Islamisation and the future of the Islamic world

When Islamic groups command the legislative and executive powers in a country, the Islamisation of society takes centre stage. Young, enthusiastic, and ideologically driven members want rapid moves: clear legislations, conspicuous political positions, and social policies to reflect what they consider to be their ‘victory’.

After a sojourn of circa two centuries, socio-political Islam is coming back to dominate a rapidly increasing number of societies. Almost all elections, that could credibly be described as free, that took place in the Arab world since the onset of ‘the Arab Spring’, resulted in impressive showings by political parties or groups with conspicuous Islamic backgrounds. In Iran, Pakistan, and to some extent, Indonesia, political Islam has been the dominant force in local politics for decades. Political Islam has also been on the ascendancy in the past decade in Turkey, Nigeria, as well as in the large Muslim communities in Europe and the US.

The intensity of passion - and violence - that the world saw last month across different parts of the Islamic word compel observers to reflect on how this current wave of Islamisation will shape the future of the Islamic world.

The ascent of political Islam was a function of different variables, of which the swelling and deepening ‘Islamisation’ of many Arab and non-Arab societies in the past three decades has been a crucial factor. From Casablanca, Algiers, Cairo, Khartoum, Damascus, Baghdad, Istanbul, Tehran, Jakarta, to Islamabad, the number of mosques mushroomed; Islamic groups regularly led universities’ student unions, municipalities, professional syndicates, and labour associations; Islamic symbols became increasingly manifest in most walks of life; groups that define themselves as “Islamic” (though with varying interpretations of what “Islamic” actually connotes) significantly expanded their presence, typically moving from preaching and proselytising to building economic infrastructures, in many cases crisscrossing different countries.

And gradually the swelling Islamisation cascaded over how vast segments of these societies identified themselves – not abruptly moving from the traditional national distinctiveness to broader Islamic identities, but merging the national with the Islamic. I use the plural in ‘identities’ because these Islamic characterisations neither conformed to a specific set of values nor converged round a unique and distinct body of morals. And yet, they all revolved around affinity with old, early Islamic communities, a shared loyalty to a vague sense of ‘a nation’, and, at heart, certainty in the Islamic belief system that sets apart Muslims from all non-Muslims, including those who share one nationality.

Four reasons underpin the current rise of political Islam. First: the major political Islamic movements have evolved their narrative over the past fifteen years. They have moved beyond the rejectionist positioning that had characterised the period from the 1960s to the 1990s; discarded the exclusive loyalty to the Islamic Ummah (nation); and adopted progressive positions: their social narrative became more tolerant (especially to the new fads dominating young Muslims’ social lives), and they developed multiple loyalties – accepting allegiance to nation states (and not only to the Ummah), recognising the notion of ‘citizenry’, and agreeing to work through national elections – as opposed to theological hierarchies. Second: most political Islamic movements built bottom up socio-economic infrastructures that proved extremely effective at entrenching their presence in electoral constituencies; this has been very conspicuous in Egypt and Morocco, but the same phenomenon, under different guises, took place in Turkey, Indonesia, and in different Muslim communities in Europe. Third: they faced very limited competition; with the sole exception of Turkish nationalism, not a single alternative ideology tried to take religion out of public life – even in relatively liberal societies such as those of Egypt, Tunisia, Syria, and Lebanon. In addition, their competitors – the secular regimes that ruled many parts of the Islamic world in the past seven decades had descended into scandalous levels of corruption and a blur between power and wealth that has significantly diluted their legitimacy. The fourth factor was economics. The gradual withdrawal of many governments in the Islamic world from the provisioning of services and their replacement with unorganised social infrastructures, many of which were funded and controlled by different Islamic movements; and the immigration of tens of millions of Muslims to the Gulf and the corresponding changes in the composition of the middle classes in the societies that these immigrants had left - led to the strengthening of the Islamic narrative in general and the weakening of ‘nationalism’. These reasons gradually shifted the loyalty of these countries’ middle (and lower middle) classes from the traditionally ruling secular power elites to the Islamic movements. Today, to varying degrees across the largest Islamic societies, the social base of political Islamism extends widely beyond the poor and the disfranchised.

But socio-political Islamism is not a homogenous entity. Over the past decade, the leaders of Islamist movements in Egypt, Tunisia, Morocco, Kuwait, and elsewhere published manifestos that accept the principles of political pluralism and the notion of ‘a modern state’ that does not correspond directly to Islamic jurisprudence. The Islamic movements in Turkey and Pakistan were pioneers in enshrining secular principles, though differed widely in applying them. But two qualifications are paramount. The first is that in all of the key political Islamic groups there are conspicuous divisions between, on one hand, savvy leaderships that are keen to widen their constituents and not to alarm the huge middle classes of these societies, that are pious and conservative, but not necessarily in favour of religious states, and, on the other, ideologically-driven ground workers that are bent on the Islamisation of their societies. The second qualification is that different types of Salafist movements (which are much more conservative and less politicised than the mainstream Islamic groups) are increasingly prominent in the Islamic world. They advocate strict interpretations of Islam, modelled on the early Islamic communities, views that do not correspond to the inherited cultures of countries such as Morocco, Tunisia, Egypt, Turkey, and others. To a large extent, the Salafist ideology retracts the intellectual progress that the mainstream Islamic movement has achieved in the past two decades. These divisions are starting to bring to light vigorous debates (and the beginnings of confrontations) within factions of the Islamic movements on the degree to which religious texts, theological schools of thought, or medieval religious interpretations should guide the Islamist parties’ way of governing and the basis of the social contract between these movements and their societies.

