivative of Egyptian Islamists.

Part of the prompt for this project asked us to explicitly address the impact of the suppression of Egyptian Brotherhood since 2013 on Islamists elsewhere in the region. As the essays show, impact is non-linear. It does not appear that those whose experience has most “closely” resembled or whose ideology has hewn most closely to an Egyptian benchmark are taking different lessons than those that are “farther” from the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood in ideology or practice. This, by itself, is interesting. But it also helps to make the case, I think, that analytic (as opposed to historic) Egyptocentrism is unjustified. I am not suggesting that studying the impact of the Egyptian coup is unjustified as it clearly has been important for many of the organizations about which this group of authors has written – but rather that the logic of impact is not grounded in the relationships these organizations have to a “mother” institution.

This opens up new options for those of us who work on countries often treated as “outliers”—cases located both geographically and conceptually at the periphery of our collective analysis of the Middle East as a region. Yemen, of course, is one of these cases, where the Islah party is either mistakenly identified as “the Yemeni Muslim Brotherhood” or dismissed as something exceptional, owing to its diverse composition of tribal, Salafi, and “Brotherhood” leaders. I’m not sure we have the right vocabulary for talking about this yet—is there a way to take seriously the self-identifications of “Brothers” in ways that do not necessarily reproduce this politics of authenticity and distance? I don’t know the answer to this, but I am quite certain, after reading these papers, that I do not want to cede much ground to those who approach Islamists across the region (and outside of the region, as I’ll discuss next) as a facsimile of greater or lesser clarity of the Egyptian Society of the Muslim Brotherhood.

Striking analytic balance

It is thus both possible and perhaps unsurprising that I’m making an argument in favor of some messiness when it comes to Islamism. That I don’t think we really have—or need—a “theory of Islamism,” so much as we need—but often don’t have—a theory of politics. This contention has been influenced by my participation in a similar collaborative project on Islamist parties in the Arab Middle East and in South and Southeast Asia. In that project, the similarities and differences that we mapped between Islamist parties suggested that the Brotherhood had no particular explanatory pride of place. Many lessons from that volume are echoed clearly in this project. But because it was driven by a set of questions and subsequent hypotheses about politics rather than about Islamists, Egypt and the Egyptian experience was somewhat naturally decentered. The concepts that were the most useful in explaining variation across space and time were bread-and-butter political concepts, having little or nothing to do with the ideolog(ies) of Islamism. Ideas mattered for the cases in that project, but the form(s) of their articulation, their modification over time, and the varied effects of their reception occurred always (and only) in relation to institutions and practices—of Islamists and non-Islamists alike. I think we could read the lessons from these papers in the same way, deriving analytic lessons about the relationship between ideas and institutions without sacrificing case specificity or our shared interests in the political implications of organized Islamism. To do so, we need to think less in terms of proper names and more in terms of processes, but I fear we remain too closely anchored to the former.

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Omar Ashour, University of Exeter
Libya’s diverse Islamist actors played a substantial role in the 2011 armed revolution against Moammar Gadhafi and the subsequent collapse of Libya’s democratization process into armed conflict. The advances of ISIS in Libya and the breakdown of Brotherhood electoral activism in neighboring Egypt, however, present an ideological and recruitment challenge to Libya’s Muslim Brotherhood and Salafi factions.

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It was a pleasure to read the other papers. I would like to highlight a few points related to regional commonalities and differences in the context of Libya and the Libyan Muslim Brotherhood (LMB). The first is how the LMB dealt with the rise of the Islamic State in Libya, compared to other contexts, in terms of rhetoric, narrative, and behavior. The second point is the impact of the brutal fall of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and the electoral fall of Ennahda in Tunisia on the LMB. A third point is about the generational gap and youth recruitment from the “Islamist potential pool” compared to Egypt, Tunisia, and Syria. The fourth point is about critical social services activities highlighted in Steven Brooke’s paper on Egypt, and how is that different in the Libyan case. A fifth and final point is related to sponsored “private” media and their impact on the LMB.

On the first point, the LMB has responded quite critically to the rise of the Islamic State in general and their emergence in Libya in particular, not unlike reactions from the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and Ennahda in Tunisia. Politically and logistically, the LMB supports the Libya Dawn Coalition and General Abdul Salam Jadallah al-Obeidi, the General Chief of Staff of engagement with Islamic State forces in Sirte and other towns, who is loyal to Tripoli. The LMB escalated its anti-Islamic State rhetoric after the Islamic State in Libya targeted Misrata, which is controlled by the Tripoli side, in May 2015. The statement issued by the LMB on June 1, 2015, called for “eradicating the ISIS threat in Libya.” The relationships between the LMB and jihadists and other Salafi factions was never easy even before Khalifa Hefter’s second coup attempt in May 2014. In 2013, Salafists in Tripoli publicly burned copies of the works of Brotherhood founder Hassan al-Banna and the Brotherhood ideologue Sayyid Qutb. Other Salafi factions have accused the LMB of compromising its principles to gain influence in the political sphere. In Derna, jihadist elements have targeted the LMB and their party (the Justice and Construction Party, JCP), bombing their offices and cars.

