Abdullah Al-Arian, Roundtable Organizer and Editor of Critical Currents in Islam page:
Five years ago, we brought together the leading scholars of the study of political Islam and invited them to weigh in on the future of Islamism in the wake of uprisings that had recently swept the Arab region. In their discussion, they explored avenues for the continued expression of Islamism as a coherent political project in light of mass mobilizations, resurgent state repression, and destructive civil conflicts. In the intervening years, the spaces for popular protest have narrowed considerably, while the latter conditions have become more deeply entrenched. Through it all, the position of movements continuing to espouse political Islam has been reshaped by these developments, presenting new and more pressing questions regarding their current trajectory. Are the shifts these movements are experiencing generational or ideational in nature? How has populism influenced the evolution of Islamic movements and their response to the Arab uprisings? Perhaps more significantly, how have the Arab uprisings forced us to rethink grand narratives about the nature of Islamic movements?
We are fortunate to have been able to bring together four of the five participants in the original roundtable for a renewed discussion on these critical questions. The result has been an even more fruitful and thought-provoking set of responses that touch on wider issues concerning the evolving place of Islamists in the region. According to these perspectives, while recent developments have exposed the limits of Islamism as a force in Arab politics, they have paved the way for broadening the scope of how these movements are examined. The divergent experiences of these movements have revealed new avenues to observe the varied trajectories of individual activists, rethink the nature of radicalization, and challenge the prevailing religious-secular binary that often colors such discussions. As Nathan Brown noted, in the absence of formal spaces for political contestation, “politics lies elsewhere.”
Along with Brown, the roundtable features contributions by Asef Bayat, Jillian Schwedler, and John Voll. Following the first round of initial reflections, a second round of responses includes the participants’ rejoinders to one another.
ROUND ONE RESPONSES
Asef Bayat, Professor of Sociology and Middle Eastern Studies at University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign:
I think one of the most striking effects of the Arab spring was to dispel the dominance of Islamism in Middle East politics. For decades Islamism had been so prevalent that any ma
jor upheaval in the region would, it was thought, likely be ‘Islamist’ in character. But clearly this was not the case. None of the uprisings in Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen or Libya assumed religious language-- not even in Bahrain where the conflict appeared in terms of ruling Sunni elite against the Shi’a majority. The language of protests in earlier phase of the Syrian uprising was quite similar to others. Only when Bashar al-Asad reportedly released hardline Jihadists from prison and foreign countries got involved did the language of Jihad enter the Syrian conflict. So, on the whole, the Arab Spring showed that people could and did engage in other types of politics.
Yes, religious parties like al-Nahda in Tunisia, Muslim Brothers in in Egypt, and Party of Justice and Development (PJD) in Morocco, did win elections and assume governmental power immediately after the uprisings (in Libya, though, the Islamists in fact lost to secular parties). But as such this was not the ‘Islamist winter’ that the uprisings were supposed to unleash. In Egypt, the Muslim Brothers did come to power; but the very experience of taking office entailed a sharp drop in their popular support, and exit of ‘youth’ groups with post-Islamist proclivity from the Brotherhood. In Morocco and Tunisia, the predominant trend pointed not to Islamist, but some kind of post-Islamist trajectory, in that these parties opted for non-religious states while advocating religious ethics in society.
But what about ISIS and Jihadi streams? Did their ascendency and drama not point to a new trend in Jihadi Islamism? It is true, the Arab spring seemed to unleash groups like ISIS or various Salafi groups in the Arab public sphere; but so too did it reveal trends like Femmen Attack with its bare-chest activists in Tunisia, mass public kissing in Morocco, de-veiling in Egypt, or coming-out of atheists in the Arab world. My point is that revolutionary ruptures tend to open space for the surge of all sorts of ideas, trends, and collectives; these include both ultra-conservative and ultra-liberal trends, which in the Arab countries, however, they surfaced on the margins of society. But with respect to the mainstream, the Arab revolutions signified a post-Islamist moment, with the average Arabs espousing mostly post-Islamist sensibilities.
