The Islamist Identity Crisis: How Mainstream Islamism Lost Control of Its Own Narrative

By Quinn Mecham, Brigham Young University

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

Political developments in the Arab world since 2011 have dramatically shaped Islamist political activity and discourse in the region. They have also influenced Islamist movements further afield, in terms of the strategies and political narratives that movements now pursue. Indeed, it would not be too strong to say that Islamist movements in many countries are in crisis. It is not a crisis of popular support, nor a crisis of irrelevance. Many Islamist movements maintain high levels of support and remain deeply relevant to the future of the countries in which they operate. Rather, it is a crisis of political identity that has taken a profound toll on the ability of Islamist groups to control their own narrative. They rightly recognize that they are losing control over the narrative of who they are and what they stand for at their own peril. The mainstream Islamist brand is in crisis, which is having destructive effects on the ability of Islamist movements to mobilize their political base. As more and more stories are told about them, Islamist narratives have become increasingly reactionary, and reflect profound differences within movements over strategies to regain political efficacy.

Several key moments in the last five years served to trigger this identity crisis. First, the apparent political openings in several countries of the Arab world in 2011-12 helped to transform Islamist narratives in places like Egypt, Tunisia, Yemen, Bahrain, Morocco, and Libya from one of a reformist opposition movement to one of a potentially powerful political party that plays a role in governance. In the process, Islamist movements went through a painful process of redefining themselves both organizationally and ideologically to play within the new rules of politics and to get to a position where they could effectively govern. Subsequently, the widespread closure of many of these political openings forced Islamist movements to reevaluate whether the organizational and ideological transformations in progress were appropriate to the circumstances, and opened up divisions within the movements regarding political strategy towards the state. State collapse in the wake of the Syrian, Libyan, and Yemeni civil wars also strengthened opportunities for violent jihadi political entrepreneurship that challenged the narratives of mainstream Islamist groups and further discredited the political transformations in progress. Finally, the regional rivalry between Sunni Gulf states and Iran spilled over into open confrontation through the support of ideologically-driven proxy fighters within these civil wars, leading to an intensification of sectarian divisions and a loss of control over more inclusive Islamist narratives in favor of those more narrowly defined by the ‘near enemy’.

I argue here that the combination of four factors stemming from these recent political developments in the Middle East has put severe strain on both the internal and public narratives of many Islamist movements worldwide, and has accelerated the weakening and fragmentation of Islamist political movements. Specifically, a) resurgent authoritarianism, b) the aggressive spread of violent and often theatrical jihadism, c) state-sponsored sectarian interventions, and d) internal organizational crisis within movements have each helped lead to a loss of narrative control. The consequences of the loss of this narrative control are significant because the lack of clear messaging facilitates fragmentation among Islamist political actors and rewards the most provocative ideological narratives. This in turn creates long-term challenges for domestic politics and security within the countries in which Islamist movements have popular support. I address each of these four challenges to mainstream Islamist narratives in turn.

Resurgent Authoritarianism
In countries where new political openings were anticipated or activated, but which subsequently saw the closure of those political openings, Islamist movements have had to rapidly and repeatedly change their political narratives. The most common pattern has been a shift from a dominant narrative that criticizes the government or regime for incompetence, corruption, and discrimination, to a more constructive narrative that articulates a vision for what can be built and why the movement is poised to build it. Subsequently, however, the newly constructive narrative lost credibility as either political circumstances or internal capacity forced the movement to acknowledge its inability to accomplish publicly stated goals. This led to either a fight or a flight reaction that deeply impacted Islamist narratives in the face of resurgent authoritarianism. The affected movement’s narrative became either more stridently critical of government actors or more pragmatic and less ideological in its approach.

The narrative shift of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt swung rapidly between extremes because of the extent of its political success and the severity of its expulsion from the political system; it became emblematic of a “fight” reaction and shifted to persistent and vociferous government criticism. In Bangladesh, the Jamaat-e-Islami similarly saw its narrative turn from one of government participation and alliance with mainstream political parties towards sharp criticism of the political system following increased government repression of the group, including the arrest or execution of prominent leaders.
The shift to an increasingly pragmatic and less ideological narrative is best represented by Ennahda in Tunisia. Its narrative moved from government critique, to constructive visioning, and then to political pragmatism as its political opportunities faded. The Islamic Action Front in Jordan saw a similar but less dramatic shift in recent years as government criticism and narrative visioning faded to increasing political pragmatism in the wake of the neighboring Syrian war.
These rapid narrative shifts coming from Islamist movements are in part the result of divisions within movements triggered by the need for new strategic positioning in the political system. Regardless of the direction that these narratives have gone, however, the combined effects of resurgent authoritarianism and subsequent instability in narrative discourse have done significant damage to Islamist movements’ public brand. This has led to confusion among potential constituents over how these movements see their distinctive mission.

