Nathan J. Brown, Islamist Movements in Post-Revolutionary Egypt

Professor of Political Science and International at George Washington University, and author, editor and co-author of several works including The Dynamics of Democratization: Dictatorship, Development, and Diffusion (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2011), Constitutions in a Nonconstitutional World: Arab Basic Laws & the Prospects for Accountable Government (SUNY Press, 2001), The Rule of Law in the Arab World: Courts in Egypt and the Gulf (Cambridge University Press, 1997), and Between Religion and Politics (Carnegie Endowment, 2010). His forthcoming monograph is titled When Victory is Not an Option: Islamist Political Parties in Semiauthoritarian Politics (Cornell University Press). ident Senior Associate, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace

At the opening of 2011, Islamist movements modeled on the Muslim Brotherhood were showing signs of despair with the meager democratic processes that existed in most societies where they operated and some were turning slowly away from politics more generally. In some places, the Brotherhood or movements like it had been denied victory where it was poised to (or actually had achieved) electoral success (in Algeria and Palestine); in other places they were being forced to come to terms with the limits of their electoral base (in Indonesia and Kuwait); and in still other places even limited electoral success (achieving a strong minority position in a weak parliament) had provoked fierce regime responses (in Jordan and Egypt).   In the face of such setbacks, there were signs that some movements were reconsidering their commitment to politics. And in Egypt specifically, the leadership of the Brotherhood had come to be dominated by those less focused on (and skilled in) electoral politics.

At the opening of 2012, two leading movements were forced to confront the precise opposite problem: they had achieved impressive electoral victories in Tunisia and Egypt.  The issue was now how to cope with democratic success. Prior to the uprisings of 2011, Islamist options were often limited and many important choices were imposed on them. In the new, post-revolutionary environment, many unanticipated opportunities opened but all required difficult tactical and strategic calculations and decisions.  Movements that had their democratic credentials questioned when democracy did not exist were suddenly forced to practice democracy on the fly.

In this essay, I will explore:

·         How Islamist movements in general—but especially Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood—came to embrace politics but how that embrace provoked ambivalence and uncertainty within the movements;

·         How their electoral success provoked questions about the democratic commitments of Islamists among scholars, political activists and regimes—but how those questions actually masked other concerns that were far less about democracy than they were about other parts of Islamist ideology and practice; and

·         How the post-revolutionary environment is imposing new choices and difficult questions from the movements not because of their lack of democratic commitments but because of their democratic successes and their eagerness to make use of their democratic legitimacy.

My primary focus throughout will be on Egypt and on the Muslim Brotherhood, but I will bring in the experience of other movements and other societies in order to shed comparative light on the Egyptian Brotherhood’s experience.  

Jillian Schwedler, Islamists in the Arab Spring: Jordan

Dr. Jillian Schwedler is Associate Professor of Political Science at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. Beginning September 2013, she will join the faculty of the City University of New York, Hunter College, as Professor of Political Science. Dr. Schwedler is author of the award-winning Faith in Moderation: Islamist Parties in Jordan and Yemen (Cambridge 2006) and most recently editor (with Dr. Laleh Khalili) of Policing and Prisons in the Middle East (Columbia/Hurst 2010). Her articles have appeared in World Politics, Comparative Politics, Middle East Policy, Middle East Report, Journal of Democracy, and Social Movement Studies (among others). Dr. Schwedler was a member of the editorial committee (1995-2002) and chair of the board of directors (2002-2009) of the Middle East Research and Information Project (MERIP), publishers of Middle East Report. She has conducted research in Jordan, Yemen, and Egypt and has traveled extensively throughout the region. She is currently finishing a book manuscript tentatively titled “Protesting Jordan: Space, Law, Dissent,” which examines political protests and policing in the Hashemite Kingdom from 1946 to the present.

In September, the Islamic Action Front (IAF) party in Jordan called for the permanent closing of the Israeli embassy in Amman and the end of the peace treaty signed in 1994.  The statement coincided with the attack on the Israeli embassy in Egypt.  While such statements from the IAF are not new, calling for a cessation of relations with Israeli in the midst of the revolutionary spirit of the Arab Spring was highly provocative.

And yet perhaps the most notable aspect of the IAF’s role in the 2011 protests in Jordan has been its relative quiescence.  This self-described “loyal opposition” party had never shied from critiquing the regime—most recently, it boycotted the 2010 parliamentary elections and called for a constitutional monarchy in which the elected parliament would have a real governing role.  But as Arabs took to the streets in force in 2011, the party organized groups that rarely exceeded a thousand.  Even more, its protests always refrained from calling for an overthrow of the regime.  Like the vast majority of protests in 2011, IAF events focused on specific policies and demanded the resignation of one prime minister after another.

