Re-Approaching the study of political Islam in a Context of Change.

Dr Lucia Ardovini, Swedish Institute of International Affairs

Just over 8 years after the outbreak of the so-called Arab uprisings, we seem to be unable to stop talking about it. The popular protests that led to the fall of authoritarian dictators and briefly reshuffled the status quo in several countries in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region are still being used as a reference point in most of the scholarship on states and peoples in the area, be it to argue in favour of democratic practices or condemn regime-sponsored violence and authoritarianism. The recent wave of popular protests in Sudan and Algeria suggests that the momentum might still be there, bubbling under the surface.


The unmistaken protagonist of the 2011 uprisings was political Islam.

The unmistaken protagonist of the 2011 uprisings was political Islam. In the political vacuum that followed the toppling of dictators, Islamist groups such as the Muslim Brotherhood (MB) in Egypt and the Ennahda in Tunisia – among others— quickly rose to power through democratic processes. This is itself is not particularly surprising, as decades-old social movements with an impressive popular base, a history of oppositional politics and a steady access to funding were immediately better placed to compete politically than the secular and revolutionary parties that formed during the protests. Yet, the election of MB’s Mohammed Morsi as president in Egypt and Ennahda’s parliamentary role were deeply symbolic moments, not just for these specific movements, but for Islamists across the region more widely. Their rise to power through the ballot box signified the end of decades of illegality, and celebrated the fact that the Islamist project finally seemed to be within reach. However, the phenomenon that many observers labelled as the “Islamist Wave” was set to be remarkably short-lived, as many of these groups were soon confronted by the harsh challenges of transitional politics, and by deep states that were only briefly overshadowed by the results of the popular protests.

In the case of Egypt, Mohammed Morsi was removed by a military coup d’etat led by current president Abdel Fattah al-Sisi just over one year after being instated. The events of July 2013 were followed by the re-establishment of a military regime and by a wave of repression so brutal that its extent is unprecedented even in the MB’s troubled history. More importantly, the MB’s destitution was also taken as a greatly symbolic moment by those arguing that it represented the expression of a broader, existential crisis, encapsulating the end of political Islam at large. Statements like “Islamism is no longer the answer” and “the fall of the MB was accompanied by the fall of Islamism” seemed to give credit to advocates of post-Islamism, who had long argued that political Islam had failed to pass the test of power. However, political Islam does not begin and end with its most well-known exponents, nor should its success be measured in terms of some groups’ direct participation in the political process.


Statements like “Islamism is no longer the answer” and “the fall of the MB was accompanied by the fall of Islamism” seemed to give credit to advocates of post-Islamism, who had long argued that political Islam had failed to pass the test of power.

If anything, the events of July 2013 have shown that much has changed in the field of political Islam following the Arab uprisings. Several Islamist movements have gone from opposition, to power, to repression, to a new identity quest over a very short period of time, meaning that the adjustment process is still very much in flux. At the same time, the international focus on the political performances of certain Islamist movements fails to shine a light on the plethora of other practices that are associated to the ideology, and that were not extirpated by the events of July 2013 but rather spurred by it. Here I am referring to the pluralization Islamist political players, such as the formation of Salafi parties, and to the new forms of activism, resistance, and cross-ideological alliances that are emerging despite the harsh repression that most of these groups face. The unprecedented circumstances that movements like the MB find themselves in have invalidated their historical experiences, and are forcing these groups to develop new tools of resistance and to rethink their role in both politics and society. Rather than having failed, it seems like political Islam is undergoing yet another phase of transformation. Hence, there is a lot to learn from examining how these groups are reacting to their experiences. Just how Islamist groups are navigating deeply unfamiliar waters, the scholarship concerned with their study also need to acknowledge these changes and develop new tools to analyse them accordingly.

In line with what is argued by Jillian Schwelder, Stacey Philbrick Yadav notes that a lot has also changed from the perspective of the researcher, as approaching the study of political Islam today is drastically different from what it was 10 years ago. Before the Arab uprisings we, as scholars and researchers, had largely become accustomed to studying these movements focusing on the civil society activities, electoral strategies, and alliances of semi-tolerated Islamist opposition parties. This landscape has now vastly changed, and while a decade ago Islamist groups were mostly constrained by domestic policies and highly organized, nowadays their functions have considerably diversified and are greatly influenced by transnational actors. In turn, this makes it considerably harder to analyse the ever-evolving relationship between Islamists and the state. Therefore, in the aftermath of 2011 this particular scholarship also needs to undergo some transformations. An excellent contribution to this emerging field has been made by the edited volume by Hendrik Kraetzschmar and Paola Rivetti, who have initiated a much-needed conversation about the need to move away from “Islamic Exceptionalism” and to think about these groups like socio-political organizations in a context of change.

