The Middle East Channel

Desacralization of Islamism

Despite the rise of Islamist parties in the wake of the so-called Arab Spring, Islamism, as a political ideology and salvation promise, is losing much of its appeal and sanctity. This ironic point is due to many factors, however, the most important is the inability of Islamists to provide viable solutions to the chronic socio-economic ...


Despite the rise of Islamist parties in the wake of the so-called Arab Spring, Islamism, as a political ideology and salvation promise, is losing much of its appeal and sanctity. This ironic point is due to many factors, however, the most important is the inability of Islamists to provide viable solutions to the chronic socio-economic problems that wreck Arab societies. It is one of the "unintended outcomes" of a transition process, to use Schmitter and Karl’s definition of democratic transition. Moreover, the "lenient" and dubious reaction of Islamist governments toward the mounting influence and role of radical and violent extremists has jeopardized their image and credibility as truly "moderate" and peaceful movements and may undermine their rule if they don’t restrain it.

From Morocco to Egypt, the inability of Islamist parties to effectively run the transitions is evident. Their track records over the past two years are poor and depressing. It reveals significant lack of vision and skills in running their countries and moving away from the old to new democratic regimes. Certainly, no one would expect this to happen smoothly or quickly. However, the behavior and actions of Islamists aren’t ushering in a new era. 

In Egypt, as well as in Tunis and Morocco, Islamists haven’t fulfilled their longstanding pledge of prosperity and renaissance (Nahda). They, so far, have failed in fighting corruption, fixing the ailing economies, respecting human and minorities’ rights, and advancing democratic agendas. And the more they fail, the less their credibility and image can be restored. Not surprisingly, many Arab people still take to the streets to express their frustration and disenchantment with Islamists’ policies. For many of them, Islamists’ ideology can’t resolve their problems. Nor can it provide the salvation they aspired to after the many cases of immorality and incompetency.

Strikingly, after two years of transition, Islamism is losing much of its credibility and purity. For instance, the mounting resentment among the Egyptian public against the Muslim Brotherhood (MB) and President Mohamed Morsi is undeniable. Their behavior and attitude over the past few months has alienated non-Islamists and casted doubts on their commitment toward democratic values. Even in the foreign policy aspect, Morsi seems an unconvincing leader and is endangering Egypt’s interests regionally and internationally. It might be true that Islamism, as a conservative ideology, is still vigorous and influential in some societal parts, however, it is struggling to expand its territory outside its core religious and social base. For example, many middle and upper-middle class youth in Egypt feel that they have been betrayed by the MB and Morsi. Even among the poor and suburban youth, the MB is facing increasing frustration. Clearly, the MB’s longstanding patronage policy can’t cover the 77.5 percent of young Egyptians (from 15 to 29 years old) who don’t have jobs and fuel the unrest in Egypt.

Nevertheless, the most visible result of Islamists’ failure is the "desacralization" of their ideology. By this I mean that Islamism, as a religious and political ideology, is increasingly losing its credibility and symbolic power. For decades, Islamism portrayed itself as a "salvation" ideology that could provide a refuge for young Arabs who were marginalized and alienated by the urbanization and economic policies of the former regimes. Islamism, for many urban and conservative youth, constituted the only emancipator from the "profane" and temporal politics. Not surprisingly, Islamists have remarkably banked on people’s despair and disenchantment in order to entrench their social networks. Islamists also benefited from regimes’ repression in securing sympathy and support outside their core ideological and religious base. However, the most noticeable investment of Islamists lies in their "sacred" promise: establishing the "Islamic state." After two years in power, such a state has proven to be nothing but a mere "mirage." Islamists’ policies did not facilitate a big difference from the old regimes nor has their ideology preserved its purity and sanctity. Islamists’ behavior has shown that they, like other human beings, are prone to make mistakes and commit sins. Moreover, the increasing erosion of Islamists’ credibility coupled with the excessive "Islamization" of the public sphere could lead many youth, albeit in the long term, to reject Islamism, if not the very idea of religion. If this happens, Islamism, as a religious and cultural project, would be vehemently self-defeated. In other words, while Islamist parties are ascending, their ideology, "Islamism", is surprisingly descending.

In addition, the religious "warfare" and cleavages among Islamists cast deep doubts in their religious devoutness and commitment. Their tactics reveal not only how desperate their hunger for power is but also their tendency to do anything to maintain it including reproducing the same despotic policies of the old regimes. For instance, the power game between the MB and Salafis in Egypt underscores the very idea of politics as the "profane." While the MB attempts to maintain its "constructed" position as the symbol of moderation and Islamic centrism (wasatiyya), Salafis strive to portray themselves as the original and authentic face of Islam. Ostensibly, they seem united particularly in the face of liberal and secular forces, however, beneath this unholy alliance, they are deeply divided and compete with each other in mosques, the media, and over seizing power. Certainly, Islamists’ involvement in politics has exposed their religious veneer and revealed their "utter" power struggle. And the more they indulge in everyday politics, the more their ideology and tactics are exposed.

Nonetheless, one needs to stress that the desacralization of Islamism does not mean that the Arab world is heading toward a new era of secularization or the waning of religious ideologies (who dares to make such a predication!). Nor does it imply that Islamist parties and movements will fade away. Rather we attempt to unpack the dynamic and underlying interplay between religion and politics, ideology and reality, and the sacred and profane. Islamism, like other victorious ideologies, can’t survive without maintaining its credibility and moral power. This also underscores that Islamists can’t rely only on their "vague" ideology in order to uphold power. In fact, they have no choice but to respond efficiently to the mammoth challenges that confront their societies otherwise they will lose the leverage as representatives of a credible "salvation" ideology. Moreover, in the age of a religious free-market, whereby religious knowledge and learning are licit and accessible to individuals through different ways, e.g. the internet, media, etc. Islamists are increasingly losing control and authority over such a fluid and changing market. Not surprisingly, the vast majority of the new generation of conservative and pious Muslims is not organizationally or ideologically affiliated with Islamist parties and the latter can’t claim control over them.

If the Arab Spring would tell us something after two years of torturous transition, it is that Islamism is yet another "illusive" ideology that can’t preserve its credibility and salvation power without fulfilling peoples’ aspirations which may put Islamists’ future at stake.

Khalil al-Anani is a Scholar of Middle East Studies at the School of Government and International Affairs at Durham University and former visiting fellow at the Brookings Institute in Washington, D.C. He can be reached at: On twitter: @Khalilalanani.

Khalil al-Anani is a Senior Fellow at Arab Center Washington DC and an associate professor of political science at the Doha Institute for Graduate Studies. Twitter: @Khalilalanani

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