Catalonia: Challenging the Notions of Nationalism

Marc Perelló-Sobrepere

Nationalism has been one of the determining forces of modern history. After the fall of the Ancient Empires, it represented something to be proud of: the defence of one’s citizenship, traditions, language and culture-with Hans Kohn being one of the major historians of the old nationalism. The fascist movements of the Europe of the 19th and 20th centuries, however, caused the term to develop many negative connotations. Today, it is often related to authoritative regimes and political ideas of exclusion rather than inclusion. It is even used as an insult in some political and cultural magazines. In terms of language also, a huge effort has been made to debate differences between ‘nationalism’ and ‘patriotism’, concluding that the latter contains all the good will that the former supposedly lacks.

The truth is, however, that nationalism is an evolving term with a rich history and many footnotes, depending on which type we are discussing. The many theories under which academics have been studying and defining most of the nationalist movements that there have been in contemporary history derive from the works of Hans Kohn, Anthony Smith, Tom Nairn, John Breuilly and Elie Kedourie to name a few. Kedourie takes a hostile stance towards nationalism and defines it as a form of politics that is unrelated to reality. He labels it a new form of romanticism and cites Fichte and Herder as examples of intellectuals who have been seduced. In a similar way, Smith claims that nationalism is nothing but an exaggeration of history combined with mythology. Breuilly is equally critical, suggesting that nationalist leaders aim for total control of the masses. Nairn also shares the idea that nationalism is an elite movement that seeks to spread throughout the masses. Most, if not all of the 20th century scholars describe nationalism negatively.

More recently, however, writers such as Taras Kuzio, Rogers Brubaker, Will Kymlicka and Montserrat Guibernau have challenged these assumptions, demonstrating that the new nationalisms’ characteristics are too varied to fit under a single, negatively- connotated umbrella. For instance, Guibernau describes Catalan nationalism as a form of nationalism without a state, tearing apart the premise that the ideology needs a state to survive. Guibernau’s definition seems quite appropriate if we consider that most Catalans are nowadays in favour of a new state. Yet how exactly is Catalan nationalism different from other types?

Contrary to most nationalist movements, Catalan nationalism is a bottom-up process, having arisen from social movements.

Contrary to most nationalist movements, Catalan nationalism is a bottom-up process, having arisen from social movements. In this case, the masses convinced the elite to pursue a Catalan state, not the other way around. In fact, the leading political party in Catalonia for the majority of the last twenty years, CiU (Convergència i Unió), always denied the possibility of a new state. It was not until after 11th September 2012 that this idea was even considered by its then-leader, Artur Mas, after millions went out onto the streets of Barcelona demanding independence. Since then, the party has been reformed under the name JxC (Junts per Catalunya) and is now led by Carles Puigdemont. He is currently exiled in Brussels, however, due to the Spanish state prosecution of those Catalan leaders who declared independence in 2017, even though this declaration never had a legal impact on either Spanish or Catalan politics.

Another major pillar of nationalism that is challenged by Catalan nationalism is that of romanticism. While it does have its own fair dose of mythology and idolized history, these are not at this nationalism’s core. The growth of this nationalism in the past two decades -and thus the growth in the number of supporters of independence- stems mainly from economic interest, rather than from a sentimental or mythological ideology. Different studies carried out by some of the most prominent economists have revealed that Catalonia would benefit more from being a new state than from remaining as part of Spain; Catalan GDP is actually one of Europe’s highest. To many Catalans out there, independence is, in fact, a rather pragmatic matter of survival.

In 2015, a newly formed political coalition aiming for independence won the Catalan elections. In 2017, after the failed declaration of independence, the pro-independence parties formed a government once again, only this time as two separate parties: JxC and ERC. Additionally, in the 2019 Spanish General Election, the pro-independence parties won more seats in the Spanish Congress than ever before. The Spanish answer to the ever-growing support for independence has drifted between feigned dialogue (always within the limits of the Spanish Constitution) and a legal-criminal response that witnesses several of the old leaders of Catalan independentism behind bars at this time.


It must be said that social networks have had a huge influence in the deployment of Catalan nationalism.

