An expert's point of view on a current event.

The New Islamists

How the most extreme adherents of radical Islam are getting with the times.


The following is an excerpt from the book The Islamists Are Coming: Who They Really Are,  which will be released on April 18 by the U.S. Institute of Peace and the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars.

The following is an excerpt from the book The Islamists Are Coming: Who They Really Are,  which will be released on April 18 by the U.S. Institute of Peace and the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars.

The longstanding debate over whether Islam and democracy can coexist has reached a stunning turning point. Since the Arab uprisings began in late 2010, political Islam and democracy have become increasingly interdependent. The debate over whether they are compatible is now virtually obsolete. Neither can now survive without the other.

In Middle Eastern countries undergoing political transitions, the only way for Islamists to maintain their legitimacy is through elections. Their own political culture may still not be democratic, but they are now defined by the new political landscape and forced in turn to redefine themselves — much as the Roman Catholic Church ended up accepting democratic institutions even as its own practices remained oligarchic.

At the same time, democracy will not set down roots in Arab countries in transition without including mainstream Islamist groups, such as the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, Ennahda in Tunisia, or Islah in Yemen. The so-called Arab Spring cleared the way for the Islamists. And even if many Islamists do not share the democratic culture of the demonstrators, the Islamists have to take into account the new playing field the demonstrations created.

The debate over Islam and democracy used to be a chicken-and-egg issue: Which came first?  Democracy has certainly not been at the core of Islamist ideology. Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood has historically been strictly centralized and obedient to a supreme guide, who rules for life. And Islam has certainly not been factored into promotion of secular democracy. Indeed, skeptics long argued that the two forces were even anathema to each other.

But the outside world wrongly assumed that Islam would first have to experience a religious reformation before its followers could embark on political democratization — replicating the Christian experience when the Protestant Reformation gave birth to the Enlightenment and then modern democracy. In fact, however, liberal Muslim intellectuals had little impact in either inspiring or directing the Arab uprisings. The original protesters in Cairo’s Tahrir Square referred to democracy as a universal concept, not to any sort of Islamic democracy.

The development of both political Islam and democracy now appears to go hand-in-hand, albeit not at the same pace. The new political scene is transforming the Islamists as much as the Islamists are transforming the political scene.

Today, the question of Islam’s compatibility with democracy does not center on theological issues, but rather on the concrete way believers recast their faith in a rapidly changing political environment. Liberal or fundamentalist, the new forms of religiosity are individualistic and more in tune with the democratic ethos.

The Evolution

When Islamism gained ground during the 1970s and 1980s, it was initially dominated by revolutionary movements and radical tactics. Over the next 30 years, however, the religious revival in Arab societies diversified, and social shifts reined in radicalism. The toll of death and destruction that radical Islamism left in its wake also diverted interest in militancy.

Even the proliferation of media free from overbearing state control played a role. In the mid-1990s, Al-Jazeera became the first independent satellite television station in the Arab world. Within a generation, there were more than 500 such stations. Many offered a wide range of religious programming — from traditional sheikhs to liberal Muslim thinkers — which in turn introduced the idea of diversity. Suddenly, there was no single truth in a religion that has preached one path to God for 14 centuries.

Islamists also changed both through victory and defeat — or a combination. Shiite Islamists won a political victory in Iran’s 1979 revolution, when Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini rose to power. But three decades later, the world’s only modern theocracy was increasingly ostracized by the world, leading many Islamists to ask, "What went wrong?"

In Algeria, Sunni Islamists were pushed aside in a military coup on the eve of an election victory in 1992. The party was banned, its leaders imprisoned. A more militant faction then took on the military, and more than 100,000 people were killed in a decade-long civil war. The bloody aftermath of the Arab world’s first democratic election had a ripple effect on the calculations of Islamist groups across the region.

As a result of their experience with the power of government repression, Islamists increasingly compromised to get in, or stay in, the political game. In Egypt, the Muslim Brothers ran for parliament whenever allowed, often making tactical alliances with secular parties. In Kuwait and Morocco, Islamists abided by the political rules whenever they ran for parliament, even when it meant embracing those countries’ monarchies. Morocco’s Justice and Development Party recognized the sacred dimension of the king in order to participate in elections, while Jordan’s Muslim Brotherhood publicly supports the king despite growing discontent among the Arab Bedouin tribes.

A generation of Islamic activists forced into exile also played a major role in redirecting their movements. Most leaders or members ended up spending more time in Western countries rather than Islamic nations, where they  came into contact with other secular and liberal dissidents as well as non-government organizations such as Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, and Freedom House. These new connections facilitated the flow of ideas, and their movements’ evolution.

In the 1990s, exiled activists increasingly framed their agendas in terms of democracy and human rights. They acknowledged that simplistic slogans like "Islam is the solution" were not enough to build programs or coalitions capable of removing dictators. Rachid Ghannouchi, co-founder of Tunisia’s Ennahda Party, concluded almost 20 years before the Arab uprisings that democracy was a better tool to fight dictatorships than the call for either jihad or sharia.

The Social Revolution

Islamists have changed because society has changed too. The rise of Islamists has reflected the social and cultural revolutions within Muslim societies as much as a political revolution.

A new generation has entered the political space, especially in the major cities. It is the generation of Tahrir Square, the epicenter of Egypt’s uprising against Hosni Mubarak. When the uprisings began, two-thirds of the Arab world’s 300 million people were under the age of 30. They are better educated and more connected with the outside world than any previous generation. Many speak or understand a foreign language. The females are often as ambitious as their male counterparts. Both genders eagerly question and debate. Most are able to identify and even shrug off propaganda.

