Understanding repression-adaptation nexus in Islamist movements

Khalil al-Anani, Doha Institute for Graduate Studies, Qatar

*This memo was originally drafted as a part of the Adaptation Strategies of Islamist Parties and Movements  workshop held at George Washington University January 27, 2017. POMEPS Studies 26 is a collection of the memos from this workshop, available as an open-access PDF here.

Responses of Islamist movements to the fast-changing local, regional, and global environment after the Arab Spring have varied greatly. While some movements adapted and made significant changes in their discourse, organizational structure, and strategy, others struggled to adopt short-sighted plans and change tactics to cope with the new environment. Moreover, while some Islamists maintained internal coherence and unity, others witnessed significant divisions and splits. Some movements fractured, creating ideological and political divisions that affected their role and activism.

This variance in Islamists’ responses poses many challenges and questions to scholars of Islamist politics including: Why did Islamists respond differently to the Arab Spring? And what does this divergence tell us about Islamists’ ideological commitment, political strategy, and organizational coherence/resilience? Moreover, why did similar ideological movements, such as the offshoots of the Muslim Brotherhood, responded differently to regime repression? How one can explain, for example, the Ennahda Party’s success at maintaining its defining role in the Tunisian transition with the Muslim Brotherhood’s failure in Egypt? More importantly, why does the response of an Islamist movement to regime repression vary over time?

Raising these questions can help us to move away from the linear and mechanical hypotheses of inclusion and moderation – or its inverse version, repression and radicalization – which have dominated the literature on Islamists over the past decade. I also believe that disaggregating the outcome of these processes and practices can be more scholarly useful than struggling to prove or disprove them. Therefore, instead of being preoccupied by the outcome of inclusion/exclusion processes, we should deconstruct the underlying factors that affect and lead to them. Namely, why and under which circumstances can a specific type of repression (severe or moderate) lead to a specific type of dissent (small-scale or large-scale) that might result in a specific way/strategy of “adaptation” (accommodative/peaceful or confrontational/violence)?

Literature on repression-dissent nexuses is abundant. Scholars of social movements and contentious politics have extensively studied the relationship between regime/state repression and dissent/mobilization tactics of political and social movements. Usually, these movements tend to adapt when they are faced with regime repression and exclusion. Furthermore, several scholars have examined the inconsistent, if not contradictory, effects of repression on movements’ behavior and mobilizing tactics. Mark Lichbach, for example, had adeptly investigated the puzzling effects of repression on dissents’ tactics and whether it escalates or de-escalates (deters) dissent activities (Linchbach 1987, McAdam 1983, Davenport, Johnston, and Mueller 2005). This vast literature has attempted to not only disaggregate the repression-dissent nexus and rethink its linear or mechanical relationship but more importantly question and problematize it.

Despite the contribution of this literature, there are several issues that need to be examined, among them, for example, the relationship of structural and ideational factors in shaping Islamists’ response to regime repression. The rigid dichotomy that dominates our assumptions and interpretive frameworks – such as political vs. ideological, institutional vs. organizational, etc. – doesn’t help us capture the interactivity of these factors and its impact defining the outcomes of inclusion or exclusion processes. Another important area that is often neglected in the literature pertains to the impact of repression on the balance of power within Islamist movements and how it shapes internal politics and dynamics. As I have shown in my book, the impact of Mubarak repression on the Brotherhood’s internal politics was remarkable. Not only did it enable the movement to maintain internal coherence and unity by generating solidarity among members and legitimizing the adversity (mihna) narrative, but it also empowered the so-called conservative wing at the expense of the reformists.

One way to understand the repression-adaptation nexus is to contextualize Islamists within their environment and by studying each case separately. As Jillian Schwedler reminds us in her memo, there is a need for “understanding of the relations between exclusion and radicalism, between repression and dissent. The processes at work cannot be reduced to discrete dependent and independent variables, or to singular causes and effects. These are complex processes that can only be understood through detailed case studies, process tracing, and deep knowledge of the actors and practices involved”.

In this memo, I propose an interactive approach that can help disaggregate the adaptability of Islamists. I define adaptation as the change in an actor’s response (either strategic or tactical) to the actions/policies/behaviors of an adversary. This adaptation/change can be a result of either persuasion or coercion meaningfully connected to the actor’s long and short-term objectives. The main premise of this approach is that disaggregating the multidimensional relationship between the dependent and independent variables can help us to consider the underlying factors that contribute to or shape Islamists’ adaptation. Therefore, it focuses on the interconnectivity and interactivity of these factors.

While most literature on Islamists’ response to inclusion or exclusion focuses on the direct/tangible factors (political, institutional, contextual, organizational, etc.), we know little about the indirect/intangible or “mediating” factors. These factors include memory, emotions (fear, hate, revenge, despair, resistance, etc.), history, and personal experiences, among others. Given the fact that Islamists operate in highly unusual circumstances, the impact of these mediating/intangible factors in interpreting Islamists’ adaptation can be significant. More importantly, these “mediating” factors can help us avoid focusing on the traditional explanations of Islamists’ adaptation, i.e. political and institutional vs. ideological and organizational, for more interactive and dynamic/relational explanations. To use Christian Davenport’s words, these factors can help us when “addressing the fact that multiple things occur simultaneously across time and space,” (Davenport 2005: vii).