It must be said that social networks have had a huge influence in the deployment of Catalan nationalism. The more social networks’ popularity has spread among Catalans, the more supporters of independence there have been. Many arguments and reasons to support independence have been shared by Catalan activists on social networks, with effective results. Catalan nationalism also benefits from a huge pool of supporters based in academia thanks to a pacifying tone and well-researched arguments regarding the formation of a new state in Europe. The two most recent Spanish foreign ministers, Alfonso Dastis and Josep Borrell, have acknowledged that the international empathy, even sympathy, expressed towards the Catalan pro-independence movement stems, in part, from academia-related efforts to sustain Catalan claims. International attention was also drawn by the referenda of 9th November 2014 and 1st October 2017, both organized without the Spanish government’s approval and also by the terrific police charges that followed the second.

Could Catalan nationalism ultimately lead to the creation of a new Catalan state? Such an idea should not surprise anyone in Europe-over 20 new states came to be during the 20th and 21st centuries. However, while the Yes to independence leads most surveys on this issue, the Spanish state is not even considering such a possibility. While some far-right and conservative politicians (from the Partido Popular, Ciudadanos and VOX) fantasize about the possibility of erasing Catalan autonomy, currently under a pro-independence government, the centre-left and left parties (PSOE, Podemos) aim for a political solution within the limits of the Spanish Constitution. This would, however, exclude the chance for a referendum like the one held in Scotland in 2014. With the Catalan pro-independence supporters gaining power in Catalonia and the two major political forces in Spain not allowing a referendum (let alone an eventual secession) for both sides, engaging in sincere dialogue will, sooner or later, be a necessity.

Marc Perelló-Sobrepere holds a PhD in Communications (Universitat Ramon Llull – URL).

Marc is Professor at Universitat International de Catalunya (UIC) and Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona (UAB). Former Visiting Researcher at City University London and at the University of Copenhagen.

Marc’s research focuses on digital communication and political activism, especially massive social networks and its social-political use.

India, Populism, and the power of the ‘Other’

Adam Saraswati Rawlings, Comment Editor for SCAN

In the seventy two years since India gained its independence from the British, a distinct precedent has been espoused throughout political discourses is that of religious difference. Established in the very partition of India, a dichotomy has formed, and grown, between India’s Hindu majority and it’s religious minorities. This is most often historically India’s Muslim majority (which is destined to become the largest single population of Muslims in the world) but has from time to time turned to Sikhs (notably in the 1980s), and other communities. This narrative of religious difference is not a impenetrable barrier to religious cohesion in India, in fact it can be argued that India displays a more sophisticated model of religion conscious democracy, though the ever growing populist narrative of India’s politics, this assessment grows weaker and weaker.

In recent years a rise in violence against India’s Muslim communities, particularly beef vigilantism and actions against ‘love jihad’, has coincided with the premiership of Narendra Modi, of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). While Hindu Nationalism has been present in India since before the nation’s independence, the recent spike in violent Hindu Nationalism is in no small feat connected to the populist politics that saw a BJP victory in the 2014 general election. Now that India is in the process of electing and announcing the results of its 2019 general election, a trend is clear. The BJP are playing off of fears embedded within India’s political conscious tied up in present fears of the ‘other’. One only has to look as far as the speech given by Uttar Pradesh’s Chief Minister, Yogi Adityanath, in March of 2017, when he assumed office, to see the narrative the BJP is using to strike fear into the heart of its votership.

This year Modi’s campaigning has heavily focused on Indian security, deviating from his previous campaign which centred itself on economic and social reform, essentially playing off the recent unrest in Indian controlled Kashmir. The party has used the climate in global media of Islam at the forefront of negative press, to push the idea that Hindus are under threat, both from the nations that border India, and increasingly from the Muslim citizens from within. Modi has used this, along with what many describe as the BJP’s historically anti-Muslim narrative, to whip up the emotions of India’s working class Hindu voters to rally behind him once again. The frank ways in which Modi has used Kashmir in his campaigning has shown a populism which banks on a continued culture of unrest and distrust between India’s religious communities. Further, the unrest of Kashmir’s internal politics only serves to feed into the carefully curated image the BJP and wider Hindu Nationalist movement has crafted of India as a nation under threat from the ‘other’. The sacred ideal of India as a Hindu nation, though not removed from the contexts of India or Hinduism, are manipulated and projected to show the BJP as the protectors of India’s integrity as a Hindu homeland. The recent murder of a BJP politician in Kashmir and the widespread boycott of the 2019 elections in Kashmir have only added to this.