The fact that the IAF has not called for an end to the regime is unsurprising given the long association between the regime and the Muslim Brotherhood—the Islamist group to which the IAF party is attached.  The MB has always had a symbiotic relationship with the Hashemite monarchy, particularly during the 1950s and 1960s, when Jordanian and Palestinian Leftist and militant groups threatened the regime.  When the electoral system suspended in the wake of the 1967 war was fully resumed in 1989, Islamist candidates, most of them affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood, unsurprisingly won the largest bloc.  But the group continued to describe itself as loyal to the regime, pressing for various policy changes but always working within the political system.

This paper will present a short overview of the history of Islamist-regime relations in Jordan, focusing on the MB and the IAF but also addressing other Islamist groups.  It will then examine the role of these groups in the Arab Spring, examining the precise ways in which they are—and are not—challenging the Hashemite regime.

Abdullah Al-Arian, The Muslim Brotherhood and Political Participation: A Historical Analysis

Abdullah Al-Arian's dissertation "Heeding the Call: Popular Islamic Activism in Egypt (1970-1981), focused on the revival of the Muslim Brotherhood as the leading social movement in Egypt during the Sadat era. While at Georgetown, he worked with the Prince Alwaleed Bin Talal Center for Muslim Christian Understanding and spent two years on the Qatar campus of the Georgetown University School of Foreign Service. He has also worked on the development of American Muslim political institutions. His research interests include Islamic social movememts, Islamic law in theory and practice, globalization and the Muslim world, United States policy toward the Middle East, and the history of Islam in American. His writing has been featured on the websites of Foreign Policy and Al-Jazeera.

Within hours of the fall of the Mubarak regime in February 2011, the Muslim Brotherhood announced that it would be establishing a political party to field candidates in the upcoming parliamentary elections—the first in a post-authoritarian Egypt. Almost immediately, commentators and political observers in Egypt as well as in the West began to express timeworn tropes about the inability of an Islamic activist movement to adhere to the tenets of an open and pluralistic democratic political system. During the course of the ensuing public discussion about the role of the Muslim Brotherhood in a future Egyptian government, the impact of historical experience has rarely been mentioned.

This paper seeks to investigate contemporary questions surrounding the participation of a popular, Islamically-oriented social movement in a newly opened political system, primarily through the lens of historical experiences. Beginning with the early period of the Muslim Brotherhood, when its founder and charismatic leader Hasan al-Banna carved out an organizational mission within the so-called “liberal experiment” of parliamentary politics in Egypt, the paper traces the development of an internal discourse vis-à-vis democratic participation from within the organization. This development is explored along two distinct but frequently intersecting tracks. On the one hand, the development of the movement’s ideology was a process that reflected popular dissatisfaction with the prevailing political order in Egypt during the 1930s and 1940s. The Muslim Brotherhood’s program was quite explicitly hostile to the notion of parliamentary rule and political parties, and in fact developed the organization as an alternative to dominant political institutions. On the other hand, in practice, the Muslim Brotherhood’s organizational structure increasingly resembled the parties competing for power during this era. The group’s policy on participation demonstrated an ability to adapt to the changing political landscape, so much so that before the end of his life, Hasan al-Banna had on two separate occasions made the decision to stand for election into the Egyptian parliament.

As this paper argues, this tension, between the Muslim Brotherhood’s stated ideological positions and its willingness to overlook these principles in favor of a policy of pragmatism, is itself a demonstration of the group’s adoption of the general norms of political participation, as defined by liberal democracy. However, the military coup of 1952 and the subsequent purge of Egyptian civil society radically transformed the nature of political discourse in the country. As the chief target of the new regime’s brutal policy of repression, the Muslim Brotherhood not only shifted its discourse to one of anti-authoritarian resistance, but also attempted to temper its prior position of political engagement.

It is in this context that Sayyid Qutb’s conception of sovereignty should be understood. As the Islamic movement’s leading intellectual during the Nasser era, Qutb articulated a notion of governance that relied on divine sovereignty as the only basis for legitimacy. In an era of secular authoritarianism, Qutb’s critique of “rule by man” was focused on democratic government only insofar as it had failed to produce a just and peaceful society. Rather, the ideological positions staked by Qutb and his later followers during this period were more concerned with the status quo, reconfiguring traditional Islamic concepts to delegitimize what they argued was a corrupt and tyrannical dictatorship.

There is no better evidence for this than the steady transition made by the Muslim Brotherhood during the 1970s. As a hallmark of his presidency, Anwar al-Sadat professed

a desire to establish a state based on “science and faith,” as well as rebuild the country’s democratic institutions. Though it expressed continued pessimism regarding the regime’s ability to fulfill these lofty pledges, the Muslim Brotherhood nonetheless underwent a shift, in its rhetoric as well as its activism, in effect attempting to find accommodation with the regime through direct political engagement. In fact, the interactions during this period, largely the product of a vibrant student movement, were critical in the Muslim Brotherhood’s decision to participate in parliamentary elections in the early 1980s.