Of course, this has not meant the end of political Islam. Rather, the local and global contingencies have continued to shape contrasting trends in political Islam. For instance, currently Indonesia’s Muslim democracy is being challenged by politicians who employ conservative religiosity to gain electoral support and in doing so cultivate illiberal Islamist politics. In Egypt, as was expected, some trends within the Muslim Brothers have moved towards violent methods following the killings and mass arrest of the Brotherhood activists since 2013. And the story of Turkey’s Justice and Development Party (AKP)’s authoritarian shift is too well-known to elaborate here, even though the question remains as to what extent AKP leader Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s descent into authoritarian rule has anything to do with Islam or Islamism. Yet against these ‘hardline’ trends, we also see counter-trends towards ‘moderation.’ The ‘moderate Islam’ of Prince Muhammed bin Salman (MBS) of Saudi Arabia is important. Of course, MBS is not an inclusive democrat; far from it; he has already exhibited his reckless repression of dissent in Saudi Arabia and in Yemen. Yet his ‘liberal’ garb to coopt the restless Saudi youths of the Arab Spring generation can follow unintended consequences; it can undercut support for conservative Salafi Islamism that for years has provided ideological nourishment for various Jihadi trends in the Muslim world. But perhaps more important is Tunisia’s al-Nahda and its institutional post-Islamism, when the party separated its political work from religious da‘wa. Al-Nahda can offer both a concrete model and an ideological vista for Islamists to rethink their strategy; it has already instigated a good debate in the Arab public sphere.
Diaspora Islamist activism has assumed a new momentum since the Arab uprisings. But there is no certainty that the diasporic experience would necessarily alter the perspectives of the exiled Islamists. Yes, experience of living abroad, observing different cultures of Islam, and contact with other movements and worldviews may have ‘moderating’ impact. But the inability to tackle life in diaspora can make activists revert to themselves, to the comfort zone of their own marginal communities, so reinforcing the old and familiar ideas rather than adopting new and challenging ones.
But I think ‘generational shift’ (in the sense of Karl Manheim) in the leadership is crucial in how Islamism may evolve. Despite differences in local and national circumstances, the shared epochal experience has already shaped much of the worldviews of Islamist leadership in the recent years. While the Islamism of the Cold War tended to be left-oriented, distributionist and populist, the current Islamism seems to have largely taken the free market for granted. So, while some kind of left populism characterized the Islamism of the 1980s and 1990s (for instance, in the views of Ayatollah Khomeini of Iran or Mahmoud Mohammed Taha of Sudan) we see today a tendency towards neoliberal populism among both Islamists and post-Islamists—for instance, in the thinking of figures like Mahmoud Ahmadinejad of Iran, Kheirat al-Shater of the Egyptian Muslim Brothers, or Turkey’s Erdogan, who are not interested in distribution and welfare, but ‘prosperity’ through individual entrepreneurship. This represents a significant shift to what might be called ‘neo-Islamism’ of our neoliberal times.
Nathan Brown, Professor of Political Science and International Affairs at George Washington University:
The experience of the 2011 uprisings and their bewildering, dispiriting, and divergent outcomes are already reshaping the nature, strategy, organization, and ideology of Islamist movements in some profound ways. In the decades prior to 2011, Islamist movements that followed (and sometimes preceded) the path of Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood by gradually investing more in politics, attempting to pursue a part of their Islamizing agenda through whatever openings authoritarian regimes allowed, held center stage. Their dominant presence was far short of a monopoly, of course, with some groups (some salafis, al-Qa`ida) positioning their approaches, at least in part, in contradistinction to the Brotherhood. But for a brief moment after 2011, that political approach seemed to prepare Islamists well for the post-uprisings struggle. Seven years later, most have little to show for their political efforts, and some have been brutally shoved out of the political sphere.
Already five effects are clear.
First, movements whose leaders prided themselves on patience, gradualism, and avoiding violence find themselves pressed by calls for revolution and revenge. The bitterness is particularly strong in Egypt, where the violence of 2013 has left a deep wound in the society that will work its effects for years to come.
