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Roundtable on The Future of Islamism: A Starting Point

[Supporters of Egypt's ousted President Mohammed Morsi on 8 November 2013 raise his poster and their hands with four raised fingers, which has become a symbol of the Raba‘a al-Adawiyya mosque—where Morsi supporters had held a sit-in for weeks that was violently dispersed in August 2013. Image by Amr Nabil via Associated Press] [Supporters of Egypt's ousted President Mohammed Morsi on 8 November 2013 raise his poster and their hands with four raised fingers, which has become a symbol of the Raba‘a al-Adawiyya mosque—where Morsi supporters had held a sit-in for weeks that was violently dispersed in August 2013. Image by Amr Nabil via Associated Press]

Introduction (by Abdullah Al-Arian, Roundtable Organizer and Co-Editor of Critical Currents in Islam Page)

The Arab uprisings that began in late 2010 had barely claimed a single authoritarian ruler when many observers began to proclaim the imminent rise of Islamist governments from Tunisia to Yemen. Less than three years later, however, those predictions appear at best to have been premature. Despite repeated electoral successes in Tunisia and Egypt, Islamist political parties have yet to supplant successfully the preexisting authoritarian political order or offer a fundamentally different socioeconomic vision from the conditions that have prevailed across the Arab world for over half a century. Moreover, the recent setbacks to the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, following the military’s removal of President Mohamed Morsi from office, has cast further doubt on the perception that the political future of Arab societies lies with Islamist movements. In spite of their proven capacity to build strong internal organizational structures, develop effective social service institutions, withstand unremitting state repression, and mobilize mass popular support, groups like the Muslim Brotherhood and al-Nahda have fallen dramatically short of expectations, both in terms of their ability to navigate the corridors of state power as well as in channeling popular support into effective governance.

In the following roundtable, we asked five of the leading scholars in the study of Islamic movements and political parties to provide their reflections on the question of “the future of Islamism,” especially in light of the recent developments in Egypt and elsewhere. Their comments provide a series of illuminating perspectives that speak to the challenges facing observers of these phenomena and the leaders of the movements themselves. The roundtable features contributions by Asef Bayat, Nathan Brown, Peter Mandaville, Jillian Schwedler, and John Voll. After each contributed submitted their initial reflections on the questions posed (Part I), they had a chance to reflect on one anothers' responses (Part II).



Asef Bayat, Professor of Sociology and Middle Eastern Studies at University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

I think that when it comes to the future of the Islamist movements, the Arab revolutions have perplexed many observers. Prior to the uprisings, the dominant view was that any major political challenge to the Arab autocracies would come from the Islamist movements, like the Muslim Brothers, simply because they were the most organized forces. But then it turned out that instead of Islamists, a mix of non-ideological actors initiated the uprisings in which the Muslim Brothers or al-Nahda leaderships were actually late comers, and the religious language was missing or minimal. But then again when a few Islamic parties like the Freedom and Justice Party in Egypt, al-Nahda in Tunisia, or the Party of Justice and Development in Morocco, scored electoral victories after these revolutions, the argument shifted in favor of the view that the uprisings were leading to Islamist revolutions. And now many view the clampdown of the Muslim Brothers in Egypt as the outset of the demise of Islamism. These observations seem to be very hastily made. It is, I think, more useful to see things in a broader historical perspective; to consider the more enduring and deeper structural and ideological trends than focusing simply on present juncture or ad hoc incidents.

The Muslim Brothers have certainly faced a setback as a result of the violent crackdown against them—their leaders are in jail or on the run, their organization is under surveillance, and their sources of foreign support have probably been disrupted. But this does not mean their demise, nor for that matter the death of Islamist movements per se. The Muslim Brothers can revive, survive, and sustain as they have done so through difficult decades in their long history. But the question is in what form, strength, and ideological make-up; hegemonic or marginal?

I think the real setback for the Muslim Brothers did not just come from their clampdown. The real setback began the day after they ascended to the helm of power, when they began to rule: when the movement became the regime. It was astonishing to see such an erosion of sympathy, support, and legitimacy, and so many defections in the course of just two years. If Mohamed Mosri had remained to end his presidential term in defeat, that would have had more serious implications for the future of Islamism as such than his removal by the military intervention.

