15 October 2011

Is "Political Islam" Over?

Written by 
"Hasan al-Banna, founder of the Muslim Brotherhood." This artistic depiction of him connects his "martyrdom" to the deaths of Egyptian protesters in Tahrir Square on Feb. 10-11, 2011. "Hasan al-Banna, founder of the Muslim Brotherhood." This artistic depiction of him connects his "martyrdom" to the deaths of Egyptian protesters in Tahrir Square on Feb. 10-11, 2011.

[I begin a series of four blogs introducing readers to important developments in the sociology of religion – and Islam in particular. The next ones are respectively, “Is Fundamentalism Still Relevant?”, "Whence the Salafis?" and "The Global Salafi Phenomenon"].

Roughly after the “Six-Day War” of 1967 and the passing of Egypt’s socialist president Gamal Abd al-Nasser in 1970, social scientists began to notice the rise of “political Islam,” or “islamism,” as we mostly call it now. Of course, this trend began with the greatest mass movement of Islamic sociopolitical transformation in the modern era, the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, founded by Hasan al-Banna in 1928.

By the way, I always use the lower case “i” for “islamism,” as we are talking about a way of imagining how Islamic values might lead to specific political arrangements in our modern nation-state world. This is about political ideology, and only secondarily about religion.

Several leading sociologists believe that the heyday of islamism is over, and that the is experiencing a radical transformation, and thereby heralding the advent of “post-islamism.” In this blog, I highlight the work of Asef Bayat.


“Islam” and democracy

Bayat is an Iranian sociologist, who taught for over a decade at the American University of Cairo, then in the Netherlands, and now at the University of Illinois. In a recent book (Making Islam Democratic: Social Movements and the Post-Islamist Turn, 2007), he chided academics and pundits who wax eloquent about whether Islam is compatible with democracy or not. They’ve got the question wrong, Bayat says. You’ve got to start with religion and sacred texts.

He explains: whether concerning Bible, Qur’an, or Baghavad Gita, there is no “truth” except that which specific people see in the sacred text through the lenses of their own interpretation, which in turn is shaped by the received tradition, the questions raised by their own historical and sociopolitical situation, and their own convictions and inclinations. Even with specific doctrines long held in a particular tradition, distinct differences appear between individuals and groups. But especially when it comes to applying moral values to new social challenges or political directions, the sky is the limit as to possible choices and potential disagreements. In fact, that is what his book is about:

“A central argument of this book is that sacred injunctions are matters of struggle, of competing readings. They are, in other words, matters of history; humans define their truth. The individuals and groups who hold social power can assert and hegemonize their truths. Historical narratives in this book demonstrate how societal forces, notably social movements, play a decisive role in changing and shaping the ‘truth’ of holy scriptures” (p. 4).

So don’t talk to me about “Islam and democracy,” Bayat counsels; rather tell me how specific social actors have chosen “to determine the inclusive nature or authoritarian thrust of religions.”

You have a good example of this in my blog “My Brother’s Keeper,” which recounted the disagreement between qur’anic commentators who considered the verse “he who kills one person, it is as if he had killed all of humanity” to literally apply to all humanity, and those who limited the verse to a person who killed a fellow Muslim. Alan Iser, a rabbi colleague of mine at St. mwo4meph’s University, looked up this passage in the Babylonian Talmud and noticed that it reads, “he who kills a Jew”; but in the two earliest manuscript versions we read, “he who kills a human being,” as it is also stated in the Jerusalem Talmud. Apparently, in good sociological jargon, birds of a feather flock together, but they also can be very aggressive toward birds of another feather!


Islamism defined

Now let’s look at how Bayat defines islamism. Schematically, and using Egypt as his case study, islamism emerged . . .


- .  . . as a set of ideas that gave a particular social group a powerful sense of identity (“a language of self-assertion”);

- this set of ideas (or “discourse”) was used to mobilize . . .