Violent Jihadism

Although the public prominence of violent jihadism has always been a threat to mainstream Islamists’ political positioning, developments in jihadist activity around the world since 2013 have made it much more difficult for non-violent Islamists to control their own narrative. The conquest of territory and declaration of the caliphate by the Islamic State group, coupled with strong global recruitment efforts and the theatrical marketing of violence have put mainstream Islamist movements on the defensive as never before. Comparable public displays of violence by Al-Qaeda, Boko Haram, and Al-Shabaab have further filled the media space with violent Islamist messaging.

Authoritarian regimes and political opponents are often keen to use militants’ religious justifications for violence to negatively brand non-violent Islamist groups. These mainstream groups are therefore forced to spend much of their narrative effort distinguishing their ideology from militant groups, criticizing other Islamist groups, and fending off politically-motivated misinformation. This has had two primary effects that have diminished mainstream Islamists’ ability to control their own narrative.

First, the amount of narrative energy spent condemning violent attacks distracts from the effort to build their own messaging and positive brand in the eyes of the public. For example, a large portion of Ennahda’s public communication in 2015, both in Tunisia and abroad, focused on the condemnation of violent Islamist attacks rather than an articulation of their ideological contributions [1]. A similar story can be told of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood in the wake of jihadi attacks from the Sinai[2]. Secondly, because of the constant efforts to control their brand in the face of violent Islamist claims, non-violent Islamists become implicitly grouped into a mental category of Islamist (both violent and non-violent), rather than other possible mental categories (opposition political parties, non-violent activists). This framing is compounded by self-serving governments, which often choose to talk about both violent and non-violent Islamists in the same breath.

The Sectarian Turn

The Syrian civil war that began in 2011 has come to represent a problem for Islamists beyond the fuel that it has provided for violent jihadism. It has evolved into a broader proxy war between ideological interests in the Arab world, which has given rise to a clash of narratives between Sunni and Shi’i Islamists. These narratives are fed, both politically and financially, by the monarchies of the Arab Gulf in the case of Sunni Islamists, and by Iran for the Shi’a. While the inherent gap between Sunni and Shi’i perspectives on political Islam may be possible to overcome, in the current conflict-ridden environment of the Middle East the chasm is ever-widening. This has less to do with religious arguments than with political ones, but the political rationale for conflict between Sunni and Shi’a in the Middle East has infused many of the ideological arguments that Islamist groups currently make.

Shi’i Islamist militias in Lebanon and Iraq have fought on the battlefield against Sunni militias in Iraq and Syria, and the Islamic State group’s ideology is virulently anti-Shi’a. The Saudi regime sees its major popular domestic challenge as a challenge by a rebellious Shi’i minority, and has prosecuted its campaign against that minority to the point of executing the leading Shia’ cleric in the kingdom and triggering an international Shi’a backlash [3]. In Bahrain, the Sunni monarchy has framed protests by the Shi’i Islamist al-Wefaq party as a geopolitical challenge to the Sunni world propagated by Iran, and the Yemeni government has framed its fight against the Zaidi Houthi rebellion in that country in the same terms. The Saudi-Iranian ‘cold war’ has directly contributed both to the destruction of the Syrian state and to the Yemeni state through influence over proxy forces. Both of these failed states have been producers of Islamist militancy, much of which is now aggressively sectarian. In addition, civil and political conflict in Lebanon is partly attributable to sectarian political choices, and Islamic sectarianism continues to plague Pakistani politics, often resulting in civilian deaths.

While much of the new sectarianism manifests through Islamist militancy, it also impacts non-violent Islamist movements, most specifically those in countries that are divided religiously, such as Iraq, Bahrain, and Yemen. Party politics in Iraq is yet to recover from the deliberate alienation of Sunni political parties, whose poor political integration has been a primary trigger for state breakdown. In a mirror image of the same problem, the failure of the Sunni monarchy in Bahrain to equitably incorporate its large Shi’a population into the political system has led to political paralysis there[4]. Finally, the Sunni Islah party in Yemen, which was poised to take a prominent position during the political transition, has fallen into a sectarian contest with Zaidi political opponents. This has facilitated a dramatic Yemeni political breakdown. The self-serving sectarianism now prominent in a number of Islamist parties diminishes their credibility across the broader population, prevents them from articulating constructive narratives of political change, and risks fueling militancy within their own ranks.