As of the first few months of 2019, the whole region is still very much in flux, characterized by unstable national environments, rising authoritarianism and shrinking political space. In such a context, the questions that we should be asking concern the way in which Islamist movements have been affected by the long-term consequences of the Arab uprisings, how they are reacting to these new challenges, and what that would mean for the socio-political environments they operate within moving forward.

The strategic turn in post-Marxist Discourse Theory

Thomas Jacobs, PhD Researcher at Ghent University

Alan Williams tweeted a few years ago that for having a book entitled Hegemony and Socialist Strategy (HSS) as magnum opus, Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe had remarkably little to say about political strategy. Indeed, while the concept of strategy features regularly in HSS, it is not crucial to understanding the book’s central argument. It remains equally low-key in their later work, and is all but absent in most of the secondary literature in post-Marxist Discourse Theory published in the quarter-century post-HSS.

Yet recently, something resembling a strategic turn can be discerned within Discourse Theory (DT). In Germany, Martin Nonhoff started working on a rigorous theorization of strategy that fits within DT’s ontology. Eva Herschinger reappraised the notion for the first-time for an Anglophone audience. The hugely influential Inventing the Future by Srnicek and Williams placed strategic reflection about how progressives win at politics in the 21st century at the centre of its argument. And to make the circle full, Chantal Mouffe’s most recent work, For a Left-Wing Populism, wonders what kind of political strategy the Left needs to pursue in order to successfully implement its progressive projects.

The roots of this emerging strategic turn in post-Marxist Discourse Theory lie at least partially beyond academia, with radical political parties like Podemos and Syriza that drew inspiration from Laclau and Mouffe. The realization that their abstract insights and theories about the Political could be successfully mobilized for small-p parliamentary and extra-parliamentary politics, undoubtedly motivated discourse-theorists to take a closer look at how they could study, analyse, and understand tangible political strategies.

But more academic developments certainly played a role too in the triggering of this strategic turn. About fifteen years ago, thinkers like Lash, Beasley-Murray, Arditi started to challenge the poststructuralist interpretation of hegemony in a rigorous fashion. The ensuing intellectual debate was far more sophisticated than the rather virulent spat between the post-Marxists and Marxists like Geras, Wood, and Mouzelis in the early nineties. Favouring a paradigm they called ‘posthegemony’, Beasley-Murray and his companions argued that the post-Marxist take on hegemony does not suffice to salvage the concept, and wager it is time for the contemporary Left to develop non-hegemonic strategies by embracing networked, viral, rhizomatic, and exodus politics.

The posthegemonic critique of Laclau and Mouffe definitely has flaws, but it also offers one of the clearest and most incisive formulations of a crucial problem plaguing post-Marxist Discourse Theory: it is ambivalent about whether hegemony is an ontic or an ontological category.


‘…a progressive project that promotes hegemonic politics must also promote the liberal-democratic heritage, and engage in the furthering, and deepening of its core values – liberté, égalité, fraternité.’

Laclau and Mouffe see hegemony on the one hand as a historically specific form of doing politics, that arose from the ‘Democratic Revolution of Modernity’ at the end of the 18th century. The possibility for hegemonic politics came into being together with modern liberal democracy, and the two are closely intertwined. As such, a progressive project that promotes hegemonic politics must also promote the liberal-democratic heritage, and engage in the furthering, and deepening of its core values – liberté, égalité, fraternité. Laclau and Mouffe call this project ‘radical democracy’. Yet contrary to this ontic interpretation of hegemony, Laclau has also presented hegemony as an ontological category. He claims that every social practice has a hegemonic dimension and that all meaning is ultimately hegemonically constructed, and that all politics is therefore hegemonic. This formulation presents hegemony as a timeless, space-less, universal category – hegemony encompasses the Political.

