Is the Post-Islamism Thesis Still Valid?

By Peter Mandaville, George Mason University

* This memo was prepared for the “Rethinking Islamist Politics” conference, January 24, 2014. 

Islamism has been undergoing significant transformation over the past decade and one is often hard pressed today to find a straightforward answer to the question “who is an Islamist?” This is in large measure a story of how conventional Islamism — as represented by the Muslim Brotherhood — has progressively lost market share in recent years to a diverse range of alternative Islamic socio-political projects. The classic paradigm of modernist political Islam was premised on the idea that one’s Islamist persona was expressed through formal membership in a political organization. In other words, being an Islamist was something one had to make time for as a separate and discrete component of social life. By contrast, many of today’s Islamist alternatives are organized around spaces and activities associated with what social theorist Henri Lefebvre denoted the realm of everyday life. Here being an Islamist has as much to do with lifestyle — how one consumes, studies, spends leisure time — as it does with joining a political movement. The pluralization of Islamic socio-political space and the Muslim Brotherhood’s loss of monopoly over the claim to articulate an Islamic social order is hence a major force shaping the future of Islamism.

This particular account of Islamist politics is strongly associated with the post-Islamism thesis advanced by scholars such as Asef Bayat and Olivier Roy since at least the mid-1990s. While Bayat is to be credited for coining the term post-Islamism (in reference to the pragmatist orientation of Iran’s leadership after the death of Khomeini), the first substantive treatment of the theme is to be found in Olivier Roy’s book The Failure of Political Islam (1994, original French 1992). In this text, Roy argues that political Islam of the sort represented by the Muslim Brotherhood and the broader Ikhwani tradition had failed on two accounts. First, it had never succeeded in becoming a mass movement capable of capturing significant vote shares. At the time Roy was writing, this was very much the case, with the exception of the Islamic Salvation Front (FIS) in Algeria whose abortive victory occurred just as the book was going to press. Subsequent research in 2010 by Charles Kurzman and Ijlal Naqvi confirmed that most Islamist parties had attracted less than 8 percent of the vote in elections where they have stood — even when controlling for efforts by the state to interfere with the electoral process. Obviously this situation changed significantly in 2011 and 2012 with the strong electoral showings by Ennahda in Tunisia and the Freedom and Justice Party (FJP) in Egypt — of which more below.

Roy’s second argument in Failure is even more interesting. He observes that in the process of adapting and integrating themselves into political processes in the modern nation-state, Islamist movements and parties have rendered themselves ideologically indistinctive. That is to say, Islamists have found it progressively more difficult to offer up distinctively “Islamic” solutions to basic problems of governance and economy. Despite the well-known slogan “Islam is the solution,” Roy says, Islamists’ ideas and policy proposals differ little from those advanced by other parties in the center-right of the political spectrum. As Roy puts it, “The political logic won out over the religious logic.” Roy develops the post-Islamism thesis to its most mature form in a subsequent book, Globalized Islam, ten years later. Here he notes that increases in levels of piety in the Muslim world have been accompanied by a parallel retreat of religiosity into the private domain. In other words, Muslims may be more religious, but they are increasingly disinterested in Islamizing society via politicized Islam. The will to Islamic normativity, Roy contends, is now primarily privatized and individualized.

But to tell the story of our entry into post-Islamism as one whereby Muslims adopt an exclusively individualistic and politically quietist disposition — in which religiosity and pro-capitalist consumption practices intertwine — would be to ignore other important trends at work in the changing landscape of Muslim politics. Other scholars have noted that the shift toward more personalized idioms of religion does not necessarily entail a rejection of Islamic activism. On this account, a desire on the part of Muslims to engage in collective action in order to change society toward some conception of an Islamic ideal is still very present. Rather it is the nature and modalities of that collective action that seem to be changing. Viewed in this perspective — as the changing nature of Islamic activism rather than its demise — it becomes possible to postulate the emergence of various post-Islamist formations and models likely to become increasingly important to the future of Muslim politics:

(1)  The rise of Muslim “new social movements”

Following the model of broad, de-centralized trends based on the advocacy and expression of particular values rather than aspirations to achieve formal political power — such as the green movement in Europe — we can point to the emergence and growth of similar manifestations in the Muslim world. The movement around the Turkish reformist teacher and religious entrepreneur Fethullah Gulen is a case in point, as is the recent upsurge in loosely linked organizations and networks grounded in Salafi Islam.

(2)  The collapsing of Islamic activism into entertainment & leisure

Today we can point to the rise of Islamic hip hop, urban dress, and other popular culture forms as new spaces of resistance and activist expression. Moving beyond an emphasis on identity politics, however, it is also possible to point to spaces where the interface between Islam and entertainment potentially becomes more relevant to conventional politics. Islamic television programming of the sort pioneered by Amr Khaled and his vast coterie of emulators points to the vast potential for social mobilization that can be found by tapping into mass media spaces defined as “entertainment” and using them to encourage audiences to become socially engaged in changing the environments and conditions around them.