The group has not looked back since. Democratic engagement has been a cornerstone of the Muslim Brotherhood’s platform for the better part of three decades. Nonetheless, with the prospect of a government led by its members for the first time, critics consistently express misgivings about the Muslim Brotherhood’s ability to respect the rules of democratic pluralism: sharing power with minority parties (specifically, non-religious parties), not imposing legislation restrictive of personal freedoms, and peacefully handing over power in the event of defeat at the polls.

The paper concludes by addressing these and other concerns on the basis of the organization’s evolution, especially since the late 1970s, and its recent behavior—before

and after the revolution of January 2011. The picture that results from this discussion is one of a Muslim Brotherhood organization that remains determined to achieve its aims. But by adapting its methods toward reaching the height of political power, it has necessarily had to temper its objectives as well, retaining the spirit of Banna’s original mission, but scarcely it's latter.

Abbas Barzegar, State, Text, Hermeneut: Sunni Islamist Republicanism between Political Theology and Wilayat al-Faqih

Assistant Professor, Georgia State University

Academic and policy-oriented discussions concerning the relationship between “Islamist” political parties and the development of democratic political systems have oscillated along an analytic spectrum that places fear of authoritarianism and the probability of pragmatism at its poles. While the former is often encapsulated in the “one vote, one time” red herring of neoconservative partisans in Washington D.C., the latter has been a favored interpretation of contemporary politics by scholars within the halls of academia. Given the embryonic stage of Islamic democratic experiments their long term political viability can hardly be measured empirically. However, the primary variables involved in these experiments are not only readily identifiable (e.g. nationalism, state power, and Islamic hermeneutical authority) but also have long history in the modern Muslim world and thus make the trajectory of Islamism after the “Arab Spring” less opaque than might otherwise be imagined.

Envisioning the creative possibilities enabled by the empowerment of Islamist groups requires more than speculating on the language of legislation, the procedural mechanisms of civil governance, or the interest based machinations of political actors. Instead, an inquiry into the phenomenon of Islamist political governance must take into consideration the “political theology” of modern state power and its relationship to the Islamic tradition as it is embodied in the practices of contemporary political actors and agents.

This essay juxtaposes the relationship between law and state violence in two radically different traditions of inquiry into “political theology.” It does so order to offer a meta-analytic perspective on the complex relationships between the rise of Islamic political power, state sovereignty, and nationalism in the wake of the Middle Eastern and North African political transformations that began in 2011.

The first tradition engages the multi-disciplinary conversation on political theology defined as an understanding of the embedded nature of theological and metaphysical assumptions in modern systems of political governance. Specific attention is given to the relationship between state violence, sovereignty, and political community as expressed through Carl Schmitt’s classic formulation: “sovereign is he who decides on the exception.” That is, in order to understand the political imagination in a given society—and thus identify the boundaries of the politically possible—an anthropological account of the theological assumptions inherent in the normalization of state violence must be made. In visiting this conversation, I suggest that recent inquiries into liberal paradox, then, provide a useful background and framework to describe the Muslim political experiences with the modern state.

Here, the second tradition of inquiry into political theology is introduced: the theory and practice of the Twelver Shiite doctrine of Wilayat al-Faqih (authority of the jurist) in the Iranian experience from the late 18th century and into the present. As a coupled problem of Islamic legal authority and modern governance, it has developed in direct relationship to the rise of the modern Iranian state both as a sovereign structure and national identity. I argue that the usuli school of jurisprudence in the Iranian tradition and in particular its consolidation and expansion of the Shiite clerical hierarchy, anticipates and addresses similar ethical concerns as those seen in the ongoing inquiry on political theology: namely, the metaphysical implications of state power.   

These two traditions of political theology are juxtaposed in order to posit a simple hypothesis concerning the trajectory of Sunni Islamist democratic experiments: that the emergent normalization of political Islam in Muslim majority countries is taking place because of a simultaneous religious authorization of state structures (which empowers the state with sovereign hermeneutical and physical authority) and an ongoing practice whereby national and civic identity is conflated with the discourse of ummah. In the former, I endorse the recent observations made by Ran Hirschl, Clark Lombardi, and Noah Feldman concerning the pragmatic possibilities enabled by the constitutionalization of Islamic law in various Sunni countries. In the latter I analyze the effective conflation and deployment of national and religious identity rhetoric by groups such as the Muslim Brotherhood and Ennahda. Returning to the question of political theology, I close this paper by asking how such pragmatic solutions interface with ideal conceptions of the Islamic order as espoused by rival more conservative Islamist parties. More concretely, I ask whether the nation state as the Islamic sovereign—the natural outgrowth of Islamist pragmatism—provides a viable middle road between imported liberal structures and utopian politics.  