The brutal fall of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt led to the belief among many LMB figures that hard power is necessary. Alliances with powerful regional militias, factions within armed institutions and/or arming loyalists of the organization were all options that were partially implemented in the Libyan case. This should not be construed as a transformation towards jihadism, but it can engender a sub-category within an armed Islamist typology, mainly focused on what I would call defensive militancy. The level of militancy can increase however, depending on how repressive the political environment is. The Tunisian “model” and Ennahda’s behavior within it seemed to be less attractive and less practicable in Libya, as LMB leaders understand the different nature of Libya’s political polarization and the particularities of the Libyan crisis. Also, several younger members of the LMB do not see Ennahda’s cautious, compromising approach as inspirational, but more as a “politically defeated” project.

A related point is youth recruitment. I was struck by what colleagues said about Ennahda’s and the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood’s youth-recruitment crisis (and the fact that many of the younger members are sons and daughters of the older ones). The Egyptian Brotherhood did not have this problem, at least between 2011 and 2013 (though sons and daughters were also recruited and regularly ascended in the organization’s internal structures). But there are certainly some commonalities within the Libyan context. Recruitment of blood relatives does not happen just within the LMB, but also within other parties, where the tribal/clan links are noticeable. The Muslim Brotherhood/LMB’s traditionally preferred spheres of institutional politics (elections, constitutional assemblies, and parliamentary party politics) and social services are not the most attractive recruitment tools for a revolutionary younger generation in the middle of a civil war (especially given the outcomes in Egypt and Tunisia). Hence, the LMB has a similar recruitment crisis when it comes to this segment of the Libyan youth. This crisis may diminish, depending on how the situation in Libya changes (whether towards an escalation or a de-escalation and a compromise), as well as based on the policies and the rhetorical choices of the LMB.

In terms of social services, the LMB did not have similar opportunities to connect with the masses like the Brotherhood in Egypt and Ennahda in Tunisia. Due to decades of Moammar Gadhafi’s totalizing control over the public sphere, the organization also did not have the opportunity to build structures or institutions within the country, or to create a parallel network of clinics and social services. This had an impact on both electoral results as well as on their popular image.

A final related point to “popular image” is the anti-MB media impact, sponsored by their local and regional political rivals, as well as the legacy of Gadhafi’s propaganda against the LMB. It is not uncommon to hear Libyans claim that the LMB is working in league with al-Qaida or Ansar al-Sharia (a hardline militia that was designated a terrorist organization by the U.S. State Department in January 2014) and that there are no differences between these groups. At times, the anti-Brotherhood rhetoric enters the realm of the farcical. A panelist on one TV show claimed that a well-known Libyan Islamist had been seen meeting Hassan al-Banna (assassinated in Cairo in 1949) in a Doha hotel lobby. A guest on another show insisted Gadhafi himself had been a member of the LMB. Those claims, as absurd as they might sound, have had an impact on public perceptions of the LMB. The media campaign against the LMB/JCP has, at times, spilled over into violence. For example, in the aftermath of the July 2013 killing of Benghazi activist Abdulsalam al-Mesmari, a vocal critic of the LMB and other Islamist groups, angry mobs ransacked and burned the JCP headquarters in Tripoli and Benghazi. One fiercely anti-Islamist TV channel ran footage of Mesmari talking about the Brotherhood on a loop, with an accompanying ticker that read: “Who killed Abdulsalam?” This strategy of sponsored media blaming any negativity on the LMB has been very successful, not just in Libya but also in Egypt. It elevates already high levels of social and political polarization and undermines fragile transition processes.

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Saudi Arabia

Toby Matthiesen, University of Oxford
Saudi Arabia’s fragmented Islamist field has displayed a diversity of responses to the coup in Egypt, the conflict in Syria, and the Saudi-led war in Yemen. While a group of younger Saudi Islamists and intellectuals have embraced elements of democracy, the war in Syria, the authoritarian political system, and domestic sectarian tendencies have rallied support for the ISIS model of violent political change.

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One of the outcomes of reading the various papers for me personally was the realization that we need to look at Islamist networks as global actors, rather than as actors confined to one particular country or one particular region (i.e. the Middle East). As a Middle East expert, I often focus on what is going on in that region. But the ramifications of the Arab uprisings, the Egyptian coup, and the rise of the Islamic State are felt throughout the world in places with large Muslim populations. So Africa, South Asia, and Southeast Asia need to be taken into consideration. We too often consider these places “marginal” to the politics of the Middle East and to the politics of Islamist movements more broadly. But with the increasing internationalization of conflicts in the Middle East and the breakdown of borders, this position becomes increasingly untenable, which is why I thought the papers on Pakistan, Malaysia, and Indonesia were important.

