Facing the Cruel Palindrome: Moving beyond Sauve Qui Peut

By Nathan J. Brown, George Washington University

*This memo was prepared for the “Evolving Methodologies in the Study of Islamist Politics” workshop, January 29, 2016.

In the past five years, an infant academic industry approaching Islamism – which I have defined as a set of movements and approaches dedicated to increasing the role of Islam in general and the Islamic sharia specifically in public life – would seem to have come into crisis and perhaps even a full stop. The problem is not that the industry operated inefficiently; it worked well with impressive intellectual production. But the political ground on which its foundations were built has shifted radically.

We will have to rebuild and retool.

The Arab world seems to have passed from an era of stultifying (but far from totalitarian) semiauthoritarianism to one in which its residents face what I have called elsewhere (inspired by Jonathan Brown) a cruel palindrome: either Sisi or Isis. The center of debate for many Islamists has shifted from how many seats to contest in parliamentary elections to how to cope with a ferocious authoritarianism, state collapse, and the flourishing of a formerly fringe approaches.

However, we need not abandon all we learned and engage in full scholarly retreat. There is still much that we can collectively save.

Two generations of scholarship on Islamism

When it gradually became a subject of social science attention in the 1980s, studies of Islamism tended to focus on doctrine (and tilted toward ideological exegesis of some of the more radical thinkers in works by scholars like Giles Keppel, Emmanuel Sivan, and Johannes J. G. Jansen, some of whom were anchored more in the humanities) or on sociology (with scholars like Saad Eddin Ibrahim exploring the social roots and origins of Islamists).

But in the 1990s and early 2000s, with works like those by Carrie Wickham and Jillian Schwedler, social science scholarship broadened and deepened, shifting focus in some subtle ways. Doctrine, ideology, and sociology were hardly forgotten. But scholars turned more attention to the political process, toward more mainstream groups, and toward formal organizations. No longer did Sadat’s assassins seem the centerpiece of scholarly attention. While the earlier focus on radicals, doctrine, and sociology did not disappear, the Muslim Brotherhood, its political activity, and the way the group and its political activity changed in response to social and political conditions moved to the center of the scholarly agenda.

Great progress was made. Research was easy to conduct: the movements were loquacious and legal (or tolerated); the states were stable and the regimes relatively permissive of field work; and scholars based in institutions in the United States and Europe and those based in the Arab world forged some useful bonds.

Since 2011 many of those conditions seem to have changed quickly. States have decayed or collapsed; regimes behave much more fiercely toward the movements and harass (and even arrest) some of those who write about them; field work is more fraught; the Brotherhood seems less central; Islamists in most countries have moved away from the formal political realm; and neat country boundaries – which once seemed to form the horizon for most groups – are no longer such steep barriers to the formation of agendas and the actions of key regimes and Islamist actors.

So yes, we will have to do more than recalibrate. Last year, Khalil al-Anani invited us to consider the “ISISifcaition of Islamist politics.” In a recent review in the Middle East Journal ( “A Struggle for Power: Islamism and Democracy”), I argued that the most helpful work for understanding the Islamist future might be Abdallah al-Arian’s study of the emergence of Islamism in Egypt in the 1970s. To put that a bit more pugnaciously: we might learn most by reading al-Arian’s book – or maybe Wickham’s first book –backwards, going back to the 1970s to understand what Islamist politics of the late 2010s might look like in an environment where formal organizations matter less, regimes are more ruthless, revolutionary activity is more prominent, generational issues (and youth activism) feature more prominently, ideological lines are blurrier, and the Muslim Brotherhood no longer has such a hulking presence. I recently explored some of the implications of this environment for the Egyptian Brotherhood itself with Michele Dunne. In this essay, I wish to turn my attention to a consideration of what we learned in the previous two decades that may still be useful, particularly in establishing frameworks for research in the coming years and understanding the shifts that are occurring as we study.

In that respect, let me point to three areas that past scholarship led us to highlight and should not be abandoned but instead can still inform our understanding of the evolution of changes within the Islamist spectrum.


