Rethinking Post-Islamism and the Study of Changes in Islamist Ideology

By Michaelle Browers, Wake Forest University

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

The concept of “post-Islamism” has been at the center of debates regarding the historical evolution of political Islam for over two decades now. First put forth among French scholars (Olivier Roy, among others) who asserted that Islamism had failed, both intellectually and politically, and that Islamists were increasingly articulating secular or apolitical positions as a result, more recent iterations have criticized and revised notions of post-Islamism that are too closely tied to a historical narrative premised on Islamism giving way to something akin to secularism. Asef Bayat’s account of post-Islamism suggests that the anomalies of Islamic politics have opened up a productive, liminal space that is “neither anti-Islamic nor un-Islamic nor secular.”[1] He considers post-Islamism “both a condition and a project.”[2] The former refers to “a social and political condition where, following a phase of experimentation, the appeal, energy and sources of legitimacy of Islamism are exhausted even among its once-ardent supporters.”[3] The latter refers to an intellectual and ideological project, “a conscious attempt to conceptualize and strategize the rationale and modalities of transcending Islamism in social, political, and intellectual domains,” in light of those changing conditions.[4]

What I find appealing in Bayat’s formulation is that the outcome of this period of “experimentation” (or perhaps better: “testing”) remains open, and it does not assume a “failure” that results in a secular alternative as a foregone conclusion. At the same time, even in Bayat’s formulation vestiges remain of the failure model as he seems to impute a relation between failing a test (as cause) and ideological shift (as effect) that seems questionable in cases where no clear and identifiable period of Islamist experimentation has occurred (for example, in cases where Islamists did not achieve much in the way of social, political, and/or intellectual power) or where there has been a test of sorts but the outcome cannot really be categorized as failure. Further, despite the inclusion of an essay on Hezbollah in Bayat’s recent edited volume on post-Islamism, the character and development of that organization may very well call into question the notion of Islamist phase followed by post-Islamist phase.[5] Might it be the case that under certain conditions — where an Islamist organization or movement emerges as a distinctly transnational phenomenon or where it exists as a minority with an awareness of the unrealistic nature of its claim to political power in a particular context, to give two examples — that the Islamist stage (in the sense that Bayat and all of us who see Islamism as an ideological project use this characterization) never fully materializes so that it can be tested as such? In other words, might the projects articulated by groups that have little to show in the way of exhaustion after a period of testing also demonstrate at least some — and perhaps even a large measure — of the same ideological and intellectual characteristics that Bayat associates with post-Islamism? Of course, this might only suggest the prevalence of precisely the condition Bayat identifies.

Hezbullah emerges following the return of a number of key Lebanese clerics after Iraq’s Baathists expelled foreign students from Najaf in 1978 and in the wake of the 1979 Islamic Revolution in Iran. The military wing of the Islamic Resistance that emerges in 1984-1985 bearing the name Hezbollah has to contend with the political and social circumstance of the Lebanese civil war. On the one hand, it is clear that there was an ideological dimension to Hezbollah from the beginning. It can claim a number of individuals who were in Najaf when a Shiites Islamist project was being developed in the form of the Dawa Party and it is surely linked to the ideological project that emerges with Iran’s Islamic Revolution. So too, by 1988, we see Hezbollah is embroiled in an ideological war of sorts that pitted secular Shiites against Islamist Shiites in the AMAL-Hezbullah war for control and which lasted until a negotiated accord was reached between the warring parties under pressure from Iran and Syria in November 1990. Yet, as the civil war draws to a close under the 1989 Taif Agreement, which stipulated that the Lebanese state was to be the sole authorizer of use of violence and for the dissolution of all militias, Hezbollah launched a public relations campaign to win an exception. The Lebanese state classified Hezbollah’s military wing as a “resistance movement” (rather than a militia), which allowed the party to keep its arms and continue its struggle against Israel and, thus, to retain what one might view as its chief raison d’être. In other words, even at this early stage, the dictates of resistance to invading and occupying forces are placed front and center of the Hezbollah project.

