Rethinking Political Islam? Think Again

By Tarek Masoud, Harvard University

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

Before “rethinking” political Islam, it is useful to ask why we “think” about political Islam in the first place. What is it about this phenomenon that makes it a useful or interesting object of social scientific inquiry? To what extent do the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood’s acquisition of power, its exercise of power, and its eventual expulsion from power vindicate our past interest in the phenomenon of political Islam? And, just as importantly, what do those episodes teach us about how (and whether) we should think about political Islam in the future?

I argue that much of the scholarship on political Islam has sprung three motivations. The first is disciplinary. Events such as the 1979 Iranian revolution and the later electoral successes of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and of Ḥamas in Palestine were viewed by some — particularly those outside the field of Middle Eastern political studies — as living rejoinders to two related but distinct bits of social science orthodoxy. The first is the so-called secularization thesis, which deemed the political salience of religion to be a relic of the pre-modern era. [1] In this way of looking at the world, the rise and success of Islamist parties was an aberration. To deal with it, many scholars adapted Emile Durkheim’s 1951 narrative of how social change drives individuals to suicide.[2] The literature on Islamism is thus replete with explanations of the phenomenon that are rooted in social, economic, and political dysfunctions that are said to so discombobulate Muslim citizens that they are forced, not to kill themselves (as Durkheim thought), but to do something almost as drastic — to seek refuge in the comforting certainties of religion.

The second bit of social science wisdom thrown momentarily into doubt by Islamism’s power was the rational actor model — a particularly thick version of which holds that individuals should vote based on their material interests rather than on the basis of religious feeling. As voters queued up to cast their ballots for self-described guardians of faith, social scientists queued up to explain why such people were (or were not) sublimating their economic interests on the altar of fealty to Allah. [3]

There is not room in this memo to definitively resolve these debates, but the three years from Hosni Mubarak’s overthrow to Mohamed Morsi’s removal have provided considerable evidence that public support for Islamist parties (at least in Egypt) was neither an aberrant regression to pre-modern superstition nor a mass suspension of rationality. For example, my research on the determinants of voting in the 2011 parliamentary election suggests that the majority of voters for the Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party (Ḥizb al-Ḥurriya wa al-Adala) chose it because they believed this well-known and well organized party when it promised to redistribute wealth and shore up Egypt’s crumbling welfare state. When it inevitably failed to do so, the voters’ retribution was swift, as evidenced in the rapid constriction of the Islamist vote share after that initial legislative victory — from two thirds of voters to barely a quarter of voters in May of 2012 presidential elections –and the eventual mass movement to expel Mohamed Morsi from power in the summer of 2011. To further illustrate the fragility of mass support for Islamists: In a survey of 1,675 Egyptians conducted by the author in November 2011, more than 70 percent of voters claimed they had “some confidence” or were “very confident” in the Muslim Brotherhood. In a survey conducted for TahrirTrends almost two years later, in June 2013, the share of Egyptians evincing confidence in the once-great Islamic movement had declined to under 40 percent. Political Islam’s place in hearts and minds was always highly contingent — not on religious irrationality, but on Islamist parties’ real world performance.

The second reason we (and by “we” I mean U.S. scholars) studied political Islam is geopolitical. For example, U.S. policymakers have long fretted that an Islamist takeover in Egypt would wrench that country out of its comfortable slot in the U.S. orbit. This was, of course, and understandable concern. After all, article 2 of the Muslim Brotherhood’s general bylaws declares the movement’s aim to “liberate the Islamic nation in all of its parts from every non-Islamic power, to help Muslim minorities everywhere, and to strive to unite the Muslims until they become one community.”

This is a goal that sits particularly uneasily with America’s longstanding commitment to the survival of the state of Israel. In 2004, the man who would become Egypt’s first democratically-elected president, Mohamed Morsi — then a member of Mubarak’s parliament — demanded that then-President Hosni Mubarak expel the Israeli ambassador, cut all ties with the Jewish state, and support Hamas “financially and, if possible, militarily.”

Mubarak obviously ignored Morsi, but when the latter man took office in his own right eight years later, observers had reason to believe that a new era of confrontation between Egypt and the United States had arrived. When Israel launched Operation Pillar of Cloud against Hamas in November 2012, one could have been forgiven for thinking that Morsi would do what he had asked Mubarak to do eight years previously and break with Israel. Alas, this did not happen. Instead of arming Hamas during the Israeli assault, Morsi worked with U.S. President Barak Obama’s administration to bring about a cessation of hostilities, earning praise from the U.S. president for his pragmatism and “engineer’s precision.” In fact, so much of a handmaiden of the United States was Morsi perceived to be that the Tamarrud petition specifically mentioned the president’s obedience to “the Americans” as a reason for the necessity of his removal. So, if our interest in Islamism stems from fear that they represent an obstacle to U.S. interests abroad, the balance of the evidence suggests that the fear was misplaced.

The third, and in my view most important, reason we study political Islam is normative. We have long worried that Islamists might represent a threat to two things that we care about in the West: liberty and democracy. Consequently, we dedicated a great deal of scholarly energy to exploring whether Islamists might eventually embrace a more capacious view of individual freedom, and we have investigated whether they are telling the truth when they say they believe in democracy.

