The Arab Spring, it was suggested, would lead to an Islamist Winter, culminating in the unification of Muslim Brotherhood movements from Morocco to Yemen and the restoration of the caliphate.
This rhetoric was ramped up in the aftermath of the July 2013 military coup in Egypt that overthrew the Muslim Brotherhood’s Mohamed Morsi, the country’s first ever democratically elected president.
Some supporters of General Abdel Fattah El-Sisi, who assumed power in Egypt’s restored authoritarian state, argued that the coup saved Egypt – and possibly the region – from the consolidation of Islamist rule.
Much of the analysis of Islamist movements and their role in Arab societies in recent years reflects a chronic lack of contextualisation in favor of a simplistic approach that assesses them purely through their commitment to democracy or their propensity to endorse violence.
But if political leaders and policymakers wish to develop constructive strategies to contend with the presence of these deeply rooted trends within their societies, a more meaningful understanding of the history and evolution of Islamism is necessary.
The state-centred historical narrative of the Middle East during the 19th century follows secular reformers who instituted European modernisation policies within their own societies.
Modernisers from Mustafa Rashid Pasha in the Ottoman Empire to Muhammad Ali in Egypt launched efforts to reform their militaries, legal codes, education systems and taxation policies, among other things.
Quite often these policies continued under the auspices of colonial rule by British and French administrators. Given Europe’s changing relationship with the role of religion in its own societies and its historical hostility to Islam in particular, it was no surprise that some religious practices were marginalised in Muslim societies undergoing modernisation.
Adding to these pressures, the rise of modern institutions of governance ensured that states exercised far greater control over the lives of their citizens than ever before. Reformers such as Muhammad Abduh confronted these developments by adapting traditional Islamic institutions to the challenges of modern life.
Though he was a senior Azhari scholar and rose to become Mufti of Egypt at the turn of the century, Abduh represented a minority of religious officials, many of whom tended to hold to classical interpretations of Islamic law.
However, Abduh’s disciples carried forward his legacy, with some forming the core of Egypt’s nationalist movement and others continuing to agitate for a greater representation of Islamic values in a rapidly changing society, especially after the 1924 abolition of the caliphate, the symbol of religious and political authority in the Islamic world that had stood for 13 centuries.
With the opening up of political space during the interwar period, the Muslim Brotherhood positioned itself as a movement that preached social reforms supporting the country’s continued modernisation while adhering to Islamic principles.
At a time when there appeared an increasing divide between the country’s political and religious elites and the latter seemed incapable of challenging their effective marginalisation, Hassan al-Banna, founder of the Muslim Brotherhood, believed that ordinary people could advocate on behalf of their religious ideals.
As such, the Muslim Brotherhood was not a traditional movement from a bygone era. Far from it. It maintained an intricate structure with elected representatives at various levels of the organisational hierarchy.
Even as his movement used Islamic terminologies for its various institutions, it functioned much like a community association or a political party. Although Banna criticised the partisanship of Egypt’s liberal political experiment, he nevertheless stood in parliamentary elections on multiple occasions.
His followers continued to advocate for a political and socioeconomic order that reflected Islamic ethical values. They pushed for censorship of objectionable content in books and films, lobbied banks to forgo the use of interest, and demanded that parliament be required to pass laws only in accordance with Islamic legal principles.
By the late 1940s, when Egypt’s political process had become increasingly fractured, the Muslim Brotherhood was one of many frustrated groups, including liberals, leftists and fascists, that resorted to street violence.
In 1949, security forces assassinated Banna in retaliation for the killing of a state official for which his supporters were held responsible.
Throughout the second half of the 20th century, as many Arab states transformed into secular military dictatorships, social movements of all ideological stripes were largely repressed.
Islamist movements were considered the most threatening to many Arab rulers and their foreign sponsors for a number of reasons.
Because they appealed to a deeper sense of religious identity, Islamists were thought to have consistently undermined the narrower and more artificially constructed secular nationalism promoted by regimes within their societies.
The agendas of Islamist movements were also diametrically opposed to the aims of the states they sought to influence, from the calls for democratisation and religiously inspired reforms to the demands for a foreign policy that challenged foreign intervention in the region and promoted solidarity with oppressed Muslim populations.
Many Islamist groups were also singled out for persecution owing to a perception – in many cases a self-fulfilling one – that they would challenge the state militarily. Sayyid Qutb’s impassioned contribution to the ideological development of Islamist thought during the 1960s endorsed a more confrontational approach to the excesses of state repression, though it stopped short of explicit endorsement of militant violence.
For Qutb’s part in the escalation of Islamist rhetoric against military rule, the regime of Gamal Abdel Nasser executed him in 1966. In sharp contrast to the mainline Islamism promoted by the Muslim Brotherhood and its regional offshoots, some of Qutb’s supporters would go on to develop a vision of Islamist activism that rejected the notion of gradual reform through existing state institutions.
Instead, they sought to develop a truly transnational movement that overturned these structures – through militant violence if need be – in favour of purely Islamic order. Spurred on by the Afghan jihad in the 1980s, this trend found currency in rallying disaffected youth to confront foreign intervention and domestic repression from the mid-1990s.
While relatively small in number, jihadists represent a significant counterpoint to the gradual reformism and state-centred activism of mainline Islamism and continue to find currency in parts of the region, such as Syria and Iraq, suffering from military conflict and the collapse of functional state institutions.
The lesson from the latter half of the 20th century is that ideology does not tell us the full story, and the undue emphasis on it risks leading analysts to draw the wrong conclusions.
The evolution of Islamist movements cannot be divorced from their local political and social contexts.
