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Islamism's failure, Islamists' future

About the author
Olivier Royis a professor at the L'Ecole de Haute Ìätudes de Sciences Sociales in Paris (Ehess). he has written a number of books including The Failure of Political Islam (Harvard University Press, 1994).

A book I wrote fifteen years ago is entitled The Failure of Political Islam (not, it should be noted, The Failure of the Islamists). By my title, I meant that the Islamist ideology is simply not working. It didn't provide the basis to create a new society, a new state, or offer an alternative to the (then) two paths of western democracy and communism.

It seems that many Islamists read my book - or came to the same conclusions independently. For they have (almost) abandoned the idea that the Islamic state is a way to change global society. But what has replaced it? Here there is a wide array of positions along a spectrum that runs from Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, Turkey's prime minister, to the Taliban in Afghanistan.

For me, the main shift has been towards what I call Islamo-nationalism. Most of the Islamist parties and movements have in the last decade and a half recasted their direction in nationalist terms - even if they didn't give up the idea that sharia should be the basis of the state.

Moreover, the current agenda of most of the movements - Hamas, the Iranian revolution (including that of current president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad), the AK party in Turkey, the FIS, an-Nahda, the Reform Party in Yemen, and even to some extent the Jamaat-e-Islami - is far more nationalist than Islamist. Most of the Muslim Brotherhood's chapters (local movements) are also recasting their political action in national (if not necessarily nationalistic) terms.

Olivier Roy is research director in the humanities & social-sciences sector of the Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique (CNRS) in Paris. He also lectures at the Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales (Ehess) and the Institut d'Etudes Politiques. Among his books are The Failure of Political Islam (Harvard University Press, 1994), The New Central Asia: The Creation of Nations (New York University Press, 2000), Globalized Islam (Columbia University Press, 2004), and (with Mariam Abou Zahab) Islamist Networks: The Afghan-Pakistan Connection (Columbia University Press, 2004)

This article is an edited version of a talk on the nature and record of political Islam delivered by Olivier Roy on 11 October 2006 at the Institute for Public Policy Research in London. To download audio recordings of the event (available in three parts), click here

Also by Olivier Roy in openDemocracy:

"The end of history and the long march of secularisation"
(16 May 2006)

Democratic, national...

Three points about this trend - which many have not followed because they cannot identify with a nation - are notable. First, those affected by what I call the "globalisation of Islam" phenomenon (affecting, for instance, members of the Muslim Brotherhood who left their country of origin and became active in Europe, in the Gulf, or elsewhere) face a dilemma: which nation to identify with?

In France, the founding members of the union of French Islamic organisations are now reframing their activity under the label of "French Islam". This involves, for example, leaders pushing young people to register to vote. So "Islamo-nationalism" exists even in Europe - albeit with distinct characteristics and consequences.

Second, such activists are (almost by definition) now entering the political scene through processes of democratisation. True, there is room for debate about how practical and real the change among Islamist parties and movements has been. In Turkey, for example, many secularists (including many people in the army) consider that Erdoğan didn't truly abandon the idea of building an Islamic state in Turkey, that he retains a "hidden agenda".

But the Turkish example makes the point that "sincerity" is not the issue - for it is not a political concept. It is democratisation itself that matters: the fact that these movements are entering the political scene through making alliances with others, pledging to accept election results, and seeking to go beyond their constituency.

It is interesting here that Erdoğan and his colleagues, when they split from the Refah party, considered that the maximum long-term vote an ideological Islamic party could achieve in Turkey is around 20%. This too was the figure achieved by Ahmadinejad in the first round of Iran's presidential election in June 2005. In most cases, 20% represents the maximum potential support for such a party.

Thus, to achieve more than 20% a party must appeal to a larger audience. The extra supporters are voting not for Islam but for good governance, including the fight against corruption. This is true too of Hamas, which Palestinians elected because they considered, rightly or wrongly, that Hamas would make a better government than Fatah. It's clear that this is now the general pattern.

Third, democratisation has further consequences. President George W Bush launched his military intervention in Iraq in the name of democratisation of the middle east. The problem with this approach is threefold: that secular democracies cannot possibly be created in the middle east within a few years, that any true democratisation will lead to Islamists becoming part of government, and that there is no democratisation without political legitimacy.

Political legitimacy in the wider region means, at least for the moment, two things: nationalism and religion. You cannot win by going against nationalistic and religious feelings. This is true in Palestine, Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan - everywhere. The idea that democratisation will undermine nationalism in the middle east never made sense. Any nationalist movement today will protest against western encroachment and United States intervention.

...and, oh yes, religious

Islamists have not given up all of their religious ideology. One thing remains: sharia, with family law at its core. This is an issue of identity. From Morocco to Pakistan, including Iran, the key debate is about family law and, by definition, the status of women.

Some of its leading figures may, like Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, accept democracy; others, such as the Muslim cleric Yusuf al-Qaradawi, agree that it is the least-bad system, not to be opposed, but insist on sharia. Family law is not negotiable for figures such as al-Qaradawi; penal measures or legal punishments may be, but not this.

A big problem arises. If democratisation means more nationalism and more sharia, this is far from what the western promoters of democratisation envisaged. But this problem must be faced head on by saying: there is no way not to engage the Islamists. There is no alternative. We in the west have to make a choice between Erdoğan and the Taliban. And if we don't choose Erdoğan, we'll get the Taliban.

I consider that most Islamists are ready for engagement. They have changed and are changing because their societies have changed and are changing. Turkey is not the same society as twenty years ago. No reversal, no going back, is possible. This means engaging Hamas and Hizbollah too. The problem is that we are doing exactly the contrary now. We say we will never negotiate with so-called "terrorists". But if we don't negotiate, we should either withdraw or go for war. You cannot say, "I will not negotiate, I will just stay here." No. Something will happen; something is happening.

The present policies create this choice of war or withdrawal. Instead, we should go back to diplomacy and Realpolitik and give up any ideology-led perception of what is going on in the middle east.


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