What does it mean for Islamists to “win”?

Content from the Brookings Institution India Center is now archived. After seven years of an impactful partnership, as of September 11, 2020, Brookings India is now the Centre for Social and Economic Progress, an independent public policy institution based in India.

This has been a challenging time for mainstream Islamists—defined here as branches, affiliates, or descendants of the Muslim Brotherhood. In the public imagination, they have been eclipsed by extremist groups like ISIS, which have worked to transform the meaning of “Islamism.” With the July 2013 military coup, the “mother” movement, the Egyptian Brotherhood, suffered a devastating blow, one which had—and continues to have—a chilling effect across the region. As Omar Ashour writes in a paper for Brookings’s Rethinking Political Islam initiative, “the brutal fall of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt led to the belief among many [Libyan Muslim Brotherhood] figures that hard power is necessary.”

At the same time, we should be careful about viewing the Egyptian coup as the event that undermined an intellectual, religious, and political project that would have otherwise succeeded, whether in Egypt or elsewhere. This is where looking closely at lesser-known “models” of Islamist politics can be useful. In an ambitious effort to “rethink” political Islam, 11 leading scholars of Islamism, each covering a different country, have been reading each others’ cases and reflecting on how to best make sense of the successes and failures of various Islamist movements.

[W]hen analyzing Islamist parties, how do we measure “success”?

Even where mainstream Islamists have been most successful—as in Morocco, Tunisia, or even Iraq—they have, for various reasons, fallen short. In Morocco, the victories of the Justice and Development Party (PJD)—there is now a democratically-elected PJD prime minister—have called into question, perhaps even more starkly, a rather basic question: when analyzing Islamist parties, how do we measure “success”?

Western policymakers and analysts, including myself, told Islamists that they had to “moderate” and modernize if they wanted to be seen as normal, legitimate political actors. They were told to prioritize electoral competition and parliamentary politics. They were religious movements, but they could form (or act like) political parties. They apparently took this to heart. In Morocco, Tunisia, Turkey, and, of course, Egypt, the movements made contesting elections—and trying to win them—their call-to-arms. Like so many of us in the West, this is how they, too, came to see the practice of politics as inextricably tied to parties, elections, democracy, power, and the state. Monica Marks calls this the process of “partification,” and it came at a cost.

In my conversations with Islamist leaders, this was always the question that intrigued me, even as I knew there wasn’t really a good way to answer it. They, the pragmatists that they were, had become so constrained and conditioned by everything around them—powerful regimes, the limits of the international system, and the apparatus of the state. Was it really possible for them—or, for that matter, for us—to imagine an alternative ideological system? As I have written elsewhere, the gap between what Islamists might want to do in an ideal world and what they can actually do in this world has only grown larger with time.

In his essay, Avi Spiegel, a leading expert on Moroccan Islamists, elegantly poses the question of what it means for Islamists to “win”:

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?

The bargain in Morocco has been clear enough. The PJD accepted the confines of a system in which the monarchy has veto power over all major decisions. In return, the PJD is allowed to legally exist, participate, and even enjoy a bit of power. In practice, this means that the PJD cannot, assuming it wanted to, significantly alter or transform the country’s politics. Looking forward five, ten, or fifteen years, it is difficult to envision the PJD accomplishing much more than it already has.

Islamists in Pakistan, as Matt Nelson writes, provide an intriguing counterpoint to the Moroccan “model.” It is a counterpoint that very few Moroccans—or Arab Islamists anywhere—have seemed very interested in. Jamaat e-Islami usually wins only a handful of parliamentary seats, yet, as Spiegel remarks, the movement may very well be more influential than its Moroccan counterpart, in terms of “influencing judicial appointments, religious tradition, educational mores, and societal norms writ-large.” There are other ways of winning besides, well, winning.


Shadi Hamid, Senior Fellow, Foreign Policy, Center for Middle East Policy, U.S. Relations with the Islamic World