The language the BJP increasingly uses not only glorifies the Hinduness of India, but serves to place the minority, especially the Muslim minority, as an integral threat to the foundations of the nation. In recent times the use of hate speech from BJP politicians has reportedly shot up to a head spinning 500% on what it has been in previous years, with Amit Shah the party president using words like ‘termites’ to describe Muslim immigrants from neighbouring Bangladesh.

The real danger of this rhetoric is how much of the Indian polity is now beginning to buy into it as legitimate and how successful it has been in inspiring Islamophobic violence. In BJP strongholds like Uttar Pradesh, Haryana, and Gujarat the increase in Hindu Nationalist violence has ballooned since the election of Modi in 2014 and by 2018 had rapidly increased still. Such violence has even permeated India’s usually apolitical film industry, with the blockbuster Padmaavat sparking major controversy and threats of violence due to concerns from emboldened Hindu Nationalist vigilantes over Hindu-Muslim relationships shown on screen. The populist narrative projected by the BJP fuels concern and aggression over the perceived threat of the other has bled into the understanding of what nationality and Hinduness is to a large swathe of Hindus, particularly those from lower income backgrounds who make up a large number of those involved in Hindutva violence. The BJP’s contribution and captainship to the idea of Muslims as a distinct and threatening other is making India an increasingly unsafe, unequal, and ever dangerous country.

Ultimately the othering of Muslims is not something unique to India, evidenced by the social climate of the Western world, or to the BJP given the diversity of Hindu Nationalist groups in India. What is distinct though, is the amount of influence and power that the BJP has to control and manipulate this narrative to draw support for their party, as well as manipulate the social conditions of India, especially rural and less economically prosperous parts of India.

Workers of the World Unite (At Last)

Professor Ronaldo Munck

Rising developments within labor challenge the conventional progressive wisdom that neoliberal globalization has been an unprecedented disaster for workers, trade unions, and the labor movement. The obstacles to labor organizing, of course, do pose serious challenges. Increased mobility of capital has led to a sharp increase in relocation, outsourcing, and offshoring. Multinational corporations can wield the threat of plant closures against workers’ requests for better wages or states’ efforts to raise taxes. Executives at multinational corporations can even pit their own plants against each other, going back and forth between them to get local managers and workers to underbid each other in a race to the bottom. At the same time, the increased mobility of labor has led to increased migration, which can be seen as a threat to wages and working conditions if migrant workers are introduced into a settled labor force. Corporations can then stoke divisions among their workers across racial, ethnic, and linguistic lines to undermine the foundation of solidarity necessary to organize.

Labor faces these and myriad other obstacles in our rapidly changing, interconnected world. However, fixating on obstacles creates a facile pessimism. Globalization may have opened as many doors as it closed. At the most basic level, the globalization of communication has countered one of the most formidable barriers to global action. With email, social media, and other online platforms, workers enjoy better tools to organize across countries—imagine trying to organize a transnational strike a century ago. Moreover, globalized communication fosters solidarity as workers are able to see, hear, and share each other’s stories.[1] Looking ahead, improvements in translation software could help bridge the language divide, thereby opening new paths to transcultural dialogue. Globalized capitalism may have created the basis for a new global working class, not only in material conditions but also in consciousness.

Transnational unionism can take many forms. It can operate among union executives or on a grassroots level, while organizing can be workplace-oriented or based on collaboration with NGOs on issue campaigns. Successful transnational unionism has the capacity to navigate complexity and operate on multiple levels. In particular, transnationally oriented unions have used globalization to their benefit by organizing transnational labor actions, forming new transnational structures, and fostering solidarity with migrant workers at home.