In fact Morsi’s ouster may in a sense have rescued the Muslim Brothers because it has revived in them the discourse of victimhood and the disruption of an unfinished project. Many members now speak of waging an Islamic revolution in the Iranian mold. So it is plausible to imagine that the Muslim Brotherhood might see radicalized trends within itself or possibly radical splinters emerge from it, something similar to what happened to Egyptian Islamism following Gamal Abdel Nasser’s suppression of the Muslim Brothers.

Yet it is crucial to remember that we live in a different time from the 1960s and 1970s; today almost every Muslim society has already experienced some kind of Islamism. The Arab revolts clearly demonstrated that the key popular concerns revolved around not establishing a religious state, but issues of social justice and an inclusive polity that responds to citizens’ demands. The Islamist movements are likely to remain in one form or another. But their central or marginal position will depend on whether they will be able to respond to such popular demands. If they do not, the Islamic movements are likely to move to the margins. But if they do, they may continue to occupy a central place in these nations’ public sphere–but in such a case, they would no longer be Islamist; rather they would have turned post-Islamist.

Nathan Brown, Professor of Political Science and International Affairs at George Washington University

If one thinks of Islamist movements and trends as those aiming at fostering the development of a more Islamic society and a greater role for Islam in public life, then the forced departure of President Mohamed Morsi might certainly appear to be a setback but perhaps not much more.  After all, the movement has always been much broader than the Muslim Brotherhood and focused on far more than politics and the top reaches of the state. The networks, approaches, ideas, and practices forged over several decades can survive the deposition of an Islamist leader. Islamism as a broad trend in Egyptian society is about much more than Mohamed Morsi. Even in the political realm, one important actor—Hizb al-Nour—has stepped right into the gap left by the forcible exclusion of the Brotherhood.

Yet such a view, while well grounded in Egyptian realities, may understate the significance of events since 3 July in two ways. First, while Islamism was about much more than the Brotherhood, over the past decade, the Brotherhood has emerged as the most significant political face of Islamism in Egypt. And the challenge for Islamism is not simply that the Brotherhood lost office, but that it is now reviled by much of the society and being purged from the Egyptian state. The Brotherhood embraced politics ambivalently and slowly for a while, but after 25 January, the Brotherhood threw all of its energies into politics with short-term impressive but long-term disastrous result. The defeat of the Brotherhood’s political project leaves behind not only no clear political alternative but also a hostile public atmosphere. And that leads to the second way in which Morsi’s overthrow may have long-term impact. It is not simply that the political door has been slammed shut, but there are signs that Egypt’s new rulers—and the country’s elite—are attempting to shut other doors as well, from small mosques to large broadcasters.

Islamism will likely survive as a diffuse movement—really a set of movements—but in a less friendly social climate and a political climate that—at least for now—appears more hostile than it has been in a generation.

Peter Mandaville, Director of the Ali Vural Ak Center for Global Islamic Studies and Associate Professor of Government at George Mason University

Islamism has been undergoing significant transformation over the past decade and one is often hard pressed today to find a straightforward answer to the question “who is an Islamist?” This is in large measure a story of how conventional Islamism—as represented by the Muslim Brotherhood—has progressively lost market share in recent years to a diverse range of alternative Islamic socio-political projects. Many of these, such as the Fethullah Gülen movement, various networks organized around popular television preachers such as Amr Khaled, and even a new breed of middle class neo-salafism, are a function of the encounter between Islam and neoliberal consumption. This shift is also associated with a migration in the locus of efforts to embody Islamic normativity in social life. The classic paradigm of modernist political Islam was premised on the idea that one’s Islamist persona was expressed through formal membership in a political organization—in other words, being an Islamist was something one had to make time for as a separate and discrete component of social life. By contrast, many of today’s Islamist alternatives are organized around spaces and activities associated with what social theorist Henri Lefebvre denoted the “realm of everyday life.” Here, being an Islamist has as much to do with lifestyle—how one consumes, studies, spends leisure time—as it does with joining a political movement. The pluralization of Islamic socio-political space and the Muslim Brotherhood’s loss of monopoly over the claim to articulate an Islamic social order is hence a major force shaping the future of Islamism.