In addition, the importance of the Gulf for these transnational networks needs to be stressed. I am doing this in my paper on Saudi Arabia to a certain extent, and the Kuwait paper by Courtney Freer is also doing that, but I think we cannot overemphasize this element of it, as it relates to Islamists’ funding, shelter and refuge, media presence, Islamic finance, and ideological guidance. So I assume the position of Qatar should be discussed a bit more, perhaps in the introduction. Without a good analysis of Qatar’s role, we cannot understand the trajectories of the Muslim Brotherhood branches in the Gulf or in the wider Middle East. I suppose the United Arab Emirate’s hostile approach towards the Muslim Brotherhood also needs to be explained and contextualized. And Bahrain has for decades been a hub for Islamic finance, much of it linked to the Muslim Brotherhood. The Brotherhood also has a branch in Bahrain, which has applauded the government’s crackdown on the opposition since 2011. Nonetheless, Bahrain is often left out of debates on the regional Muslim Brotherhood.

Another interesting topic is the development of affiliated political parties out of broader Muslim Brotherhood movements and how that affects the movement at large, and might even lead to splits. In my case (Saudi Arabia) this has obviously not happened, because political parties are illegal, but splits have happened for doctrinal and political reasons. However, the context of electoral politics discussed in many of the other country cases is quite different. In some ways most analysts thought the Brotherhood and Brotherhood-inspired movements were extremely well positioned to win elections and eventually attain power across the Middle East. However, as of 2015—and not just because of the Egyptian coup—that perception is not so widely held anymore. A puzzling country for me is Syria. I remember most people thinking that outside of the Baath apparatus and the state institutions, the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood was the most powerful force, and would come to power if the state “opened up” or lost control in the 2000s. In contrast, the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood has not managed to impose itself as the main opposition force to the Assad regime, even though Islamist groups more generally have side-lined the secular opposition. So in other words, have we overestimated the power of the Brotherhood as an organizational and political force?

And despite the power of all the spoilers—the old regime and international actors—was there not a chance of the Brotherhood and Morsi governing in a better and more inclusive way?

The crackdown on both political and charitable activities in Egypt will have repercussions for the larger trajectories of the group, and in particular may make militancy acceptable as a political tool. Are there precedents in other countries that we can look at to compare or draw inspiration from?

Another question that needs to be addressed is how important clerics are in the Brotherhood. This is something various authors discussed at the June 2015 workshop, but it could be something that each paper tries to address as well. In addition, one needs to explain the relationship between the national branches and the Muslim Brotherhood international organization. I know this is usually quite opaque, but I think it would be key to address in this project, given that we cover Muslim Brotherhood-type organizations in such a large number of cases across the Middle East and Asia.

Sectarianism is another key issue. I am fascinated by the different and changing positions of Brotherhood branches and clerics vis-à-vis the Shia and the Iranian Revolution and then the Islamic Republic of Iran. My understanding is that the Brotherhood in general was quite positively impressed by the Iranian Revolution, and that the Brotherhood is one of the least anti-Shiite Sunni Islamist movements. Perhaps that is something that some of the papers (those on Syria, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, and other countries with Shia minorities could address ). However, over the last few years, there has obviously been a shift here, and it would be interesting to see if this is a regional Brotherhood phenomenon or a localized reaction emerging from the Gulf (think also Yusuf al-Qaradawi’s pro-Hezbollah stance in 2006 and anti-Iran, anti-Shia position since 2011).

In addition, it would be interesting to know more about the youth activities of the different Brotherhood branches. This is very well outlined in the Kuwaiti case study. I also noticed this aspect in other Gulf states, in the sense that in richer countries this youth activism was equally or even more important than the better known social service provision aspects of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt for example. This might have something to do with the political economy of the Gulf, but it would be good to find out if there are similar youth programs in the other places (summer camps, sport camps, weekend trips, etc.).

A final question that remains is whether the Brotherhood does better or worse in monarchies than in Arab republics, and what kind of impact the form of government has on their activities? I enjoyed the discussion of the Moroccan, Jordanian, and Kuwaiti cases. Perhaps given that the Muslim Brotherhood is by and large a “working-within-the-system” movement, the limits (but also opportunities) of activism and influence within an authoritarian parliamentary monarchy are quite conducive to the movement (as opposed to attempts to topple the system through armed struggle as in Syria or attempts at governing alone as in Egypt).

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Courtney Freer, LSE Kuwait Programme
In the face of a government crackdown, Kuwait’s diverse Islamist opposition—composed of a Muslim Brotherhood affiliate and various Salafi groups—has emphasized compromise and gradualist reform over radical domestic political transformation. Particularly after the Egyptian coup and the rise of ISIS, Kuwait’s Islamists have put aside their strict social agendas and worked more closely with non-Islamist opposition to advance common democratic aims, suggesting that exclusion can in fact spur the moderation of mainstream Islamists.

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Most studies of the Muslim Brotherhood, including my own work on the Brotherhood in Kuwait, Qatar, and the United Arab Emirates (UAE), focus on specific country cases, treating each branch or affiliate of the Brotherhood as a distinct organization. The degree to which Brotherhood groups in different countries vary in terms of their political stances and means of mobilization is striking and has become clearer after participating in the June 2015 “Rethinking Political Islam” workshop. In fact, variation among the country cases led me to question the extent to which the label of Brotherhood is helpful in predicting how local Brotherhood affiliates will act. Certainly, Ennahda’s agenda bears little resemblance to that of the Islamic Constitutional Movement in Kuwait. What does the label of Brotherhood mean, then, considering that the organization’s role differs so greatly depending on the local political context in which it operates?

