Progressive Problemshift or Paradigmatic Degeneration? Approaches to Islamism Since 2011

By Stacey Philbrick Yadav, Hobart and William Smith Colleges

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

Call me conservative, but let me explain. This workshop is a welcome opportunity to rethink assumptions, research strategies, and sources of evidence that we use in making sense of the role and impact of Islamism and Islamists, but I hope we won’t throw out the baby with the bath water. Changing circumstances and a broader variety of actors eager to engage directly with our scholarship should prompt a reevaluation of some of the analytic weaknesses advanced by earlier scholarship on Islamism. But a good number of the insights regarding Islamist practice developed over the decade preceding the uprisings of 2011 can and should continue to inform our collective approach. In other words, it seems like a good time to take stock, but with an eye toward progressive refinement in our theorizing more than any kind of paradigmatic rupture. I worry that if we rely too heavily on a before and after periodization in our thinking about the impact of the uprisings in the MENA region, we risk rearticulating some of the problems that led non-specialists to accuse of being “behind the curve,” and may lose some of the best insights that were developed over the course of the 2000s.

To avoid this, we should first take realistic stock of the weaknesses of the social science literature on Islamism. There are two in particular that concern me as I see little sign of them abating in post-2011 scholarship. One is an overreliance on Egypt as a focal point in understanding Islamism. There is no question that Egypt matters and that what happens in Egypt sends signals that are read by Islamists and non-Islamists elsewhere. But it is also the case that the interest in Egypt is path dependent: Prior to 2011, scholars of Islamism already displayed a well-developed Egyptocentrism. This may be partially justified on the basis of the Muslim Brotherhood’s origins and the intellectual impact of some Egyptian writers beyond Egypt’s borders. But it also led scholars to speculate about the possible future trajectories of Islamism in other contexts on the basis of the Brotherhood’s experience, an experience that has been driven by a range of factors that are more or less generalizable outside of Egypt. Even when eyes are on Egypt, it is a mistake to treat the message as uniform or to assume that eyes are also simultaneously elsewhere. Some scholarship, including my own, has attempted to depart from an Egyptocentric approach, but even then, the experience of the Muslim Brotherhood has remained firmly anchored as a primary point of contrast or departure.

The second, related risk that we run as a scholarly community is to continue the search for a kind of covering law to in some way “explain” Islamism in causal terms. My suspicion is that this gathering may be motivated by this impulse, but that our collective contributions to it will, as careful empirical work in the 2000s did, work against a generalizable “theory of Islamism.” To the extent that our scholarly comparisons are systematic — which they often are not and arguably should not entirely be — they seem to indicate that the factors that unite Islamists are few and far between, and those that do link them are more often organizational than ideological.[i] In other words, social science arguments about the impact of regime rules, responses to repression, strategies of framing, etc. have been far more helpful in understanding Islamist practice than investigations of shared ideology. These arguments themselves tend to represent “middle range” theories that serve most effectively as an interpretive toolkit for scholars making sense of diverse empirical stories than as a one-size-fits-all causal theory.

The Arab Uprisings (to the extent that capitalization is called for or that they constitute a unified phenomenon) offer another temptation, derivative of this search for generalizable theory: the development of a typology that maps variation in Islamist practice or identifies “kinds” of Islamists. This is an improvement on the binary moderate/radical distinction — which some in our group have rightfully critiqued at length — and typological approaches can foreground the kind of institutional factors, regime rules, and other considerations that scholarship suggests matters. But at the same time, a typology almost inevitably runs the risk of making that which is fluid and relational appear more fixed than it may be.

Rather than taking the diversity of experience that we can observe since 2011 as an opportunity to categorize and sort types of Islamism so that we might better generate reliable predictions about Islamist behavior, I hope that we will leverage and expand upon what we “got right” in the 2000s and will focus instead on giving reliable, context-dependent explanations of specific Islamists in relation to state and society in specific places. In this, I hope that we resist the impulse to approach post-2011 Islamism as fundamentally different or new. Islamism — and here, I would prefer to explicitly shift to the more analytically defensible notion of Islamist practice — has undoubtedly both responded to and driven some of the changes that we have observed in the region over the past three years. But those shifts can be made intelligible through the use of familiar interpretive lenses and research questions, and need not be thought of as necessitating a radical departure. Much of this comes from social movement theory, network analysis, and discourse analysis, and suggests that we need to be simultaneously more sensitive to the particularities of local context and more attentive to theoretical arguments developed outside of the MENA region, many of which further undermine the idea of Islamist exceptionalism.

So here, in a nutshell, is why I don’t think much has changed for Islamists or scholars of Islamism since 2011: Islamists are still fundamentally relational actors. They form alliances, oppose and/or challenge a range of interlocutors, engage with institutions, follow and/or subvert rules, frame arguments, etc. These are all things that Islamists did before 2011, and they are also things that non-Islamist actors are doing concomitantly, in relation to Islamists. I have been wary of approaching Islamists as a class of actors deserving of special conceptual consideration, as “variables” that can be isolated from the networks in which they decide, act, and argue. I see no reason to abandon such wariness now.

An approach to Islamists as actors embedded in relationships with a wide range of interlocutors and operating in the context of specific institutions, where institutions can be taken to include both formal rules and informal norms, seems a useful way to make sense of the variation and convergence that we observe in changing political contexts across the MENA region. The nature of those interlocutors and those institutions is changing, so we can expect Islamists are too. In particular, I remain quite interested in the question of alliances, and the fluctuations in opportunities for formal competition across the region make this an opportune time to analyze the drivers and limits of alliances involving Islamist and non-Islamist (or differently-Islamist) actors and organizations. It is also an exciting time for scholars, insofar as Islamists themselves seem more eager than ever to directly engage our scholarship and the flourishing of international conferences and other fora that bring together Arab activists (Islamist and non-Islamist) along with scholars and policy practitioners are enabling a set of conversations that both complicate our scholarship and promise to enrich it.

There are other changes that I suspect really do matter, as well, and I trust that others in our collective will emphasize them more than I have. I think of the impact of popular mobilization, the proliferation of regional conferences, workshops, and “trainings” for activists from across the region, the diffusion of arguments via a range of media technologies, the mimetic adaptation of these arguments to local conditions, and more. All of these seem to be fruitful points for investigating the contours of Islamist practice. My primary concern, however, is that we not artificially isolate Islamists in our consideration of these changing factors — by asking only about their conferences, diffusions, adaptations — in ways that they have not been isolated in practice, but instead work always to approach Islamists as situated alongside others who help to change them and are changed by them.

Stacey Philbrick Yadav is an assistant professor of political science at Hobart and William Smith Colleges. She is the author of Islamists and the State Legitimacy and Institutions in Yemen and Lebanon (2013).

[i] A new edited volume comparing the experiences of Islamist parties in the Middle East, South Asia, and Southeast Asia bears this out with great empirical clarity, evaluating twelve different hypotheses regarding Islamist practice derived from the literature of the 2000s, and finding that only two – both organizational in nature – have strong support across cases. Quinn Mecham and Julie Chernov Hwang, eds. Islamist Parties and Political Normalization in the Muslim World. University of Pennsylvania Press, forthcoming 2014.

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