Ahmad Atif Ahmad, The Conflict of Educations in Egypt

The University of California, Santa Barbara

Muhammad ‘Ali’s (r. 1805-1849) solution to the problem of the backward education available (notably at al-Azhar) was to ignore it, marginalize both its producers and consumers, and build a new education that could fulfill the needs of the new age.  Nasser (r. 1954-1970) learned the lesson and insisted on reforming al-Azhar so as avoid any growth in the already existing century-long legacy of bifurcated (possibly trifurcated or even simply multifurcated) education and the clash of authorities (and if he knew this term, he would think of the condition as a case of clash of epistemologies).  Post-Nasser Egyptian leaders realized that Nasser’s reforms exacerbated the problem rather than solved it; so, they gave up.  New forms of education were produced inside and outside of Egypt, and with a state that gave up on orchestrating a national coherent education, all these forms of education found followers. Illiteracy persisted, and illiterate education, being more commonsense-based, could claim a higher lineage.  The 1980s-1990s witnessed a condition of fluidity in education, which lead many medical doctors and engineers (some of whom activists, such as ‘Isam al-‘Iryan) to seek traditional Azhar education.  Simultaneously, ‘open-minded’ and liberal individuals fled the country in search of a ‘serious’ education abroad, an education in the true sciences, rather than the convoluted ‘religion-related’ discourses.  In many ways, this condition made the 2011 Revolution possible and its swift advancement toward any unifying goal close to unreachable for the short term.  The conflict of educations is a harder problem than the conflict of laws, because the latter condition if often handled politically, while the former must be addressed with multiple strategies.

This presentation argues that understanding the state of multifurcated world or worlds of education in Egypt provides insights more relevant to imagining its future than any analysis of political institutions or movements.  The task of analysts would be to extract and organize abundant and trustworthy information about the deep commitments of both politicians who already are or likely to be key players in the current environment as well as the population that finally found itself invested with the strange authority that allows them to ‘self-rule.’  My own educational background, which was decisively influenced by my years of higher education as an undergraduate and a graduate student at Cairo and al-Azhar Universities, which my Harvard education seemed to be unable to penetrate, is behind my biases—as I am indeed just one more Egyptian who is a product of this conflict of educations.  

Ahmad Khanani, Islamists and Democracy in Morocco

Indiana University, Bloomington

In their most euphoric moments, activists who collectively constituted the “Arab Spring” anticipated the rise of true democracy in the region. Just a year removed, a broad sense of disillusionment amongst reformists set in on the heels of “failed” efforts to democratize across the region. Simultaneously, other pro-democracy activists across the region celebrated “genuine reforms” in spite of seemingly stalled democratization. What should we, Western analysts, make of these contradictory responses?

This paper explores the possibility that democratic activists in the Middle East and North Africa mobilize different conceptions of democracy than those that we, as Western analysts, typically encounter. Rather than assume continuity across linguistic, religious, and political contexts, I suggest we study how people positioned at the peripheries of the democratic world apprehend and embody democracy. In examining how “democracy” affords marginal actors a foil to situate their actions and politics, we also identify the limits of—and tensions buried in—Western articulations of democracy.

As such, this paper takes a set of Moroccan islamiyun—alternatively referred to as “Islamists,” “radicals,” or “fundamentalists”—as its primary interlocutors and asks, what does “democracy” mean? What actions does this group of Moroccan islamiyun associate with democracy? Do they consistently connect it to any concepts or traditions (e.g. human rights, Islam)? How do articulations of democracy by Moroccan islamiyun encounter and challenge the hegemony of liberal conceptions?

Rather than engage the full range of islamiyun active in Moroccan politics, this paper focuses on a very specific set of actors: elite in the Party of Justice and Development (PJD) and its parent organization, the Mouvement Unité et Réforme (MUR). Alongside an-Nahda in Tunisia and both al-hurriya wa al-‘adalaah and an-nour in Egypt, the Moroccan PJD is an “Islamist” party with a track record of electoral success when given the opportunity to compete. In contrast with parties of islamiyun across the Arab world, the PJD has competed in relatively free and fair elections since 1997; as a consequence, the PJD has expanded its share of seats in the Moroccan Parliament in every election. As such, elite in the PJD have a longstanding commitment to “playing the game” in the Moroccan arena; this coupled with the regime’s decision to privilege the PJD as the sole islamiyun active in formal Moroccan politics, affords PJD elite a unique position vis a vis the idea and practice of democracy.

The PJD’s active participation in Moroccan politics from 1997 onwards also figured prominently into their response to the outbreak of protests in the winter of 2011—coinciding with uprisings around the Arab world. In short, PJD elite typically held an ambivalent relationship with Moroccan protests movements—especially the Mouvement du 20 Février, the most efficacious protest movement in Morocco: the PJD elite simultaneously supported the regime and used the groundswell of support for change to call for reform on specific issues. This paper, then, locates the PJD elite in the Moroccan political context and juxtaposes their views of democracy with those of Western analysts—a useful comparison insofar as it is one the PJD elite consistently suggest.[1]

Over the course of nineteen months in Morocco—beginning in September 2009 and concluding in August 2011—I was able to conduct interviews with 42 members of the PJD and held “focus groups” with an additional 10 adherents of the PJD. Out of these 52 people, a full 22 were “elite” in the sense that they either served as an MP for the party (11 of my interviewees—six of whom currently hold ministerial posts in the national government) or held a position of national leadership for either the PJD or MUR (11 interviewees). My interviews were grounded in “ordinary language interviewing,” which makes three assumptions: first, that “every day words reflect the accumulated wisdom or shared culture of a community;” second, that the meaning of a word is established by its patterns of usage, and; third, that “a word can be used in a variety of different, and sometimes contradictory, ways.”[2] The attention this approach pays to the ways the meanings of words change made ordinary language interviewing the most appropriate method to procure information about how islamiyun imagine and enact democracy.