- mostly middle-class business people, students, professionals, “who felt marginalized by the dominant economic, political, or cultural processes in their societies”;

- they were feeling marginalized at a time when in their eyes both socialism (in Egypt think of Gamal Abd al-Nasser’s regime, 1956-1970) and capitalism (Anouar as-Sadat’s regime, 1970-1981) had failed;

- this "Muslim middle class" was basically saying "no" to its "excluders": its national elites, its secular governments and their western backers (whether the USA or the Soviet Union)


 So in response, they cobbled together an authentically “Islamic,” genuinely Egyptian web of beliefs and practices that fused “piety and obligation, devotion and duty,” while imagining “Islam as a complete divine system with a superior political model, cultural code, legal structure, and economic arrangement – in short, a system that responded to all human problems” (p. 7). Their slogan, after all, was “Islam is the solution.”

Bayat’s book offers two case studies, Egypt and Iran. The 1979 Islamic Revolution of Iran imposed islamism from the top down, that is, by means of the state; whereas in Egypt, society was islamized from the bottom up. An “Islamic mode” of living was spread by person to person and by preaching in the mosque and through cassettes. As Bayat puts it, it was no revolution, but . . .

“a pervasive Islamic social movement with a conservative moral vision, populist language, patriarchal disposition, and adherence to scripture. By the early 1990s, through da’wa and associational work, the movement had captured a large segment of the civil society moving to claim space in state institutions” (p. 12).

In a sense, it was “a passive revolution,” in that by sheer popular and pervasive influence, it forced the state to adopt religious symbols as a means to hold on to power. Nevertheless, Bayat makes the point that in this tug-of-war the state always came out on top. Despite the Muslim Brotherhood’s success in capturing by the ballot just about every professional union, and despite its extensive and excellent charitable network, which in many cases outdid and overshadowed the work of state agencies and the more numerous secular NGOs, Mubarak’s regime managed to stay in control. Though the Brotherhood remained the best organized political opposition, it never succeeded in topping twenty percent in any legislative election. In the mid-2000s, the secular movement was making gains, yet without managing to topple Mubarak and his clique – until the “Arab Spring” of 2011, that is.

But that is the point. By the early 2000s the Islamic movement was losing steam, partially through internal divisions running along generational lines, and partially because Egyptians in general were more concerned with the nuts and bolts of democracy, and especially freedoms of speech, assembly, and association. Already, several sociologists were writing about “post-islamism.”


The post-islamist turn

As Bayat reworks an article he published in 1996, he characterizes post-islamism as both a condition and a project. First, as a condition, it refers to a movement that in many Arab countries ran out of options. It was simply not succeeding. He specifically points to . . .

“social and political conditions where, following a phase of experimentation, the appeal, energy, and sources of legitimacy of Islamism are exhausted, even among its once-ardent supporters. Islamists become aware of their system’s anomalies and inadequacies as they attempt to normalize and institutionalize their rule. Continuous trial and error makes the system susceptible to questions and criticisms. Eventually, pragmatic attempts to maintain the system reinforce abandoning its underlying principles. Islamism becomes compelled, both by its own internal contradictions and by societal pressure, to reinvent itself, but it does so at the cost of a qualitative shift.” (pp. 10-11).

As a project, post-islamism is a conscious reworking of the Islamic spiritual legacy so as to highlight its support for human rights and liberty, and hence, for a multiplicity of voices, since its texts have to be reinterpreted again and again in new historical contexts. In the case of Iran, the Revolution set the stage for a variety of internal movements of opposition:

“The end of the war with Iraq (1988), the death of Ayatollah Khomeini (1989), and the program of postwar reconstruction under President Rafsanjani marked a turning point toward post-Islamism. It expressed itself in various social practices and ideas, including urban management, feminist practice, theological perspective, and social and intellectual trends and movements. Youths, students, women and religious intellectuals, as well as many state employees, among others, called for democracy, individual rights, tolerance, and gender equality, but they refused to throw away religious sensibilities altogether” (pp. 11-12).

