Islamist Movements and the Political After the Arab Uprisings

By Roel Meijer, Radboud University Nijmegen, The Netherlands, and Ghent University, Belgium

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

One of the most fascinating aspects of political Islam is the relationship between politics and religion. The main question is: What is meant by politics and the political in Islamist politics? There is no straightforward answer to this question, but it is clear that the Arab Uprisings have made a difference. For the first time Islamist movements have emerged as full-blown political actors who have not been severely restricted by authoritarian regimes — at least not in the way of the past (with the exception of the Islamic Salvation Front (FIS) in Algeria from 1989 to 1991). This has given us more than enough evidence of how Islamist movements operate when the political opportunity structure is in their favor and they can share or even assume power.

Many studies of Islamist movements have adopted a low-key definition of politics. Rather than a struggle for power, politics is regarded as a struggle for the recognition of a certain definition of the good as well as the norms and values that underpin a community, which is in the process of building a parallel society. This applies to the long period when Islamist movements were on the receiving end of politics and their struggle could be regarded as a form of counterpolitics. But it is hard to see this as the full story after the fall of Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali and Hosni Mubarak. The minute those leaders fell and the Tunisian and Egyptian political fields opened up, the nature of the politics changed as well. From that moment onward Islamist movements could be held accountable for their “normal” political actions.

I will adopt a definition of politics from two sources: Pierre Rosanvallon and Chantal Mouffe. Their definitions are directed against totalitarianism and should be regarded as an attempt at saving politics from being swamped by ideologies that they regard as basically apolitical. Rosanvallon accuses communism of committing “politicide” and Mouffe argues that many ideologies, including neo-liberalism (politics reduced to economics), pursue what she calls “antipolitics.” These ideologies disregard the essential ingredients of politics, such as the recognition of difference, acceptance of the clash of interests, and the legitimacy of dissent. As a result, they are incapable of understanding ways to solve conflicts by deliberation. While these ideologies strive for a utopian peace — found in unity, indivisibility, and fraternity (or the market) — they in fact promote repression in the service of a new communitarian whole, based on “excommunication or expulsion” of dissent.[1] According to Mouffe, “The opponent should be considered not as an enemy to be destroyed, but as an adversary whose existence is legitimate and must be tolerated.”[2] The return of the political during the Arab Uprisings should have led to the return of the struggle for civil, political, and social rights, freedom, and individuality, within a context of mutual recognition. In short: the return of the citizen (al-muwatin).

The Muslim Brotherhood

In the two decades preceding the Arab Uprisings, many researchers observed that the ideology of the Muslim Brotherhood was undergoing a major change. The Brotherhood was becoming more democratic in acknowledging the rights of women and minorities (Copts) as equal citizens, allowing for the establishment of political parties (hizbiyya), and recognizing the importance of elections, the principle of difference (ikhtilaf), and the value of the rule of law. Furthermore, the Brotherhood had opened up to other movements, embracing pluralism (taaddudiyya), the civil state (al-dawla al-madaniyya), and other liberal conceptions through which antagonisms could be solved in a peaceful manner. In its liberalized form, Islam was no longer a total system (al-nizam al-kamil); rather it was subject to multiple interpretations and diversity. Nobody held a monopoly over the truth and the attempt to establish an Islamic state was shelved.[3]

Some regarded this trend as a major step towards democracy, others as a transition to post-Islamism (Asef Bayat emphasizes the change from duties to rights), where the goal was no longer political power but gratification of individual endeavors.[4]

Leaving aside the issue of whether or not only a small minority within the Brotherhood had embraced these new values, the question of what all of this meant for the concept of politics upheld by the Brotherhood was rarely asked — with the exception of the Grey Zones report of Carnegie Endowment[5]. Did the Brotherhood accept politics as a separate field of activity with its own logic and laws, regarding Islam as just a system of values and ethics, or did it not? One of the basic criteria in answering this question was whether the Brotherhood separated the movement from the political party. Creating an independent party would have constituted a first step towards a modern concept of politics because it would have been independent from the “sheikhs.”

After the Arab Uprisings we know that we have been far too optimistic about the changes within the Brotherhood. Although the Brotherhood may have accepted terms such as citizenship and civil state, and even the people’s sovereignty, and the “will of the people” (iradat al-shaab), it is clear that the Brotherhood did not accept politics and the political in the sense mentioned above. If politics in Marxism was erased in the blissful, classless society, the Brotherhood’s concept of politics was shot through with the ambiguous relationship between politics and religion. Tracing the political thought of Brotherhood General Guides Hasan al-Hudaybi in the 1960s and 1970s and Umar al-Tilmisani in the 1980s shows that they claimed that belief (iman) and morals were the basic tenets of politics. The problem has always been that the Brotherhood presents political problems as religious problems that can be solved by iman, akhlaq (proper conduct/ethics), etc., not as issues that should be solved by deliberation.[6] As Carrie Rosefsky Wickham has demonstrated, the Brotherhood’s members can hold totally contradictory views derived from the same source, such as Hasan al-Banna’s founding discourse.[7] The same ambiguity is reflected in other terms that the Brotherhood utilizes, such as the citizen (al-muwatin). Is the Egyptian foremost a citizen with rights that can be freely debated, or is he/she a believer with vague and restricted rights?