The PJD elite, perhaps as a function of their position of privilege in Moroccan politics, tend to articulate visions of democracy broadly consonant with those of Western analysts, though with two important caveats. First, the PJD elite is not a homogenous group: several interviewees suggested there was a split in the party at the national level, with the Moroccan Prime Minister (Abdelilah Benkirane) leading one wing and the other headed by Mustafa Ramid (Minister of Justice and Liberties in the current government). While the majority of PJD elite—and lay members—side with Benkirane, I was able to interview a handful of people who work as internal opposition. The elite who constitute the internal opposition often depart from the liberal articulations of democracy expressed by their counterparts and, also parted ways in their active participation in the protests arranged by the Mouvement du 20 Février.

Secondly, regardless of their position on intra-party politics, virtually every member of the PJD elite I interviewed departed from Western—and especially liberal—articulations of democracy with regards to what we might, broadly speaking, dub foreign policy. Specifically, PJD elite witness “democracy” as having implications for a state’s domestic and foreign policies—elections, freedoms, and rights for a state’s domestic population are inadequate to the establishment of true democracy. Thus, interviewees cited French colonial interventions in Morocco, American neo-colonialism in Iraq, Afghanistan, and even NATO involvement in Libya as anti-democratic behavior. Moreover, a state’s failure to uphold non-citizens’ rights also figured into the discourse of democracy espoused by PJD elite: for example, shortly after the assassination of Osama Bin Laden an PJD MP remonstrated the US for its lapses in terms of Bin Laden’s rights to a fair trial and proper burial and, she contended, that this impeded American democracy.[3]

The linking of democracy to colonial and post-colonial enterprises may be unsurprising and perhaps even banal, but it usefully flushes out post-structuralist criticisms of liberal and minimalist articulations of democracy and, in the spirit of postcolonial theory, highlights the invisibility of the colony in Western discussions of democracy. Specifically, on the one hand, a criticism suggested by Chantal Mouffe (2000) and examined in detail by Keenan (2003) of “democracy”—which Keenan dubs “Rousseau’s paradox”—is that in order for a democratic polity to emerge there must be a citizenry. The production of that citizenry is a necessarily autocratic endeavor: however the demos is identified, it cannot be by popular consensus. In other words, whether the demos is identified by a ruler, a constitution, or the conditions for “democratic deliberation,”[4] there is necessarily a device that violently—and without consent—removes people from the domain of the demos. PJD elite articulations of democracy identify the sites of democracy’s Others: Morocco as a French colony, Iraq and Afghanistan as post-colonies, and even the corpse of an erstwhile fugitive. Thus, while it may be that PJD elite’s discussions of democracy are hemmed in by their commitments to being “loyal opposition” in the Moroccan political arena, their vision of democracy holds a radical critique of Western articulations of democracy.

[1] Several interviewees brought up prominent figures in the Western canon, including Jean-Jacques Rousseau and John Locke (e.g. interview with Dr. Abuali Hamieddine, Rabat, February 3, 2011).
[2] Schaffer, Frederic. 2006. “Ordinary Langauge Interviewing.” In Interpretation and Method: Empirical Research Methods and the Interpretive Turn, eds. Yanow and Schawrtz-Shea, pp. 150-160. New York, NY: M.E. Sharpe. Please see pages 151 and 153, respectively.
[3] Interview with Dr. Jamila Moussali, Rabat, May 3, 2011.
[4] Both Mouffe (2000) and Keenan (2003) formulate this criticism of theorists of “deliberative democracy”—especially in the works of its leading figures, Habermas (e.g. and Benhabib (e.g.

Bassam Haddad, Syria, the Arab Uprisings: Causes and Prospects of the Syrian Case

Bassam Haddad is Director of the Middle East Studies Program and teaches in the Department of Public and International Affairs at George Mason University, and is Visiting Professor at Georgetown University. He is the author of Business Networks in Syria: The Political Economy of Authoritarian Resilience (Stanford University Press, 2011). Bassam recently published “The Political Economy of Syria: Realities and Challenges,” in Middle East Policy and is currently editing a volume on Teaching the Middle East After the Arab Uprisings, a book manuscript on pedagogical and theoretical approaches.Bassam serves as Founding Editor of the Arab Studies Journal a peer-reviewed research publication and is co-producer/director of the award-winning documentary film, About Baghdad, and director of a critically acclaimed film series on Arabs and Terrorism, based on extensive field research/interviews. More recently, he directed a film on Arab/Muslim immigrants in Europe, titled The "Other" Threat. Bassam also serves on the Editorial Committee of Middle East Report and is Co-Founder/Editor of Jadaliyya Ezine. He is currently a Visiting Scholar at Stanford's Program for Good Governance and Political Reform in the Arab World. Bassam is the Executive Director of the Arab Studies Institute, an umbrella for four organizations dealing with knowledge production on the Middle East.