When a transnational corporation spreads production nodes across countries, thus distributing the workforce, the geographic expansion also increases the possible leverage points for organizing against the corporation. The workers of Irish budget airline Ryanair understand this well. Since Ryanair’s foundation in 1984, CEO Michael O’Leary had been a vocal opponent of union organizing, but workers chose not to listen. In mid-2018, they went on strike—starting in Ireland before spreading across the continent—for pay increases, direct employment, and collective labor agreements that comply with national labor laws. Management, which had used its transnational status to play workers against each other, was confronted by a united cross-national organized labor force.

Labor has also showed strength by partnering with allies at different points along the globally dispersed production chain. A campaign against sweatshops in the apparel industry showed how direct action by students in the US can support organizing by workers in Honduras. Garment workers in global production chains are usually considered weak compared to hypermobile, high-profit companies like Nike.[2] But such corporations are vulnerable to boycotts. Transnational union resources focused on a particular industry or country have considerable power to deny market share and thereby bolster demands at the point of production.

Besides enabling specific actions, the new economic landscape has given rise to new organizing structures, as labor unions realize that old methods of operating can no longer suffice. In the 1960s, the International Trade Secretariats (today known as Global Union Federations, or GUFs) began to respond to the expansion of multinational corporations (MNCs) through the formation of World Company Councils. First established by the United Auto Workers and the International Metalworkers’ Foundation, the World Company Councils coordinated the activities of the various national trade unions across a multinational corporation’s operations. However, they proved unable to create the stability and continuity needed to achieve the transnational collective bargaining power the unions hoped to develop.[3]

By the 1990s, the international union strategy had shifted from the promotion of voluntary “codes of conduct” with MNCs and the introduction of “social clauses” (including labor rights) into trade agreements, to the more ambitious and comprehensive Global Framework Agreements (GFAs). An expression of transnational labor solidarity, GFAs bind a company’s global operations to the labor standards of the headquarters, usually based in Europe. Thus, gains won where labor is stronger can spread to where it is weaker. By 2015, 156 Global Framework Agreements had been signed around the world, focused mainly on core workplace conditions and the right to collective bargaining.[4]

Developments like GFAs grew from the realization that relying on old national-level collective bargaining had turned into a dead end. Labor needed new strategies, tactics, and organizational modalities. With “business as usual” organizing modes no longer adequate, many trade union leaders began calling for global solidarity. They called into question labor’s “special status” alongside the state and employers—the famous tripartite modality of the International Labor Organization. If capital now organized itself predominantly as a transnational player, so, too, would the international trade unions need to “go global.”

A significant manifestation of this shift is the emergence of global unions. In 2008, the workers of the United Steelworkers in the US merged with Unite the Union, the largest labor organization in Britain and Ireland. The new union, Workers Uniting, represented almost 3 million workers at its founding in the steel, paper, oil, health care, and transportation industries. Oil conglomerate BP and steel behemoth ArcelorMittal are both transnational; now, their workers are transnational too, refusing to be pitted against each other in negotiations. Maritime workers, who have a built-in internationalism, have taken similar steps. In 2006, in response to the globalization of the shipping industry, the National Union of Marine, Aviation and Shipping Transport Officers in the UK developed a formal partnership with the Dutch maritime workers’ union Federatie van Werknemers in de Zeevaart, renaming themselves Nautilus UK and Nautilus NL respectively. Two years later, workers took the partnership a step further, voting to create a single transnational union: Nautilus International. In 2015, the United Auto Workers in the US and IG Metall in Germany joined forces to create the Transatlantic Labor Institute focusing on auto worker representation issues at the US plants of German auto manufacturers.[5] In a decade’s span, transnationalism has entered the trade union mainstream as leadership catches up with the objective possibilities opened up by globalization.

Notably, the smartest unions are treating migrant workers not as a threat but as an opportunity. By making common cause with migrant workers, trade unions have deepened their democratic role by integrating migrant workers into unions and combatting divisive and racist political forces. In Singapore and Hong Kong, state-sponsored unions have recruited migrant workers, to mutual benefit. In Malaysia, Building and Woodworkers International, a GUF, recruits temporary migrant workers to work alongside “regular” members of the union. Through such positive, proactive outreach, unions can counter the divide-and-conquer strategy on which anti-union management thrives.