Following the Arab Spring, political Islam seems to have become increasingly locally focused: domestic politics has come to dominate the agendas of Brotherhood groups around the region. As broad-based opposition coalitions formed in many Arab states during the 2011 uprisings, the Brotherhood joined such groupings, sometimes at the expense of its traditional ideological commitments. While a broadly Islamist agenda has been successfully integrated into a variety of political environments, the Brotherhood itself appears to lack transnational cohesion. It has become possible, in the post-Arab Spring era, to be both wholly supportive of the Brotherhood and entirely focused on domestic politics. Even for the Muslim Brotherhood, then, “all politics is local.” While branches of the Brotherhood have developed independent domestic political agendas, discussions at the June workshop revealed three primary issues facing all Brotherhood organizations, regardless of local political context.

First, all branches of the Muslim Brotherhood have been forced to adjust their tactics depending on the type of regime that governs the state in which they operate. Common patterns emerge under certain type of regimes. One similarity is a distinctive gradualism employed by Brotherhood affiliates operating in monarchical systems. In thinking about the Jordanian and Moroccan cases, I found myself drawing comparisons to the Kuwaiti situation. Brotherhood affiliates in states ruled by monarchs appear better able to influence government decisions by maintaining ties with, and to a certain extent cooperating with, the regime. Although Brotherhood affiliates elsewhere did not lead uprisings in 2011, they never had the symbiotic relationships with regimes exhibited in the region’s monarchies. Perhaps the centrality of parliamentary elections in more democratic states has made relations between regime and Brotherhood more competitive and contentious than in states where all actors agree that the monarch retains the last word in political decision-making.

Meanwhile, states undergoing civil strife like Libya, Syria, and Yemen feature distinctive patterns of Brotherhood participation as well. Branches in such states struggle to maintain relevance in a variety of ways: in Libya, by tying itself to powerful militias; in Syria, by attempting to deliver services and to provide protection for civilians on the ground; and, in Yemen, by relying on ties to powerful international actors. In states where violence has broken out, then, the Brotherhood has been forced to find new ways of maintaining political capital, yet has largely failed to do so. Case studies from South Asia demonstrate yet another type of interaction with the prevailing government systems, in terms of military support of Islamist organizations—like Jama’at-e-Islami in Pakistan.

A second significant issue facing Brotherhood-inspired movements throughout the Middle East and Asia concerns the extent to which they privilege contesting elections over other activities, such as the provision of social welfare. In my analysis of Brotherhood branches in states that do not hold legislative elections (Qatar and the UAE), I have tended to focus on the political impact of Brotherhood-sponsored social activities. In these states, the Brotherhood used its youth centers and Quranic study circles to attract a new generation of followers that eventually came to support their policies in other aspects of life. While their focus has historically been on amending social policies like diminishing the influence of Western culture and the availability of alcohol, views on such matters also inform views about the appropriate role of the government more broadly. It is interesting to find, through discussions with Brotherhood members in particular from Egypt, Tunisia, and Turkey, how electoral success became a kind of all-encompassing goal, while social activities receded to the background. This debate involves a broader discussion of whether the hizb (party) or haraka (movement) takes priority in Islamist organizations.

The Justice and Development Party (PJD) in Morocco, like the Brotherhood in Kuwait and Jordan, has compartmentalized hizb and haraka, while in Tunisia Ennahda has moved away from social service provision almost entirely, as the group’s opponents maligned the practice as a means of buying electoral support. In the Gulf states, the social sector, managed through informal personal relations rather than institutionalized political life, has proven to be a successful arena through which the Brotherhood has gained support among large segments of the population, though it is uninstitutionalized. The model of informally organized social action contributing to political capital appears unique to the Gulf, a region where Brotherhood affiliates cannot contest parliamentary elections (barring Kuwait) and are not needed for the provision of social welfare due to handsome government disbursements. Such a model may have useful application in other states where the Brotherhood is increasingly driven underground and could serve to reignite Brotherhood support in countries where political freedom is restricted. Certainly, the Qatari case, wherein the Brotherhood formally disbanded itself in 1999, proves that a structured organisation is not required for the Brotherhood to hold political sway, particularly in terms of influencing the government’s social policies.

A third overarching issue is determining the extent to which it is appropriate and politically useful for Brotherhood blocs to cooperate with non-Islamist organizations to push for broad-based reform or to enhance their representation in parliament. In Kuwait, the Brotherhood has deepened cooperation with secular members of the opposition as a means of advancing its program for a constitutional monarchy, rather than maintaining their strictly Islamist social agenda. This had led to the formation of a single opposition movement comprised of both Islamist and secular blocs. In a similar way, the Jordanian Brotherhood worked alongside other members of the opposition through the Higher Coordination Committee of the Jordanian Opposition Parties, in an effort to push more effectively for broad-ranging political reform during the 2000s. The Jordanian Brotherhood, like the Kuwaiti Brotherhood, has remained vocal about its demands for a constitutional monarchy. It remains to be seen to what degree ties with secular political blocs enhance or hinder the Brotherhood’s ability to promote reform.