The case of Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood since the 2013 coup is striking. It shows how mediating factors can play a role in shaping a movement’s strategy, organization, and behavior. The unprecedented repression against the movement has had a devastating impact on its members. This repression has interplayed with internal politics, shaping its dynamics over the past three years. The movement is divided across different ideological, organizational, and political levels. While the old generation defends the movement’s traditional strategy of accommodating regime repression and pulling the organization underground, the younger generation tends to adopt a more confrontational strategy. And whereas senior leaders are willing to accept a compromise with the regime (no matter how much political gains they can get from it), youth leaders adopt a non-compromising position and remain defiant. The objectives of both sides are strikingly divergent. The former seeks to keep the old rules of the game, that is, more space and less repression, the latter wants an entire change of the game, that is, “either us or them.” This divergence can be explained by, among other things, emotions, memory, and personal experiences. Reading and listening to the youth leadership, one can easily note the feelings of despair, revenge, and resistance that overshadow their statements. In some of interviews I’m conducting for another project, some interviewees expressed bitter feelings towards not only the regime but also their leadership. They feel betrayed by both sides, albeit for different reasons, and have decided to take their fate into their own hands.

More interestingly, some of these mediating/intangible factors, can have mixed effects on the Brotherhood. Taking memory as an example reveals some of the contradictory outcomes of repression. The recent memory of massacres and killings against the Brotherhood after the coup seems to have a more significant impact on young Brothers than the leaders. One interviewee who lost his brother at Rabaa massacre on August 14, 2013, recalls how shocking the scene was for him and his family to the extent he “would do anything to get revenge on the police” as he told me. Since then, he still receives counseling to overcome the images and memories of that gloomy day. Many young members in the Brotherhood have lost their lives or the lives of a relative or a family member since July 2013. They build their narrative against Sisi based on these personal experiences. Some, therefore, don’t mind joining violent groups for the sake of revenge and to heal their personal wounds. They seek revenge from the regime and its officials. Their operations target officials who might have played a role in their anguish such as police officers, judges, and ministers. Their attacks are usually cheered by young members. Interestingly, the Brotherhood’s senior leaders who spent their youth in prison under Nasser during the 1950s and 1960s invoke their own memories and narratives to endure and contain the calls for confrontation. The narrative of patience, endurance, victimhood, and God’s revenge deals with feelings and emotions more than structural or ideological factors.

Based on the aforementioned observations, I would like to propose a few points for further investigation:

  • There is a need to rethink the collectivity of Islamism as a socio-political phenomenon. Scholars tend to deal with Islamists as “collective” actors (we always study movements, groups, networks, etc.), which preclude us from looking at the individual factors (i.e. emotions, memories, personal experiences, etc.) and the role they might play in the movement’s overall dynamics/decisions. We also need to pay more attention to the individuality or the human/personal aspect of Islamists and test whether it matters or not.
  • Unpacking the repression-dissent/adaptation nexus requires more attention to the mediating/intangible factors and how they interplay with the structural factors in shaping a movement’s response. The effects of repression on actors’ behavior is far from consistent. In fact, in some cases, these intangible factors can play a more important role than the structural ones in explaining the mixed/contradictory effects of repression.
  • We cannot explain the impact of mediating factors without integrating social psychology to the study of Islamism. As I explained in my book, some aspects of Islamists’ activism, i.e. indoctrination, socialization, identity-formation, cannot be explained without combining social psychology to Social Movements Theory (SMT) as well as sociology of religion.
  • What is the impact of repression, if any, on movements’ internal dynamics/politics and how this might shape the balance of power and the relationship among different factions within these movements?
  • How violence is framed, internalized, and legitimized inside and outside Islamists circles? What is the impact of violence on Islamists’ popularity and constituency?
  • What is the role of personal experiences, memories, spontaneity, etc. in shaping individuals’ decisions and positions, from their relationships with their movements and leaders to their relationships with regimes, particularly during tough times? And how do members internalize these feelings/factors in everyday life? What effect, if any, do these feelings have on the movement?
  • Giving the ongoing repression against Islamists in the Middle East, we need to start thinking about a range of new issues and phenomena related to this extraordinary experience, including: Islamists’ migration/diaspora/exile; their ability to adapt with their new “homes/ghettos;” the unintended effects of migration, such as atheism, alienation, or extremism; the connection between internal and external organizations/leadership; and the mutual effects among Islamists from different countries, from Egypt, to Syria, Turkey, or Yemen.
  • Islamists’ experiences in prison and how they affect their worldviews, ideology, discourse, and personal life, particularly from a comparative perspectives, are also worthy to be studied.
  • Finally, what is the impact of the rise of far-right and populist movements in Europe and the United States – particularly in regards to the ignorance and antagonism of the Trump administration towards Islam and Muslims – on the future of Islamists?

Understanding Islamists’ divergent responses to today’s fast-changing environment, will require tackling these issues and questions in future research and scholarship.


Khalil al-Anani is an associate professor at the Doha Institute for Graduate Studies. He is the author of “Inside the Muslim Brotherhood: Religion, Identity, and Politics” (Oxford University Press, 2016).


Al-Anani, Khalil. 2016, Inside the Muslim Brotherhood: Religion, Identity, and Politics (New York: Oxford University Press).

Christian Davenport, Hank Johnston, and Carol Mueller (eds.). 2005, Repression and Mobilization (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press)

Lichbach, Mark Irving. 1987. “Deterrence or Escalation?: The Puzzle of Aggregate Studies of

Repression and Dissent.” Journal of Conflict Resolution 31(2): 266-97.

Schwedler, Jillian. 2017. “From Inclusion to Exclusion, A Scholarly Response to a Flipped Script”, POMEPS MEMO prepared for Rethinking Islamism 2017.