The overarching objective of almost all political Islamic groups is not to attain parliamentary majorities or control presidencies, but to gradually Islamise their states – and their societies. It was relatively easy to consign this objective to the long term when these groups were - in most cases - illegal oppositions focusing on maximising their social and political presence in systems dominated by secular regimes. But when Islamic groups command the legislative and executive powers in a country, the Islamisation of society takes centre stage. Young, enthusiastic, and ideologically driven members in many groups, especially those that believe they lent decisive support in revolutions that transformed their countries’ political landscapes, want rapid moves: clear legislations, conspicuous political positions, and social policies to reflect what they consider to be their ‘victory’. Today in Egypt, the most strategic Arab country and one of the most culturally influential in the Islamic world, many leading members of the Muslim Brotherhood invoke a ‘historical imperative’: a century of struggle since the founding of the Brotherhood is now starting to bear fruit; the group takes hold of Egypt and is to start an “Islamic enlightenment” project emanating out of Egypt and reaching the entire Islamic world.

The Islamisation of society will also fly against entrenched notions of nationalism. It is one thing to identify religiously with a certain faith; it is quite another to accept it as a social, political, and economic frame of reference. Political Islam, building on Islam itself, was based on opposing all ethnic, racial, hereditary, and national differentia. Belonging (or not) to the religion was – and remains – the key distinction in any “Islamic society”, as well as a patent differentiation between Islam’s abode (the land of the Islamic nation, which in itself supersedes any nationality) and the rest of the world. In this worldview, political rights are directly linked to individuals’ religions, not the notion of citizenry.

This is especially contentious in nations with illustrious national heritages, long histories, and a sophisticated sense of identity such as Morocco, Tunisia, Syria, and Egypt. The rise to power of political Islam compels these societies to confront major questions regarding the nature of the state, the shape of the governing system, the social frames of reference, and the tenets of international positioning: should these countries’ foreign policies be guided by the general principles of the Islamic Ummah or by the narrow interests of national countries? These questions were dismissed during revolutionary effervescence and amidst severe economic problems, but they become highly important as new power systems take shape. These questions are also coming to the fore in countries where political Islam has been in power for decades, most notably in Iran, and in a different context, in Pakistan. Different socio-political players will have divergent answers to these questions; the variations of views will enrich the discussions. But all eyes – internally and externally – will be on the leading Islamist parties in the parliaments and the governments and whether they would genuinely reach out beyond their comfort zones to their countries’ wider social constituencies, or will gradually return to their ideological roots, sacrificing the secular at the altar of the sacred.  

Transparency is also an issue. There is a worry that the elected leaders representing Islamist parties are part of wider decision-making machinations in the groups that created and continue to sponsor these parties. This is especially true in the Arab world. In many cases, the decision-making machinations of Islamist parties fall outside the purview of the electorate and extend beyond the institutional checks and balances that the recent revolutions are trying to build or resuscitate. In different Islamic countries, as the processes of drafting new constitutions, forming governments, and negotiating international positions progress, the roles of unelected theological authorities will come into question: where does real power reside and who actually controls decision-making?

Violence is also a concern. Force has always been a fundamental aspect of modern political Islamism. The Muslim Brotherhood has had a secret apparatus for decades; in Algeria, Yemen, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Egypt, and Sudan, Islamist groups have fought the ruling regimes militarily; the Islamic resistance to Gaddafi in Libya and Assad in Syria were (and continue to be) armed. And though jihadist political Islam (that aimed to invoke religious rule and law over Islamic societies that failed to impose Islamic Sharia) has been marginalised, the assertion that Islamic Sharia should be the sole guide to legislation and Islam the ultimate frame of reference for societies remains highly potent. It was the perception of some Islamist groups, in the 1970s and 1980s, that some states, mainly in the Arab world, were un-Islamic that incentivised them to resort to violence. And there remain within the global Islamist movement influential voices that have not denounced “fiqh al-unf” (the jurisprudence of violence). Many observers, especially inside the Islamic world, find this history worrisome.

It is quite safe to assume that a major part of the success of political Islamic groups was a result of - justifiably - positioning themselves as fresh alternatives to failed political systems. But the political situations in Iran, Turkey, and Sudan, where different forms of political Islam have ruled for years, prove that that momentum is limited in scale and time. The same will happen in many Arab spring countries. The more the political Islamic groups rule and take the helm in the turbulent waters of economics, the more their populations – and especially the constituents that voted them into power – will hold them accountable. Arab political Islamism, especially, will prove lacking. Most Arab political Islamic groups have decades of experience in survival under brutal regimes, organising underground operations, building and sustaining limited service provisioning structures, and managing electoral campaigns, but very limited experience in governing and in addressing very challenging macro socio-economic problems. These pressures will almost certainly cost them political capital, appeal, and votes.