It is unclear whether Hezbollah has concluded a “period of experimentation” such that we can speak of the emergence of a “post” condition. After several decades of work establishing an “Islamic milieu” in Lebanon, something well documented by a growing scholarly literature, and a number of declared Hezbollah successes on the “battlefield”, such as the 2000 withdrawal of Israel from southern Lebanon and July 2006 War, Hezbollah’s resistance project does not seem to have lost much of its “appeal, energy and sources of legitimacy.” Since the end of the Civil War, Hezbollah has given considerable attention and resources to legitimizing its resistance project, using their satellite television station al-Manar and other media productions developing a (Party sanctioned) leisure culture, landscape and landmark production and even marshaling rather non-fundamentalist resistance art or “purposeful art” (al-fan al-hadif) such as music and dance to “advance[e] their own narrative in an attempt to gather support in Lebanon and the Arab world as a model of resistance.”[6] And this is despite the fact that Hezbollah has been subjected to criticism from within and without: Hezbollah’s legitimacy has been contested both within Lebanon and among Arab publics, as well as internationally throughout its history and, more recently, for political maneuvers that complicate an already fraught Lebanese domestic sphere, for its stance on and intervention in Syria on behalf of the Asad regime and against the uprising there, and as a result of a regional atmosphere that has imagined a Shiite “minority” as threatening a Sunni “majority” in the Arab region, at least since King Abdullah II of Jordan popularized the term “Shi’a crescent” in 2004.

Perhaps Hezbollah has begun to be tested since its coalition took control of key positions in 2011, though the power-sharing arrangement of the Lebanese political system and the actions of the March 14 coalition leave much room for blame to be spread widely for recent failures of governance. However, Bayat identifies post-Islamism a project as well as a condition — that is, post-Islamism must involve an intellectual and ideological project aimed at transcending Islamism, which seeks to set up an “ideological community” by implementing Islamic laws and moral codes and ultimately establishing an Islamic state “in which “more emphasis [is placed] on people’s obligations than on their rights” and “people are perceived more as dutiful subjects than as rightful citizens” — and Hezbollah revealed many aspects Bayat associates with post-Islamism prior to 2011.[7]

Bayat describes post-Islamism as “nationalist in project” as opposed to being pan-Islamist, and attributes to it “an endeavor to fuse religiosity and rights, faith and freedom, Islam and liberty.[8] It is an attempt to turn the underlying principles of Islamism on its head by emphasizing rights instead of duties, plurality in place of a singular authoritative voice, historicity rather than fixed scripture, and the future instead of the past.”[9] While Hezbollah’s project has always been more akin to an anti-imperial, anticolonial liberation project than a liberal democratic one (as is suggested by the language of Bayat’s account of post-Islamism), it is also the case that Hezbollah’s devotion of considerable resources to perpetuating an “Islamic milieu” since 1990 reveals their project share more with the “post-Islamist piety” Bayat expects to follow a decline of political Islam.[10] As the work by Deeb, Harb, and Alagha demonstrates, what is perpetuated in this sphere is not an Islamist project as such, but an “atmosphere” and “space” of both piety and a culture of resistance. In the phrasing of Hezbollah’s 1992 parliamentary elections program: “The conservation of a unified Lebanon that belongs to the civilized world especially its Islamic-Arab milieu, requires our serious commitment to the Resistance as an alternative against the Zionist occupation until the liberation of all the occupied soil.”[11]

Has Hezbollah’s project changed over the course of its now almost three decades of existence? Certainly the literature is rife with talk of the group’s “Lebanonization process” said to have begun in the 1990s, a claim that Harb and Leenders characterize as involving “a change from the principles of ‘rejectionism and violence’ toward those of ‘domestic courtesy and accommodation’”[12] Of course, many of Hezbollah’s external critics deny such claims, preferring to simply see the Party as consistent in its radical Islamism and terrorism, while inconsistent in its articulation of an ideology. Another, more interesting, study by Bashir Saade suggests that Hezbollah has never fully developed an ideology as such but, rather, works quite consistently and strategically informed by its remarkably consistent narrative of resistance.[13]

Joseph Alagha has attempted to deal with the issue of consistency and change by distinguishing between Hezbollah’s “political ideology” (which he locates in the Party’s 1985 “Open Letter” and maintains has only gradually evolved into its more recent formulation articulated in the Party’s 2009 Manifesto) and its “political program”(which he argues is first clearly iterated when the party contested Lebanon’s 1992 parliamentary elections, but remains flexible and has changed over the course of the Party’s history) — a distinction he locates in Hassan Nasrallah’s own rhetoric. According to Alagha: “the 2009 Manifesto delineates an almost complete ‘Lebanonisation” of Hezbollah,” as references to an Islamic state and wilayat al-faqih are dropped and it gives “primacy to the national political arena for achieving national goals.”[14] Yet, the Party’s intervention in Syria, which is not only highly unpopular in Lebanon (even among Shiites), but also both runs the risk of destabilizing Lebanon and is in tension with Hezbollah’s broader appeal as a champion of popular resistance to oppression calls into question such assessments. Most of Nasrallah’s speeches since the Arab uprisings began have devoted space to clarifying Hezbollah’s position. In regard to Syria, Nasrallah has repeatedly asserted that what is taking place in Syria is not a call for reform and change but an attempt to oust a regime that has been fighting with the resistance against Israel and the United states — that is, a reasserting of their actions as consistent with the resistance project.