Having examined various differences and similarities among several Muslim Brotherhood branches, the benefits of comparative analysis in my own work have become more clear. Specifically, I hope to think more systematically about the political strategies of Brotherhood affiliates under monarchical rule. Strikingly, it seems that the Kuwaiti Brotherhood is in many ways more similar to Moroccan or Jordanian Islamists than its counterparts in neighboring Saudi Arabia, underscoring the pitfalls of focusing on Brotherhood-inspired movements in isolation or solely by geographic region.

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David Siddhartha Patel, Brandeis University
The events of the post-Arab Spring period have not fundamentally altered the goals and tactics of the Jordanian Muslim Brotherhood or changed the dynamic of its relationship with Jordan’s monarchy. The 2015 split within the group initiated by the Zamzam Initiative reflects long-growing divides between Palestinian-Jordanian Islamists and Transjordanian Islamists that preceded the Arab Spring.

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This reaction paper makes four points, two of which are ways in which reading the other country cases and participating in the June 2015 workshop made me think differently about Islamist movements in Jordan, my country of focus. A third point is a brief observation of regional commonalities and divergences. My final point is a polemic against the ongoing marginalization of Iraqi studies.

After reading other country cases—particularly those on Kuwait, Pakistan, Morocco, and Egypt—I was struck by how the Jordanian Muslim Brotherhood has benefitted by not having to face significant Islamist rivals inside Jordan (putting aside Hizb al-Tahrir and the splinter Islamic Center Party). Competition—usually from the less pragmatic right—influences the demands that mainstream Islamist movements make on regimes and their willingness to participate in political processes. For example, in my comparison of Jordan with Morocco, I paid insufficient attention to the importance of competition between the Justice and Development Party (PJD) and Al Adl Wal Ihsane for the same base of popular support. While Al Adl basks in non-participation and illegality, the PJD participates and has had to tolerate and even embrace the regime to have its activities licensed. When Al Adl temporarily assumed a leading role in Arab Spring protests, the PJD avoided street action and participated in elections. Jordan’s Islamic movement, in contrast, is less constrained (for lack of a better word) by competition on its right when dealing with the regime. The “new” Jordanian Muslim Brotherhood, if it survives, would be to the left of the “old” Brotherhood. Also, I likely overestimated in my paper the degree to which the Jordanian Muslim Brotherhood look to their Moroccan brethren to judge how well they are doing in the international Brotherhood firmament, although the timing and content of reforms suggests that the Jordanian regime did look, to some extent, toward developments in Morocco before acting.

I argued in my paper that the most important cleavage among Jordanian Islamists is “ethnic,” between Transjordanians and Palestinian-Jordanians. I reinterpret purported ideological divides, including the Zamzam Initiative and recent formation of a rival Muslim Brotherhood organization, in these terms. In our June workshop discussions, it was easy for several other authors to apply my “ethnic” perspective on Islamist movements to cases that they knew well. I argue that Islamism can be used to bridge salient ethnic, linguistic, and regional cleavages in a society but that we rarely analyze Islamist movements in these terms, and we lack sufficiently developed theory to know what conditions make it likely that Islamist movements will successfully bridge such divides. I learned that the Jamaat-e-Islami tried to unify East and West Pakistan but became “Punjabified” and joined the army in killing Bengalis. In Afghanistan, Islamists tried to unite different linguistic groups but had mixed success. In Syria, the Brotherhood struggled to overcome the historic divide between Damascus and Aleppo (and, after 1981–1982, Hama), and much of what we call “Salafi-leaning” and “Sufi-leaning” wings of the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood might more accurately reflect regional interests. These, like Jordan, were largely examples of Islamists failing to transcend salient cleavages. The questions raised beg for additional case study work and a cross-national dataset. I think it would be productive to import theories of ethnic politics—such as the work of Robert Bates, Dan Posner, and Kanchan Chandra—to investigate this question further.

For the most part, movements affiliated with or inspired by the Muslim Brotherhood participated, where possible, in elections in the 1990s and early 2000s. Reading the papers, though, I was struck by how different their trajectories were until that point. The paths movements took toward participation in the 1990s varied considerably in timing, how democratic the process was when they first participated, and the relationship with the regime and other movements at the time. If we start in 1990 and look at developments until the present day, Islamist movements might look like they are diverging from a similar participatory/“moderate” starting point. But, if we go back to the 1950s or earlier, the pattern will look different; maybe Islamist movements briefly converged on participation during a short-lived transnational period of political openness and then returned to a more common pattern of following differing trajectories based on local events.

