Review: The Islamists Are Coming

The Islamists Are ComingThe Islamists Are Coming: Who They Really Are is a compilation of essays edited by Robin Wright that examines the backgrounds, worldviews, and positions on political, economic and social issues of Islamist political parties across the Middle East and North Africa. The success of Islamists in elections indicates that these parties enjoy support from large sections of the Arab world. Although Islamists did not initiate the “Arab Spring” or participate in the early protests, they are now using this democratic awakening in the region to acquire power. The implications of Islamists gaining political power in more Arab countries are considerable.

Many issues divide Islamists, including anti-usury banking laws, bans on alcohol, relations with Western governments, and the rights of religious minorities and women. Indeed, the depth of these divisions makes it difficult to associate the label “Islamism” with any specific ideology. Nonetheless, certain trends do exist within most Islamist parties. One is the move away from militancy, terrorism, and radical ideology toward increased political pragmatism, renunciation of violence, and willingness to participate in democratic systems of government alongside non-Islamist parties. Aside from Hezbollah and Hamas, none of these Islamist parties has an armed wing, nor do any call for confrontation with the United States or war with Israel. Essentially all have condemned al-Qaeda and other jihadi extremists.

Most Arab Islamist movements have been influenced, albeit to different extents, by three historical events – the Iranian Revolution (1979), the mujahedeen war against the Soviet Union in Afghanistan (1979-1989), and the Algerian Civil War (1992-1999). The Iranian Revolution demonstrated that a popular revolt, under the banner of Islam, against a Western-backed dictator could triumph. The Afghan war proved that militant Islamists could successfully resist the invasion of Muslim land by a non-Muslim state. As a result of the Afghan experience, many Arabs returned to their home country to spread their ideology, often through violence. Lastly, the parliamentary elections in Algeria that precipitated the Algerian Civil War proved that Islamists could win democratic elections. However, Islamist parties learned a valuable lesson from the Islamic Salvation Front’s experience in Algeria. Overwhelming success at the ballot box could create paranoia within the international community and antagonize the state’s secular institutions. Gradual ascendance within the democratic system made for shrewd politics.

Most importantly, Islamist parties that do acquire power will maintain legitimacy only through successful economic and governance policies, not implementing Sharia law or invoking the caliphate. Rather than discussing morality, Islamists will need to propose models for job creation, increased foreign direct investment and lower inflation. Whether the Islamists’ economic agendas, which paradoxically yoke neo-liberal capitalism with social justice, can succeed remains an open question. However, the contributors to this work concur that the economic performance of the Islamists will determine their political fate.

Much of the opposition to Islamists comes from religious minorities, women, and strong secularists who are skeptical of Islamist claims to support a democratic system of government that ensures equal rights for all citizens. Anti-Islamists often argue that Islamists make these claims to win democratic elections, but, once in power will not permit future elections and they will work to create an Islamic state with a strict interpretation of the Sharia imposed. The Islamists’ ambiguous, contradictory, and vague language on these social issues contributes to their critics’ skepticism. The degree to which Islamists are truly dedicated to democracy remains another open question.

Lastly, the Salafi question is important. Traditionally, Salafis have been the most conservative Islamists yet have refrained from entering politics. Many Salafis have voiced opposition to challenging any regime, even if secular or pro-Western, if it is led by a Muslim. However, in the wake of the “Arab Spring” the Salafis have entered politics and taken uncompromisingly conservative stances on social issues and voiced opposition to democratic systems of government. The Tunisian Salafis have called for mandatory veil laws in universities and public office. Egypt’s al-Nour Party seeks to deny religious freedom to Egypt’s Bahá’í community and prohibit any Egyptian Christian from holding the presidency. The Islamic Salafi Alliance of Kuwait and Al Asalah of Bahrain oppose female participation in government. Whether or not these groups should be banned (as in Tunisia and Morocco) or “brought into the tent” (as in Egypt and Kuwait) remains a point of contention.

The Arab world’s future is far from predictable. However, most experts concur that democratic openings will empower Islamists, regardless of their nature. The Islamists Are Coming: Who They Really Are enables us to better understand the environment in which these parties operate and the challenges they face in the 21st century.

Giorgio Cafiero is a contributor to Foreign Policy In Focus.