This wave of Islamisation at a moment of historical transformation could incentivise secular parties and wide segments of young Muslims, especially in the liberal, secular camp, to come together, muster considerable resources, and advance realistic programmes that can have serious chances of resonating with the expanding and ambitious middle classes in the large Islamic societies. This is starting to happen in Morocco, Tunisia, Egypt, and - in different circumstances - in parts of the Gulf, where secular political parties that performed quite badly in recent elections are experimenting with new ideas, coalitions, and ways of broadening their support. And whilst most political Islamist groups rely on discipline and structured social and economic networks in their political operations, the young groups employ new forms of activism from cyber protest to haphazard street mobilisations, tactics that have already proved their efficacy. It is difficult to envisage the scattered young liberal parties rapidly coalescing into cohesive structures that are able, in the short term, to erode the dominant positions of the large Islamist groups. But with time, the awe of the rise of political Islam will gradually fade as viable alternatives emerge.

Most Islamic movements are still evolving and will take different forms. Some parties will try to invoke the Turkish “AKP model”: economic liberalism, sidelining of the structures of the deep state (especially the military) and catering to the middle and lower middle classes through a mixture of piousness, pragmatism, and populism. This is already starting to emerge as the modus operandi of some new Islamist parties in North Africa, though, unlike in Turkey, many of these Arab societies have not undergone strict secularisation and as such there is limited support for the secular parties that are aiming to place legal and political restrictions on the Islamists. Other Islamist parties might reinvent the models upon which their founding groups were created: an attempt to return to the ideals of the early Islamic communities. The ‘historical moment’ that many Arab Islamic groups currently witness could give rise to pragmatism, or, with the hubris of power, rigidity and antagonism.

This historical moment – with its potential and peril – induces highly secular Muslims and non-Muslims to put forward their views of the future of their societies, as well as their concerns about their presence and role in that future. Some perceive the gradual Islamisation of their societies over the past few decades, of which the recent rise of political Islam is but a symptom, as a threat to the national identity; they assert an irreconcilability between the Islamic identity and the local nationality. Over the past decade, art has been the most compelling medium for presenting these concerns. In Cairo, Tehran, and Istanbul, traditionally the most influential cultural centres in the Islamic world, young artists create literature, music, film, theatre, and new digital artistic formats that in many ways question how these societies have conventionally viewed themselves. Some of the most enthralling work challenges deeply held conservative views. And whereas similar ideas created almost a century ago in the same capitals (and others) were mainly targeted at the cultural elites of these societies (and the regions’ privileged who were drawn to these cultural and educational hubs), the current work addresses the large masses. Some of the new creative work here roots for what it means to be a non Muslim in these societies and in turn addresses Islam as a social force through others’ eyes. Muslim women are also contributing to these debates. Whereas in the first few decades of the twentieth century, few female luminaries - almost all hailed from the upper social strata of their societies - led their feminist movements, today a significant percentage of business leaders, media and art stars, and prominent commentators in large – and in some cases highly conservative - Islamic societies are women. Many of them leverage on their economic power and prominence to empower women in the lower middle classes and poor social segments. These developments gain immense momentum because of the exponential growth in female education (especially at university level) across the entire Islamic world, the rapidly rising percentages of families whose breadwinner is the mother or the daughter, and because of the momentum that digital and social media give to these ideas.

Islamic history does not have a macro social movement comparable to the English, French, or American revolutions – one that triggered a bottom up transformation of the socio-political structure of societies, discarded old ruling entities, and laid the foundations of new systems based on genuine representation and checks and balances between political powers. In most of the largest Islamic countries, old systems mutated and evolved, sometimes because of domestic causes, sometimes as a result of foreign interventions. But the fundamental building blocks of power remained the same. And as such Islam, a key pillar of all the overarching social structures that have ruled over these societies, retained its place at the centre of – or close to – political decision-making.

The French thinker Tocqueville once remarked that the Church is the most powerful party in the US. This remark could be made, about the mosque, across the Islamic world. At the moment, socio-political Islamism appears invincible. But the Islamic – and especially Arab - world has seen the rise of ideologies that came to dominate these societies (and imagination), from Islamic liberalism in the late nineteenth century, to the golden age of modern Arab culture in the 1930s and 1940s, to Arab nationalism from the 1950s to the 1970s. All failed. And socio-political Islam confronts relatively more difficult circumstances today: extremely young demographics with high expectations and limited patience, free media that makes it impossible to conceal blunders or doctor realities, and a heritage of macro failures, one after the other, that young Muslims inherited but did not contribute to. The hope must be that the new powers dominating this new era have learned from the mistakes of the past.

About the author

Tarek Osman is an Egyptian writer. He was educated at the American University in Cairo and Bocconi University in Italy. He is the author of the international bestseller, Egypt on the Brink: From Nasser to Mubarak (Yale University Press, 2010) and has published articles on Egypt and the Middle East in leading international newspapers.