On March 10, 2010, the Brookings Doha Center hosted a policy discussion with Fares Braizat, associate professor and head of research at Qatar University’s Social and Economic Survey Research Institute, Shadi Hamid, deputy director of the Brookings Doha Center and fellow at the Saban Center, and Nizar Hamzeh, dean of arts and sciences at the American University of Kuwait. The panel explored whether mainstream Islamist groups in the Arab world are in a state of crisis and whether they have succeeded or failed in responding to internal and external challenges. The discussion covered a host of important questions, including whether militant groups, such as Hamas and Hizbullah, are political parties or resistance movements, how nonviolent groups like the Muslim Brotherhood conceive their strategic ends, and how Arab public opinion perceives the prospect of Islamic government. The event, which was followed by a question and answer session, was moderated by Hady Amr, director of the Brookings Doha Center, and attended by members of Qatar’s academic, business, diplomatic, and media communities.
Hamid launched the discussion by pointing out that the Bush Administration’s “freedom agenda” helped bring about a series of Islamist victories, such as that of Hamas in the January 2006 Palestinian elections. He pointed out that after winning 20 percent of the parliamentary seats in the 2005 parliamentary elections, the Muslim Brotherhood faced a wide-ranging crackdown by the Egyptian government. In reaction, the group has begun turning inward, focusing on education, proselytization, and social service provision — long the core functions of Islamist activity. Hamid commented on the tension between self-identifying as political parties or social movements. This is reflected in Islamists’ ambivalent attitudes about power: They typically do not seek majorities, usually opting to contest 50 percent of parliamentary seats or less. He went on to suggest that Islamist may in fact prefer being in the opposition; governing would force them to make difficult compromises – on issues such as relations with Israel – which could provoke internal splits. Hamid pointed out that should Islamists attempt to win elections in Egypt, Jordan, or Morocco, they would most likely need a “green light or at least a yellow light” from the United States. He concluded that, to its credit, the Obama Administration has demonstrated an openness to engaging Islamists but needs to go further to develop a coherent policy toward political Islam.
Hamzeh began by pointing out that any assessment of the future course of Islamist movements required a clear understanding of their varying modes of operation, their specific political contexts, and the regional climate. Hizbullah served as the primary point of reference for his remarks. He stressed that Islamist groups such as Hizbullah self-define as jihadi movements. Jihad, Hamzeh noted, is a comprehensive mode of action that includes both armed and unarmed resistance depending on what the political, social, or economic situation calls for. For Hizbullah, politics is a means to the end of an independent Palestinian state and a return of the Shebaa Farms to Lebanon. Hamzeh pointed to the legitimacy that Hizbullah draws from its social welfare arm. Being a member of Hizbullah means access to jobs and other services. Although Hizbullah has not been able to create an Islamic state in Lebanon—due to the sectarian nature of the confessional system — the lack of Lebanese cohesion, Hamzeh argues, has allowed Hizbullah to establish city-states ideologically connected by an Islamic order. He concluded that Hizbullah is not in a state of crisis but that its “long-term fate” will be heavily dependent on factors out of its control, including the status of the Arab-Israeli conflict and U.S.-Iran relations.
Providing polling data on Arab public opinion, Braizat contended that Islamist parties are not “stuck” but that their realities are dictated by their respective political contexts. For example, in 1989, the Jordanian Muslim Brotherhood won 22 parliamentary seats, but its share later decreased due to state repression and the imposition of a new electoral law. He argued that Islamist movements have generally proven unable to translate their popularity into concrete political actions on the ground. Braizat shared results of polling conducted in Jordan, Syria, Lebanon, Egypt, Algeria, Yemen, and Morocco. 64 percent of Arabs believe that a parliamentary system is suitable or very suitable for their countries, with a high percentage supporting a larger role for Islam and Islamic law. In addition, Braizat suggested that in Jordan, and other parts of the Arab world, younger voters were more likely to vote for an Islamist party. Interestingly, polling also demonstrate that the majority of Arabs identify primarily as Muslim while non-Arab Muslims more strongly identify with their nationalities. This suggests that support for Islamist groups is tied to a number of complex factors and varies widely according to the particulars of the political environment.
Following the panel’s remarks, a lively question and answer session covered a range of issues including whether Islamist groups respond to the same broader regional reality, fatalism in the Islamist worldview, the rise of Salafi movements, the role of women in Islamist parties, and tensions Islamists face between theory and practice. A member of the audience pointed to the difficulty of assessing the popularity of Islamist movements operating under autocratic regimes. Hamid noted that electoral results give us a clear sense of Islamist popularity, citing the example of the 2005 Egyptian elections, where the Brotherhood won nearly 60 percent of the seats it contested. Commenting on the moderating effect of democratization, Braizat argued that if Islamists are given the opportunity to become full participants, they will become like Christian Democratic parties in Europe, both “conservative and democratic.” On the question of whether fatalism in the Islamist ethos is a source of strength or weakness, Hamzeh responded by highlighting that Islamists subscribe to varying notions of fatalism: fatalism doesn’t suit Hizbullah’s worldview, the Taliban are fatalists, while Al Qaeda is not necessarily fatalistic. Hamid added that “Islamists have a longer term planning horizon because they believe history is on their side.”
On the role of women, Hamzeh held that women are “the center of gravity” in the new Islamist framework; in Hizbullah and Hamas, they are running charitable associations and are charged with logistical planning. With regard to the prevalence of Salafi movements in the Arab world, Hamid said they are becoming stronger on the ground and so those hoping for Islamists’ demise should keep in mind that “the alternative may be worse.” On the question of theory and practice, Hamzeh underscored the theoretical commitment of Islamists to notions such as freedom of expression and democracy but that the Sharia stands above all these democratic commitments. Although political tactics change, the Sharia doctrine does not, he emphasized. Notably, Hamid and Braizat disagreed with this assessment, arguing it is unfair to prejudge Islamist movements and their commitment to democracy until they have the chance to govern.