Oct. 14, 2015 by Darius
Earlier this month, I saw Brookings fellow Shadi Hamid talk about “Islamism and the Rise of ISIS: Is the Middle East Exceptional?” Hamid mainly discussed recent trends in political Islam in the Middle East.
According to Hamid, traditional political science theory fails to fully account for the success and persistence of Islamist movements. Political science theory tries to explain Islamism as a product of material factors, such as a lack of government services. However, as Hamid noted, relatively few political scientists have actually ever talked to Islamists. From Hamid’s experience with Islamists, focusing on the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, material factors do not tell the whole story. Instead, many Muslim Brothers say they joined the Brotherhood for overtly religious reasons: “We joined the Brotherhood because we want to get into heaven.” It is a mistake to dismiss Islamist movements as using religion exclusively as a tool to further their political goals. Religion can be an end in itself.
Hamid felt that the truly religious nature of the Brotherhood in Egypt contributed to greater polarization. Compromise is possible on economic issues and the like, but religion went to the heart of the questions “What is Egypt?” and “What does it mean to be Egyptian?” According to Hamid, polarization in Egypt reached unprecedented levels: to use Hamid’s analogy, liberals in Egypt were so opposed to Mohamed Morsi’s Brotherhood government that they were willing to overturn the entire democratic chessboard rather than play from a weaker position. As a result, according to Hamid, the number of prominent liberals who denounced the bloody military coup against the Brotherhood could be counted on one hand.
Polls consistently show a large majority of people across the Middle East support a greater role for sharia law, and Egypt is no exception. Hamid said popular support for Islamist measures has probably fallen somewhat since the coup but remains very high. However, Hamid pointed out that it is perfectly possible to have Islamism without Islamists. For example, Sisi’s government led a popular campaign against gays and atheists, even sending vice squads into the streets to root out these supposed “evils.” If the Brotherhood government, or any Islamist government, had tried such a campaign, there would have been massive public outcry against Islamists using the government to push a radical agenda and generally running amok.
Hamid also discussed the ways in which Islamism has evolved in recent years. The Muslim Brotherhood and its allies didn’t originally consider extremist groups like al-Qaeda to be serious threats because they weren’t perceived as offering a positive vision of their own. However, the coup in Egypt and the rise of ISIS have turned the tables. ISIS was thrilled about the anti-Brotherhood coup because it showed that the Brotherhood’s model of obtaining power through democratic means had failed. The coup further reinforced widespread perceptions in the Middle East that democracy is inherently un-Islamic.
As Hamid put it, the Brotherhood did all the things the West told it to do, and look where it ended up. As a result, what is left of the Brotherhood and groups like it are starting to abandon their gradualist preferences in favor of a more revolutionary approach.
According to Hamid, Islamist groups throughout the Middle East face a problem: they are so obsessed with winning elections that they are losing touch with society. Hamid spoke about the alternative of a group called Jamaat Islamiyya in Pakistan, which barely operates politically, contesting just a handful of seats in Parliament, but has deep connections throughout civil society. Jamaat Islamiyya has influence that Middle Eastern Islamist groups can only dream of, but this influence was not acquired through winning elections but rather through mobilizing key groups within society, such as labor unions and professional associations. Hamid felt it would be beneficial both to Islamist groups and to Middle Eastern societies if more Islamist groups took a page from Jamaat Islamiyya’s playbook.
Hamid reserved special scorn for the political arena in general throughout the region. He said that liberals and liberal parties in the Middle East have failed to articulate a positive vision for themselves. In Egypt, liberal parties’ campaigns effectively came down to “The Brotherhood is evil; vote against them!”
Hamid also stressed the need for there to be space for Islamists who are willing to be a part of the political process. The US has an interest here: as Hamid put it, “Autocrats make bad counterterrorism partners.”