The Death of Political Islam

Jon B. Alterman

The obituaries for political Islam have begun to be written. After years of seemingly unstoppablegrowth, Islamic parties have begun to stumble. In Morocco, the Justice and DevelopmentParty (or PJD) did far worse than expected in last September’s elections, and Jordan’sIslamic Action Front lost more than half its seats in last month’s polling. The eagerly awaitedmanifesto of Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood, a draft of which appeared last September,showed neither strength nor boldness. Instead, it suggested the group was beset by intellectualcontradictions and consumed by infighting.It is too early to declare the death of political Islam, as it was premature to proclaim therebirth of liberalism in the Arab world in 2003-04, but its prospects seem notably dimmerthan they did even a year ago.To some, the fall from grace was inevitable; political Islam has collapsed under its owncontradictions, they say. They argue that, in objective terms, political Islam was never morethan smoke and mirrors. Religion is about faith and truth, and politics are about compromiseand accommodation. Seen this way, political Islam was never a holy enterprise, butmerely an effort to boost the political prospects of one side in a political debate. Backed byreligious authority and legitimacy, opposition to Islamists’ will ceased to be merely political—it became heresy—and the Islamists benefited.These skeptics see political Islam as having been a useful way to protect political movements,cow political foes, and rally support. As a governing strategy, however, they arguethat political Islam has not produced any successes. In two areas where it recently rose topower, the Palestinian Authority and Iraq, governance has been anemic. In Iran, where themullahs have been in power for almost three decades, clerics struggle for respect and thecountry hemorrhages money to Dubai and other overseas markets with more predictablerules and more positive returns. The most avowedly religious state in the Middle East, SaudiArabia, has notably less intellectual freedom than many of its neighbors, and the guardiansof orthodoxy there carefully circumscribe religious thought. As the French scholar of Islam,Olivier Roy, memorably observed more than a decade ago, the melding of religion and politics did not sanctify politics, it politicizedreligion.But while Islam has not provided a coherent theory of governance, let alone a universally accepted approach to the problems ofhumanity, the salience of religion continues to grow among many Muslims.That salience goes far beyond issues of dress, which have become more conservative for both women and men in recent years, andbeyond language, which invokes God’s name far more than was the case a decade ago. It also goes beyond the daily practice ofIslam—from prayer to charity to fasting—all of which are on the upswing.What has changed is something even more fundamental than physical appearance or ritual practice, and that is this: A growingnumber of Muslims start from the proposition that Islam is relevant to all aspects of their daily lives, and not merely the province oftheology or personal belief.Some see this as a return to traditionalism in the Middle East, when varying measures of superstition and spirituality governed dailylife. More accurately, though, what we are seeing is the rise of “neo-traditionalism,” in which symbols and slogans of the past areenlisted in the pursuit of hastening entry into the future. Islamic finance—which is to say, finance that relies on shares and returnsrather than interest—is booming, and sleek bank branches contain separate entrances for men and women. Slick young televangelistsrely on the tropes of sanctifying the everyday and seeking forgiveness, drawing tens of thousands to their meetings and televisionaudiences in the millions. Music videos—viewable on YouTube—implore young viewers to embrace faith and turn away froma meaningless secular life.Many in the West see secularism and relativism as concrete signs of modernity. In the Middle East, many see them as symbols ofa bankrupt secular nationalist past that failed to deliver justice or development, freedom or progress. The suffering of secularism ismeaningless, but the discipline of Islam is filled with signficance.It is for this reason that it is premature to declare the death of political Islam. Islam, increasingly, cannot be contained. It is spreadingto all aspects of life, and it is robust among some of the most dynamic forces in the Middle East. It enjoys state subsidies to be sure,but states have little to do with the creativity occurring in the religious field.The danger is that this Islamization of public life will cast aside what little tolerance is left in the Middle East, after centuries asa—fundamentally Islamic—multicultural entrepôt. It is hard to imagine how Islamizing societies can flourish if they do not embraceinnovation and creativity, diversity and difference. “Islamic” is not a self-evident concept, as my friend Mustapha Kamal Pasha onceobserved, but it cannot be a source of strength in modern societies if it is tied to ossified and parochial notions of its nature.Dealing with difference is fundamentally a political task, and it is here that political Islam will face its true test. The formal structuresof government in the Middle East have proven durable, and they are unlikely to crumble under a wave of Islamic activism. For politicalIslam to succeed, it needs to find a way to unite diverse coalitions of varying faiths and degrees of faith, not merely speak to itsbase. It has not yet found a way to do so, but that is not to say that it cannot.

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