This paper examines the causes of the Arab uprisings that have been given short shrift or that have been caricaturized in the deluge of literature on the topic. The emphasis will be on the Syrian case, particularly in terms of the weighted political-economic considerations that have been neglected in some analyses. The stalemate in Syria at the time of writing is indicative of a need for a more nuanced and multifaceted analysis of the causes of the revolt.

Since the Arab uprisings started in Tunisia in December 2010, there have been early attempts to frame them with generic economic arguments about poverty[1] and destitution, with regional comparisons to the case of Syria.[2] Equally, narrow arguments about the uprisings being a reaction to decades of authoritarian rule do not help us to understand why they are occurring now. Finally, the prevalent “social media revolution” narratives[3] merely obscure the important issues at play.

Little attention has been given to the interaction between political and economic variables, and even less to the particularities of every case and their political-economic legacies and trajectories. The urge to see commonality has often clouded both the differences and the analysis of single cases.

A case in point is some of the analysis on Syria. An examination of events in Syria through 2011 can, intentionally or otherwise, elevate “sectarianism” arguments[4] or the “sectarian rule” argument (where the Alawite minority is pitted against the Sunni majority). More nuanced analyses that recognize the inadequacy of the “sectarianism” narrative still fail to highlight that nearly half of Syrian society is itself comprised of minorities,[5] a fact that dilutes the misplaced claim that a small sect rules the majority.

Finally, some leftist intellectuals and policy analysts have raised Syria’s credentials as a powerful regional player, as well as its record of “resistance to imperialism,” to define the struggle at hand.[6]  The fears of some leftist watchdogs and so-called security concerns over the possible alignment with imperial aims often take precedence over, and indeed may inadvertently undermine, the very raison d’être of the uprisings.[7] While regional and international interference clouds the domestic setting and often alters the “conflict,” such factors should nonetheless be integrated into the analysis to reveal the complexity of the Syrian case. They should not simply replace or hijack the essential narrative of the causes of the uprising.

The abovementioned political, economic, revolutionary, and communal arguments often form an amorphous explanatory lens through which the battle on the ground has been interpreted, at least in the mainstream media.[8] Most narratives focus on symptoms rather than on the tangible causes that have driven the confrontation. Most egregiously, much weight is placed on the here and now as opposed to the political and economic context of the last few decades. Thus, analysis has proceeded from the basic binary that pits dictators against democrats, collapsing decades of institutional and strategic relations and contexts into a simplified normative battle. What compounds the analytical fog is the deluge of “knowledge production” in the form of articles, opinion editorials, and books that are responding to a public thirst on all matters related to the uprisings. The uprisings thus became a fad of sorts that will eventually be shattered by counter-revolutionary efforts in the region and beyond—if onlookers continue to pay attention.

Fortunately or not, the Syrian case invites analytical pause as it disrupts the normative binary opposition. It is not that the Syrian regime is not authoritarian or that the sentiment behind the protest is not about freedom. Rather, class, sect, region, institutions, ideology, domestic strategic relations, and foreign relations all come to the fore in creating the ten-month old stalemate there, with no foreseeable exit in sight. However, without identifying the structural causes for the Syrian uprising as well as the strategic relations that continue to hold the regime together, we will be lured and misled by the glitter of the normative aspects of the uprising, even as we conduct our analysis.

[1] Breisinger et al., 2011.
[2] Strategic Research and Communication Centre (SRCC), 2011.
[3] See report authored by University of Washington academics; Howard et al., 2011.
[4] Van Dam, 1996/2011; Seale, 2011.
[5] Again, van Dam’s work has been indicative of the focus on the Alawi and Sunni positions, neglecting other minorities in Syria.
[6] Critiqued by Khalil Issa, Brian Whitaker, and this author as arguments against the anti-authoritarianism protests.  Issa, 2011; Haddad, 2011a; and Whitaker, 2012a.
[7] For one perspective on the regional machinations see Hicham Safieddine.
[8] Agha & Malley, 2011.

Berna Turam, From Inclusion of Islamists to Contestation over Freedoms

Berna Turam is an associate professor of sociology and international affairs at Northeastern University. She is the author of “Between Islam and the State: The Politics of Engagement,” (Stanford University Press, 2007) and the editor of “Secular State and Religious Society: Two Forces at Play in Turkey” (Palgrave McMillan, 2012). Her articles appeared in several journals including British Journal of Sociology, Nations and Nationalism, Journal of Democracy and International Feminist Journal of Politics. She serves in the editorial board of International Journal of Middle East Studies. She has conducted ethnographic field research on everyday interactions between Muslim people and secular states in Turkey, Kazakhstan, Germany and United States. She is currently working on a book, entitled, "Democracy Without Freedom? Urban Space and Political Power from Istanbul to Berlin."