In a forthcoming article, Melani Cammet and Pauline Jones Luong demonstrate that the key to explaining the ability of Islamists to enjoy widespread support is less about any direct effects of their welfare provisions, their organizational capacity, or even the ideological hold they have managed to garner.[15] Rather the key element lies in an Islamist group’s “ability to sustain and exploit the reputational support of their political advantage.” In the context of modern Lebanon, Hezbollah’s “appeal, energy and sources of legitimacy” were never really found in its Islamist ideology, which held little appeal or legitimacy in the context of Lebanon’s diverse and largely sectarian-secular environment. Rather, it is on its resistance project that Hezbollah hangs its reputations, perhaps well intertwined with but also perhaps less well subsumed by an Islamist project and ideology than much of the literature would have us believe. Does this make it post-Islamist? Perhaps what one should expect in this “post-Islamist period” is not the failure of Islamist groups or the exhaustion of the Islamic frame of reference for political projects, but the increasing proliferation of ways to do and articulate Islamist politics.

Michaelle Browers is an associate professor of political science at Wake Forest University. She is the author of Political Ideology in the Arab World: Accommodation and Transformation (2009) and Democracy and Civil Society in Arab Political Thought: Transcultural Possibilities (2006). She is co-editor of An Islamic Reformation? (2003).

[1] Bayat, Asef. 2007. Making Islam Democratic: Social Movements and the Post-Islamist Turn. Stanford University Press. 11 and Bayat. 2013 “Post-Islamism at Large.” In Post-Islamism: The Changing Faces of Political Islam, ed. Asef Bayat. Oxford University Press. 8.

[2] His emphasis. Bayat. “Post-Islamism at Large.” 8.

[3] Bayat. “Post-Islamism at Large.” 8.

[4] Ibid. “Post-Islamism at Large.” 8.

[5] Alagha, Joseph. 2013. “Hezbollah’s Infitah: A Post-Islamist Turn? In Post-Islamism: The Changing Faces of Political Islam, ed. Asef Bayat. Oxford University Press: 246-254.

[6] el Houri, Walid and Dima Saber. 2010. “Filming Resistance: A Hezbollah Strategy,” Radical History Review 106: 71. On al-Manar see Baylouny, Anne Marie. 2009. “Not Your Father’s Islamist TV: Changing Programming on Hezbollah’s al-Manar,” Arab Media & Society 9. Online at On other media productions see el Houri and Saber 2010. On leisure culture see Deeb, Lara and Mona Harb. 2013. Leisurely Islam: Negotiating Geography and Morality in Shi‘ite South BeirutPrinceton: Princeton University Press. On landscape and landmark production see Harb, Mona and Lara Deeb. 2011. “Culture as History and Landscape: Hizballah’s Efforts to Shape an Islamic Milieu in Lebanon,” Arab Studies Journal XIX: 10-41. On art see Alagha, Joseph. 2012. The Power of Music: Mobilization among Islamic Movements. IFPS/ CPWAS Occassional Paper Series, No. 3. On dance see Alagha, Joseph. 2012. The Dance Debate: Discourses and Performance. IFPS/ CPWAS Occassional Paper Series, No. 1.

[7] His emphasis. Bayat. “Post-Islamism at Large.” 4-5.

[8] Bayat, Asef. 2008. “A Future for Islamist Revolutions? Relition, Revolt, and Middle Eastern Modernity,” in Revolution n the Making of the Modern World, ed. John Foran, David Lane and Andreja Zivkovic. Routledge: 109.

[9] Ibid. “Post-Islamism at Large.” 8.

[10]Ibid. 2013. Life as Politics: How Ordinary People Change the Middle East. Second Edition. Stanford University Press.

[11] Alagha. 2011. Hezbollah’s Documents: From the 1985 Open Letter to the 2009 Manifesto. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. 65-66.

[12] Harb, Mona and Reinoud Leenders. 2005. “Know thy enemy: Hezbollah,‘terrorism’ and the politics of Perception,” Third World Quarterly 26. 183.

[13] Saade, Bashir. 2011. Hezbollah and the Politics of Remembering. PhD Dissertation in War Studies, Kings College, University of London.

[14] Alagha, Joseph. 2012. Hezbollah’s DNA and the Arab Spring. New Delhi: Knowledge World Publishers, 215.

[15] Cammett, Melani and Pauline Jones Luong. forthcoming. “Is there an ‘Islamist Political Advantage’?” Annual Review of Political Science.

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