That is not to say, however, that Islamism of the Ikhwanist variety ceases to be relevant. Within the realm of formal politics, as recent developments in the Arab world have shown, Islamism remains a potent force. The challenges associated with doing real politics and engaging in practical governance will likely have a significant impact on the Islamist movement. Al-Nahda has had a major impact on Tunisia’s political landscape but has also, in turn, been deeply affected by its participation in transitional politics. There is much going on in the way of trial and error, and improvisation. And clearly the question of how the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood deals with the aftermath of the 3 July 2013 military coup will be of tectonic importance in indicating the future direction of the modern Islamic movement. There are already signs that some of the more reform-minded figures within the movement who had been marginalized or pushed out altogether by a conservative wave in recent years are seeking to re-exert influence within the movement more broadly. If they succeed in shifting the center of gravity of political Islamism toward a less exclusivist orientation, that would be highly significant. Those within the Brotherhood who want to monopolize politics, however, remain a significant constituency and we may see the advent of a new phase of internecine conflict within Islamist circles.

Jillian Schwedler, Professor of Political Science at Hunter College

My initial reaction to this question is that there is very little about the current situations or conflicts that tell us much at all about Islamist politics, so thinking about “The Future of Islamism” might be the wrong starting point. Indeed, it may no longer make sense to think in broad terms about Islamist movements, let alone a single Islamist movement.  In the Arab uprisings, it surprised many of us how little religious groups mattered, at least in terms of the mobilizations and protests themselves. Islamist groups were latecomers in all cases. Subsequently, the extent to which Islamist movements have been central to the “transition” periods seems to depend more on the institutional resources of particular movements (such as the administrative and organizational capabilities of pre-existing or established movements) than on the content of their religious ideas.

However, there are two areas that I think bear our attention.

The first has to do with the emergence of new Islamist groups onto the political scene, in particular, the decision of certain Salafi groups to organize as political parties and contest elections. These groups are challenging some of the more moderate and reformist groups in terms of Islamist credibility—that is, they are calling out groups like the Muslim Brotherhood and al-Nahda Party for having deviated too far from core Islamic values and prioritizing the wrong things. This has changed the structure of the field in which the more centrist groups function.

The second issue has to do with the increased salience of religious identities and rhetoric in the region. This has to do not only with the Arab uprisings, but more broadly with the various power struggles of the region. Key here is the notion of power. Religious identities and affiliations are being invoked (and thus evoked) by a wide range of actors, each of which has particular and readily identifiable purposes for framing the region’s priorities and conflicts along religious sectarian lines. Saudi Arabia, the Gulf monarchies, and Jordan, for example, all have clear reasons for interpreting regional conflicts in terms of a Sunni-Shi‘i rivalry. A strong Iran, therefore, is seen as scary not because it challenges the Saudi-centric (and, importantly, pro-US) pole of power, but because it threatens to create a powerful Shi‘i alliance stretching across Lebanon, Syria, and Iraq that the Saudi-US pole will necessarily view as hostile. The war in Syria has become, in part, a proxy site for these struggles, so the outcome of that conflict is seen to have profound significance for the future of the religious makeup in the region. The conflicts in Iraq are similarly represented as sectarian and religious in nature, rather than as the result of concrete and historical political struggles in which certain actors actively sought to create such cleavages for their personal advantage.

While Islamist movements are involved in these struggles, I think it makes more sense to think in terms of struggles for power, in which the relevant actors include not only opposition movements, but a wide variety of state actors—and the United States.

John Voll, Professor of Islamic History and Associate Director of the Prince Alwaleed bin Talal Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding at Georgetown University

The Arab Spring clearly changed the narrative about the future of Islamism in the contexts of the twenty-first-century world. Then, instant analysts’ narratives changed again with the military overthrow in Egypt of the democratically elected Islamist president in 2013. While these specific developments are significant, it is also important to place them in the longer-term historical evolution of what has come to be called Islamism and what is identified as secularism.

