Islamism: Contextualist or Essentialist? Or Both?

Islamism: Contextualist or Essentialist? Or Both?

In an excellent review of Shadi Hamid and Will McCants’ Rethinking Political Islam, Olivier Roy says there are generally two ways to think about Islamism.

Writing in Foreign Affairs, he first briefly introduces three important shockwaves—the Arab Spring, the fall of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, and the emergence of Islamic State (ISIS)—that have affected the debate.

As Hamid and McCants write, “After decades speculating on what Islamists would do when they came to power, analysts, academics—and Islamists themselves—finally have an answer. And it is confusing.”

The confusion tends to be filtered into analysis based on one’s predisposition.

There is a contextual approach, as Roy explains: “The policies and practices of Islamist movements are driven less by ideology than by events and sees such groups as reactive and adaptive.” He elaborates:

Contextualists believe that Islamist groups seek to adapt to circumstances and country-specific norms (for example, by recognizing the monarchies in Jordan and Morocco). The groups’ main goal is to survive as coherent organizations and political actors. And their use of religious rhetoric is often little more than “Muslim-speak”—a way to express a unique identity and articulate grievances, especially against the West.

There is also an essentialist approach: “Islamists are fundamentally ideological and that any concessions they make to secularist principles or institutions are purely tactical.”

A corollary to this argument is the idea—extolled by critics of Islamism but also some of its adherents—that Islamic theology recognizes no separation between religion and politics, and therefore an authentic Islamist cannot renounce his ideological agenda in favor of a more pragmatic or democratic approach.

The presentation is skillful, and after researching Islamist movements and parties across the Muslim world, Roy offers a conclusion:

The aftermath of the Arab revolts of 2010-11 have not supplied a clear verdict in the debate between the contextualist and essentialist camps. But as Rethinking Political Islam demonstrates, a preponderance of the evidence supports the contextualist side. “Democracy,” Hamid and McCants write, “empowers and encourages all parties, Islamist or otherwise, to seek the center, wherever that may be.”

Tunisia is the best example, Roy explains, with Egyptian democracy jettisoned not by Islamists but by popular endorsement of the military backed by a semi-secular, Salafi coalition. The Brotherhood is faulted for overreach, and their loss of popularity is noted. But their behavior was dictated by a contextualist approach to power, not overriding ideological convictions.

I cannot comment on the scope of their research, though I note similar findings in an earlier post on Asian Islamism. But as concerns Egypt, I tend to disagree.

After early appeals to the center did not result in cooperation, the Brotherhood turned quickly to embrace the even more conservative Salafis as political partners. Their mobilization for their Islamist-tinged constitution issued the call: Sharia and Legitimacy. Their condemnation of anti-Morsi protests was deeply sectarian.

No doubt there were many contextual considerations, and maybe the above represents “Muslim-speak,” as the article notes. But political rhetoric is nearly as important as political policy, and reinforces ideology even if at times it is put aside.

But as concerns Tunisia, in nuancing the decision of Tunisia’s Islamist Ennahda Party to split the political group and the social movement, Roy nearly acknowledges undermining the argument.

Ennahda speaks of their decision as the emergence of “Muslim Democrats,” akin to the Christian Democratic parties of Europe. Though, Roy counters:

But the comparison only goes so far. From the mid-1940s until the mid-1970s, Christian democratic parties found ways to secularize what had been primarily religious values in order to better reach out to an ever more secular electorate… But even though these parties still survive (and even thrive in Germany), there is no Christian democratic social movement equivalent to the ones that Ennahda and other Islamist groups see as crucial to their missions… In Europe, secularism triumphed not only in the political realm but also in the social one: after World War II, Western countries drifted further and further away from traditional Christian views, especially on matters relating to sexuality, gender, and the family. In this sense, it’s striking that Ghannouchi [Ennahda’s leader] and other mainstream Islamists would encourage comparisons to Christian democrats, who hardly seem to present a model of success by Islamist standards.

I humbly offer that it is striking as evidence better fitting with the essentialist viewpoint. The author is correct, the comparison fails—in all but its rhetorical value, especially to a skeptical West.

Perhaps I am wrong. If I had studied Tunisia as well as the authors have, I might better see if Ennahda is taking pains to reorient their followers not to the administrative division, but to the ideological change. They have divided the party from the movement; have they divided politics from religion?

There is no absolute democratic reason to do so; the authors note the American model vis-à-vis the French. But is this now what Ennahda believes in? Perhaps. They have signed on to the constitution, noted as the most secular in the Arab world. Is their support for now, or forever?

It is the orientation program of Islamist groups that must answer this question. In Egypt, the Muslim Brotherhood develops members who are rigorously enculturated and vetted according to their traditional ideology, with Hassan al-Banna and Sayyid Qutb still among foundational material. This ideology later enshrined a strong commitment to peaceful political and social engagement, as opposed to violent, jihad-oriented Islamists. But it was hardly secular.

Early in the Arab Spring, the Brotherhood issued a book it sold publicly at its events Entitled Who are We and What do We Want?, it told the people their agenda.

Their goals include:

Fourth, a Muslim government, which will lead the people to prayer and the guidance of Islam, as did the Companions of the Prophet and the caliphs Abu Bakr and Omar. We recognize no system of government that does not emerge from the foundation of Islam. We recognize no political parties or traditional forms which the infidels and enemies of Islam have forced upon us. We will work to revive the Islamic system of rule in all its forms, and we will shape an Islamic government from this system…

Seventh, we desire to announce our call to the whole world, and to cause every tyrant to submit to it, so that there is no sedition and all of religion is for God.

As the document states: “Doctrine is everything in Islam.”

Are Tunisian Islamists reforming their curriculum? This is the evidence needed, not the vagaries of political maneuvering.

I would propose there is a third approach that holds the two together: Islamist movements are ideological, which includes a commitment to the contextual. Why divide?

Islamist groups are also a spectrum. ISIS cares little for context; perhaps Ennahda is the most flexible in ideology. Roy emphasizes the book seeks to describe “mainstream Islamists,” with jihadis excluded. Ennahda should be held at one end, not championed as the example. Praise them, certainly, if this is what you wish Islamists to become, to best fit into our image, and the world.

But be very careful in downplaying ideology, and Turkey is the worrisome caution. Held once as the model for Islamist political engagement, Erdogan creeps closer to his sometimes-forgotten phrase while mayor of Istanbul: “Democracy is like a train; once you reach your destination you get off.”

Of course, we are still living in history as it develops. Muslim-speak is possible, as there is always hypocrisy in politics. Conspiracies are possible, as there is always interference in politics. Ennahda may go the way of Europe; Erdogan may go the way of Franklin D. Roosevelt.

Therefore, the author’s opening analysis is best: “After decades speculating on what Islamists would do when they came to power, analysts, academics—and Islamists themselves—finally have an answer. And it is confusing.”

Within confusion, don’t part and parcel. Seek the whole. Context and ideology. Understand Islamists in their complexity. This is the analysis they are due.

Jayson Casper is a journalist resident in Cairo. Every week he offers Friday Prayers for Egypt, invites all to pray along, and hopes it makes a difference.

Photo Credit: Mosque in Tunisia. By Tarek, via Flickr.

Enjoyed the article? Keep Providence going!

  • This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.