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.

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