What is the future of political Islam? Experts discuss

A supporter of the Islamist Ennahda Party holds a party flag during a municipal elections campaign in Tunis, Tunisia April 28, 2018. Picture taken April 28, 2018. REUTERS/Zoubeir Souissi - RC1319B67DE0

The Arab Spring and the ensuing rise in the prominence of Islamist parties in the Middle East forced scholars and policymakers to reexamine their understanding of political Islam and its role in politics. On April 24, the Center for Middle East Policy at Brookings hosted a discussion on the future of political Islam. The event featured Senior Fellow Shadi Hamid and Georgetown Berkeley Center Senior Fellow Jocelyne Cesari. Brookings Nonresident Senior Fellow Peter Mandaville served as the moderator.

Drawing on her newly released book “What is Political Islam?,” Cesari argued that to understand the role of Islam in politics requires recognizing that Islam is part of political culture. In the Muslim world, states were created before nations, she said, so to create a sense of community, secular leaders formed a connection between Islamic belonging and national belonging. Cesari called this “hegemonic Islam” because there is a shared sense by secularists and Islamists that they are all citizens and members of the community. Today’s wave of political parties with Islamic agendas is to be expected, in Cesari’s view, because this aligns with the initial idea that Islamic belonging and nation-state belonging go hand in hand. What is surprising, she noted, is that Islamist parties are asking for an Islamic state and believe that the current state—despite its ties to Islamic traditions—is not “Islamic enough.”

Cesari presented statistics on political violence that showed that Muslim-majority states have the highest rates of such events.

Pew Social Religious Hostility in 2014:

Countries With Very High Levels of Political Violence:

Afghanistan Egypt Indonesia
Iraq Pakistan Somalia
Sudan Syria Sri Lanka
Bangladesh Nigeria Yemen
Lebanon Palestine

Countries With High Levels of Political Violence:

Algeria Azerbaijan Iran
Malaysia Maldives Saudi Arabia
Bahrain Jordan Kuwait
Kyrgyzstan Libya Tunisia
Turkey Guinea Kosovo

Countries With Moderate Levels of Political Violence:

Brunei Kazakhstan Morocco
Tajikistan Uzbekistan Chad
United Arab Emirates Comoros Burkina Faso
Maritania Niger Senegal
Sierra Leone

Countries With Low Levels of Political Violence:

Oman Qatar Turkmenistan
Western Sahara Djibouti Albania
The Gambia

Source: Conflict Barometer, Political Violence in 2014

Applying her conception of hegemonic Islam to the dataset, Cesari argued that the state-religion relationship is key to explaining a tendency towards political violence and social hostility. Islam is not the problem, she contended—rather, the incorporation of religion into politics is the cause for instability.

Cesari acknowledged the difficulty of channeling these conclusions into concrete policies, but argued that policymakers need to abandon the idea that Islam needs reform. The political Islam that she discussed is in fact the outcome of reform and modernization, she explained. What is needed instead is a more informed understanding of Islam. Additionally, she stressed the need to recognize that Muslim democracies are possible without having to compromise on key elements like free and fair elections, separation of power, rule of law, and human and civil rights. On the other hand, Cesari urged the audience not to write off states that do not fully adhere to these standards—even developed democracies sometimes struggle to respect their citizens’ rights.

Hamid, drawing on his most recent book “Rethinking Political Islam” (co-edited with William McCants), among other books he has written on the subject, sought to put to rest the notion that religion and politics are separate entities. In his experiences researching and engaging with members of Islamist movements in the Middle East, Hamid discovered that it is nearly impossible to separate religion and politics, as they are not seen as discrete categories in the region.

Hamid agreed with Cesari that Islamism is a modern movement; Islamism could not have existed in the past because opposing political beliefs did not exist then. It was only when a secular movement emerged, which threatened the position of Islam in the political sphere, did Islamism as a distinct movement arise. Hamid noted that believing in an Islam-oriented political sphere would not necessarily define one as an Islamist. Instead, being an Islamist requires a conscious effort to orient oneself around Islamist ideas.

In terms of where Islamism stands today, Hamid said that the nation-state and Western scholars “corrupted” Islamism when they pressured Islamist groups to integrate into the electoral process and embrace the idea of a nation-state. Islamist groups then shifted their goals, as their targets became gaining votes and the highest possible elected positions. (Cesari disagreed with Hamid on this point about “corruption”: In her opinion, the nation-state simply changed Islamism in that it forced clerics and Islamist leaders to operate within a specific framework.) Hamid said that Islamist groups need to now reconsider whether or not it is in their best interest to continue utilizing a state-centric approach. Young Islamists and conservative Islamists—or as Hamid called them, “neo-Islamists”—are now starting to engage on this front and this new trend is something that needs close examining.

Looking ahead

Mandaville asked: What main factors should we focus on in order to properly understand current developments around political Islam and Islamism?

Cesari proposed:

  • Distinguishing between Islamism and political Islam because, as her book shows, all forms of religious nationalism found in Muslim-majority countries are political Islam, and
  • Distinguishing between social movements and political parties. Though Islamism as a political statement may not succeed, as a social movement that dictates behavior and social interactions, it will not disappear, she said.

Hamid answered that like the title of his book, “Islamic Exceptionalism,” Islam is exceptional in how it relates to law, politics, and governance, and as a result, is resistant to secularization. Islam was never intended to operate in tandem with the nation-state, he argued. He went further than Cesari and suggested that all Islam is political, even in secular states. Therefore, it is more appropriate to use the terms Islamism or Islamist to describe what is often meant by the phrase “political Islam.” In this regard, Islamism is a specific belief that “Islam and Islamic law should play a central role in public life” and “Islamists are those who orient themselves around the political project of making Islam central in public and political life.”

Finally, Mandaville asked Cesari and Hamid to comment on the future of Islamist movements and parties in the next five to 10 years. Cesari posited that while secular Muslim-majority states today are far from being democratic, the legitimate involvement of Islamist parties could actually push states towards incorporating some elements of democracy. She also stressed a need to analyze the influence of transnational movements, which can impact local debates.

Hamid said that his major takeaway from the events that have occurred since the Arab Spring is that extreme repression against Islamists is effective (e.g. in Egypt). For Islamists, that means simply waiting until there is an opening in the system. Hamid lamented that, once again, a conversation on what happens when Islamists participate in and win elections has been postponed. This conversation needs to take place, as it is only a matter of time before policymakers and scholars once again have to grapple with Islamist involvement in the electoral space.