In his paper on Morocco, Avi Spiegel quotes a PJD leader in 2014 saying, “We’re the one last Islamist party remaining in government in the region.” That leader is wrong, as are the scholars I recently heard debating whether the “most successful Islamists” in the Arab world were in Tunisia or in Morocco. By almost any measure, the most successful mainstream Islamists in the Arab world are in Baghdad, where Islamists have governed Iraq since 2005. Three different leaders of the Islamic Da’wa Party have served as Prime Minister, and a gaggle of other Islamist parties and movements – SCIRI/ISCI, Badr Organization, Sadrists, Iraqi Hezbollah, Fadhila, the Muslim Brotherhood-linked Iraqi Islamic Party, the Iraqi Accordance Front (Tawafuq) – have provided for over a decade the majority of Iraq’s ministers, deputy prime ministers, deputy presidents, chairs of parliamentary committees, and provincial governors. Yet, we rarely talk about Iraq when analyzing regional commonalities and divergences; Iraqi Islamists are largely absent from comparative discussions. Perhaps academics are sectarians, hesitant to compare Shi’ite Islamists with Sunnis. If so, that is a shame because some of Iraq’s Shi’ite Islamist movements underwent ideological changes that would make for fascinating comparisons with Sunni groups. For example, Da’wa (and, arguably, Badr and SCIRI/ISCI) abandoned their support for wilayat al-faqih in the 1990s or 2000s and came to accept participation in an electoral system free from clerical oversight. Comparing Shi’ite movements with Salafis (!) might help us understand the conditions under and the process by which groups compromise ideological commitments when presented with political opportunities. But, even leaving aside Iraq’s Shi’ite Islamists, Iraq’s Muslim Brotherhood has been influential, dynamic, and worth including in discussions of Brotherhood-like movements. Muslim Brotherhood leaders in the Iraqi Islamic Party have served as Iraq’s deputy president (Tariq al-Hashimi), deputy prime minister (Rafi al-‘Issawi), and speaker of the Council of Representatives (Iyad al-Samarra’i). Muslim Brotherhood members have been ministers of higher education, planning, state for foreign affairs, and state for women’s affairs. I was asked at the June workshop how the six months the Jordanian Muslim Brotherhood spent as a part of the Jordanian government in 1990–1991 affected the movement. The Iraqi Muslim Brotherhood has been a constant presence (except for a brief hiatus in 2007–2008) in the Iraqi government for a dozen years! Similarly, the Iraqi Muslim Brotherhood has weathered splits, electoral defeats, challenges from Salafis, constitutional debates, and the necessity of political compromise. Yet, Iraq and its participatory Islamist movements remain pariahs for comparative scholars. The U.S.-led occupation of Iraq ended five years ago; it is time to include the Arab world’s “most successful” Islamist movements in our discussions of Islamist responses to a changing political landscape.

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Matthew J. Nelson, SOAS, University of London
Mainstream Islamist parties in Pakistan such as the Jama’at-e Islami and Jamiat-e-Ulema-e-Islam have demonstrated a tendency to combine the gradualism of Brotherhood-style electoral politics with missionary activities and, at times, support for proxy militancy. As a result, Pakistani Islamists wield significant ideological influence in Pakistan, even as their electoral success remains limited.

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Focusing on Pakistan, my paper tracks two broad sets of Islamist actors—the Jama’at-e-Islami (JI) and the Jamiat-e-Ulema-e-Islam (JUI). The Jama’at-e-Islami is analogous to the Muslim Brotherhood, but the JI’s student wing has generally been more influential within the party than Brotherhood student wings in the Middle Eastern countries covered by this project and, over time, the JI has moved beyond merely contesting elections to cozying up with military dictators as well. The JUI is led by clerics rooted in Sunni Deobandi madrasas and, like the JI, it has also contested elections and enjoyed the patronage of military dictators. Since the early 1970s, both groups have joined ruling coalitions, and the JUI has also led coalitions governing at a provincial level.

My paper provides a sense of the religious and political networks surrounding each of these two parties, including (a) a network of independent schools functioning largely as private businesses (with each network competing with state schools and other private schools for students); (b) various dawa (religious education) organizations affiliated with ideologues from each group as well as mass-based movements like the (Sunni Deobandi) Tablighi Jama’at; and (c) militant proxy groups operating in places like East Pakistan (now Bangladesh), Kashmir, and Afghanistan.

Neither group is a “Salafi” group. In Pakistan, the “Salafi” terrain is associated with a Sunni sub-group known as the Ahl-e-Hadith with its own range of schools, dawa organizations (e.g. Jamaat-ud-Dawa), and militants patronized by the Pakistan Army (e.g. Lashkar-e-Taiba). In Pakistan, Salafism is not a target of the security establishment; in some ways it is part of that establishment.

Considering the other papers in this project, I would like to offer five brief thoughts. These broadly comparative thoughts may help to stitch the papers together and place the case of Pakistan in context.

