Rethinking Political Islam, but then What?

Rethinking Political Islam
(Image: A painting of Mohamed Morsi in France. Flickr/ThieryEhrmann, via The Islamic Monthly.)

The first part of the title is the name of a very good explanatory piece in The Islamic Monthly. It also is the name of a new book by Shadi Hamid and Will McCants, collecting analysis from Islamists published individually at Brookings.

The trouble is, this article leaves me with more questions.

First the good stuff:

In the early 1990s, a new debate around the role of Islam and politics — and more specifically “Islamist” movements — emerged. In an alternate universe, if certain things at that moment had turned out differently, the Middle East’s path might have diverged considerably.

In the first round of Algeria’s elections in 1991, the Islamic Salvation Front, or FIS, won 47.5% of the vote and 188 of 231 seats. For the first time, an Islamist party was on the verge of coming to power, not through revolution (as had happened in the case of Iran) but through democratic elections. The country’s staunchly secular military quickly stepped in and aborted the elections, plunging Algeria into a civil war from which it has yet to recover.

And so the debate erupted over the “Islamist dilemma” — would Islamists who came to power through elections cede power if they were voted out of office? Or, as U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Edward Djerejian famously put it, would it be “one man, one vote, one time”?

Two opposing camps formed: those who believed these groups could be incorporated within the democratic process, as long as they played by the rules, and those who thought their ideology rendered them irreconcilable.

It’s been more than 25 years, and the debate is more or less where it started. In some ways, it’s worse.

The article describes it as worse in the Trump desire to criminalize the Muslim Brotherhood, and I largely agree. There is a significant risk:

Even more worrying [is that] it would affect not just U.S. foreign policy, but American politics and the safety and security of American Muslims.

The camp of Trump chief strategist Steve Bannon sees designation of the Brotherhood as an opening salvo against U.S. Muslim organizations and Muslims more broadly, blurring the lines between extremists, Islamists, and ordinary American Muslims.

As The Atlantic’s Peter Beinart has argued, the Bannon camp “uses the specter of the Muslim Brotherhood and Sharia law to depict American Muslim political participation, and even religious expression, as a security threat.”

Whatever real challenges there are from Islamism, they must not be manipulated to demonize Muslims. This is happening all too frequently these days.

But there is a historical insight Bannon-types latch onto:

Some of the most prominent American Muslim organizations today were started by members or supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood decades ago.

Although most of these organizations were never formally linked to the Brotherhood and the influence of their Brotherhood founders has since evaporated, the Trump administration could argue that they should be subject to legal sanction once the Brotherhood is criminalized as a terrorist organization.

Yes, again, the criminalization aspects are very worrisome. But I am curious: Has the Brotherhood influence really faded? The authors know better than I do, for I do not know the American Muslim scene well. But I would be interested to know more about that assertion.

In any case, there are certainly challenges from Islamism, which the authors put forward well:

The illiberal policies pursued by many Brotherhood or Brotherhood-like organizations would harm the cause of human rights in Muslim-majority countries.


On the one hand, the Brotherhood’s many illiberal branches could set back the cause of human rights should they come to power in Muslim-majority countries. On the other, denying them the opportunity to come to power denies another fundamental human right — the freedom to participate in elections — and sets back the cause of democracy.

This is a dilemma. But I’m afraid the concluding advice raises more questions:

The U.S. should chart a middle way.

It should not help illiberal Brotherhood groups win democratic elections but neither should it prevent them. It should not cheer the electoral success of Brotherhood groups but neither should it refuse to work with them once in power if it serves other important U.S. interests.

In other words, it should treat the Brotherhood like any other illiberal political movement.

That seems like sound advice, but one – is it ‘rethinking’? It sounds like what we have always done, at least officially.

And two – is it sound?

On the first count, if our official policies have not been actual reality, we must delve into competing quasi-conspiracy theories. Some say the US has indeed backed the Brotherhood in Egypt, pushing for the ouster of Mubarak knowing full well the Brotherhood was the primary organized political force, perhaps wishing to entrust a new Middle East to Islamists rather than autocrats. Some versions of the conspiracy say we even went further, and funded and nurtured them.

Or alternately, some say we prevented their continuing in power by not adequately opposing the overthrow of Morsi and designating it a coup. Some versions of the conspiracy say we quietly cheered on as his administration was undermined, and are glad for a return of a military backbone status quo.

So which is it? The official reading of US policy is that we accepted the election results that brought Morsi to power, worked with him once there, and then worked with the administration that removed him and subsequently won a popular election. That sounds exactly like the article’s advice.

Except that the publication of the article was timed to correspond with the fourth anniversary of the clearing of the pro-Morsi protest camp, when hundreds of his supporters were killed. It is a news hook, yes. Is it also political sympathy?

If so, why not? They won the elections, though they thereafter lost much of the population. But American policy? Under the advice of the article, should we have stepped in against Morsi’s removal, or let it be?

On the second count, could it not be argued that the US should work to deny illiberal parties from coming to power, of any stripe? Right-wing neo-Nazis in Europe, for example? There are many strands of American politics that wish to isolate and limit their influence in the US. That seems quite right.

So without crossing the line into undermining democracy, if the Brotherhood-type groups are as illiberal as the author’s suggest, would it not be reasonable for the US to seek to prevent their ascendance – openly and publicly?

Perhaps there are wise reasons not to – non-interference in other nations’ internal affairs being a primary one. But I have never liked the one they propose, even if it has logical merit:

On national security grounds, criminalizing non-violent Islamists risks pushing them into the arms of violent groups targeting the U.S., increasing the risk to American lives.

Again, the criminalizing argument is necessary. Human rights extend to those you disagree with. But if a group can be so easily pushed to violence because it doesn’t get its way – that is not a good indication they should be given their way. Quite the opposite, in fact.

The Brotherhood proudly proclaims that jihad is its way and martyrdom is its highest aspiration. Islam allows for non-militant explanations of these terms, but Brotherhood groups in Gaza and Syria and Libya have all embraced militancy. The Egypt branch is torn, but even then, its prior choice of peacefulness was tactical.

Would it not be reasonable to work to prevent them from achieving the power necessary for implementation? Reasonable, that is, without undermining democracy and national sovereignty?

But there again is the dilemma, and perhaps the gap between official and unofficial policy.

The article did a very good job setting the scene. I only wish they wouldn’t have cut off the depth of their analysis right when it started to get interesting.

Then again, the authors are prolific on this topic. Surely their answer is found in other texts. Explore freely.

And please read for yourself, and comment with your thoughts. It is a fairly crucial part of American debate these days.


5 replies on “Rethinking Political Islam, but then What?”

I have not read these authors before, and I have not had the time to check up on the other articles. However, I am thinking that there is nothing new in a country having one, sometimes relatively idealistic official policy, and another (sometimes quite different) unofficial policy, the latter often more pragmatically motivated (i.e., by “national security” or “import/export” type arguments). For a large power like the US to have that two-pronged approach, or even more, like a true multi-pronged fork, seems to me to be not the exception but a natural state of affairs.


True enough, however frustrating for the nation that suffers it. The issue is if the pragmatic undermines the idealistic, and in ways that include deniability. Everyone does it, of course. But is it the moral way to be excused?


No, it isn’t. Foregin policy is very rarely about morals, and when it claims to be, you’d better reach for your revolver (to paraphrase Stalin).


I agree. It rarely is about morals, and when politicians/nations dress up their policy about morals, it is best to be very wary. My only point is that as much as we have influence, we must promote the moral. When foreign policy is reduced only to national interests, all sorts of action can be justified. I don’t think we’re really in disagreement.


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