Second, a generation gap has opened in many movements. Of course, activists in and observers of Islamist movements have spoken of generations before, but what seems to be at issue now is the very idea of a hierarchical and formal movement. Throughout the region, the credibility of political parties, clear organizational frameworks, identifiable and authoritative leaders seem to have rapidly receded for many younger activists.
Third, the suspicion of formal organizations can often spread to politics and state structures more generally. An earlier generation of Islamist leaders sought not to dismantle the state but to use politics as a means to guide (and, if circumstances allowed, even lead) the state apparatus. Of course, there were dissonant voices building more on Sayyid Qutb’s denunciation of domination of human beings by other human beings—so what may be happening is that such dissonant voices become more mainstream. Talk of elections or of gaining ministerial seats seem anachronistic; attacking the deep state seems to many a far more realistic rather than a utopian approach given the bitter post-2011 experience.
Fourth, Islamist movements driven from public life will likely find it more difficult to enmesh themselves in broader and public social and religious work, gain experience working with rivals and partners, and recruit new members. For decades, Islamists had gradually (and not without sacrifice and difficulty) established themselves in universities, professional associations, and throughout many other parts of society. They were an active public presence, and, for many, an attractive one, as students, pious individuals, and ambitious and idealistic youth were drawn to their orbit. Some formally joined while others ultimately demurred but left with a sense that Islamists were not a distant bogeyman but a set of former classmates. Such presence is now forcefully denied to many Islamists, and those whom they can draw to their ranks are likely to be smaller in number and more hardened in their experiences.
Many observers of Islamist movements at this point might object to my analysis as overly Egypt-centric. That criticism is fair—in fact the separation of the Egyptian from the broader Arab experience is the fifth development. It is true that the experience of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood is my starting point. And it is also true that all the trends I identify can be found elsewhere—suspicion of existing parties and movements is particularly strong in the Palestinian case; recruitment is a problem for Islamists movements in the Arabian peninsula; the generation gap is region-wide.
But the fact that the Egyptian experience has become distinctive—one which many movements in the region wish to distance themselves from—is striking. Morocco’s PJD is grappling with the prospect of co-optation; Hamas is working to downplay its strong historical ties with what it used to call its “mother movement” in Egypt; the leaders of Tunisia’s al-Nahda began to distance themselves from the Egyptian Brotherhood even during the Morsi presidency and is operating in a political environment in which the Brotherhood’s experience seems to have little relevance.
And it is not simply that Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood is a negative example; Egypt more generally is less salient for Islamists even when they focus on politics. Syria is likely to absorb more energy and attention; the harshness among Gulf states is more pressing for the moment.
This is a very different scene from that which existed a decade ago, likely calling not simply for newer understandings but newer approaches and newer scholarly voices to help us understand more fully.
Jillian Schwedler, Professor of Political Science at Hunter College:
The Arab uprisings were the most significant events to fundamentally shape and reshape Islamist movements across the region in the past decades. They changed the calculation for millions of would-be members and constituents in a manner as significant as that of the jailing of the Muslim Brotherhood by Gamal Abdel Nasser in the 1950s and 1960s until the release under Anwar Sadat in the 1970s. At that time, like today, the new generations of conservative and religious minded activists faced a choice between committing to a moderate path that sought to bring about political reform within the political system, versus a radical path that sought to use violence to overthrow political elites and entirely upend the existing political, social, and economic order. It is true that militant movements never went away. Just as al-Gama‘a al-Islamiyya and later Islamic Jihad were largely defeated inside of Egypt, some numbers fled and found growing militant-minded movements elsewhere. But on the domestic scene, those who wanted to realize change within their home political environments, the majority seemed to find the Muslim Brotherhood or similar movement the most appealing and mainstream option. Today, in most countries that option has been removed, and so the field of choice is radically altered. Even in places like Morocco and Jordan, where moderate Islamists continue to function legally on the political scene, those movements are under extreme pressure from numerous directions.