Islamist parties and state power

Broadly, there are two groups of countries involved in this project—those like Egypt or Malaysia where Islamists have won power outright (either at a national or a provincial level) and those where this has been less likely and collaboration with the existing regime or “mere survival” is the name of the game. In each of these scenarios, pragmatic politics play an important role, both in the realm of electoral success and in the realm of “mere survival.” Pragmatic politics and a general absence of ideological “red lines” (allowing Islamists to move away from what might be considered religiously “right” in order to do what is politically “smart” for their party) figure prominently in the political experience of Pakistani Islamists as well. However, Pakistan fits in between the two camps described above.

At the provincial level, Islamists in Pakistan have not merely joined coalition governments in Pakistan, but led them—thus providing Pakistani Islamists with an opportunity to enact religious policies under a broad hisba (enforcement-of-piety) banner as well as social justice policies of a more explicitly economic nature (while, at the same time, suffering at the polls for their failure to satisfy complex constituent demands, just like any other party). In this sense, Pakistan’s Islamists illuminate something about the practice of Islamist governance.

At the national level, however, the electoral success of Pakistani Islamists has been quite limited, meaning that collaboration with other parties has always been the name of the game. Thus, both the JI and the JUI have reflected something closer to the Islamist mantra found in many other countries: “do not govern alone.”

Unlike any of the other cases in this project, however, collaboration between Islamist political parties and the state in Pakistan has reached beyond electoral and monarchical politics to include direct collaboration with the Army. This pattern was less prominent under Pakistan’s first dictator, General Ayub Khan, than it was under later dictators like Generals Zia-ul-Haq and Pervez Musharraf.

Islamist parties and violence

In general, this project includes some countries where Muslim Brotherhood and Salafi factions have been deeply involved in anti-state violence (Syria, Libya) as well as countries where both groups have shied away from, or strongly disavowed, violence.

In Pakistan, however, the story is a more complicated. Although both the JI and the JUI have generally eschewed violence themselves, we see proxy militants tied to the student cadres of both groups collaborating with the state in transnational violence and, in a looser fashion, battling the state as well. Clearly, the value of the inclusion-moderation hypothesis is limited when “inclusion” involves proxy militants patronized by the military.

In Pakistan, religious violence is not traced to concerns about an absence of proper religious education (as in Tunisia). Instead it is traced to the role of religious education provided within and outside of the state. There is, however, no clear “Islamist” position on the use of violence. Both the JI and the JUI have used violence to collaborate with the state and, via loosely affiliated proxies, to rebel against it. In fact this dual position has made it difficult for the state to describe insurgent elements within each group as an exclusively “foreign” element that must be excised and destroyed.

Islamist politics and state strength

Across the different countries examined in this project, the context within which Islamist strategies are formulated is shaped by specific, robust, and enduring forms of constitutional architecture (electoral, monarchical, or both) as well as specific patterns of state breakdown.

In Pakistan, both constitutional architecture and elements of state breakdown exist simultaneously. By and large, Pakistan’s relatively stable constitutional architecture (including its fairly permissive approach to civil society-based activism) has defined the parameters within which local “debates about religion” take place. But, in some parts of the country, the reach of the state is either limited by design (e.g. the Federally Administered Tribal Areas [FATA]) or deeply inconsistent (e.g. Karachi). In these areas, patterns of state breakdown explain trajectories of strategic decision-making more than the legal architecture of the state.

The Arab cases in this project reflect a relatively “statist” approach to religious politics. In Pakistan, this statism is relaxed—both via civil-society activism and via patterns of state collapse.

Islamist politics and transnational spillover

Broadly, one might expect patterns of transnational spillover to figure prominently within transnationally networked Islamist formations like the Muslim Brotherhood and the Jama’at-e-Islami as well as transnationally networked jihadi formations like al-Qaida. However, the papers in this project clearly show that existing hypotheses regarding the transnational “demonstration effects” of the Arab Spring (or the rise of the Islamic State) have been overstated. Indeed, one is struck by the rather limited extent to which Islamist parties around the world actually engage in cross-national comparative thinking regarding their “fellow travelers.”

It seems that this project will offer new conclusions about the relative power of “transnational” and “domestic” drivers within the greater scheme of Islamist politics.

Turning specifically to the transnational reach of the Islamic State, I found myself wondering whether “Salafism” might be a less important as an ideological driver than country-specific patterns of anti-Shia sectarianism. In Pakistan, it is not “Salafism” that links those claiming attachments to the transnational aspirations of the Islamic State. On the contrary, “sectarian” politics figure in several of the countries featured in this project, from Syria and Malaysia to Indonesia, Yemen, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and Pakistan.

Islamist politics and youth

Finally, I was struck by the extent to which internal generational cleavages matter within various Islamist movements, not only in Pakistan, with reference to the JI’s student wing (and the Taliban), but also in Tunisia, Syria, Egypt, and many other countries.

In the past I have written about the religious politics of young people in Pakistan, stressing the ways in which domestic stalemates generate a push for expanding transnational ties. In this project, however, I came away with a greater appreciation for the domestic side of this equation and the role that generational divides play in activating or intensifying domestic cleavages.