(3)  Platforms and hubs vs. formal organizations

The Amr Khaled phenomenon also points to something likely to be an increasingly common feature of Islamic activism (just as it in other domains of socially transformative practice today such as social entrepreneurship): a preference for working through platforms and network hubs rather than through formal, hierarchical social and political organizations. The idea here is that an activist can be most effective by offering a simple and compelling narrative or combined with a publicly accessible technology, such as websites and how-to manuals, that enables broad participation in pursuit of this vision. This model, typified by both Amr Khaled and al Qaeda, although obviously with very different end points in mind, succeeds by empowering individuals to achieve a collective outcome by aggregating their individual aspirations and interests in line with a broadly shared normative project.

There are a couple of commonalities that can be identified across these three distinct though clearly interrelated manifestations of post-Islamist activity. The first of these relates to the nature of the spaces and spheres of life in which they are embedded. As Asef Bayat notes, much post-Islamist activity takes the form of “nonmovements” — in the sense that they lack formal organization and rigid, centrally defined agendas or priorities — organized through the spaces and activities of everyday life. This is a vision of social change that eschews the idea of politics as an endeavor associated with, for example, the formation of political parties or the contestation of elections. Rather it focuses on the idea of expressing political preferences through choices and practices associated with the relatively mundane: eating, shopping, studying, working, etc. A second aspect to focus on relates to the extent to which all of these newer forms of Islamic activism implicate what sociologist Alberto Melucci calls “networks of shared meaning.” This concept alludes to the possibility of building and sustaining forms of social movement premised not on a rigid command and control structure, but on a shared commitment to a broad, and therefore broadly and variously defined, set of principles and social values — perhaps operationalized through reference to an individual, a collective narrative, or a set of texts that all serve as a unifying “brand.”

We should note that not all of this is new. The activities of the Muslim Brotherhood over the past thirty years have demonstrated the potential social capital that can accrue from building an enabling infrastructure of social mobilization located primarily in civil society, community, and neighborhood spaces. Indeed, precisely because the structures of formal political influence have been closed to Islamists they have been forced to find alternative venues through which to wield social power. The principle behind post-Islamist organization in “non-political” spaces is essentially the same. But the post-Islamist model contains important differences. Rather than colonizing civil society because one’s true goal, formal state power, is out of reach — as was previously the case with the Muslim Brotherhood and in the wake of the July 2013 coup perhaps is so once again — post-Islamists operate through the structures of everyday life precisely because they view these spaces as important conduits through which state power is wielded. In other words, by defining education, consumption, and leisure in relation to a particular conception of Islam they directly confront the state’s desire to mold and discipline its citizens in support of a different agenda. Viewed in this way, we can begin to see certain forms of post-Islamist mobilization as efforts to challenge the state’s monopoly to shape citizens and their normative horizons in particular ways. This is how we can appreciate Fethullah Gulen’s gradualist, multi-generational project to produce a cadre of Turkish elites who are comfortable with religion in the public sphere as a deeply political endeavor. Similarly, this perspective allows us to see why the Egyptian state began to view Amr Khaled’s Islamically infused self-improvement program as a potential political threat.

Some raised their eyebrows at the post-Islamism thesis in the aftermath of the Arab Uprisings given that the stunning initial victories of Ennahda and FJP appeared to suggest that we were very much entering the era of Islamism rather than emerging from it. But advocates of post-Islamism such as OIivier Roy maintained the core tenets of the argument, saying in essence that the Islamists who had been elected had no political space to implement a sharia-focused agenda and nor would such a agenda help to address the deep-seated socioeconomic problems that provided much of the impetus for the protests. FJP members of Mohamed Morsi’s cabinet, such as Minister for International Cooperation Amr Darrag, talked in terms of IMF loans and foreign direct investment, not Islam.

That is not to say, and nor has it ever been, that Islamism of the Ikhwani variety ceases to be relevant. Within the realm of formal politics, as recent developments in the Arab world have shown, Islamism remains a potent force — even if today it is on the defensive. The challenges associated with doing real politics and engaging in practical governance will likely have a significant impact on the Islamist movement. Ennahda has had a major impact on Tunisia’s political landscape but has also, in turn, been deeply affected by its participation in transitional politics. There is much going on in the way of trial and error and improvisation. And clearly the question of how the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood deals with the aftermath of the July 2013 military coup will be of tectonic importance in indicating the future direction of the modern Islamic movement.

So is the post-Islamism thesis still valid? Obviously there are many scholars and observers who never accepted it in the first place. But if we are simply asking whether the core ideas that define the post-Islamism thesis have enduring significance on their own terms in the wake of recent upheavals, the answer is yes. This is because post-Islamism has never been simply an account of whether political parties with an Islamic identity are present and/or successful in the formal political realm. Rather, post-Islamism seeks to understand the relationship between formal Islamic politics and other spaces in which various actors, networks, and movements pursue social agendas defined in terms of Islam.

Peter Mandaville is director of the Ali Vural Ak Center for Global Islamic Studies and an associate professor of government at George Mason University. Mandaville is a non-resident senior fellow in foreign policy studies at the Brookings Institution. He is the author of Global Political Islam (2007) and Transnational Muslim Politics: Reimagining the Umma (2001). He is co-editor of Politics from Afar: Transnational Diasporas & Networks (2012).


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