Internal Threats

The effects of the three external shocks just discussed have severely disrupted the narratives of Islamist movements, but there has also been a failure of leadership within Islamist movements themselves, triggering internal divisions. Successful Islamist movements like the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, the Jamaat-e-Islami in Pakistan, or the Front Islamique du Salud (FIS) in Algeria have usually built their success on crafting an umbrella movement that can accommodate a wide range of worldviews and political interests within a compelling, but generic, political narrative. Under duress, however, these umbrella movements have a tendency to fragment along ideological and strategic lines, as members seek out differing responses to the movement’s dilemmas. One effect of this fragmentation is that divergent interests and their supporting narratives emerge from within the movement, compounding the problem of staying on message.

Direct governmental repression of Islamist movements, such as that recently witnessed in Egypt, Bahrain, and Bangladesh, forces supporters of non-violent participatory movements to re-evaluate whether they are willing to play by the government’s rules when those rules are explicitly designed to be exclusionary. Some supporters are likely to decide to hold the party line, hoping to expose the government’s moral weaknesses and wait the repression out. Others, however, are likely to see nothing but failure in such a strategy, given strong government signals, and thus move directly to a strategy of contentious politics. In other cases, where Islamist movements feel a loss of efficacy because of political constraints or because of the consequences of poor political decisions, a similar split in strategy may occur between supporters of the status quo and those who push for a much more proactive narrative, despite the risks. As these divisions play out, it leads to uncertainty among observers about both the core ideology and the political endgame of the movement.

As the combined result of authoritarian resurgence after a period of uncertainty, the rapid expansion of violent jihadism, a newly assertive sectarian politics within Islam, and internal strategic and ideological splits within Islamist movements, the core identity of many Islamist movements is now in question. While the individual identities of many central actors in political Islam have been reasonably stable, the collective, public identity of Islamist movements in the Arab world and beyond has been in rapid transition. This dramatic and multi-directional identity transition has not been good for the more mainstream Islamist movements. It creates real challenges for them in achieving their longstanding political objectives of generating constructive social change within an Islamic normative framework. This identity crisis impedes these movements in large part due to how it affects the narratives that movements tell about themselves and those that are told about them.

Narrative matters deeply for Islamist movements because it connects them to their potential base, without which they are unable to accomplish their political and social goals. As with all political movements, the careful construction of a political brand and change story is central to political mobilization, and political campaigns inevitably spend a large portion of their resources constructing their brand and story. In much of the Islamic world, however, and particularly in the Middle East, mainstream Islamist movements have now lost control of their core brand, and stories are told about them so often that much of their own storytelling is relegated to defending their story in the face of alternatives told by others: by governments, by militants, and by political opponents.

This creates impediments to the future success of Islamist movements that are not likely to change in the near term. To the extent that movements will be able to reclaim their narrative and the political benefits that come with it, it will likely be due to conscientious leadership decisions and unequivocal messaging around key areas of current uncertainty: position on the use of violence, articulation of human rights, relationships to other Islamist movements and sects, the role of religion in society, and the appropriate role of the state. While in previous periods it was easier for movements to be ambivalent on some of these issues and still craft a compelling narrative, in the new world of Islamism strong, vocal positions on these issues will be more critical to brand management. Indeed, the one Islamist group that has been most narratively consistent on these issues in recent years, the Islamic State group, has been by far the most effective in terms of narrative definition. While mainstream Islamist groups should certainly not imitate its brand, they will need to become much clearer and more vocal regarding their own brand if they are to retain or regain political efficacy within their political systems.

[1]As one example from the Ennahda party newsletter in December 2015, prominent pieces focused on “Ennahda statement following terrorist attack on presidential guard bus,” “Ennahda statement on terrorist criminal act in Sidi Bouzid,” “Ennahda calls for national conference on combatting terrorism,” as well as links to articles titled: “Want to beat the Islamic State? Help Tunisia,” and “Moderate Islam: Ennahda.” Ennahda Party Tunisia Newsletter, December 7, 2015.

[2]The Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood has called jihadi attacks against the Egyptian state a “massacre,” offering condolences to the victims’ families, and argued that “the shedding of blood of any Egyptian is forbidden.” See “Egypt’s Outlawed Muslim Brotherhood Condemns Sinai Attacks, Reuters, October 26, 2014.

[3]Leading Saudi Shi’a cleric Nimr al-Nimr was executed by the Saudi regime in January 2016 for political offenses, despite international protests and a predictable wave of violent anti-Saudi protest in the aftermath of the execution.

[4]Despite widespread popular electoral support for the Shi’a dominated reformist al-Wefaq party, the party has been systematically targeted by the state, and the leading Shi’a cleric in Bahrain, Sheikh Ali Salman, has been arrested and jailed. The Bahraini regime consistently (and falsely) argues that its political opposition is the result of Iranian machinations.

Quinn Mecham is an assistant professor in the department of political science and Brigham Young University. 

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