Islam between Jihad and Democracy
The term “Islamism” and its watered-down equivalent, “political Islam,” sprang into widespread use after the Iranian Revolution of 1979 and soon became permanent fixtures of contemporary political discourse. They were coined to describe an allegedly new phenomenon: political movements headed by educated Muslim laymen who advocated the “re-Islamization” of Muslim-majority countries (and Muslim communities elsewhere) that had, in their eyes, ceased to be sufficiently Islamic. These movements promoted sharia through modern forms of popular mobilization—for example, creating branches specifically for young people, women, and workers. They adopted a hybrid organizational structure, a cross between a traditional Sufi brotherhood, in which members pass through different steps of initiation, and a modern political party, where an advisory council appoints a leader who oversees technical committees devoted to particular policy areas. Islamists worked on two tracks: fostering a social movement that would partner with community organizations and charities and establishing a political movement that would compete in elections while pushing its members into the state bureaucracy.
By the 1970s, such organizations were hardly novel. The first and most famous Islamist group was the Muslim Brotherhood, which was founded in Egypt in 1928 and later established branches throughout the Arab world. Over time, similar organizations cropped up elsewhere in the Sunni Muslim world. But the Shiite Iranian clergy and militants who took part in the overthrow of the shah of Iran in 1979 helped define political Islam in the public imagination—possibly because they were the first Islamists to control a modern state. Their rise helped popularize the term “Islamist” in the media, academia, and government.
Today, unfortunately, journalists, scholars, and politicians apply the phrase liberally, attaching it to a broad range of figures and groups—from Rached Ghannouchi, the leader of the Ennahda Party of “Muslim democrats” in Tunisia, to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the self-appointed caliph of the self-proclaimed Islamic State (or ISIS). This is akin to using the term “socialist” to describe both U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.
One of the many qualities of Rethinking Political Islam, a thoughtful and useful collection of essays assembled by Shadi Hamid and William McCants, two prominent American experts on the subject, is how it sharpens the debate over political Islam by identifying what they call “mainstream Islamists.” Hamid and McCants use that term to refer to Islamist parties “that operate within the confines of institutional politics and are willing to work within existing state structures, even ostensibly secular ones.” Groups fitting this description include the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and Jordan, the Islah Party in Yemen, the Prosperous Justice Party in Indonesia, and many others.
Although terrorist groups generate headlines, more moderate Islamist groups enjoy far deeper and broader support in the Muslim world.
Hamid and McCants’ definition leaves out movements, such as the South Asia–based Tablighi Jamaat, that seek to re-Islamize society through proselytizing rather than politics. It also excludes extremist groups, such as al Qaeda, that advocate and practice violent jihad. But the book’s focus on mainstream Islamists is warranted, because although terrorist groups generate headlines, more moderate groups enjoy far deeper and broader support in the Muslim world—and thus pose a more profound long-term challenge to secular states of all kinds. They are genuine social movements with concrete, near-term goals: if they support the idea of a global caliphate, they consider it a distant dream. In the here and now, they seek accommodation with existing institutions and build support by setting up charities that fill the gap left by poor governance in much of the Muslim world. With the goodwill this generates, they try to persuade people to “return” to Islam through piety: attending mosque, praying openly in public spaces, and, for women, wearing the veil. They do not overtly contest the legitimacy of secular governments but instead try to influence them; they enter into the electoral arena when allowed to do so and are open to joining political coalitions. They reject the practice of takfir (accusing other Muslims of apostasy) and do not promote armed insurrections—except against Israel. They take up arms rarely, only when under attack. And although they accuse Western powers of neocolonialism and “cultural aggression,” they always keep the door open to contacts and negotiation. (It should be noted that critics and opponents of such groups have long accused them, usually without much evidence, of having hidden agendas and of practicing doublespeak to disguise far more radical intentions and beliefs.)
This is a somewhat familiar portrait. But in recent years, it has been placed in an unfamiliar frame, owing to what Hamid and McCants call “the twin shocks”: the 2013 military coup in Egypt, which brought down a freely elected Islamist-led government after it had spent barely a year in power, and the 2014 emergence of an ISIS statelet in the wake of the group’s brutal rampage through Iraq and Syria. There was, of course, an earlier shock, as well: the so-called Arab Spring of 2010–11, which brought mainstream Islamists more influence and power than they had ever enjoyed before.