In the middle of the twentieth century, in the “old days” of modernization, radicalism meant a secularist revolutionary ideology and political program and advocates of Islamically-identified ideologies and programs were identified as “traditional” or conservative. In many ways this old binary has been reversed, and in places like Egypt, the Islamists (especially the Salafis) are called the “radicals,” while most people think of the secularists as being moderate–and they conservatively provide support for the return to military rule.

Both secularism and Islamically-identified ideologies and movements have changed significantly in the past half century. The evolution of the Islamic modes has been very well studied, with the rise and failure of Political Islam being noted and the emergence of post-Islamism seen as an important part of the evolution of Islamic dynamics in the public sphere.

Less attention has been given to the evolution of secularism, at least in the Muslim world. Just as it was possible for Olivier Roy in the 1990s to describe the failure of the specific phenomenon of the organizational Political Islam that emerged in the 1980s, it would be possible to write a similar description of the failure of the Radical Secularism in the Muslim world that began in the 1960s, creating the authoritarian secular regimes of leaders like Nasser/ Sadat/ Mubarak, Suharto, Saddam Hussein, and Hafiz al-Asad. Reformasi in Indonesia and the rise of the AKP in Turkey were early responses to politically-authoritarian secularism. However, just as Roy reminded people that the failure of Political Islam did not mean the end of the political influence of Islamically-identified groups (and noted the emergence of what he called “neofundamentalism”), the end of the old-style secularism means that new forms of secularism are developing within the broader framework of the global trends for reaffirmation of religious identities.

What this means for the future of the Muslim Brotherhood and Islamism in Egypt seems to me to be the following: the parliamentary elections confirmed the support for Sharia-based political morality by three-quarters of the Egyptian population (as reported in a recent Pew survey). However, the broadly-based opposition to the Morsi presidency indicates that this religiously political mood does not necessarily translate into support for the Muslim Brotherhood. Egypt is in a time when it is possible to speak of both post-Islamism and post-secularism. I suggest that what is emerging in Egypt (and elsewhere) is a religious secularism and a secularist religionism that will probably produce new styles of movements and organizations that may keep old labels (like “Muslim Brotherhood” and “Nasserite”) but will be significantly different from their twentieth-century ancestors.



Asef Bayat (Rejoinder)

I am very happy to see very insightful views of the colleagues on these pages. It seems that we all see some kind of change in Islamist politics in the future, but differ in our assessment of the scale and nature of change. So, Islamism is facing a “less friendly climate” and is likely to survive as a diffused movement (Nathan Brown). The “conventional” type Islamism like the Muslim Brotherhood seems to be evolving into one that is associated with everyday life and lifestyle (Peter Mandaville). Jillian Schwedler believes that beyond the rise of Salafi groups, regional politics built on sectarian religious divide may heighten religious identities, and this may in turn foster religious/Islamist politics. And John Voll views Egypt to be experiencing both post-Islamism and post-secularism. As noted earlier, I think that religious polity in the Middle East is likely to stay if it is able to respond to the revolutionary demands of citizens (bread, freedom, and social justice); in such case this polity will no longer be Islamist by definition, but would have turned post-Islamist. Otherwise, Islamism is likely to remain only on the margins.

So, we seem to agree that change in Islamist politics, even though in different degrees, is underway, but the question is what is really changing, and into what?  Here we have differences in our understanding of Islamism. If we take Islamism to mean movements and trends that foster the development of a more Islamic society, this definition is too broad, including diverse and conflicting trends ranging from al-Qa‘ida, Khamenei, to Khatami; so that any shift from one trend to other (say, from Khamenei to Khatami) will not be captured. On the other hand, while I can imagine how Brotherhood-type political Islam may change into diffused trends that concern themselves with Muslim lifestyle, it is not clear to me what defines “conventional” Islamism.

I see Islamism in terms of movements or trends that want to establish an Islamic order in which there is a religious state and application of Shari’a, and therefore the principle of “obligation” (as opposed to rights) are key elements. And I take post-Islamism, roughly, as a critique of Islamism from within and without, a thinking that embraces a non-religious state and religious society. Here space does not allow me to further elaborate on and nuance the concept (those interested may which to look at Post-Islamism: The Changing Faces of Political Islam). But I like to say that John Voll’s analysis of Egypt as both post-Islamist and post-secular actually seems similar to my understanding of post-Islamism; because post-Islamism, in my view, is not secular. It is religious, it is Islamic; but is not Islamist.        