Posthegemony theorists have for definitively confirmed the lingering sentiment that these two accounts are fundamentally incompatible. Yet they usually proceed by reducing DT to the ontic dimension. If hegemonic politics is merely one form of politics, it can be argued that it was never or is no longer a viable approach, and that an alternative posthegemonic politics through networks, autonomous zones, and exodus, constitutes the future of the left. However, a different reaction to this internal contradiction in DT, could be to embrace the ontological dimension of hegemony. This implies abandoning the idea of an innate link between democracy and hegemony, and instead framing DT as a metalanguage for understanding politics as such. In this vein, the result of the poststructuralist turn in hegemony theory is not a normative project like radical democracy, but instead a framework for describing and explaining the effects of political interventions. Obviously, in such an interpretation, strategy all of a sudden becomes a key concept.


If hegemonic politics is merely one form of politics, it can be argued that it was never or is no longer a viable approach, and that an alternative posthegemonic politics through networks, autonomous zones, and exodus, constitutes the future of the left.

Some of the first scholars to recognize DT’s potential for strategic analysis were oddly enough rather critical of Laclau and Mouffe. Boucher and Critchley for instance, both pointed out that an internally fully coherent elaboration of DT’s main principles results in a rather Machiavellistic theory about how power is contested and maintained, devoid of any normative or ethical considerations. The growing number of far-right groups bastardizing Gramsci’s ideas, lends credence to this hypothesis. Yet whereas Boucher and Critchley perceived this normative deficit negatively, the strategic turn in DT embraces the potential of hegemony as an ontological category and seizes it to analyse the outcomes and results of political projects, regardless of their goals.

A discourse-theoretical perspective thus alerts us to the ideological dimensions of strategy. It reveals that political strategy is not just about the schemes of spin doctors, politicians, and movement leaders, but that it also involves a structural and intersubjective component. A political strategy always constitutes an articulation into an order of discourse, and hence, its effects, its chances of success, and its political consequences can be discursively analysed. Every articulation, no matter whether it is inspired by the idea of a posthegemonic exodus, an explicitly counterhegemonic move, or just an isolated demand, affects the balance of forces at the hegemonic level, and DT equips us to study precisely how it will do so.


‘…political strategy is not just about the schemes of spin doctors, politicians, and movement leaders, but that it also involves a structural and intersubjective component.’

This strategic turn pushes DT into a completely new and unexplored corner of the pantheon of critical theory. Questioning when and why particular political moves (fail to) work, and thinking through the “adaptability” of the left-wing project so that it may actually be implemented, constitutes an entirely novel form of critique. Some might argue that it in fact does not constitute critique anymore at all, since this guise of DT has abandoned the normative ground from which it can be claimed something is bad or wrong. Yet if studying how progressive social change can be effected is a valuable and worthwhile endeavour in its own right, this relinquishing of normative ground does not mean DT has to lose its critical edge. Instead, such a move creates a clear division of labour between critical theories explaining the roots and oppressive effects of power, and DT as concerned with the ideological dynamics of the exercise of power.

About the author

Thomas Jacobs is a PhD candidate at the Centre for EU Studies, Ghent University. His main research interests include EU trade policy, international political economy, and political communication. Most of Thomas’ work focuses on discourse, meaning-making, signification, and strategy in political praxis, departing from a poststructuralist perspective, more specifically the discourse-theoretical tradition of Laclau and Mouffe. Prior to entering academia, he worked as a consultant at a Brussels-based communications and public affairs firm.

Populism: What’s in a name?

In 2018 the most used and abused term was undoubtedly that of ‘populism’.

Professor Ronaldo Munck

Rarely has a term been so over-inflated and so over-extended that it has become practically meaningless, while at the same time achieving iconic status. I propose here to carry out a (very) brief deconstruction of the term populism and the presentation of an alternative reading based on the work of the late Ernesto Laclau (On Populist Reason) and my own Latin American in Europe hybrid viewpoint.

When the liberal newspaper The Guardian ran a long feature on populism (https://www.theguardian.com/world/series/the-new-populism  ) we knew it had arrived as it were. The general gist of the project was that ‘populism’ was a major political foe in the global North for all left-liberal folk. It introduced authoritarianism and irrationality into good old centrist politics. These so-called centrists included Tony Blair and Hilary Clinton who were given a platform for their views that included for the latter a call for the liberal centre in Europe to lead on keeping migrants out so that migration would not become an issue of the populist right. The mind boggles is all I can say ( https://blog.oup.com/2016/01/migration-global-trade-unions/ ).


Rarely has a term been so over-inflated and so over-extended that it has become practically meaningless, while at the same time achieving iconic status.