Long before the Syrian branch of the Muslim Brotherhood led an armed insurrection against the brutal regime of Hafez al-Assad in the early 1980s, it regularly participated in the Syrian political process during the brief opening, allowing it to compete for parliamentary representation.
In Sudan, the movement led by scholar and activist Hassan al-Turabi alternately pursued its mission through appeals to popular mobilisation and supporting the military’s takeover of power, as in the 1989 coup led by Omar al-Bashir. Both approaches were justified by necessity and circumstance.
In the Palestinian context, Islamists had long conserved their energies for the inward practice of dawa, or religious preaching within their communities, as opposed to confronting the question of Israel’s continued occupation.
But seeing their stock within Palestinian society remain low as compared with liberal and leftist currents, by the late 1980s Palestinian Islamists resolved to join the struggle for national liberation, eventually adopting the path of armed struggle.
The Kuwaiti branch of the Muslim Brotherhood incurred the ire of many of its sister movements around the region when it endorsed the American-led intervention to liberate Kuwait from the Iraqi occupation that followed Saddam Hussein’s invasion in 1990.
In Jordan, the movement historically positioned itself as an ally of the Hashemite monarchy. Until recently, the Jordanian Muslim Brotherhood enjoyed relatively good relations with the state, being careful to distance itself from the more ambitious political objectives of movements in neighbouring countries.
In spite of its historic conflict with the regime in Egypt, by the end of this era the Muslim Brotherhood had managed to carve for itself a crucial place within Egyptian society.
It offered essential social services, such as schools and clinics, while continuing to press the government for democratic reforms.
To quell rising domestic and international pressure, the regime of Hosni Mubarak eventually paved the way for the Muslim Brotherhood, formally a banned organisation in Egypt, to send its members into the People’s Assembly, allotting it 88 seats in the 2005 parliamentary elections.
The Arab Spring and beyond
By the eve of the Arab uprisings, most Islamist movements across the region had adopted a reformist, state-centred approach to their activism.
They situated themselves purely within the context of their respective national politics, a far cry from Banna’s original universalist mission and pan-Islamic outlook.
As newly founded Islamist parties in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya vied for votes in a nascent democratic order, it became increasingly apparent that these movements would have to continue to adapt to their rapidly changing landscapes or risk becoming relics of a bygone era of oppositional politics in the Arab world.
Not only did the toppling of one dictator after another free Islamist groups to fully embrace the state institutions that they had spent decades criticising, they also incorporated nationalist slogans and symbols into their programmes.
The Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party (FJP) featured the playing of the Egyptian national anthem at all major functions it held after its formation in February 2011, while Egyptian flags were also visible at every occasion.
The Ennahda Party in Tunisia had already distinguished itself years earlier by adopting a decidedly democratic platform that focused on promoting a pluralistic political system in its local context, in contrast to other Islamist movements.
However, in the years since the fall of Zine El Abidine Ben Ali’s regime in Tunisia, Ennahda has further developed its unique model for the next era of Islamist political activism.
At its tenth party congress last May, Ennahda’s Rachid al-Ghannouchi announced that the movement was formally splitting its traditional social mission and religious preaching from its political party.
As the party’s leaders proudly declared, they were becoming “Muslim Democrats”, an allusion to the Christian Democratic parties that dot the landscape of European political systems.
Ennahda’s announcement represents a crucial acknowledgement that there was simply no place for the old model mid-20th-century Islamic activism in today’s world.
It also faced internal hostility for depriving group members of the freedom to form their own political preferences. Morsi’s candidacy, which reversed a promise by Muslim Brotherhood leaders not to field a presidential candidate in the 2012 elections, was in large part a response to the candidacy of Abdel Moneim Abul Futuh, a former Muslim Brotherhood leader who left the group to launch his own political career.
In the aftermath of the coup in Egypt, reformist figures within the Muslim Brotherhood have grown more vocal about the need to sever the organisation’s political activism from its missionary work.
Such a measure, they contend, would preserve the “purity” of the group’s social mission from the muddy waters of national politics.
Similar efforts have been quietly under way by Islamist parties across the Arab world.
What is truly ironic is that, as Islamist parties gradually acquire a more “secular” outlook to their interpretation of the needs of contemporary democratic politics, several authoritarian rulers have increasingly begun to employ traditional Islamic arguments to justify their hold on power.
Ali Gomaa, the former Grand Mufti of Egypt and a vocal supporter of the Sisi regime’s brutal crackdown on civilians, has routinely been called upon to justify the emergence of a new authoritarianism in Egypt as the fulfillment of a traditional requirement of classical Islamic jurisprudence to promote political stability and obedience to one’s ruler.
These pronouncements by Gomaa and a coterie of official jurists across the region signify that the debate around Islam and politics has come full circle.
The perceived failure of the state’s religious establishment to represent the aspirations of believers in the face of tyranny inspired Banna to launch his movement nearly a century ago.
But over the course of the past decade, Islamist groups have abandoned “Islam is the solution” as a simplistic catchphrase in favour of an emphasis on particular values that their evolving interpretation of Islam promotes: freedom, consultative governance and justice.
Indeed, the challenges that the latest iteration of Islamist activism faces are the same ones that confront political parties of all ideological stripes, namely, how to ensure that governments represent the interests of the majority of their citizens at a time when more people face the dangers of vast economic inequality and lack basic rights of freedom and security than at any other time in the recent past.
*Abdullah Al-Arian is an assistant professor of History at Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service in Qatar. He received his doctorate in History from Georgetown University, where he wrote his dissertation on the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt during the decade of the 1970s. He is co-editor of the Critical Currents in Islam page on the Jadaliyya e-zine. He is also a frequent contributor to the Al-Jazeera English network and website.
(Published in Al-Jazeera on Saturday, September 3, 2016)