Rethinking Islamist Politics

By Carrie Rosefsky Wickham, Emory University  

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

What is the future of Islamist movement studies? What central trends and issues merit closer attention, and what are the conceptual and empirical challenges we are likely to encounter in our efforts to investigate them? In this memo, I offer a few reflections in the hope of contributing to a wider discussion.

Let me begin with a point that brooks no disagreement here, but which has yet to be fully absorbed by elected public officials, the media, and the wider public in the United States. And that is that not all Islamists are the same. The Islamic movement sector encompasses Sunni and Shiite groups, national liberation movements and movements primarily oriented toward domestic reform, Salafis and non-Salafis, jihadists and non-jihadists, Arabs and non-Arabs, and many other vectors of differentiation. Such heterogeneity makes any grand generalizations about the broader purposes of Islamist groups, as well as their internal dynamics, operational strategies, and immediate goals, problematic at best and nonsensical at worst.

Going deeper, we find differentiation and complexity within Islamist organizations as well. Much of the literature on Arab politics has tended to treat the Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamist groups as unitary players in a multi-actor field encompassing the regime, the military, and other organized civilian groups. The focus has typically been on how the agendas and tactical choices of Islamist groups are shaped by the wider political environment in which they are embedded, tracking, for example, how they have responded to the different institutional cues associated with state policies of repression, accommodation, and indifference. By contrast, the complex and murky terrain of politics within Islamist groups has remained, to a large degree, terra incognita.

In particular, the nature of internal factions, the (shifting) balance of power among them, and the issues of ideology, strategy, and group practice that have emerged as central pivots of debate have yet to be mapped out with any precision. The same can be said about other key features of Islamist movement organization and dynamics. For example, Islamist groups’ sources of funding, their methods of recruitment, socialization, training and vetting of new members, and their processes for selecting leaders, allocating resources, and formulating policy remain opaque.

Likewise, the distribution of power among the executive, legislative, and administrative arms of Islamist groups — between their national and local branch offices and between Islamist movement organizations (jamaiyaat) and their political arms — remains unclear. Finally, we still know very little about how elected Islamist representatives in parliament relate to the constituents in their home districts. Such gaps in our knowledge expose the risibility of the gross overgeneralizations and simplifications that characterize much of the public discourse about Islamist groups in the West. Indeed, the closer and the longer one has studied an Islamist movement organization like the Muslim Brotherhood, the fuzzier the facts become, and the more obvious it becomes that what we know is dwarfed by what we don’t know by a wide margin.

What are the causes of such knowledge gaps, and what are their broader implications? Let me begin with the causes. First, it has been difficult for Western researchers to gain access to unfiltered information about Islamist groups, i.e., by observing their day-to-day operations over a sustained time period. It is difficult to imagine the leaders of an Islamist group permitting a movement outsider — let alone a Westerner — to sit in on important policy meetings or witness an internal vote. Likewise, Islamist leaders are reluctant to share information about membership and finances, which, in the wrong hands, could compromise their organizational survival. As a result, physical documentation — membership rolls, budgets, charters, and vote tallies  — is often missing or inaccessible. This is particularly true for a group like Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood, which for most of its history has remained technically illegal and endeavored to operate under the radar of the state authorities. More broadly, the Western research tradition, predicated on the values of data collection and transparency, is an exotic bird, an alien species, in the context of ongoing struggle between authoritarian regime leaders and their opponents.

At the same time, the deficiencies in our knowledge base are in part a consequence of our own research choices. These include the bias of most Western researchers (myself included) to focus their attention on national leaders and dynamics over local ones, to the point that our exposure to how such groups operate rarely transcends the confines of their headquarters in the capital city. In addition, we too often content ourselves with interviewing — and deriving the bulk of our information from — those Islamist leaders keenest to speak with us, rather than pushing for access to those who regard our agendas with the greatest suspicion. As a result, we end up with a depiction of how Islamist groups function from one point of view, without the means to corroborate its validity. Finally, the bureaucratic red tape, the logistical challenges, the linguistic demands, and the sheer amount of time and energy required to track down key informants and persuade them to be interviewed, as well as the expenses and the time demands associated with sustained fieldwork, create a situation in which the number of researchers willing and able to fill existing knowledge gaps is quite small.

So why, one might reasonably ask, does all this matter? Because, I would argue, without a clearer picture of what is going on within Islamist groups, we lack the tools to assess how and why Islamist leaders choose the path they do at, especially at critical junctures when a number of alternative paths are available. Indeed, as long as we continue to study Islamist groups “at a distance,” their actions will remain open to conflicting interpretations, and we will lack the data necessary to adjudicate among them.

By way of example, consider the conflicting depictions of Mohamed Morsi’s brief tenure as president in Egypt. A first pivot of debate concerns the locus of decision-making authority within the Brotherhood after its ascent to the heights of state power. In particular, to what extent was President Morsi acting in consultation with — or implementing explicit directives from — members of the Brotherhood’s Guidance Bureau? What kinds of communication flows and modalities of influence operated among the President, his close advisors, the Guidance Bureau, and the Freedom and Justice Party’s senior leadership? We can pose these questions in general, as well as with respect to the Brotherhood’s policy choices at critical junctures in Egypt’s transition. For example, when President Morsi issued the fateful edict placing his actions above judicial review in November 2012, to what extent was he acting alone, under direct instructions from the Guidance Bureau, or with the backing of a consensus within the Brotherhood movement sector as a whole? The same questions can be posed with respect to Morsi’s defiance in the face of mass protests and a military ultimatum last summer, and following his ouster, the decision to occupy the square near Rabaa al-Adawiya mosque in defiance of government orders, setting the stage for the military’s clearance of the area by force. Without a deeper understanding of the Brotherhood’s internal dynamics, including a clearer sense of who was directly involved in setting its agenda, with what motivations, and with what level of broader support within movement circles, it is difficult to ascertain whether, when, and how decisions made by Brotherhood leaders occupying different positions in the organization contributed to the group’s downfall.