The new Northern orthodoxy on populism emerged in the mid 2000’s as a way to categorise such diverse emerging political figures such as Trump, Farage, Le Pen, Wieder and  Urban, along with their Suthern cousins such as Chávez, Morales and the Kirchners. Populism was defined as an anti-elite politics, also anti-pluralist and usually based on some type of identity politics (Jan-Werner Müller What is Populism).

The purpose of defining populism we are told is to help in defeating it as it is a threat to liberal democracy, whether it comes from the far right or the far left. The current crisis has, apparently nothing to do with neo-liberalism and its paroxysm in 2008-09, the austerity politics which followed or the popular reactions against both. By focusing on this version of ‘populism’ as the cause of democratic decline this liberal onslaught has itself undermined democratic institutions and the very meaning of democratic citizenship. It has allowed the liberal political classes to evade responsibility for the authoritarian trend in the North Atlantic (eg Trump, Brexit, Le Pen) while scapegoating those resisting it (eg Sanders, Corbyn, Melenchon) and demonising those in the global South who have combatted neo-liberalism such as the progressive regimes of Latin America dubbed ‘bad’ because populist lefts.

Central to the development of a national-popular will in Latin America was the concept of the people (pueblo). For Ernesto Laclau it is only by developing and extending Gramsci’s work in this area that we can overcomethe exclusion/opposition between particularity and universality in the construction of the people. “For him there is a particularity a plebs—which claims hegemonically to constitute a populus while the populus (the abstract universality) can exist only as embodied in a plebs. When we reach that point, we are close to the ‘people’ of populism” (Laclau 2005, p. 107). The development of populism is probably the main difference between Latin American political development and that of other regions. To this day, in international commentary on the “left populism” of Chávez et al. we find quite an ethnocentric emphasis on the irrationality of populism and a constant tendency to see it as the enemy of “normal” political development toward class patterns and progressive social transformation. For Laclau , on the contrary, “populism presents itself both as subversive of the existing state of things and as the starting point for a more or less radical reconstruction of a new world order wherever the previous one has been shaken” (Laclau 2005, p. 177). The old order was changed utterly by the emergence of this nation-popular ideology and worldview. It could also become radicalized at key conjunctures when the “people-oligarchy” opposition became the dominant divide in society.


The old order was changed utterly by the emergence of this nation-popular ideology and worldview. It could also become radicalized at key conjunctures when the “people-oligarchy” opposition became the dominant divide in society.

In Western Europe, on the other hand, the term ‘populism’ is used mainly in a pejorative way to refer to the rise of a new right and its demagogic leaders. The different trajectory of the term in Latin America should warn us against any claims to universality of this discourse. Yet we may also learn from Latin America where the left ‘populism’ of the post 2000 left governments was also the result of the flawed and biased system of representative democracy that preceded them. Maybe the ‘crisis of representation’ referred to in the Latin American debates may also be a factor in the rise of the ‘new populisms’ of the North Atlantic. Following Laclau we can understand how populism is best understood as a political logic or discourse that belongs neither to the left or the right (this does not mean it is beyond left and right but that is another issue). This populism creates a ‘logic of difference’ between power and those challenging it. The construction of a people – populism?- is not therefore a degradation of democracy. Indeed, all successful socialist movements in the past have been ‘populist’ in this sense. It emerges this as subversive of the political order, the existing state of affairs and offers a starting point for a more or less radical reconstruction of society.

The construction of a people – populism?- is not therefore a degradation of democracy. Indeed, all successful socialist movements in the past have been ‘populist’ in this sense.

The Latin American debate on populism could maybe be brought to bear in Western Europe to provide a different vantage point to what has become a rather debilitating polarisation between ‘populism’ and centrist liberalism. It could add some nuance and complexity to the debate especially from a progressive perspective. That has already happened through the  engagement of Ernesto Laclau and in particular Chantal Mouffe with Podemos in Spain (see  https://www.lwbooks.co.uk/book/podemos-in-name-of-people   ). But there is far less sign of a broader perspective in the Anglo sphere. It would allow us to move beyond the notion that liberal democracy was an unambiguous human good and populism an obvious bad.

The cause of radical democracy is ill-served by a demonization of populism and an uncritical embrace of liberalism. We would do well to recall now- in the midst of the complex Brexit crisis- what Laclau said in relation to what ‘creates the conditions leading to a populist rupture’ which we saw as a ‘situation in which a plurality of unsatisfied demands and increasing inability of the institutional system to absorb them differentially exist’