Ideological rigour and practical flexibility in post-2011 political Islam

This article was published in Oasis 27. Read the table of contents

Last update: 2022-04-22 09:56:54

Rethinking Political Islam.jpgReview of Shadi Hamid & William McCants (eds.), Rethinking Political Islam (Oxford University Press, New York, 2017)


One of the most evident (although initially unexpected) consequences of the 2010-2011 Arab revolutions has been the fleeting success of political Islam, both in its gradualist, institutional variant and its revolutionary jihadist one. Thus, although Islamism is one of the phenomena most investigated by Middle Eastern Studies scholars, a fine-tuning was needed after the developments in recent years. This is what Shadi Hamid and William McCants have done, in a project promoted and financed by the Brookings Institution, resulting in the volume Rethinking Political Islam. Analysing twelve case studies ranging from North Africa to Southeast Asia, the book addresses the changes that have occurred in the Islamist constellation following the “double shock” of President Morsi’s toppling in Egypt and the rise of ISIS in Syria and Iraq. Entrusted to scholars and experts on the subject, this overview is then followed by the perspective of some militant Islamists, who offer an interesting vision from the inside. Some of the cases covered constitute a separate history in themselves: For example, the case discussed by Steve Brooke, who describes the dismantling of the network of social institutions created by the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt; or that of South-East Asia, where, as Joseph Chinyong Liow demonstrates, the demand for society’s Islamization is a cross-party one.


Generally, however, it is trends common to all the contexts that emerge: the dialectic between ideological rigorism and adaptation to the constraints imposed by the various political systems, the tension between haraka (movement) and hizb (political party) within the various Islamist organizations, the need to dissociate from the experience of one of the few cases of a realized Islamic state after the rise of ISIS, and the development of organizational structures capable of resisting suppression.


In their introduction, Hamid and McCants write that, “Islamist are not likely to become liberals; otherwise, what would be the point? Islamist are Islamists for a reason, after all, and being religiously oriented is one of the sources of their popular support. […] We do not have to like Islamists, but we do need to understand them, particularly in light of a rapidly changing social and political context in the Middle East and Asia” (pp. 3, 13). For all their relevance, these methodological considerations neglect an aspect that emerged clearly enough right after the 2011 uprisings and that the various essays help (albeit implicitly) to confirm i.e. the fact that the Islamist parties are still miles away from achieving a balance between their own totalizing ideology and the compromises that political action requires. This is demonstrated by both the Egyptian and the Tunisian cases, despite their opposite outcomes. In the former, when the Muslim Brothers seized power, they probably deluded themselves into believing that they had finally achieved their hegemonic plan. In the latter, conversely, the Ennahda party chose the road of an arrangement with the existing system but at the price of a significant loss of both consensus and ability to steer the political process.


In an essay rather provocatively entitled “Do Islamists have an Intellectual Deficit?”, Ovamir Anjum traces these difficulties back to the theoretical weakness of Islamist thought, stating that the “moderate” Islamists “have been devoid of a well-grounded vision of Islamic politics,” that is, “a vision backed by a densely elaborated discursive tradition.” This deficiency for Anjum “appears to be taxing Islamists’ ability to deliver the goods they promise and prevent radicalization” (p. 300). It is right and proper that academia does its bit, but perhaps it is also the Islamists’ responsibility to rethink themselves.