Since Morsi’s ouster and the interim government’s crackdown on the Brotherhood — involving the arrests of hundreds of its leaders, the freezing of its assets, and the banning of all of its activities — the obstacles to gathering accurate information have increased exponentially. As a result, we know very little about how the Brotherhood’s senior leadership is reacting to the siege, and what cleavages and fissures have emerged among them. Likewise, we have little sense of how Brotherhood members are processing Morsi’s ouster, and who and how many hold Morsi and other top decision-makers in the group accountable for its latest setbacks. More broadly, we don’t have a clear sense of whether the Brotherhood’s ordeal has intensified group norms of solidarity and loyalty to existing leaders, fueled calls for reform, and/or spurred radicalization and calls for violence. Analysis of such issues will be difficult as long as so many of the Brotherhood’s core leadership remain in state custody or on the run. But pieces of the picture can be gleaned from interviews with Egyptian researchers, journalists, civil society activists, and Brotherhood members with direct knowledge of emergent trends in movement circles.

To sum up, one of the most striking features of public discourse on Islamist groups in the West is that those who know the least are the most inclined to issue sweeping pronouncements about such groups with the highest degree of confidence. Even a cursory glance at the gross distortions blithely marketed as truth on conservative U.S. television stations and radio networks is sufficient to underscore this point. By contrast, those of us who have been studying and interacting with leaders of Islamist groups for years are typically the first to acknowledge that our understanding of many of the most important dimensions of Islamist movement dynamics remains sketchy and incomplete. Even studies, like my own, that draw on intensive fieldwork, have only managed to scratch the surface of the complex terrain of relationships, processes, and shifting tides of influence and power within the Muslim Brotherhood, Ennahda, the Justice and Development Party, the Islamic Action Front, and other Islamist groups in the Arab world.

This is an exciting time in the field of Islamist movement studies, as there are many new and important questions to explore. For those who study mainstream Islamist groups in the Arab world, one of the key issues meriting further analysis is when and why the integration of Islamists into the democratic process succeeds or fails, a question inviting comparison of various experiments in integration before and after the Arab Spring in Morocco, Algeria, Libya, Tunisia, Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, Palestine, Kuwait, and Yemen. And of course, the definition of “success” or “failure,” as much as Islamist groups’ underlying dynamics, requires further elaboration. In addition, the time has come for a critical assessment of the impact of rational choice analysis on the study of Islamist groups. There is no doubt that rational choice offers a useful set of tools for analyzing the behavior of political actors, Islamists included. Yet, due in part to the influence of rational choice as the reigning paradigm in the discipline of political science, the role of culture, values, and ideological commitments as drivers of political action remain under-described and under-theorized. How are Islamist actors different from other actors who are not motivated by religious commitments? How do religious commitments interact with other personal motivations, and with strategic considerations of partisan advantage? Shifting from the individual to the group as the primary unit of analysis, why do some understandings of Islam, and some conceptions of the best way to advance it, come to prevail over others?

Finally, one might ask, what broader local, regional, and global trends will shape the evolution of Islamist movement organizations in the future?

This is just a brief review of some of the more interesting questions worth exploring in the field of Islamist movement studies; there are undoubtedly many others, which my colleagues will delineate. But while there are many important macro-level trends to investigate, and meta-level theoretical issues to consider, I would like to conclude this memo with a pitch for greater attention to the micro-level norms, institutions, practices, and dynamics of Islamist groups, an understanding of which is arguably a prerequisite for the identification of valid causal inferences about the underpinnings of Islamist behavior. In essence, this is a call for the kind of “thick description” advocated by Clifford Geertz, and more broadly, for the application of ethnographic methods typically associated with the discipline of anthropology to the political analysis of Islamist groups, involving sustained, in-depth, close-up observation of Islamist actors and institutions in the field. To put it bluntly, whatever macro- domestic, regional and global trends merit analysis, we can’t take their full measure without a deeper understanding of the groups in question. Dare I say it, this is a pitch for the kind of inductive, open-ended research, rooted in a deep, contextual knowledge of a particular time and place, that has become increasingly marginalized and devalued by many of the leading associations, journals, grant-making institutions, and university departments in our discipline. As someone who has studied Islamist groups for over 20 years, I am convinced that any theorizing about Islamist movements is only as good as the quality of the information underlying it. Unless and until we make the close and careful description of Islamist institutions and practices a higher priority, the validity of any broad assertions about the future of political Islam will remain open to doubt.

Carrie Rosefsky Wickham is an associate professor of political science at Emory University. She is the author of The Muslim Brotherhood: Evolution of an Islamist Movement (2013) and Mobilizing Islam: Religion, Activism and Political Change in Egypt (2002). 

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