The Arab Spring has brought questions about Turkey’s role and place in the Muslim world to the center stage. On the one hand, Turkey is often idealized as a model of a secular democracy for the rest of the Muslim world. The smooth integration of Islamist actors into the secular state and the free market has established a strong image of a more democratic Turkey. The Justice and Development (AKP) has won three successive elections (2002, 2007, 2011) by increasing its popularity and vote, while also being associated with political reforms, including reduction of military’s hegemony over politics, constitutional amendments and gender reform. On the other hand, however, we hear more and more about Turkey as a divided country whether it is related to freedom violations, issues of minority rights, human and women’s rights, or the ongoing contestations between Muslim and secular politics. Recently, the arrests and unsubstantiated detentions of journalists, academics and university students have peaked. More than one thousand cases are brought to the European court of human rights. It is ironic that a country shifts so rapidly between a model of democracy and a “torn country.” Instead of juxtaposing these two predominant images of Turkey against each other, my work highlights the continuity between them.

On the basis of ethnographic fieldwork, my paper makes two major arguments. First, against the background of antagonistic relationship between the Islamists and the authoritarian states in the Muslim world, the state-Islam interaction in Turkey has shifted from confrontation to “engagement” throughout the 1990s.  Different from the focus on strategic anti-state Islamist mobilization in Turkey and beyond, I point to Islamists’ nationalist sentiments that have largely re-shaped their bonds with the secular state. Hence, I argue that the historically specific linkages between the pious Muslims and the states must be central in analyzing the role of the pious and political Islam in political transition. This point may shed light to the increasing demands for “ahistorical modeling” for Muslim democracies. Second, although Turkey has integrated Islamists into its secular democracy, and “secured” a historically specific secularity of the Turkish state, it is currently going through a major crisis of individual freedoms and civil rights. This is, of course, not surprising, because contrary to the enlightenment thinking, secularism provides little or no guarantee for equal freedom and equal rights for everybody. Hence, I argue that the axis of conflict has shifted from Islamism versus secularism to a battle between the proponents of authoritarianism versus the defenders of freedoms and rights. This new battle does not neatly fit well with the old dichotomy of authoritarian or conservative Islamists versus progressive or liberal secularists. To the contrary, this new conflict over liberties provides a serious challenge to both the pious and the secularists to rethink, contest and negotiate the terms of democracy. Concretely, these contestations create new disagreements and splits not only between the secularists, but also between the pious Muslims. A good example is the occasional tensions and disagreement between the largest and internationally most influential Islamist movement of Turkey, the Gulen movement, and the pro-Islamic AK party in power.

Jonathan Brown, [Salafis in Egypt]

Assistant Professor of Islamic Studies and Muslim Christian Understanding, Georgetown University, and author of Muhammad: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford University Press, 2011), Hadith: Muhammad’s Legacy in the Medieval and Modern World (Oneworld, 2009), and editor of The Oxford Encyclopedia of Islamic Law.Professor Brown’s paper will trace the history of Salafi thought and movements in the contemporary Muslim World and give an account of the apparently astonishing success of Salafis in Egypt in particular.

There is no end to the criticism: Egypt’s Salafis are hypocrites who rode to power on the backs of the revolutionary youth.  In ten months they went from doctrinally politically quietist supporters of the Mubarak regime to the second most powerful block in the new Egypt.  In the process, the leading figures in Egypt’s Salafi movement had advanced from undisciplined, politically inexperienced public relations nightmares to a controlled party structure acutely aware of the sensitivities of the Egyptian electorate.  More dramatic changes are rare, and accusations of opportunism and hypocrisy are understandable.  This paper will explore how the tradition of Salafism allowed this transformation to occur, and how the leading thinkers and politicians of Egypt’s Salafi movement used the tools of that tradition to navigate the revolution and its aftermath.   

Ovamir Anjum, A Non-Muslim Caliph?: Developments and Compromises in Contemporary Islamic Political Discourse

Imam Khattab Endowed Chair of Islamic Studies, University of Toledo. His publications include Politics, Law and Community in Islamic Thought: The Taymiyyan Moment (Cambdridge U. Press, 2012). He has researched contemporary Islamic movements in the Arab World for over a decade and specializes in both classical and modern Islamic political thought. His scholarship examines the challenges Islamic political thought faces in the contemporary era while highlighting the need for Islamic as well as Western scholars to appreciate the depth and variety of political theorization in Islamic tradition, and the power it continues to wield over discourse in the Muslim World.

