Understanding “What Islamists Want:” Public Debate and Contestation in Lebanon and Yemen

Pluralism and a vibrant public sphere may be the key to moderating Islamist movements and encouraging their political participation, argues Stacey Philbrick Yadav in “Understanding ‘What Islamists Want:’ Public Debate and Contestation in Lebanon and Yemen,” a new piece in the Middle East Journal. Yadav argues that it pays to carefully study what Islamists say, to others and to themselves, to understand what they ultimately want out of politics. She looks at the “parallel process of discursive and institutional transformation among Islamists” in Yemen and Lebanon, arguing ultimately that Islamist objectives are shaped by local contexts and histories. What Islamist actors want, she concludes, is “to transform the terms of public debate, whether institutionally or discursively.” Understanding Islamists, therefore, “requires that we see discursive and institutional change in such terms of debate as an end in itself, and the principal end which is shared by Islamist groups, irrespective of their (many) other differences.” The lack of contestation and competition in Yemeni politics limits the plurality of voices within the Islamist party there, generating a monolithic and increasingly radical movement. Relatively vibrant pluralism in Lebanon, on the other hand, means that Islamists must struggle for a “broadly resonant message” capable of including a broader range of Lebanese citizens. Her conclusions are a challenge to popular policy prescriptions: the best way to moderate Islamist movements, Yadav claims, is to “encourage a public sphere that rests on real opportunities for contestation,” even if that contestation leads to the election of Islamist parties.

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