While earlier scholarship of the 1980s stressed ideology and doctrine to a significant degree, social science scholarship of the early 2000s subtly (and I am not certain always consciously) shifted to a greater emphasis on strategy. The earlier writings guided us through the contemporary relevance of Ibn Taymiyya and the Kharijites. The more recent writings nodded in such directions but spent far more time with party platforms and stances on current issues. In that sense, the pre-2011 decade (and the immediate post-uprising writings) did capture the growing primacy of politics – the increasing degree to which the semiauthoritarian political process prior to 2011 and the uncertain and unstable processes that emerged after 2011, prompted opportunistic, though ultimately quite portentous changes in Islamist thinking, organization, and, above all, strategy.
The growing prominence of salafis ­– many of whom speak a language that draws very heavily on core texts and doctrines – will mean that we will never be able to abandon the efforts to understand Islamism at lease in part through doctrinal and ideological lenses. Indeed, I think much of the best current work is done in precisely that area. But I am struck by how much the key debates among Islamists right now still focus on strategy and how the differences rest most essentially on core political judgments: the possibilities for building a state; the viability of a revolutionary path; the primary adversary that Islamists should focus on. The primacy of politics­ ­– understood as participating in the formal realm – has quickly become antiquated for most Islamists in the Arab world. But the abandonment of conventional politics has led not so much to a retreat to the thicket of textual exegesis as a contentious and portentous debate about what the best strategic option to pursue. The political – broadly, not narrowly, understood – still matters.

From Intent to Context

The generation of scholars working on Islamists in the 1980s began more from the inside out than the outside in. Those who focused on ideology and doctrine probed what ideas impelled Islamists into action. The source of inspiration could be discovered in large (though never exclusive) part through studying what leaders thought. And those who focused on sociology looked into the background of both activists and the rank-and-file: what in their upbringing and early experiences would lead them to gravitate toward Islamist ideas?

The later generation of scholars in the 2000s again shifted some of the focus without abandoning the interest in internal thinking and background. Islamists came to be understood a bit more from the outside in. As the focus shifted to formal organizations and to politics, it became apparent how the overall political context shaped Islamist behavior, organization, and ideology. The baldest form of this way of looking at the importance of context came to be called the “inclusion/moderation” argument, which was rarely made by scholars without considerable nuance and qualification but still framed much debate.

That stress on context can very well survive the post-2011 changes. Indeed, we should understand much of how Islamists have changed – the splintering of various paths, the turn away from formal politics, the decline of formal organizations, and the turn to revolution – largely in terms of the radical changes in political context during and after the 2011 uprisings. This is not to remove agency from Islamist actors –their ingenuity and creativity are generally on full display, sometimes in cruel ways – but they are ultimately coloring inside (and occasionally outside) the lines drawn by regimes and political processes.

Sources: A Whole Lot of Listening

Scholars have always listened (or read). The earliest scholars of Islamists conducted interviews and read tracts and newspapers. But recently I have been struck by both a quantitative and a qualitative shift in how scholars came to do their research.

Quantitatively, there has simply been a lot more to read and a lot more people to talk to in recent years. There have been pamphlets, websites, nadwas, press coverage, blogs, platforms, Facebook posts, and video clips. There were also youth activists, leaders, renegades, and fellow travelers to interview. Perusal of the footnotes of scholarly works shows that later scholars have had to listen harder to stay in place.

But there was a subtle qualitative change as well: the rigid dichotomy between Western researcher and Arab Islamist began to break down. There have been scholars in the Arab world who have followed – and contributed to – debates that began in the United States or Europe. There have been Islamists who went abroad to earn degrees on how to study their movements. And there have been former Islamists who turned to scholarship to understand what they had been in the process of becoming. There have been scholars from the United States or Europe whose works were translated or who could participate in seminars in the Arab world.

No Islamic State defector has applied to a doctoral program in political science in the United States nor has the Islamic State offered to sponsor a post-doctoral researcher. There are limits in how far reaching a cosmopolitan community of listeners and scholars can be built. But the way in which scholars have learned to cast far more widely and draw on multiple sources and the ways in which some older boundaries have eroded among national communities of scholars and among participants and observers can still inform and assist those who work in the age of the cruel palindrome.

Looking Forward

I have given a fairly happy story of where we stand: we have learned a lot; we have also learned good ways to learn even more. Much of what we learned will stand us in good stead; the ways we had of learning are still relevant. We will be hit with an embarrassment of riches as information, networks, and methodologies have grown in size and sophistication.

But I close on a bit of a darker note: the nature of politics in the Middle East – the rise of dysfunctional authoritarianism in some places and state decay and violent conflict in some others – will block our abilities to take full advantage of these above-listed benefits. This is most obviously the case in the dwindling numbers of locales where social science research can be carried out. More subtle pernicious trends may be at work as well. The transnational scholarly networks that have emerged will likely survive, but they will be undermined by assaults on academic freedom and sometimes by mounting political sensitivities. And one trend that has invigorated the field tremendously – the rise of a generation of talented and well-trained social scientists well versed in regional languages and research techniques, quite often acquired before embarking on doctoral training – will likely ebb over the coming years. Students from outside the region are likely to be discouraged or prevented from gaining the experience and training they need; those within the region will labor under less conducive conditions.

Scholars are hardly immune to broader social and political ails, and though this will not eliminate our opportunities to build on the past, it may seriously undermine and undercut them.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.