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Islamism and Politics: Going in Circles


More than one million protesters gathered at Tahrir Square in Cairo on April 1, 2011. President Hosni Mubarak had stepped down on Feb. 11. CREATIVE COMMONS

It must be a drag to live in a strict Islamist regime: the legal system stems entirely from Islamic — sharia — law, in which adulterers are stoned to death, thieves have their hands chopped off, and the renunciation of Islam, or apostasy, is punishable by death. Liberal democracy? Gender equality and women’s rights? Forget it. And the same goes for alcohol and rock-and-roll.

Yes, it must be tough to live under Islamism — unless, that is, you are an Islamist.

This is in essence the conundrum examined by a Brookings Institution fellow, Shadi Hamid, in his new book on Islamist politics, “Temptations of Power: Islamists and Illiberal Democracy in a New Middle East.”

“Islamist politics” is an oxymoron in many Arab nations, where authoritarian leaders impose rigid restrictions on political life to keep Islamists out of power. That leaves Islamist parties to wait in the wings, covertly pushing for the times to change so they can participate in elections, win power and possibly pull off a shift to an Islamist state in which unacceptable behavior is subject to a different set of rigid restrictions.

As the Arab Spring got underway, Middle East hands predicted the downfall of many repressive regimes and their replacement by idealist new political movements that would pursue the rule of law, modern economies, a separation of church and state, new freedoms and human rights, including gender equality.

But it hasn’t come out that way. In almost all the nations where idealist uprisings occurred, the existing regimes managed to remain in control. Only in Egypt and Tunisia were they toppled. But rather than bring liberal secularists into power, the uprising brought to power the Islamist movements that the authoritarian regimes had long suppressed. Subsequently, in neither of these countries did Islamists hang onto power, even though most of the voters in both countries share Islamist values.

In Tunisia, the birthplace of the Arab Spring, the Islamist Ennahda party was anointed by a popular vote after President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali’s exit. But over time, faced with stubborn resistance from a secularist minority, Ennahda worked with the opposition to draft a new constitution and enact reforms before stepping down to make way for a fledgling democracy.

In Egypt, the long-suppressed Islamic Brotherhood won a strong parliamentary majority and then the presidency in democratic elections after the overthrow of the autocratic president, Hosni Mubarak. But after perhaps pushing an Islamist agenda too hard, it found itself tied in knots by the judiciary and overthrown by the military. The Brotherhood has now been forced underground, outlawed and waging a low-intensity guerrilla campaign against the new government after the jailing and killing of thousands of its members.

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Does this mean that hopes for Islamist government are dead or dying? Not at all. No matter how many times and in how many different ways it is set back or crushed, Islamist politics will remain on the scene, although perhaps lurking in the background in some places, for a long, long time.

Should Islamism instead simply be trying harder to reshape itself along the lines of modern sectarian democracy? Essentially, Hamid writes, Islamists cannot easily fit into a liberal society because they have fundamentally different beliefs.

Look at Egypt, where polls have consistently found that Islamist illiberalism is extremely popular among voters. A 2011 Pew poll found that 80 percent favored stoning adulterers, while 70 percent favored cutting off the hands of thieves, Hamid notes. Another 2011 poll found that only 18 percent of Egyptians would support a woman president. A 2012 Pew survey found that 61 percent liked the Saudi Arabian model of religion in government, while just 17 percent favored the sectarian model of Turkey.

“The divisions between Islamists and liberals are not manufactured; they are based around fundamental differences on questions of nationhood and national identity. Arab societies will need to work them out through an uneven, painful and sometimes bloody process of democratic bargaining and institution building,” Hamid writes. “The divide can be better managed, but it is unlikely to disappear as a major and perhaps defining point of contention. Just as economic cleavages became entrenched in Western democracies, ideological cleavages around the role of religion in public life are solidifying themselves across the Middle East.”

Nonetheless, Islamist politics is evolving, although not necessarily in the ways expected, Hamid goes on. It has long been assumed, for example, that more democracy would lead Islamists to moderate their views, while more repression would make these movements more radical, he writes. But these assumptions, “while intuitive, largely miss the mark,” he writes.

While there were militant groups in the 1990s that entered violent struggles with repressive Arab regimes, some mainstream Islamist movements at the same time “accepted many of the foundational tenets of democracy, including popular sovereignty and alternation of power,” he writes. “Across the region, they adopted increasingly moderate positions on political pluralism and women’s and minority rights. Moreover, they moved to democratize their organizational structures.”

So, “increasing levels of repression, rather than resulting in radicalization, can have a moderating effect on Islamist groups, pushing them to reconsider and redefine their policy priorities,” he says, adding wryly that “moderation” appears to have taken on a new meaning. “In popular discourse, it tends to translate roughly into doing the things we want Islamist groups to do.”

Nonetheless, moderation occurs “in the hope that this will give paranoid governments less reason to attack them,” Hamid writes, adding, “Doing so also attracts liberal and leftist support — as well as international sympathy — all of which can serve as a layer of protection.”

The desire for protection goes back to the root of Islamism’s modern struggle to break into and supplant restrictive regimes by democratic means. It began in Algeria — governed as a department of France until its independence in 1962 — where the Islamic Salvation Front hoped to establish an Islamist nation under sharia law and eventually won legal status as a political party. In the first round of December 1991 parliamentary elections, the Front won 47.5 percent of the vote and 188 of 231 seats. At that point, the military sensed an imminent Islamist victory that would erode both its own power and what passed for Algerian democracy at the time. The military stepped in and canceled the second round of voting and launched a broad crackdown on Islamists that plunged Algeria into a civil war in which more than 100,000 people died.

The Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamist parties across the region still see Algeria as a powerful lesson for their movement, Hamid says: Another Algeria is “always around the corner. Winning one election after another is no guarantee of political survival, just like it wasn’t in 1991.”

“Temptations of Power: Islamist and Illiberal Democracy in a New Middle East,” by Shadi Hamid; 9780199314058


Irwin Arieff is a veteran writer and editor with extensive experience writing about international diplomacy and food, cooking and restaurants. Before leaving daily journalism in 2007, he was a Reuters correspondent for 23 years, serving in senior posts in Washington, Paris and New York as well as at the United Nations (where he covered five of the 10 years that Sergey Lavrov spent in New York as Russia’s senior UN ambassador). Arieff also wrote restaurant reviews for The Washington Post and Washington City Paper in the 1980s and 1990s with his wife, Deborah Baldwin.

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