I have argued in recent years that we should shift our attention from the study of movements per se to the study of other domains of activity and to see how Islam is fit into those environments. Here I would like to also draw attention to another focal point, namely, the individual and personal trajectories of those who find Islamist movements appealing and desirable. That is, a member of one movement is not a static creature who joins at one point in their life and remains an unchanged and equally committed “member” for their career. Even before the uprisings, within particular movements that seemed rather unchanging overall, we saw not just the rise and different commitments of different generations, but also individuals who became disillusioned and left, others who turned in a more hardline direction, and those whose other life experiences shape who they are as individuals and thus their experiences and commitments towards a particular movement or set of ideas. Affiliations with the movement can change as one marries into a family tightly connected with the movement, or, conversely, that looks less favorably on the movement. Taking and leaving jobs, struggling with unemployment, changing urban development, borrowing money, building homes, and so on, can all affect how individuals relate to the political options and opportunities surrounding them. In this sense, we need to take seriously those personal trajectories.
In the post-uprising period, we need to contend with an entire generation that lived the euphoria of new possibilities only to see them crushed. I believe it is probably too early to make broad assertions of what the post-uprising repression is going to mean, how it will affect those generations. One obvious expectation is that a movement forced underground will fragment but reemerge in more extremist variations, likely in the next few years (or perhaps now, with ISIS as the new opportunity in town). But it is also possible that many who found the Muslim Brotherhood an exciting alternative to Mubarak’s regime will turn away from the movement entirely and direct their energies elsewhere. I think we should direct some attention not only to how individual movements are evolving and reconstituting themselves, but also to the biographies and experiences of individuals who have emerged as the new generation for these movements that now face a radically altered political environment, at least in most places.
It might be, for example, that populism and nationalism can take hold of some of those searching for a compelling movement to be a part of. Certainly, the many parallels that have been drawn with the rise of populism in the 1930s suggest that we should not assume that religious movements will absorb those seeking to be a part of a movement that makes them feel empowered and provides for them a narrative of pride, hope, and strength. Elsewhere in the region, in countries like Yemen, Libya, and Syria, state collapse or protracted civil war have rendered the emergence of traditional Islamist movements as a venue for political empowerment untenable. In their place, the choice for empowerment is largely the choice of which militia to join. Those clusters provide a variety of narratives of empowerment, some of which are glossed with religion, often but not only in the form of sectarianism. But none look like the familiar Muslim Brotherhood model of reformist social movement framed around Islam challenging the existing power structure. Those experiences will have a radical impact on generations who grow up in that context. We might even think about comparisons with Northern Ireland, where the Easter Sunday negotiations largely brought an end to the Conflicts and also left a generation of fighters, who had spent decades fighting the fight, in an unfamiliar post-fighting terrain and unsure of their place within it. We know after the end of the mujahideen fighting in Afghanistan in the 1980s, that a generation preparing for and waiting for their moment to fight the good jihad, began to look elsewhere for targets. These long-term and sustained conflicts are likely to have a similar effect on the generations to grow up under them, thereby affecting the ability for countries to climb out of them.
John Voll, Professor Emeritus of Islamic History at Georgetown University:
Islamic movements in the second decade of the twenty-first century are experiencing significant changes in their nature and place in Muslim and global society. The Arab uprisings are part of this broader evolution of movements in the Muslim world. One element in these changes, as shown in post-Arab uprising Islamic movements, is the increasingly blurred line between groups and movements that are identified as “secular” and those that are identified as “religious.” This development may require rethinking some of the influential grand narratives about the nature of Islamic movements. Some commonly-used conceptual frameworks for analysis – like the secular-religious polarity – are inadequate for dealing with the new realities of movements in the twenty-first century.
The “secular-religious” analytical binary can lead to misleading conclusions about the nature of developments in post-Arab uprisings political societies. It depends upon assumptions embedded in old-style secularization theory – a theory which even one of its founders, Peter Berger, says “is essentially mistaken” because the “assumption that we live in a secularized world is false” (The Desecularization of the World, 1999, 2). However, much of the analysis of post-uprisings developments still frames the discussion in terms of a competition between “secular” and “religious” forces. Post-uprisings competitive politics in Tunisia and Egypt, for example, are frequently described in terms of competition between secularists and Islamists.
