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.



Concerning Islamism: Hands On or Off?


Shadi Hamid of the Brookings Institute is an insightful analyst of Middle Eastern affairs. Of Islamists in particular, he notes they often moderate under moderate repression, as witnessed under Mubarak. But intrinsically he finds them to be ‘illiberal’ in terms of Western values, though there is a strong undercurrent in his writing that the values of democracy demand they must be allowed to govern anyway.

Writing in the Atlantic, he chides President Obama’s ‘do-nothing’ foreign policy for main of the region’s ills, including allowing Egypt’s military remove the Muslim Brotherhood’s Morsi in a coup d’etat that eventually resulted in hundreds dead during the bloody suppression of the sit-in protest at Rabaa.

America’s relative silence was no accident. To offer a strong, coherent response to the killings would have required a strategy, which would have required more, not less, involvement. This, however, would have been at cross-purposes with the entire thrust of the administration’s policy.

Obama was engaged in a concerted effort to reduce its footprint in the Middle East. The phrase “leading from behind” quickly became a pejorative for Obama’s foreign-policy doctrine, but it captured a very real shift in America’s posture.

It is a fine argument, though others have praised Obama for the wisdom of his foreign policy in a messy region. But beyond not criticizing the removal of Morsi, Hamid chides America for not holding Morsi himself accountable to a more liberal paradigm:

America’s unwillingness to play such a role increased the likelihood that the Muslim Brotherhood, empowered by its conservative base and pressured by its Salafi competitors, would veer rightward and overreach, alienating old and new allies in the process. As demonstrated in Egypt, the governance failures of Islamist parties can have devastating effects on the course of a country’s democratic transition.

Hamid appears to extend the ‘moderate repression’ argument to the realm of international politics. He highlights Turkey as an example:

After coming to power in 2002, the Islamist-rooted Justice and Development Party (AKP) passed a series of consequential democratic reforms. The prospect of membership in the European Union helped incentivize the AKP to revise the penal code, ease restrictions on freedom of expression, rein in the power of the military, and expand rights for the country’s Kurdish minority. But when the threat of a military coup receded, and negotiations with the EU faltered, the AKP government seemed to lose interest in democratization, increasingly adopting illiberal and undemocratic practices.

His essay highlights that what Islamist believe and what they can accommodate pragmatically are often in stark contrast:

In 2006, the Brotherhood’s general guide, Mahdi Akef, told me angrily that “of course” the Brotherhood would cancel Egypt’s peace treaty with Israel if it ever had the chance.

Of course, Morsi did not cancel the peace treaty, though Hamid notes he once called Jews ‘the descendants of apes and pigs’. The Muslim Brotherhood realized its red lines, and even played a functional role in helping broker peace between Israel and Hamas in Gaza, he says.

But I not sure what is his overall argument, or philosophy. He notes Obama’s hands-off strategy, but earlier in the article he criticizes the hands-on support given to the region’s dictators. There is no either-or, of course, and it appears his preference is for the democratizing pressure from the Bush administration circa 2005, that opened up political space in the region, including Egypt, and gave Islamist entities – among others – wider space to operate.

But concerning that ‘illiberal’ nature of Islamism, is his solution altogether continual moderate repression? Whether from domestic or international agents, that seems open to criticism as well. Hamid levels it himself at the Egyptian military [SCAF] after the revolution and through the beginnings of Morsi’s presidency.

SCAF, though, grew increasingly autocratic, culminating in one very bad week in June 2012 when the military and its allies dissolved parliament, reinstated martial law, and decreed a constitutional addendum stripping the presidency of many of its powers.

Hamid calls these ‘egregious violations of the democratic process’, and there is little argument. But it can also be said they were among the few means left of moderate repression to constrain Brotherhood illiberalism. As already noted above, without international pressure from the US the Brotherhood went headlong into the arms of Salafis.

Modern world peace is based strongly on the idea of national sovereignty. Domestic repression is not healthy, while all sorts of pressure exist legitimately in the realm of international relations. Hamid alludes to it as ‘dependency’.

As long as Arab countries are dependent on Western powers for economic and political survival, there will be limits to how far elected governments, Islamist or otherwise, can go.

(If that dependency were to weaken in the long run, Islamists would likely pursue a more ideological, assertive foreign policy. Ideology, to express itself, needs to be freed of its various constraints.)

But if this is his belief, given all that Islamists have said about both domestic and international ideology, should they be given an opening at all? Why risk their partial empowerment? If their moderation came only from modes of repression, will not a true nature reveal itself when no longer constrained?

These are not comfortable questions to ask, let alone answer. But I am curious about Hamid’s answer.

(Note: Hamid’s book, Temptations of Power, likely addresses these issues.)

UPDATE: Hamid has been gracious to respond by Twitter. Below are his comments.