Nathan Brown (Rejoinder)

There are some important distinctions that emerge from this discussion thus far: between Islam and Islamism; between Islamism and the Muslim Brotherhood; and between electoral politics and other forms of activism, both political and non-political. Realizing the breadth of varieties of all these phenomena makes us hesitate about sweeping statements about the impact of the failure of the Morsi presidency.  

That hesitation is entirely proper. Even referring to the Morsi presidency as a failure masks different (not necessarily contradictory) diagnoses: was it the Brotherood's political project, its determination to contest the presidency, its record in power, the coalition arrayed against it that sought to overturn the 2012 elections, and/or popular repudiation that is at issue?

But if we must broaden our horizons and render our observations in modest form, I still think that the experience of the past two years will be uppermost in the minds of most actors–some Islamists will seek to distinguish their approach from the Brotherhood's; the prospect of governing in the immediate future will likely recede; and Islamists of wide variety of stripes will find themselves caught up in an anti-Brotherhood dragnet.

My initial contribution was very Egypt-centric as are my comments in this second round; in some of the first round of contributions there is a wider focus. I have probably tilted too far in an Egyptian direction, but I think it will be some time before Islamist movements in the region will not feel pressed to explain themselves at least in part by reference to the Egyptian experience.

Peter Mandaville (Rejoinder)

I find it striking that all of us in one way or another seemed reluctant to regard the experience of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood over the past couple of years as a useful barometer of Islamism’s future. On the one hand this speaks to the fact that all of us are dealing with scales and registers of analysis more concerned with the something like the longue durée of Islamist politics rather than focusing so much on the messy, polarizing politics of the post-2011 period. On the other, I think we all recognize that despite the sweeping and quite comprehensive campaign waged by Egypt’s security services to neutralize the Brotherhood as a political force, its story is likely far from over and its recent experiences not entirely exceptional in the context of its long history.

Several contributors to this forum have also correctly noted that even within the formal political realm, other parties wrapping themselves in the mantle of Islam—particularly the various Salafi groups—have proven adept at capitalizing on the Brotherhood’s misfortunes. The army and security services that dominate Egyptian politics for the time being have tended to view Salafis as more “domesticated” and less likely to directly challenge the political status quo (remember that Salafism as a theological current has been politically quietist for the most part). It is not too difficult to imagine a political near future for Egypt whereby the regime returns to its old habits of pre-cooking electoral outcomes—only now with a veneer of greater inclusivity because certain Islamic groups will be permitted to participate.

I particularly appreciated Jillian Schwedler’s point that asking questions about the future of Islamic movements—while interesting—may not necessarily lead us to where the action is. Rather, she urges us to pay attention to the ways in which religion becomes, or is turned into, an organizing (and antagonizing) principle around which a wide range of politics will be waged by Islamists, secularists, and the many groups who do not fit comfortably into either of those camps.

Jillian Schwedler (Rejoinder)

My first reaction to my colleagues’ comments is to note that the experiences of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt seem to be front and center in everyone’s minds. This is of course unsurprising, as the Brotherhood emerged as an important actor in the transition and Morsi became Egypt’s first freely elected president. With Morsi’s removal and the pending trials of numerous Brotherhood leaders, the “future” of the moment appears to be quite literally in question. I agree with Asef Bayat, however, that the suppression of the movement may ultimately be to its advantage. Out of power, it will not come under any criticism for failing to perform well in power; it will have no failed policies, no flirtation with government corruption, no selling-out of its core principles.  Many who did not support the Brotherhood nonetheless objected to the undemocratic way in which the nation’s elected president was removed from power. The move will add to the group’s narrative that it has never been given a chance to truly govern, and as such is hardly at risk of becoming irrelevant, even if its leadership is thrown into turmoil through massive arrests, imprisonment, and an (re)outlawing of the group.