The basic framework of this analytical binary is familiar, with an assumption that becoming more “secular” means becoming less “religious.” Accompanying assumptions are that the “secular” is more closely identified with modernity than the “religious” and that the “religious” is somehow more “traditional” and “conservative.” (The scare quotes indicate my reservations about the adequacy of these terms in analysis of post-uprisings movements.) Using terminology containing these identity assumptions can lead to misunderstanding the dynamics of post-uprisings movements.
In analyses based on the secular-religious binary, Islamists are often identified as the “religious” element and this can pose analytical problems. When Islamists in Tunisia, for example, work within a coalition government and adopt positions that are not within the bounds of a strictly defined Islamism, they are described as somehow being less religious. Olivier Roy argues that the examples of Islamists in Tunisia and Egypt demonstrate that “exercising power ends up secularizing the religion” (In Search of the Lost Orient, 112). However, the Tunisian Islamist leader Rashid Ghannouchi’s “Muslim democrats” are not necessarily less religious; they are simply manifesting their religion in ways that are different from old-style Islamism. In Egypt, the Muslim Brotherhood was seen by many as, in Roy’s terms, secularizing the religion, in contrast to the more Islamist Salafi groups. Analysis of post-uprisings Islamic groups in other places also used the binary terminology, as in a Carnegie report on the PJD in Morocco, noting that “during its time in government, the PJD has largely operated as any secular party.” (Intissar Fakir, Morocco’s Islamist Party, 8) These are important and insightful analyses. However, using terminology that implies that the developments within the Brotherhood, al-Nahdah, or PJD create “less religious” movements leads to a misunderstanding of the tensions in post-uprisings polities. Post-Islamists are less Islamist but not necessarily less Muslim. The competitions are not “religious” groups against non-religious groups; they are between groups whose religiosity needs to be viewed outside of the secular-religious binary.
On the other side of the secular-religious binary, non-Islamist leaders who oppose or suppress Islamist groups tend to be identified as “secular,” regardless of their claims of “religious” support for their authority. President al-Sisi in Egypt suppressed the Muslim Brotherhood but presents his anti-Islamist policies as religious reform aiming at combating religious extremism, not as opposition to religion. An article in The Economist (2 November 2017) which states, “Despots are pushing the Arab world to become more secular,” identifies al-Sisi in this “secularist” group. It also includes in the discussion the proposed policies of the Saudi Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman. Prince Muhammad, like al-Sisi and most other leaders in the post-uprisings Arab world are not advocating secularism, they are defining alternative modes of Islam to combat Islamist extremism. To view the political contexts of post-uprisings Islamic movements as somehow involving a competition between secular and religious forces is to misread the nature of the conflict. Muhammad bin Salman’s “moderate Islam” is as religious as militant Salafism; it, like Tunisia’s Muslim democrats, represents a different framing of Islam but still represents a religious framing.
Post-uprisings developments highlight important longer-term trends. There has been a religionization of what is called “secular,” and a secularization of what is called “religious.” Increasingly, the so-called secular and the so-called religious are blending together in a new format that requires either new definitions or new terminology. To use an ugly neologism, the new modes of movements and state policies are increasingly “seculigious.” Whether or not one uses terms like that, it might be useful to follow the example of Sinem Adar, who does not use the term “secular,” because she finds “secular(ism) an ideologically overdetermined concept that often strains a sober discussion about the role of religion.” (Jadaliyya, 14 March 2018)
ROUND TWO REJOINDERS:
Asef Bayat, Professor of Sociology and Middle Eastern Studies at University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign:
I appreciate very much the contributions of my colleagues to this roundtable. At the cost of disregarding their nuanced interventions, I highlight two broad arguments. The first, proposed by Nathan and Jillian, is that repression against Islamists in the aftermath of the Arab uprisings is likely to radicalize them. The second, suggested by John, is that the binary of ‘secular’/‘religious’ in the post-Arab Spring is no longer tenable.
There are certainly indications that after the Arab uprisings many Islamists have become more restless, impatient, and inclined towards the use of revenge and violence; there is also evidence that their strategy of participating in the political institutions or elections is giving way to a strategy of attacking the state or even wanting to dismantle it. But, as Nathan confirms, this seems to be the case in the Egyptian scene where the Muslim Brothers have been the subject of extraordinary repression since the 2013 coup. Otherwise beyond Egypt, political work and da‘wa still matter among Islamists in the Muslim world, for instance in Indonesia, Jordan, Morocco, Tunisia and among Iranian reformists.
