Moderates, Radicals Drifting Apart as Islamism

By Noakes, Greg | Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, November 1995 | Go to article overview

Moderates, Radicals Drifting Apart as Islamism


Noakes, Greg, Washington Report on Middle East Affairs


Moderates, Radicals Drifting Apart As Islamism Enters New Phase

By Greg Noakes

The Islamist movement is in flux. Predictions of a quick victory over the shaky military government in Algeria have proven premature, while once-bright prospects for the realization of the "Islamic solution" in Egypt, Jordan, Tunisia and other nations have dimmed.

For Islamists, increased activity has resulted, paradoxically, in fewer and fewer gains. Frustration has begun to set in, and with it fragmentation. The Islamic movement is starting to split into a large moderate wing that has turned its attention to grassroots efforts, and a smaller radical wing that has opted for the gun in politics.

Although many observers have tried, it is in fact impossible to speak of a single, monolithic "Islamic movement." Islamism--or political Islam--has a very different form and content in Egypt than in, say, Yemen, Turkey or Pakistan. Even within a single region or nation there frequently is a wide diversity of opinion among both the Islamist leadership and the rank-and-file on the means and ends of Islamic activity.

The current trend in Islamist politics toward a greater polarization between moderates and radicals is important and may signal the beginning of a new era of politics in the region. Or this shift, which recalls earlier events in Islamist history, may be only a cyclical phase in Islamic politics.

Rethinking Islamism

Many Islamists are rethinking their tactics. In their quest to create a truly Islamic society, most Islamists have devoted their efforts to achieving control of the state. With the power of the central government in their hands rather than at their throats, many Islamists reasoned, substantive changes could be implemented using a "top-down" approach. They would, quite simply, legislate morality and implement their vision of a righteous society.

Throughout the Arab and Muslim worlds, however, the state has proven more resilient than expected. Arab kingdoms, emirates and sultanates from Morocco to Oman have been described as relics of the past, yet no Arab monarchy has been overthrown for over a quarter-century. In fact, these hereditary governments have proven more durable and enjoy more popular legitimacy than most of their republican counterparts in the region.

Equally impervious to Islamist destabilization are the narrowly based and brutal military regimes in Syria and Iraq, the often-inept but nonetheless durable Egyptian government that has been in place for 45 years, and even the largely isolated military junta in Algiers.

As a result, a number of Islamists have begun to ask themselves: How realistic are the prospects for change? Some of them have concluded that the resources of the state are still too overwhelming, and the cost of the struggle to replace that state too steep, to continue with the old goal of gaining control of the levers of power.

The state has proven more resilient than expected.

Another sobering factor for Islamic thinkers and activists is the dismal record of the two states where contemporary Islamism has gained power: Iran and the Sudan. The 1979 Islamic Revolution in Iran was greeted with an initial outpouring of interest and goodwill from many Islamists in the region, who saw the fall of the once-powerful Pahlavi dynasty as proof of what could be accomplished elsewhere. If the Shah, America's anointed surrogate in the Gulf, could be toppled despite his billions of dollars in U.S. weapons, what about the Muslim world's other strongmen?

However, as the "mullahcracy" in Tehran groaned under the weight of a bruising war with Iraq and growing intolerance and corruption within its own ranks, the experiment in Iran increasingly was seen by Islamists as a scenario to be avoided rather than emulated. In addition, the Islamic Republic's deep roots in Shi'i thought and tradition severely limited its appeal for most of the population of the predominantly Sunni Islamic world. …

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