However, I want to stress that our thinking about the role of Islam (or any religion) in politics should extend beyond “movements” to the ways in which various power struggles are advanced and framed as being “about” religion, often in the form of sectarian differences. As Peter Mandaville rightly emphasizes, a wide range of socio-political groups have emerged to claim different kinds of spaces that can also be called religious, many entailing everyday practices or frames of reference.  The challenge is not to track the rise or decline of individual movements, but to think abut precisely what is changing, and for what sets of reasons, without producing reductionist narratives of the sort that “Islamism is in decline” or “Sunni-Shi‘i rivalries are increasingly bloody.”  Sweeping characterizations are appealing in their simplicity, seeming to provide a clear explanation for a range of complex problems.

We might do well to ask instead, who stands to benefit from narratives such as a decline of Islamism, the intensification of Sunni-Shi‘i rivalries, and so on. More often than not, the answers will be less about the goals and beliefs of any particular group than about conventional struggles for power among a diverse range of state and non-state actors, within states, across the region, and internationally.

John Voll (Rejoinder)

It is clear that our group agrees that whatever it is that is called “Islamism” is changing or possibly being transformed by “the more enduring and deeper structural and ideological trends”(Asef Bayat). Peter Mandaville suggests that “conventional Islamism” is losing market share to a variety of “alternative Islamic sociopolitical projects” and Jillian Schwedler speaks of the emergence of new Islamist groups and the “increased salience of religious identities.” We are, in terms of the original question posed to the group regarding the future of the Islamist movement, clearly entering a new period–and such a transformation requires a new framing of analysis, since the movements/ groups/ socio-political projects are themselves involved in significantly reframing their narratives of identity and mobilization.

A while back Asef Bayat suggested that we think in terms of the emergence of “post-Islamism,” and I found this conceptualization and terminology very helpful. However, I think the comments in response to the question posed for our group suggest that just as trends in the 1990s saw developments from Islamism to post-Islamism, we may now be in the next stage, a transition from post-Islamism to a kind of post-post-Islamism that clearly needs a new conceptualization and identifying terminology.

This transition has been discussed by a number of scholars recently within the framework of what some have called an Islamist Theory of Moderation. The argument is basically that inclusion in the political processes leads extremist groups to abandon violence as a tool for gaining their goals. The result is that Islamists become “moderates.” I find the term “moderates” to be misleading and inaccurate for describing the Islamically-oriented movements that choose not to use violence to accomplish their goals. Such groups may be very ideologically radical and may not be at all “moderate” in their approaches to crucial issues. However, the moderation theory people are identifying an important part of the developments defining the future(s) of the Islamist movement(s).

Jillian Schwedler’s noting the increased salience of religious identities has special relevance here. One does not have to be an Islamist for Islam to be of fundamental relevance to your political ideology or your definition of the sources of social morality. Identification as a Muslim is very important to many people who are not Salafis, Wahhabis, or Islamists. The new salience is reflected in the apparent decline of both the appeal of old-style leftist radicalism or secularism and of Islamism.

We live in a very different time from the 1960s/1970s and even the 2000s. If we accept using simplistic labels, the transitions in the past half century in terms of movements with Muslim identification might be seen as from “traditional” conservative in the 1950s to radical-nationalist (Nasserist) Islam of the 1960s to Islamic “fundamentalists” in the 1970s to Political Islam in the 1980s (with its “failure” by the 1990s) with the switch from Political Islam to Islamism (at least in analytical terminology), and then to post-Islamism, and now to the new time. Maybe (using Muslim identity rather than Islamic themes as the base) we are entering a time of “Muslimism.” General al-Sisi, for example, might not be identifiable as an Islamist, but neither would he welcome being called a secularist, so maybe he is a Muslimist. I would be open to any suggestions that provide a clearer picture of where we (and the former Islamists) are now.


Short Bios 

Asef Bayat is the Catherine and Bruce Bastian Professor of Global and Transnational Studies and Professor of Sociology and Middle Eastern studies at University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

Nathan Brown is professor of political science and international affairs at George Washington University.

Peter Mandaville is the Director of the Ali Vural Ak Center for Global Islamic Studies and Associate Professor of Government at George Mason University.

Jillian Schwedler is professor of political science at Hunter College.

John Voll is professor of Islamic history and associate director of the Prince Alwaleed bin Talal Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding at Georgetown University.


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