Report

The Islamist Response to Repression: Are Mainstream Islamist Groups Radicalizing?

Shadi Hamid

Introduction

Today, some of the Middle East’s most prominent Islamist groups are in a state of crisis, racked by internal divisions and struggling to respond to regime repression. With key U.S. allies in the region placing increasingly crippling limits on political opposition, mainstream Islamist groups—including the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and Jordan’s Islamic Action Front (IAF)—are reassessing their strategy of privileging electoral and parliamentary politics. 

Despite embracing key democratic precepts, modernizing their election platforms, and reaching out to Western audiences, Islamist groups have found themselves victims of electoral manipulation, mounting legal restrictions, and mass arrest. With mainstream Islamists effectively being punished for their moderation, analysts have warned of impending Islamist radicalization.

This policy briefing analyzes how nonviolent Islamist groups in the Arab world are responding to a new, sometimes unprecedented, set of challenges. How have these  emerging concerns affected their strategy and tactics? And, as mainstream Islamists are boxed in by government restrictions, will other more radical groups try to fill the vacuum? The course that political Islam takes in the coming years will have far-reaching implications for U.S. policy and regional security, yet it remains unclear whether the Obama administration is willing, or able, to influence events as they unfold.

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The briefing focuses on the critical cases of Egypt and Jordan, among America’s closest Arab allies as well as two of the world’s largest recipients of U.S. aid. With much-anticipated elections in both countries scheduled for 2010 and 2011, the Obama administration as well as the U.S. Congress have the opportunity to weigh in and address the question of Islamist participation, something they have so far avoided doing. The briefing concludes with several practicable steps the United States should take, including:

  • Publicly affirm the right of all opposition actors, including Islamists, to participate in upcoming elections. The Obama administration should begin by clarifying U.S. policy toward political Islam by clearly affirming the right of all nonviolent political groups to participate in the electoral process. This should be coupled by a consistent American policy of opposing not just the arrests of secular activists but Islamist ones as well. By treating both groups equally, the United States can counter the (largely accurate) claim that its support for Arab democrats is selective.
     
  • Empower U.S. embassies to begin substantive engagement with Islamist groups. The Obama administration has emphasized its belief in engaging a diverse range of actors. Yet it has failed to reach out to many of the largest, most influential groups in the region. As Islamist groups work to reassess their strategy and resolve internal divisions, American officials need to be aware of how such developments might affect broader regional interests. At a later stage, open channels of dialogue may allow the United States some influence over strategies Islamists adopt, particularly regarding participation in elections.

The Obama administration should begin by clarifying U.S. policy toward political Islam by clearly affirming the right of all nonviolent political groups to participate in the electoral process. This should be coupled by a consistent American policy of opposing not just the arrests of secular activists but Islamist ones as well. By treating both groups equally, the United States can counter the (largely accurate) claim that its support for Arab democrats is selective.  

This briefing also considers the strategic priorities of Arab governments, which, understandably, fear losing power during a difficult time of regional change. However, the Egyptian and Jordanian regimes would be well served to allow—and even encourage—Islamist participation in the upcoming elections. Doing so would enhance their domestic and international legitimacy and would be unlikely to threaten their domination of the political arena. That said, political openings are invariably risky; small openings can start small and become larger. This is where the interests of Western governments and mainstream Islamist groups, on one hand, and Arab authoritarian regimes, on the other, are likely to diverge.

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