By examining the discourse of the Wasatiyya (moderation) advocates in the Sunni Muslim World, in particular the global mufti, Shaykh al-Qaradawi, I reflect on the developments in Islamic political thought and ask whether we can speak of any theoretical discontinuities with Islamic traditional discourse in the recent years, in particular in the explanations and justifications of the Arab Spring. I show that Islamic discourse has reversed the demands of liberalization, which would have required reducing Islam’s role in politics and government to procedures or, at the most, thin principles. Instead, this discourse has on the whole embraced democracy in its thin, procedural form, while rejecting liberalism. While in theory al-Qaradawi has ceded little ground, in their politics, the liberal tendency in the Ikhwan has seemed willing to compromise to some extent, pruning some of Islam’s specific precepts, but this compromise has been checked by the rise of the Salafis in Egypt, whose increasing political pull has changed Ikhwan and other moderates’ or compromisers’ calculations. The only significant theoretical break with Islamic tradition that has emerged among the liberal Islamist cirlces in the recent years, one especially popular in the wake of the post-revolution politics, is the idea that an “Islamic State”--the idea itself being unproblematic--is now be ruled by institutions, not individuals, and the personal beliefs or piety of the individuals being irrelevant, thus allowing a non-Muslim to be the head of an Islamic State. Considering the current state and direction of Islamic usul al-fiqh, I ask whether this idea is likely to survive discursive scrutiny.

Najla Abdurrahman, Libya

Ph.D. student, Columbia University. She works on Islamic law, cultural theory, and post-colonial studies. In addition, she has written on Islamist groups in Libya, and has been published on Al-Jazeera and Foreign Policy. 

This paper will attempt to sketch the historical relationship, broadly speaking, between Islam and state politics in Libya. It will begin, briefly, at the turn of the 20th century with the decline of Ottoman hegemony in the region, and move through the colonial period, the Sanusi monarchy, and finally the jamahiriyya of Colonel Mu'ammar al-Qadhdhafi, which came to an end in August of 2011. It will identify key cultural structures and processes, as well as critical social and political transformations, which have acted to produce a singular political experience in Libya, one that has differed remarkably from the experiences of her neighbors to the east and to the west.  Among these processes were the impact of an Ottoman inspired pan-Islamist ethos on the development of an Islamic anti-colonial consciousness, one which preceded and heavily informed the imagination and construction of a subsequent Libyan national consciousness; a relatively brief colonial period which, while dramatically transforming political and institutional structures, did not impart on Libyan society a significant western, cultural influence akin to the linguistic and cultural legacy left by French colonialism on the francophone Maghrib; the role of religious groups like the Sanusiyya in legitimating early forms of political authority; the effective absence of prominent and explicitly secular currents akin to those found in Tunisia and Egypt; deep social and structural problems generated by four decades of a particularly repressive, at times Orwellian, form of authoritarianism; and the consistent suppression of even the most rudimentary forms of civil society—and consequently, of an active and robust public sphere— particularly during the jamahiriyya period.

A second objective of this paper will be to engage recent scholarship on secularism, as well as to identify some commonly employed models and definitions of “political Islam” or “Islamism.” It will be argued that the oft-deployed yet theoretically impoverished secularism/Islamism binary, apart from constituting a disquieting oversimplification of the political dynamics and potentialities of Muslim states in general, is not a useful analytic tool for understanding or describing the relationship between Islam and politics in Libyan society in particular, or for making predictions about the future of state politics in that country. Underlying this binary is an even more fundamentally flawed dichotomy, which Asad, Calhoun, Casanova and others have problematized in recent years, namely, the commonly accepted secularism/religion binary. Calhoun (2010), for instance, has argued that such sharp differentiations can impede thoughtful analysis by distorting or obscuring, among other things, “the ways in which religious people engage the temporal world,” as well as the ways in which institutional structures like the state can influence how religion as a category is constructed and understood.[1] Though primarily Eurocentric in scope, the implications of such scholarship can be fruitfully applied to the analysis of complex processes in Muslim states which govern the relationship between religion and politics, above and beyond the reductionist approaches frequently employed.

Regrettably, the well-attested absence of stable political and institutional structures in post-revolutionary Libya has engendered a number of political, economic, administrative, communicative and security challenges, which not only undermine the potential for successful state building, but also render it exceedingly difficult to make predictions about future political trajectories. It remains abundantly clear, however, that Islamic principles, rhetoric, values, and semiotics are so pervasive and, arguably, accepted in Libyan culture and political discourse, that an extrication of Islam from politics at this point in time would be inconceivable. Indeed, the boundaries between the political views of some prominent Libyan figures whom western observers have designated “Islamists” and others whom they've chosen to label as “secularists,” I would argue, are much fuzzier than such a neat distinction would suggest, and between these two problematic categories lies a wide gradation of opinions. Rather than speculating about whether Libya will pursue an “Islamist” or a “secular” political program, I propose that future research should refocus the question by asking: in what forms, and to what extent, will (or should) Islamic principles and institutional forms be incorporated into nascent political structures and processes in Libya, and what political configurations might this synthesis yield?

1.       [1]           Calhoun, Craig. "Rethinking Secularism." The Hedgehog Review (2010): 47.