These contradictions within the movement have become even more pronounced during the Arab Uprisings when politics for the first time emerged unhampered. The Brotherhood’s General Guide Mohamed Badie did use terms such as citizenship, citizen rights, and the will of the people, but it is unclear if the will of the people can contradict the will of God (or that of the Brotherhood). All three concepts blended into each other in Badie’s pronouncements, becoming a one and the same indivisible whole.[8] This meant that even if the Brotherhood pursued elections to gain power and later claimed legality on the basis of these elections, it did this on the basis of majority rule not on the basis of outreach, building coalitions, and political deliberation with opponents. The Brotherhood’s basic problem was the acceptance of legitimate difference. Moreover, its concept of power was totally geared to taking over the existing state, not in producing a new civil or political order.


Paradoxically, it seems that the more doctrinaire Salafis have fared better than the Muslim Brotherhood in this respect. Doctrine, purity, piety, and asceticism even, are much more important to Salafis than to the Muslim Brotherhood. But this is exactly the reason why the Salafis can accept politics and are much more flexible than the Brotherhood. While the Brotherhood is a modern ideological movement that has acquired many of its traditions and ways of thinking from Western political movements in the 1930s (without apparently fundamentally revising its concept of politics), the roots of Salafism go back to the Abbasids and the problematic relations between the ulama and the rulers. In this political struggle the Hanbalis acquired power over religious doctrine while the ruler gained the right to determine politics – creating a separation between politics and religion. Though officially the ruler was the defender of Islam, the relations between the two and even more so between rulers and people was minimal and problematic. In fact, true Salafis abhor politics and want nothing to do with it. They will not go further than a discrete guidance (nasiha) to the ruler.

This deep distrust of politics is reflected in the predominance of religious doctrine in Salafism and the utopian sense of community associated with its own version of politicide: When everybody acts in accordance with the sharia, a just society is established and there is no need for politics. One must obey the ruler even if he is despotic because otherwise chaos (fawda) and strife (fitna) will reign and prevent the true religion from being spread. This distrust is clear from the fact that they never developed a clear political vocabulary: terms such as fitna, wali al-amr, bid‘a, kufr, or hisba are not political terms, although they have political implications.

Even the so-called political Salafis, the so-called politicos, are not political in the modern sense of the word, because the doctrine of al-khuruj applies only if the ruler does not apply the sharia and is impious, not if he is unjust, brutal, incompetent, in short a bad politician. There is no theory in Islam comparable to Machiavelli’s prince, who is analyzed on his political merits not on his moral qualities. It is all about the personality of the ruler not the political system.

Ironically, it is perhaps the sheer weakness of political doctrine in Salafism that has allowed it to play a more important political role than the political doctrine in the Brotherhood has allowed. The tremendous political void that the Salafis never really filled has allowed Salafis the political space to react more flexibly than the Brotherhood and accept the vocabulary of the political (constitutions, citizenship, political difference, the nation). By accepting these terms the Salafis succeeded in becoming more pragmatic than the Brotherhood, which never reversed its claim to hold the political truth and make claims to a political vision and political allegiance. Because Salafis focus on the purification of doctrine and ethics and view the state and the political as corrupt, they were eventually willing to work with the secular opposition as well as with the military.

The major problem for Salafis is implementing sharia, which is more important for Salafis than for the Brotherhood. The political diversity of Salafism has been astonishing, ranging from Marxism to Costa Salafis to obedience to the powers that be. What is conspicuous in all of this is that Salafis’ main political drive is the social. It is their emphasis on social rights and equality that drives their politics.

As with Calvinism, the main values of Salafism (obedience to a transcendental God, virtue, piety, honesty, civic responsibility, equality, and social justice) might be a better way of grounding one’s politics than on the power of an organization. In this sense they are more in tune with the rise of the concept of citizenship as a central issue during the Arab Spring. It is quite possible that their egalitarian ethics and concepts of the good and civility will produce surprising results in the future.

Roel Meijer is teaches history of the Middle East at Radboud University Nijmegen, The Netherlands and Ghent University, Belguim. He is a senior research fellow at the Clingendael, Netherlands Institute of International Relations. He is the editor of Global Salafism: Islam’s New Religious Movements (2009) and co-editor of The Muslim Brotherhood in Europe (2013).


[1] Pierre Rosanvallon, The Society of Equals, Cambridge: MA Harvard University Press, 2013, pp. 113-23.

[2] Chantal Mouffe, The Return of the Political, London: Verso, 1993, p. 4

[3] Roel Meijer, “The Problem of the Political in Islamist Movements,” in Whatever Happened to the Islamists? Salafis, Heavy Metal Muslims, and the Lure of Consumerist Islam, Amel Boubekeur and Olivier Roy (eds). London: Hurst & Co/Columbia University Press, 2012, pp. 27-60.

[4] Asef Bayat, Life as Politics: How Ordinary People Change the Middle East, Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2010.

[5] Nathan Brown, Amr Hamzawy and Marina Ottoway, Islamist Movements and the Democratic Process in the Arab World: Exploring the Grey Zones, 2006.

[6] Roel Meijer, “The Muslim Brotherhood and the Political: An Exercise in Ambiguity,” in Roel Meijer & Edwin Bakker (ed.) The Muslim Brotherhood in Europe, London: 2012, pp. 295-321

[7] Carrie Rosefsky Wickham, “What Would Hasan al-Banna Do? Modern (Re-)Interpretations of the Brotherhood’s Founding Discourse,” in Roel Meijer & Edwin Bakker (eds.) The Muslim Brotherhood in Europe, London: 2012, pp.241-248.

[8] Roel Meijer, “The Majority Strategy of the Muslim Brotherhood,” Die Orient, Vol. 54 No. 1 (2013), pp. 21-30


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