Amr Nabil/AP/Press Association Images. All rights reserved.In many parts of the Arab world, especially amongst the urban middle class, moderate Islamists have fallen out of favor.
The Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt witnessed a spectacular fall from grace; moving from the presidency to prison cells. In Tunisia, El-Nahda was able to avoid a similar fate, prompted by events in Egypt and an increased polarization of the political system, by wisely choosing to give up power, losing the pre-eminent positon it had gained through fair and free elections.
This was followed by an attack on Islamism as an ideological construct by secular Arab middle classes equating Islamism with backwardness and in some cases equating moderate Islamists with radical groups in order to justify their repression. This was stark in the case of Egypt. The Muslim Brotherhood were declared a terrorist organization and blamed for all acts of violence perpetuated against the state after the coup of 2013.
Some might argue, correctly, that moderate Islamist groups failed in their brief tenure of power due to short-sightedness, a desire to be in a position of power and their collusion with elements of the deep state.
All of this is true, however, it ignores a deeper structural issue with Islamist ideology, which was decisive in its collapse; namely, its intellectual poverty and focus on the preservation of the status quo.
Islamism, in spite of decades of political engagement, has shown a remarkable weakness in its ideological development. It has failed to provide an ideological vision that critically differs from that of its secular rivals. On the contrary, modern Islamism has shown a strong neo-liberal leaning not very different from that of Arab ruling elites.
This manifested itself in their message for the focus on the individual, under the notion that reforming the morals of citizens will reform society without the need to perform any substantial changes in social relations. Their idea is rather simple; problems in the Arab World stem from individuals deviating from ‘the true path of Islam’. As such, when the morals of the individual are reformed a ‘proper’ family will emerge, which will then multiply and lead to the birth of a reformed society.
This shifted the focus away from overarching societal problems to individual moral problems. Issues like sex segregation, sexual morality, and women’s dress codes became of paramount importance. This was compounded with an increased Salafi influence, which places a high premium on issues of personal morality and piety.
Thus, when moderate Islamists were in power they showed no desire or vision to offer alternatives to their followers. On the contrary, they carried on with the policies of the autocrats they replaced. During Morsi’s brief tenure in power, for example, a loan with the IMF was negotiated which would mean a continuation of the Mubarak era policies of austerity and neo-liberalism.
This focus on the individual serves to act as a status quo ideology, as it moves the burden of responsibility from the ruling class to the governed. Simply put, issues such as rural poverty, urban decay, working class exploitations and the collapse of the social safety net become of secondary importance. Poverty becomes depoliticized and is no longer seen as a social problem that arises from a certain configuration of power relations. It is seen as a problem that can be resolved through the implementation of Sharia, namely zakat, the compulsory alms the rich give the poor.
Based on this, if ‘proper Islam’ is implemented the problem would disappear. However, the nature of the exploitive relationship between rich and poor rarely makes an appearance in Islamist discourse. This ideological orientation explains the weak intellectual development of the movement, failing to produce a cohesive ideological vision that promises radical social change. Even though there are intellectuals associated with Islamism, like Tarek El Bishri and Selim El Awa, they have yet to produce a strong transformative vision of society.
This ideological outlook takes a very elitist approach towards society. It assumes that the people are morally corrupt. A perspective that is shared by the secular elites, who also view the masses as backward and in need of civilizing. Thus, the malaise of the secular forces is shared by their Islamist foes.
The simple solution is good governance and fighting corruption, however, it is assumed to stem from the abandonment of Islam. This, however, does not mean that Islamism is the ideology of the elite. On the contrary, Islamists have a broad base of support, especially among the poor in urban and rural areas where Salafism made significant inroads and contributed to the “Salafisation” of this Islamist base.
The resonance of the Islamist message is based on two pillars: their deep reach into civil society, and the organic connection of Islamist language to the culture of the masses.
For example, as the state retreated from its traditional role as the provider of social services in post-Nasserist Egypt, the Muslim Brotherhood started to fill the void by providing services, such as health care, education and charity drives. The provided services were packaged in the moral language of the group, delivering their message of the need for personal reform. Health care services were segregated by sex, thus enforcing Islamist sexual morals among the masses, which in the end had the effect of entrenching itself in the psyche of those receiving this service.
The second pillar is the notion that, unlike other secular ideologies, Islamism has a deeper cultural connection with the masses, offering a mystical view of the past as it promises to recreate it out of the ashes of a world devastated by colonial encounters. This makes it easier for Islamists to communicate their moral message, which is devoid of social content, and gain support amongst the masses by simply appealing to their sense of religious duty and obligation. In a way, they become the symbol of the divine and a way to salvation from a troubled world, as they promise not only salvation in the after life, but also in this world if only ‘proper Islam’ were implemented.
This does not mean that Islamism cannot act as a vehicle for social change. One only needs to reflect on the Iranian Revolution and the explosive impact Islamism, mixed with secular ideologies, had. As Ervand Abrahamian eloquently argues, Khomeinism is not a radical Islamist ideology as many would like to believe, it is heavily influenced by secular Third World ideologies, making it part of the Third World intellectual tradition of resistance that includes thinkers like Franz Fanon.
He points out that the intellectual base of Khomeinism comes from the work of Ali Shariati, a French educated intellectual, who was influenced by Fanon and the Mojahedin-e-Khalq who took part in armed action against the Shah. This intellectual tradition mixed elements of Marxism and Shia Islamism, producing a potent, radical, indigenous ideology of social action and change.
Khomeini divided society into two main classes: the exploiters “Mustkabreen” and the exploited “El-Mustafeen”, urging action against the exploiters using Islamist and traditional rhetoric. This allowed him to make a strong connection to the urban poor in south Tehran, which enabled him not only to defeat the Shah, but also to survive a brutal war and bloody power struggle with the Mojahedin-e-Khalq.
Thus, Islamism can deliver social change, but only if mixed with a focus on social issues and exploitive social relations. Modern day Islamism represents the interests of a specific social class, unlike in Iran, the worldview of a non-revolutionary class, namely, the petty bourgeoisie and some elements of the bourgeoisie that have no qualms with current social and economic structures. Their main aim is to increase their share of state power, not to alter social relations or enact revolutionary change. They simply want a greater piece of the political pie, making modern Islamism very docile, and placing them in the same position as the despots.