Despite such bright spots, many contradictions and pitfalls impede the forward march of transnational labor organizing. The mismatch between the unlimited scale and complexity of the challenge and the limited resources available remains a chronic problem. Also, successfully organizing new layers of workers may reduce the capacity of unions to take action due to the difficulties of mobilizing an informal or precarious global labor force. These problems are not insurmountable for a nimble and strategic labor movement, but they must be addressed head on.  

In the formative stages of the labor movement, unions engaged actively with the broader political issues of the day, in particular, the call for universal suffrage. There is no reason why such larger concerns cannot again move to the center of labor’s agenda, and a very good reason—the interpenetration of a host of economic, social, and environmental reasons—why they should form its backbone. In contrast to the later tradition of craft unionism, the early labor organizers did not recognize divisions based on skill or race. This tradition of labor organizing known variously as community unionism, “deep organizing,” or “social movement unionism” has been making a comeback.[6] Its spread could open a new chapter in labor’s ongoing struggle against capitalism.

This excerpt was originally published as part of the essay “Workers of the World Unite (At Last) on https://greattransition.org .


[1] Peter Evans, “Is it Labor’s Turn to Globalize?: Twenty-First Century Opportunities and Strategic Responses,” working paper, Institute for Research on Labor and Employment, Berkeley, CA, 2010, http://irle.berkeley.edu/files/2010/Is-it-Labors-Turn-to-Globalize.pdf.

[2] Steven Greenhouse, “Pressured, Nike to Help Workers in Honduras,” New York Times, July 26, 2010, https://www.nytimes.com/2010/07/27/business/global/27nike.html.

[3] Reynald Bourque, “Transnational Trade Unionism and Social Regulation of Globalization,” in Social Innovation, the Social Economy and World Economic Development, eds. Dennis Harrison, György Széll, and Reynald Bourque (New York: Peter Lang, 2009), 123–138.

[4] Michelle Ford and Michael Gillan, “The Global Union Federations in International Industrial Relations: A Critical Review,” Journal of Industrial Relations 57, no. 3 (2015): 456–475; Peter Evans, “National Labor Movements and Transnational Connections: Global Labor’s Evolving Architecture under Neoliberalism,” working paper, Institute for Research on Labor and Employment, Berkeley, CA, 2014, http://irle.berkeley.edu/files/2014/National-Labor-Movements-and-Transnational-Connections.pdf; Mariangela Zito, Michela Cirioni, and Claudio Stanzani, Implementation of International Framework Agreements in Multinational Companies (Rome: SindNova, 2015), http://www.1mayo.ccoo.es/24721dffea9bcf38971c14e6f5b83128000001.pdf.

[5] Steven Greenhouse, “Steelworkers Merge with British Union,” New York Times, July 3, 2008, https://www.nytimes.com/2008/07/03/us/03union.html; “Nautilus Podcast Sheds Light on Union Organising beyond Borders,” press release, Nautilus International, August 29, 2018, https://www.nautilusint.org/en/news-insight/news/nautilus-podcast-sheds-light-on-union-organising-beyond-borders/; “UAW, German Auto Worker Union to Announce Joint Efforts,” Automotive News, November 18, 2015, https://www.autonews.com/article/20151118/OEM01/151119812/uaw-german-auto-worker-union-to-announce-joint-efforts.

[6] Jane McAlevey, No Shortcut: Organizing for Power in the New Gilded Age (London: Verso, 2018).

Radical Democracy in the C21st: Requiem or Renaissance?

Dr Russell Foster, KCL

When Chantal Mouffe and Ernesto Laclau published Hegemony and Socialist Strategy in 1985, a foundational text of post-Marxism was established. While Mouffe and Laclau were not the first scholars who we should consider “post-Marxists” and the essential elements can be identified in Baudrillard (1972) and Barthes (1957), their influence in navigating Marxist analysis away from the rigid orthodoxy of classes, unions, and exchange mechanisms and towards the discourses, subjects, and identities which are equally vital (but then-understudied) aspects of society, cannot be understated. In the aftermath of the Soviet Union’s disintegration this trend gained even greater academic credibility and, the criticisms of Norman Geras notwithstanding, promised new approaches for a new millennium, offering the tools and mechanisms for understanding, and potentially reshaping, a society which exists as an imperfect combination of the sovereign, self-present subject and collective class agents.

