Academic journal article Policy Review

The Many Faces of Islamist Politicking

Academic journal article Policy Review

The Many Faces of Islamist Politicking

Article excerpt

MUCH HAS BEEN made of the recent success of Islamist parties in national elections that followed the Arab Spring. While some praise Islamism as the first genuine expression of popular sovereignty in a long time, others warn of an Islamic winter. They read Islamist candidates as a fifth column for a fundamentalist theocracy, or at best for an illiberal democracy where individual liberties suffer under the overbearing presence of religion in the public sphere. Both readings are wrong because history is not yet written, and the Islamists know no better than anyone where their recent success might take them. And while their ascent appears almost universal--they are now in government in many Arab countries--their accession to the highest levels of power has been contextual. Starting from common origins, they followed different routes to get there. More than anything, what they showed over the decades in the wilderness was pragmatism and adaptability to challenging environments, characteristics that they will have to draw upon to move from the conquest to the exercise of power in the post-Arab Spring era.

The constraints imposed on Islamists were not just the authoritarian regimes that suppressed them, and the downfall of the autocrats will not hand over a quiescent society to the supporters of sharia. The temptation of doctrinal social engineering may exist, but the actual impact Islamists will have will he limited by the kind of society they inhabit, the resources they have to work from, and the choices forced upon them. The challenges are numerous. They have to maintain decent diplomatic relations with a West deeply suspicious of fundamentalist agendas. They have to prevent a smoldering culture war between minorities and liberals on one hand, and the socially ultraconservative Salafis on the other, from tearing apart the social fabric. And they have to address daunting socioeconomic issues inherited from decades of inadequate developmental models, compounded by a youth bulge that cannot find productive employment.

Many observers have missed the leftist, populist core of the Arab Spring. Worriers dread Khomeini and bin Laden when they should be looking for Nasser or Hugo Chavez. Protesters demanded democracy: elections not intended as an end but as a vehicle for transparency and accountability, for the eradication of corruption and nepotism. There are demands for jobs and higher wages and income redistribution, and feminist demands--starting with wage equality for women. There are also calls for a new economic order, for a rupture with a capitalism seen as Western and exploitative, as an economic system uniquely designed to benefit the elites. In the confusion of the new era, the Islamic green blurs with the socialist red, as the religion carries the calls for justice and equity that were once a staple of the left. This affords Islamists a wide scope of populist claims that rake in the votes. But conceptual contradictions will be hard to reconcile over the long term after Islamists get to rule. Mainstream Islamists convey the economically liberal instincts of a socially conservative mercantile class. They are anchored in the global economy, which really means they want to preserve foreign economic aid and especially trade relations with the European Union.

Equally daunting is the looming culture wars between the Salafis and the leftists, feminists, and religious minorities. The Salafis are reactionary social vigilantes whose ranks spawned a militant minority known to the world as jihadis. The Salafis have often winked at the violence of the jihadis, as both share revolutionary aspirations, but unlike their brethren engaged in armed struggle, Salafis generally eschew the political for the ethical. They preach and outbid each other in virtuous signaling, intruding in the public space but not trying to take it over. With the Arab Spring, the public space became more fluid, especially with regard to the highly symbolic place of women in it. …

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