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Southeast Asia

Joseph Chinyong Liow, The Brookings Institution
Although the Arab Spring prompted greater discussion of Islamism in Southeast Asia, links between Southeast Asian Islamists and their counterparts in the Middle East have remained nebulous. While Southeast Asian Islamists have largely eschewed revolutionary approaches to political change, some parties have remained explicit about their desire to not only Islamize society but to establish an “Islamic state.”

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Reading the papers, the immediate impression is that the project is Arab-centric. This observation is not meant as a criticism, but rather to make a recurring point about the study of Islamism.

By way of this, there are three areas where the phenomenon of Islamism in Southeast Asia differs somewhat from trends identified by several of the papers in Middle Eastern cases.

First, several papers suggest—both explicitly as well as implicitly—that the tension between reformists and traditionalists that defined the pre-Arab Spring study of Islamism may no longer be as pertinent a framework in a post-Arab Spring era. Indeed, the cases of Egypt and Tunisia bear this out, where the main divide is the degree of revolutionary fervor. This is not necessarily the case in Southeast Asia, which was largely unaffected by the Arab Spring. In Indonesia, Arab Spring-type social mobilization in fact took place much earlier, in the late 1990s during the Asian financial crisis that precipitated the end of President Suharto’s New Order regime. Indeed, it was this turbulent climate that gave rise to the Islamists of the Brotherhood-inspired Prosperous Justice Party, or PKS.

Second, a striking difference between Southeast Asian Islamists and their counterparts in the Middle East is the participation of Islamists in coalitions which include not only non-Islamist parties, but more notably, non-Muslim parties. In Malaysia, the Pan-Malayan Islamic Party (PAS) remains a member of a political coalition which includes socialist and non-Muslim parties, though the coalition has started to crumble because of differences between reformists and traditionalists (assuming an “evolutionary scale” of Islamism exists, then Islamism in Malaysia is arguably “less evolved” than in its MENA counterparts?). In fact, PAS has been a member of every political coalition that ever existed in the political history of post-independence Malaysia. As for the PKS, it too was a part of the ruling coalition led by the Democratic Party, and at its peak occupied up to four Cabinet positions. There is scant information in any of the other papers on MENA cases of Islamist participation on ruling or formal opposition coalitions, and certainly not with non-Muslim parties.

Third, in the case of the PKS, several recent high profile cases of corruption involving senior party officials highlight an interesting point which some of the papers discuss—the matter of fixing, overhauling, or moralizing the political system. In the PKS case it is actually the reverse, where rather than Islamists changing the system, as they claimed to want to do in their early days, you have the system changing the Islamists, who get sucked into the patron-client system that outlived the New Order. There is a further dimension to the discussion on gradualism and the nature of the political system. The comparison between Morocco and Kuwait was made in terms of monarchical systems which shape (perhaps constrict?) Islamist activism. Malaysia is also a monarchy (in fact, it has nine sitting monarchs at any given time!) and, though it’s a constitutional monarchy, ultimate religious authority is vested in the monarch, not the mufti of the state. I’m not sure if this is similar in other monarchies. Nevertheless, my point is that in reality, the monarch in Malaysia has had very little influence over governance and government. This is largely because royals in Kuwait and Morocco are much more constitutionally and practically powerful, but I thought it was an interesting comparison nonetheless.

The discussions on the Muslim Brotherhood (and its offshoots) that surface in various papers highlight something that could be pursued further in future work on Southeast Asia—the parallel Islamist civil society in Malaysia and Indonesia. The topic of Islamism and Islamist activism in Southeast Asia is one that has been the subject of a vast number of research projects. That said, the majority of this interest has centered on political Islam as expressed in the realm of mainstream politics and focused on partisan politics (as is the case in many of the papers here). On the other hand, there remains a dearth of knowledge and research on urban-based parallel Islamist civil society groups and movements and how their emergence, activism, and transnational nature have reconfigured Islamism in Southeast Asia, particularly recently. In Malaysia and Indonesia, mainstream Islamist parties are being slowly but visibly bypassed by these new groupings that have focused their activities and energies in the civil society sector.

Evidence of this shift—both in public discourse as well as the increased media attention paid to these new groups—can be seen all around Southeast Asia today: From the “public moral policing campaigns” unilaterally conducted by fringe groups like the Front Pembela Islam in Indonesia to the role played by radical groups like the Majlis Mujahidin Indonesia in the aftermath of the tsunami that hit Aceh and the earthquake that devastated Jogjakarta in Central Java. Likewise, in Malaysia new right-wing NGOs and lobby groups like the Persatuan Ulama Malaysia and Teras Keupayaan Melayu have taken center stage on issues ranging from moral policing to the promotion of Malay-Muslim dominance (Ketuanan Melayu), bypassing the more established Malay-Muslim political parties and civil society organizations of the past. It is important to note that once-liminal or marginal figures like the radical cleric Ustaz Abu Bakar Bashir have now moved to the center of public attention. Media reports on how activist Muslim civil society groups frequently mobilize to defend religious rights, as in the case in Malaysia, and to engage in moral policing, often seen in Indonesia, as well as the state’s inability or reluctance to rein in these activities, seem to suggest a shift to a right-wing agenda in both countries.

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