The shift does not necessarily mean the baby-boom generation is more liberal or more secular than their parents. Many Arab baby boomers are attracted by new forms of religiosity that stress individual choice, direct relations with God, self-realization, and self-esteem. But even when they join Islamic movements, they bring along their critical approach and reluctance to blindly follow an aging leadership.

The transformation is visible even among young Egyptian Salafis, followers of a puritanical strain of Islam that emphasizes a return to early Islamic practices. They may wear baggy trousers and long white shirts in imitation of the Prophet Mohammed. But they also often wear shiny sunglasses and sport shoes. They are part of a global culture.

For decades, the Salafis opposed participation in politics. But after the uprisings, they completely reversed course. They jumped into politics, hastily registering as political parties. At universities, clubs of young Salafis — including females — have joined public debate forums.

The influence of the current baby-boom generation will be enduring. Their numbers are likely to dominate for much of their lives — potentially another 30 to 40 years — because the fertility rate has plummeted almost everywhere in the Arab world since their birth.

The Three Camps

During the centuries-old debate about Islam and democracy, Muslim religious scholars and intellectuals fell into three broad camps.

The first camp rejects both democracy and secularism as Western concepts that are not even worth refuting. In this fundamentalist view, participating even in everyday politics, such as joining a political party or voting, is haram, or religiously forbidden. This has been the position of the Wahhabi clerics in Saudi Arabia, the Taliban in Afghanistan and, for decades, the various Salafi schools across the Arab world.

The second camp claims that returning to the "true tenets" of Islam will create the best kind of democracy. In this conservative view, the faithful may deliberate to understand the true path, but the idea that religion is the ultimate truth is not negotiable. These Islamists invoke the concept of tawhid, or the oneness, uniqueness and sovereignty of God, which can never be replaced by the will of the people.

The second camp also invokes Muslim practices to claim modern political ideology meets the basic requirements of democracy. For example, it often points to the shura or advisory council, where ideas were debated before submitting proposals to the leader –as the equivalent of a parliament.

The third camp advocates ijtihad, or reinterpreting Islam to make it compatible with the universal concept of democracy. This position is more common among lay intellectuals than among clerics. But the opening up the doors of ijtihad, which conservative scholars had believed were closed in the Middle Ages, has already produced its own spectrum of ideas, not all in agreement.

The Islamist reformers often have a larger audience in the West than in their own countries — and not just because of censorship and harassment. Some are deemed to be too intellectual, too abstract, or tied to an artificial theology. Their philosophical approach is disconnected from popular religious practices and the teachings at most madrasas, or religious schools.

The Future

The new Islamist brand will increasingly mix technocratic modernism and conservative values. The movements that have entered the political mainstream cannot now afford to turn their backs on multiparty politics for fear of alienating a significant portion of the electorate that wants stability and peace, not revolution.

But in countries undergoing transitions, the Islamists will face a tough balancing act. In Egypt, for example, the Muslim Brotherhood cannot cede its conviction that Islam is all-encompassing. Yet it risks losing popular support unless it can also reconcile Islam with good governance and human rights.

To do that, the Muslim Brothers may have to translate Islamic norms into more universal conservative values — such as limiting the sale of alcohol in a manner more similar to Utah’s rules than to Saudi laws, and promoting "family values" instead of imposing sharia norms on women.

Many Islamist movements still do not share the democratic culture of the uprisings. But given their own demographics and the wider constituency they seek, they will increasingly have to take into account the new political playing field created by the demonstrations — even within their own movements.

The exercise of power can actually have a debilitating effect on ideological parties. And for all their recent political success, Islamists also face a set of constraints: They do not control the armed forces. Their societies are more educated and sophisticated in their worldviews, and more willing to actively express their opinions than in years past. Women are increasingly prominent players, a fact reflected in their growing numbers in universities.

Ironically, elected Islamists may face opposition from the clergy. Among Sunnis, Islamists usually do not control the religious institutions. Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood does not control Al Azhar University, the Islamic world’s oldest educational institution dating back more than a millennium. The Brothers may have won a plurality in parliament, but none of them is authorized to say what is or is not Islamic without being challenged by a wide range of other religious actors, from clerics to university scholars.

The biggest constraint on Islamists, however, may be economic realities. Focusing simply on sharia will not spawn economic development, and could easily deter foreign investment and tourism. The labor force is outspoken and does not want to be forgotten, but economic globalization requires sensitivity to international pressures too. The newly elected Islamists face political rejection if they do not deliver the economic goods.

Israel is still unpopular and anti-Western xenophobia has visibly grown, but Islamist movements will need more than these old issuesto sustain their rise to power.  The Arab uprisings have shifted the battle lines in the Middle East, and Islamists will find it harder to play on the Arab-Israeli conflict or tensions with the international community.

At the moment, the most dangerous divide is persistent tensions between Sunnis and Shiites. The differences are symbolized by deepening political fault lines between the Sunni religious monarchy in Saudi Arabia and Iran’s Shiite theocracy, but they ripple across the region — from the tiny archipelago of Bahrain to strategically located Syria.

Just as Islamism is redefining the region’s politics, Islamic politics and sectarian differences are redefining its conflicts.

Olivier Roy is a professor at the European University Institute in Florence, Italy, and the author of Globalized Islam.

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