RECOMMENDED READING: "Where Now for Islamists?"


Amr Hamzawy, a Carnegie Endowment scholar, has published an article in Al Ahram Weekly, in which he argues that the political failure of Islamist/Muslim Brotherhood movements in the Arab world may push such groups to toward violent action. Hamzaway opens his analysis with a synopsis of recent political developments in Egypt, Jordan, Kuwait, and Bahrain:

For opposition movements in the Arab world, the costs of participating in political life are high and returns low. This lesson is currently being driven home with consummate clarity to many moderate Islamist trends. Regardless of the differences in form, framework and duration of the participatory experiences of the Moroccan Justice and Development Party, the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and in Jordan, the Kuwaiti Constitutional Islamist Movement, and the Bahraini Wefaq National Islamic Society, the payback on political participation has not lived up to the expectations of the leaders of these groups or their extensive grassroots bases. The Islamists had hoped that by means of participation they could break through the barriers of restricted political plurality and bring about true reform and the redistribution of power between ruling elites and opposition movements, but they failed. They had pushed for constitutional and legislative amendments intended to increase the powers of legislative institutions with respect to the executive and to institute effective systems of checks and balances, but they failed in this too. Some had sought — again unsuccessfully — to overcome a history of conflict with intellectual elites and form flexible alliances with non-religious opposition movements, whereas others remained captive to black-and- white, good-versus-evil ideological approaches to politics. The moderate Islamists also wanted to expand the scope of religion in the public sphere and to establish an organic link between the Islamisation of society and political participation. The consequence of this was that political elites severed their connection with Islamist proselytising and charity activities, which form the backbone of the Islamist social role and the mainstay of their popular and electoral bases. It simultaneously led to attacks from non-politicised Islamist (basically fundamentalist) forces that accused them of pragmatism with the implied charge of straying from the true faith and Islamic law.The poor payback for the political participation of Islamist moderates, which can no longer be ignored in light of their electoral losses in some countries (in Jordan in 2007 and in Kuwait in 2008) and their steadily deteriorating circumstances in others (the Muslim Brotherhood- government conflict in Egypt and attempts to marginalise and undermine the Justice and Development Party in Morocco), places them face to face with three major challenges that already appear to be under discussion among some Islamist trends and the response to which will most likely set the future course for the evolution of these currents.

Hamazwy then outlines three challenges facing the affect groups:

The first major challenge is for moderate Islamist leaders to come up with new arguments capable of convincing their popular bases of the need to persist in participatory politics as an indispensable long-term strategy in spite of poor paybacks in the short run.

Moderate Islamist movements are, secondly, faced with the ongoing challenge of finding a sustainable and practical balance between the requirements of political participation and the demands of ideological commitment.

The third challenge facing moderate Islamist movements is to rethink the substance of the relationship between their proselytising and political components and, accordingly, to devise the best possible structures for organising them institutionally.

Finally, Hamazwy sounds the warning that political failures are leading to a reassessment by what he calls moderate Islamists:

Critical contemplation of the significance of separating proselytising from political activities in Islamist movements coincides with another important development. An echo from the past has begun to resound with increasing force and frequency. A call, harkening back to the Muslim Brotherhood’s founder Hassan El-Banna, appeals for abandoning politics and returning to proselytising work with the aim of changing society from the bottom up. In other words, failures in attempts at political participation have reopened internal Islamist debate on the best approaches and means to effect change. The danger, here, is whether growing scepticism surrounding political participation could shake the commitment of moderate Islamists to peaceful change.

The logical question here is whether or not the label “moderate” is appropriate for groups who contemplate violence when faced with political failure.

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