As I see it, the popular “green” opposition to Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s reelection results led by reformist candidate Mir-Hossein Mousavi in 2009 was violently repressed and failed at that stage. But Iranians, muzzled as they are by a ruthless authoritarian regime, have certainly not given up. They remain as pious as ever; but piety for them means justice, the rule of the people, and freedom of conscience. The Arab Spring may soon become a Persian reality.


Tunisia, Turkey, and Egypt

Not surprisingly, Bayat quickly published his thoughts on the Arab Spring (“Egypt, and the Post-Islamic Middle East"). What was striking to him was the sheer diversity of the movement. One of the early slogans was, “our revolution is civil; neither violent, nor religious.” The Muslim Brotherhood, wary after decades of battering, imprisonment and torture by the regime, joined the movement belatedly. The Salafis (more conservative and puritanical – see blog 3), appeared even later.

The roots of this uprising were discernible long before this. Egyptian Islam had undergone some radical transformations in the 1990s, argues Bayat. The Gama’a al-Islamiyya, the radicals whose campaign of violence claimed several thousand lives, laid down their weapons in the late 1990s, traded their former ideology for a peaceful da’wa (proselytizing) and an active engagement in the political process – something, of course, Mubarak expressly refused to grant them. But serious debates were taking place within the Brotherhood too. One result was the breaking off of a new faction, the “Middle Party” (al-Wasat), which advocated national unity in the name of democratic values. And to prove their point, they chose a Coptic Christian as their leader.

This religious transformation could be seen throughout the region. The largest islamist movement in Tunisia, al-Nahda, is back on the political scene after a ban of over two decades. Its founder, Rashid al-Ghannouchi (whose thinking I covered in several published articles) just came back from his exile in the UK. He chose to step down from any official position and give way to younger leadership. In all his interviews, he stresses that his party remains committed, now as then, to multi-party democracy and the respect of human rights in the international sense. Bayat rightly claims that he and other former islamists are now looking to Turkey’s ruling AKP Party as their model. Indeed, Turkey’s ruling islamist party has managed to pass several impressive reforms:

“It has (for example) abolished the death penalty, ended army-dominated security courts, removed curbs on free speech, brought the military budget under civilian control, authorised Kurdish-language broadcasting, and established workable relations with both the west and the rest of the Muslim world. Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Turkey’s prime minister and the leader of the AKP, is now one of the most popular leaders in the Muslim-majority middle east.”

To be sure, islamism as a dream is not dead. People of faith everywhere long to see the values found in their sacred texts embodied in the sociopolitical arena. But the facile slogan “Islam is the solution” no longer has the same resonance. As the public square in several mideastern countries has been cleared and swept, the political forces come forth to propose solutions are varied, even among the religious parties.

If anything, the Egyptian army’s outrageous attack on unarmed and peaceful Coptic demonstrators on October 9th reinforces Bayat’s thesis. In spite of the army’s henchmen and Muslim extremists who deliberately tried to stir up sectarian violence, the Egyptian people were not duped. One of the leading liberal activists who launched the February revolution, Shady el-Ghazaly Harb, had this to say the next day: “Cairo yesterday was a part of Syria. This is a threat not just [done] to the Copts, but to all of the people. We saw what would happen if we rose up against the army.”

What was the Muslim Brotherhood’s reaction? In an official statement it was anything but supportive of the Copts (“they chose a bad time to march”). But we know that many charismatic reformists have either left or been expelled from the party over the summer (see the excellent article by Stephen Glain on the “Fault Lines in the Muslim Brotherhood” in a whole issue of The Nation devoted to the Arab Spring). The establishment of an “Islamic state” is still their central platform. But whether they can actually mix politics with their staple offering of teaching and charitable programs in a democratic atmosphere is up for grabs.

I would venture to guess that with all the political wrangling ahead and the ideological cracks within the Muslim Brotherhood, it could well be headed for some major losses in the coming years. Already, many of the most capable and charismatic young cadres have left the movement (or been expelled). With their vision of inclusion and pragmatic alliance with the secular and Christian forces challenging the military’s hold on power, they are eloquent representatives of the post-islamist mindset.