From Syriza’s dismal failures in Greece, to Bernie Sanders’ unremarkable flash-in-the-pan, to Jeremy Corbyn’s inability to bring down the most unpopular Conservative government since the Duke of Wellington’s hated “Ultra-Tories” in 1832, the Left appears to be in retreat or stagnant.

Thirty-three years later, does Post-Marxism retain this promise? The world which was changed by the collapse of the Soviet behemoth has been changed in ways that are more recent and, arguably, more significant. Neoliberalism not only resulted in the Global Financial Crisis, but, in a manner which Herbert Marcuse would have predicted, has not only survived but thrived in the aftermath of its own existential crisis. Weary of the Global War on Terror and the austere legacies of the Crash, populations are turning towards the New Right. This shift, which Cas Mudde calls ‘verrechtssing’ or ‘Right Turn’, takes many forms but shares similar root causes, and manifests not only in events such as Brexit or the appeal of ethnic nationalists and strongmen authoritarians, but in a growing rejection, at a personal level, of the discourses of the centre and the Left. This is itself understandable as the consequence of a Left which has lost its way, moving from staid analyses of economic redistribution to a preoccupation with identity politics – a legacy of Post-Marxism itself, perhaps?

Evidence of this is ample, on public and personal levels. From Syriza’s dismal failures in Greece, to Bernie Sanders’ unremarkable flash-in-the-pan, to Jeremy Corbyn’s inability to bring down the most unpopular Conservative government since the Duke of Wellington’s hated “Ultra-Tories” in 1832, the Left appears to be in retreat or stagnant. At the very least, the Left has lost momentum. At a personal level the Left holds diminishing appeal to voters whose frustration and despair at neoliberalism and globalisation is not enough to push them into the arms of what many see as a Left riddled with anti-Semitism, obsessed with trivial identity discourses, and which is widely accused of trading the progressivism of the twentieth century for the regressivism of no-platforming, censorship, and a culture of victimhood. In a political climate which fuels the rise of the ethnic Right, while the once broad church of the Left degrades into a narrow social-media inquisition excommunicating heretics and apostates, is there a policy dimension left for Post-Marxists?

Classical Marxism is not dead, but it is hibernating.

At first glance it would be tempting to liken Post-Marxism to the scholars of Lagado’s Academy of Projectors in Gulliver’s Travels (1726); savants who waste their time pursuing pointless, narcissistic intellectual fantasies while the people outside the academy’s walls starve. But this would be grossly unfair. The current weaknesses of the contemporary Left are simultaneously its future strengths, and it is in the intellectual contributions of Post-Marxism that the Left’s policymaking future lies.

Post-Marxism emerged in the late twentieth century, clashing with the Old Guard of orthodox Marxism whose fighting retreat denounced focusing on discourses and individuals. Yet it is that same discursive and individualistic approach which renders Post-Marxism valuable for the future. President Trump, Vote Leave, Marie Le Pen and Generation Identity reveal that the Western public is weary of experts, tired of bean-counting economic arguments, and are just as tired of the rigid and exclusive orthodoxies of conservatism as they are of the dusty class-based analyses of Marxism. The rise of the New Right demonstrates that traditional theories and claims of collective class agencies are unpopular; while discourses, identities, and subjects are the new focus of politics. The New Right is capitalising on this, appealing to peoples’ anxieties of cultural erosion, changing group identities, and fears of personal powerlessness in the face of a global establishment which is at best indifferent, at worst contemptuous.

This is not exclusive to the New Right – the Left can, and must, capitalise on this as well. Classical Marxism is not dead, but it is hibernating. In a new Western public sphere which is dominated by fears of exploitation, Post-Marxism offers the tools to not only analyse society, but help reform it. In the new ‘Age of Anger’ the policy implications of Post-Marxism are more relevant, now, than during its Cold War infancy. Like all intellectual traditions, the thoughts inherent to Post-Marxism need to evolve in order to realise the philosophy’s urgently-needed potential. This special edition offers some of those first thoughts.

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.