But this is still one side of the story of repression. The other side is that repression and constraint, as I suggested earlier, may also ‘moderate,’ in that it may compel actors to rethink their older strategy and pursue a more ‘realistic’ course of action in order to survive and continue their activities until a more favorable opportunity arises to expand. Islamists in the pre-AKP Turkey seemed to pursue this strategy in the face of the challenges posed by the military and secular establishment. In Egypt, after Nasser’s crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood, the movement did not wholly go for violent revolution to dismantle the Egyptian state; in fact, the main trend remained reformist and gradualist. It took more than a decade, when after the defeat in the 1967 war with Israel a new generation of Islamists emerged who broke away from the reformist path to pursue violent revolutionary strategy; I am referring to trends like al-Gama‘a al Islamiyya, the Islamic Jihad and others.
Jillian’s emphasis on individual biographies of Islamists (or members of any other political organization, for that matter) to see when and why they join or leave the organization is very important; and our research would benefit much from such detailed information. But there is also something powerful and plausible about the broad category of ‘generation’ in the sense of Manheim—the idea that Islamists, despite their diverse biographies, may share a common experience caused by an important historical event, like the Arab Spring or the Raba‘a al-‘Adawiyya massacre in Cairo. In this sense, Nathan has a point that a generational gap actually is happening among Islamists. But whether or not the new generation is wholly adopting a more radical vision and strategy is debatable.
Finally, John’s critique of the simple binary of ‘religious’ vs ‘secular’ is well-taken –the idea that a ‘secular’/‘religious’ divide in the post-Arab Spring is not tenable. But this needs a clarification – religious and secular at what level, in what domain, personally or politically? John writes: “When Islamists in Tunisia, for example, work within a coalition government and adopt positions that are not within the bounds of a strictly defined Islamism, they are described as somehow being less religious…… However, …Rashid Ghannouchi’s ‘Muslim democrats’ are not necessarily less religious.” This is very true, if the reference is to the personal belief of the ‘Muslim Democrats.’ But it would be a different matter, if John referred to the form of the state that Muslim Democrats advocate. The state form that al-Nahda’s Muslim Democrats advocate is in fact ‘non-religious,’ according to Ghannouchi. In sum, the most diehard opponents of religious polity may well be very religious people.
Nathan Brown, Professor of Political Science and International Affairs at George Washington University:
If you ask four academics a question, you are lucky to escape with fewer than a dozen answers. The range of responses here is not unusual. But while all of us set off in some very different directions, I see some very strong commonalities in our answers.
First, when asked about “political Islam” we all shift the question away from questions that prevailed in the recent past, ones that often focused on formal institutions and procedures—parties, law, and elections. Politics lies elsewhere.
Second, not only is there a turn away from formal parties, leaders, platforms, tactics and strategies but also a turn toward situating our understanding in much broader social, political, and intellectual contexts.
And third, there is a partial shift—more marked for some of us than others—in emphasis from actors to long term processes and trends, as if we should move some of our attention from change wrought by conscious tactical and strategic actions but the evolution of societies buffeted by forces that are not the tools of any particular leader or movement.
Jillian Schwedler, Professor of Political Science at Hunter College:
Bayat speaks about portions of the youth who would previously have been attracted to the Muslim Brotherhood as having “post-Islamist proclivity[ies]” rather than speaking about whole societies as either Islamist or post-Islamist. This distinction is right to draw our attention to a diversity of responses to the uprisings, rather than the metamorphosis of particular groups into something new (but largely intact). Revolutionary ruptures bring forth a wide range of (sometimes competing) ideas, and we should include among those a diverse array of ideas and sensibilities that one might previously have clustered together unhelpfully as “Islamist.”