The brief experience of Islamism in power has given us precious little reason to revise the view of Islamists as fundamentally illiberal. Though the Muslim Brotherhood and its allies spoke often of individual freedom, the reality was that their vision of individual freedom proved to be one that was heavily bounded. However, it proved bounded not simply by conceptions of God’s will, but also by the same belief in a strong Egyptian state, in the idea of “haybat al-dawla” (the grandeur of the state), that was an over-riding concern of the Mubarak regime (and which is now an oft-stated concern of the regime that excised Morsi from office). Thus, one can find numerous statements by Muslim Brotherhood figures during their period in power testifying to the inadmissibility of popular protest, to the courage and uprightness of the (as of yet unreformed) police, and to the necessity of obeisance to the armed forces. In this sense, though the Brothers were almost irredeemably illiberal, it does not appear to be their Islamism that made them so. Instead, the illiberalism that so worried us about this movement was something more properly understood as residing within, and emerging from, an entire political system.

Related to, but distinct from, the view of Islamists as illiberal is the view of Islamists as undemocratic. The charge is best encapsulated in former U.S. diplomat Edward Djerejian’s line that Islamists believe not in “one man, one vote,” but in “one man, one vote, one time.” Validating Djerejian’s prediction, the Egyptian minister of defense and architect of the July 3 coup against Morsi, General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, declared in an August 18, 2013 speech to members of the Egyptian police and armed forces that the Muslim Brotherhood had revealed to him “that they came to rule for 500 years.” According to the Egyptian novelist Alaa al-Aswany, Morsi “climbed the democratic ladder to power only to kick it away after him so that no one else could join him up there.” Others, of course, counter that Islamists didn’t kick the democratic ladder out behind them; they had the democratic rug pulled out from under them.

Adjudicating these charges is beyond the scope of this essay, but an examination of one of the most damning episodes in Morsi’s tenure sheds some light. In November 2012, Morsi issued a series of unilateral amendments to the Egyptian constitution, in which he declared that his word was “final and binding and cannot be appealed by any way or to any entity,” and that he was empowered to “take the necessary actions and measures to protect the country and the goals of the revolution.” According to the scholar Jason Brownlee, this was the equivalent of an autogolpe, an abrogation of democracy every bit as egregious as his ouster at the point of a gun eight months later. Though Morsi was ultimately forced to rescind that decree, to many it revealed something fundamentally authoritarian about the president and the movement of which he was a part, and thus legitimated a popular, extra-constitutional movement to oust him.

The president’s supporters, in contrast, justify his actions as necessary to protect Egypt’s fledgling democracy against the depredations of the leftovers of the Mubarak regime, particularly within the judiciary. For example, the president’s supporters charge that Morsi had to declare himself above judicial review because the judiciary had proven itself hostile to Egypt’s democratic experiment. Most notably, on the eve of Morsi’s election in June 2012, the Supreme Constitutional Court dissolved the Islamist-dominated lower house of parliament that had been elected six months earlier. [4] By the time of Morsi’s November constitutional declaration, it appeared as if the court was preparing to dissolve the 100-member committee that was then writing the country’s new constitution, as well as the sole remaining democratically elected legislative body, the upper house, or Consultative Council (Majlis al-Shura). Supporters of the president argue that the specific decisions Morsi wished to protect from the judiciary were those mandating the continuation of both of those democratically legitimated bodies. In this telling, Morsi’s constitutional declaration was not an attempt to destroy democracy, but to save it. It will be for future historians to determine which of these two contending narratives is correct, even as the continuing constriction of Egypt’s democratic space after Morsi’s ouster would seem to validate the latter position.

Where does all of this leave us? If our concern with political Islam was that it represented an irrational religious reaction to the modern world, or that it represented a challenge to American power influence, or even that it represented a uniquely illiberal and anti-democratic force in the Muslim world, those concerns (and the attendant research agendas) can now be put to rest. Instead of rethinking political Islam, we may wonder if political Islam is the right thing to be thinking about at all right now. For, if the events of the last several months in Egypt (and the comparatively encouraging ones in Tunisia, which now celebrates the ratification of a liberal constitution) have taught us anything, it is that instead of fretting over what Islamists do, say, and believe, we should instead direct our attentions to the broader social, economic, and structural factors that have rendered much of the Arab world, even at this late date in human history, stunningly bereft of the prospects for democratic, representative, and accountable government.

Tarek Masoud is an associate professor of public policy at Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government. He is the author of Counting Islam: Religion, Class, and Elections in Egypt (2014), and is co-editor of Order, Conflict, and Violence (2008) and Problems and Methods in the Study of Politics (2004).



[1] Norris, Pippa, and Ronald Inglehart. 2011. Sacred and Secular: Religion and Politics Worldwide. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

[2] See Munson, Z. (2001), “Islamic Mobilization: Social Movement Theory and the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood.” The Sociological Quarterly, 42: 487–510 and Durkheim, Emile. 1951. Suicide: A Study in Sociology. New York, NY: Free Press.

[3] Apologies for self-citation. See Masoud, Tarek. 2014. Counting Islam: Religion, Class, and Elections in Egypt. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

[4] In fact, it was the Court’s dissolution of parliament that made it possible for Morsi to even issue his “constitutional declaration,” as it generated a unique situation in which both legislative authority came to rest first in the hands of the military and later in the hands of the president.

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