I agree, too, with Brown about the overall pessimism among many people in the region (and my expertise is more in Jordan than Egypt) concerning the potential for conventional parties to bring about meaningful change. Islamist movements are under attack from numerous directions domestically, regionally, and internationally. And those attacks are coming from other Islamist movements and a broader range of conservative and pious voices, and not only from “secular” spheres or from regimes seeking to repress all challengers. Islamist movements of yesteryear are hardly a safe place to be (even in places like Jordan and Morocco, where Islamist parties remain legal), and few seem to look toward them as possible mechanisms for hope or change.
Just as Voll rightly cautions against the reification of a secular-religious binary, we should call other assumptions of the earlier literature into question, particularly one that views “younger generations” as a homogenous category. Especially in this sense we should be cautious about too much attention to urban-based movements at the expense of highly conservative rural or small-town movements, or at least those away from the major metropolitan areas. Scholarship has always been weaker (but not nonexistent) concerning rural Islamist movements and trends, owing in no small part to increased difficulty of research access and identifying research subjects. The long-standing research bias toward urban parties and movements—especially those with public relations offices and identifiable officers readily available for interviews—needs to be corrected now more than ever.
John Voll, Professor Emeritus of Islamic History at Georgetown University:
The Arab uprisings and subsequent developments are transforming the old politics of what has been called “Political Islam.” However, Asef Bayat notes, Political Islam “did not come to an end.” Instead, new approaches are emerging. Some post-Islamist political groups, for example, have “opted for non-religious states while advocating religious ethics in society.” This new situation involves a generational shift reflecting the growing importance of younger Muslims in the public arena. Nathan Brown observes that “the credibility of political parties, clear organizational frameworks, identifiable and authoritative leaders seem to have rapidly receded for many younger activists.”
In broader terms, expressions of politically relevant Muslim messages and actions are taking new forms that are not as state-oriented as the old-style movements. This situation may mean, Jillian Schwedler suggests, that “we should shift our attention from the study of movements per se to the study of other domains of activity and see how Islam is fit into those environments.” The diverse modes of activist expression during the Arab uprisings show that these “other domains” include pop music and other manifestations of pop culture, especially among the youth.
In our discussions of “Political Islam after the Arab Uprisings,” we all tend to concentrate on the changing nature of organized Islamist activities. However, even in the uprisings themselves, pop culture, although not expressed in formal Islamist or Islamic or “secular” movements, played important roles in shaping events. Pop music as in the hip hop of El General in Tunisia and Ibrahim al-Qashoush in Syria in the early days of the protests articulated popular sentiments remarkably effectively, showing, as Dave Randall notes, that “what the Arab revolutions showed is that occasionally… musicians are central to critical moments of mass struggle.” (Randall, Sound System, 2017, 166) This pop culture continues to be important as, for example, “Tunisia’s neglected youth find their voice in hip-hop.” (The National, Abu Dhabi, 17 May 2015) As we study post-uprisings political dynamics, the advice of Mark LeVine is important: “To understand the peoples, cultures, and politics of the Muslim world today… we need to follow the musicians and their fans as much as the mullahs.”(LeVine, Heavy Metal Islam, 2008, 3)
Pop culture in the public sphere is expressed in many ways in addition to music. Pop culture may not be directly political or religious in nature, but the emerging pop cultures of the youth in the Arab world shape the future of politics and religion. In Saudi Arabia, for example, creative artists working in many different media – from sculpture and painting to film making and performance – have been active in shaping culture in the public sphere. As Sean Foley states, this development “is a powerful force. Its practitioners offer important insights into the present and future of a kingdom that stands at the crossroads of the economic, political, and religious crises that shape both the Middle East and the contemporary world.”
As we look at Political Islam almost a decade after the beginnings of the Arab uprisings, it is important not simply to concentrate on the old-style movements and organizations and their political trajectories. Politically relevant Muslim activity is not confined to institutional politics and Islamist movements; it is also expressed in the popular culture of the public sphere. In this framework, “Pop Islam” is an “expression of a modern Muslim identity” (Radia Assou, in al.arte.magazine, 8 January 2013) We need to broaden the scope of our analytical vision beyond the boundaries of “Political Islam” to include politically relevant Muslim experience that may not fit within the narrow definitions of what is “political."
[This roundtable is produced in partnership with Maydan.]