Why Exclusion and Repression of Moderate Islamists Will Be Counterproductive

Jillian Schwedler, Hunter College, CUNY

*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.

The inclusion-moderation hypothesis, is, for the moment, pretty irrelevant. A central debate in the field for years, this hypothesis asked whether political inclusion led actors to moderate as a direct consequence of their participation, and if so, precisely how and why. For decades, non-democratic regimes experimented with limited political openings and allowed opposition parties to participate in local and national elections. A burgeoning literature – to which I contributed (Schwedler 2006) – explored the political, ideational, and organizational effects of such political openings on the groups that chose to participate despite the game being controlled by the regime. As scholars produced an increasing number of empirically detailed studies, a number of patterns began to emerge in the literature (see Schwedler 2011, which includes a close examination of the extensive literature at the time). The primary objects of these studies were Islamist groups; a century earlier, they had been Christian and social democrats. Given the lingering precepts of Orientalism in the policy world (if less so in the academy), that focus was not surprising. Yet the glut of debate about “moderate” Islamists had little effect on policymakers already convinced that all Islamists were violent extremists. The debate illustrated a vigorous scholarly engagement with a real-world policy issue, with scholars aiming to bring systematic and careful study to highly charged issues, namely, whether the inclusion of certain groups would threaten democratic processes or democratic transitions. These views were shared by many of those in government with whom we had regular discussions.

We scholars emphasized that autocrats were never normatively committed to pluralist or democratic processes, adopting them instead as survival strategies in a world where local demands for reform were echoed by (some) international development agencies and sources of funding. Instead, we used labels like reluctant democrats, defensive democracy, democracy with adjectives, electoral authoritarianism, even illiberal democracy. We knew they weren’t democrats, but we highlighted the democratic potential in those moments and processes – the ways in which even strategic and constrained political openings might advance more pluralistic and participatory politics. At least part of that was our thinking.

But that moment is now in the past. Autocrats today have little interest in, let alone patience for, utilizing carefully controlled quasi-democratic processes to deflate challenges either to their authority or to moderate radical opponents. Instead they are seeking to crush all opposition, moderate or radical, be it coming from a progressive, liberal, or even conservative impulse. With authoritarian populism on the rise in democracies and non-democracies alike, the U.S. election of a narcissist with autocratic tendencies only emboldens the members of what I call the Bromance of Autocrats[1]: the hyper-masculinist leaders who admire each other for their willingness to rule (and save) their nations, to push back against open borders, humanitarianism, compassion for others, tolerance, and (especially) multiculturalism. They see their nations as under threat, and they are willing to use “tough love” to say and do whatever is needed. They promote a new kind of “Daddy State,” casting themselves as the iron-fisted fathers and protectors, doling out punishments for petulant children whose crazy ideas are threating the whole nation. The strict father can set things right again.

In this context, inclusion and tolerance has been abandoned for exclusion and repression. The exclusion-radicalism[2] hypothesis is the inverse of the inclusion-moderation hypothesis: it suggests a relations between increased exclusion and repression and increased radicalism, broadly defined as efforts to overthrow a regime (including through violence) rather than seeking to reform from within it. In the scholarly literature, however, there is little consensus on the effects of exclusion.[3] Christian Davenport, a preeminent scholar of state repression, has exhaustively examined the relevant literature and concluded that few consistent patterns emerge as to whether political exclusion and repression lead to an increase, decrease, or another outcome in patterns of radicalization.

Historically, some very strong examples suggest that repression encourages rather than crushes radicalism. One hypothesis is that under repression, radical ideas previously rejected by most people can become more compelling: the idea of overthrowing an entire system becomes more appealing when life under that system is unbearable. A related but not identical hypothesis is that because repression leaves dissenters few legal options or spaces in which to express opposition, underground radicalism becomes the only game in town. Dissenters either choose to do nothing and remain silent, or else join those in the shadows. These two arguments – that repression makes radical ideas more appealing, or that by closing down alternative spaces it leaves radicalism as the only option – can work in tandem or independently. Both suggest that increased repression is seldom a long-term means of eliminating radical opposition; indeed, the opposite may likely be the case.

Another hypothesis is that only extreme repression – zero tolerance – can crush radical opposition, whereas moderate repression creates the desire for groups to radicalize but still leaves them space to operate. A regime must not only eliminate a radical group entirely, but also leave absolutely no space for an alternative to emerge in its place.

In the Middle East, examples of each hypothesis abound. For the former hypothesis – that repression increases radicalism – numerous examples fit this pattern. In Egypt, some members of the Muslim Brotherhood arguably radicalized during the prison years of 1954-1970, when Nasser outlawed the former ally of the Free Officers (to eliminate political competitors). With thousands imprisoned, tortured, and ill from exposure, and their families subject to ongoing harassment, the radical ideas of Sayyid Qutb began to find a much larger audience than before. Qutb advocated not for gradual reform, but for the violent and immediate overthrow of the regime, even though Egypt’s president was himself a Muslim. This idea represented a 180 degree pivot from that of Hassan al-Banna, the Brotherhood’s founder, who had advocated for incremental reform from within society first, through education, social programs, and a gradual turn toward piety among the population. By the time Nasser’s successor, Anwar Sadat, introduced political and economic liberalization in the 1970s, a significant jihadi movement had already turned away from Banna’s more moderate approach in favor of the radicalism of Qutb (who was executed in prison in 1966, becoming a martyr). A key question here (as discussed below) is to what extent the repression of the prison years led some former Banna supporters to turn toward Qutb’s radicalism, and to what extent Nasser’s overall repression of an Islamist group brought entirely new (non-Brotherhood) actors into the new and growing radical camp.

For the latter hypothesis – that repression can effectively eliminate radicalism, at least for a time – one notable example is Hafez al-Asad’s 1982 bombing and bulldozing of the city of Hamah to crush the Muslim Brotherhood and its supporters, killing as many as 20,000 in the process. The Muslim Brotherhood did not radicalize as a result; it was effectively eliminated inside of Syria. But as we have seen in the past few years, even that repression did not prevent the Syrian Brotherhood from reemerging when an opportunity arose.

Across much of the Middle East – and indeed, globally with the “Bromance” nations – regimes are increasingly intolerant of all opposition deemed a threat to the nation, notably including Islamists of all ilk. As scholars, we have and should continue to locate these practices in historical comparisons to expand our knowledge about the relationship between repression and radicalization. The Bromance states might fruitfully be likened to a protection racket in the late Charles Tilly’s sense: they create (or exacerbate) the threat to the nation, while simultaneously offering their citizenry protection from it.

But as scholars, we also need to move beyond these interventions – as necessary as they are – to advance systematic and detailed scholarly 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. As scholars, we are in a unique position to follow these developments closely as they unfold. Many of us already have contacts within these organizations and among other activists, affording us an inside view.

Below are a number of issues that are worthy of our ongoing attention.

  • Of those joining more radical organizations, who are former members of more mainstream groups and who is not? One hypothesis is that the core commitments of the Muslim Brotherhood groups are unlikely to change, but we are likely to see some members depart for more extremist groups. Similarly, we may see new members drawn into extremist rather than more moderate circles. These issues must be teased apart.
  • Are we seeing any organizational changes within the mainstream groups? Jordan remains one of the few states that has not repressed all Islamists, yet Jordan’s Muslim Brotherhood has fractured into four distinct movements that cannot simply be reduced either to hawks and doves, or to Palestinian and Transjordanian camps. How did these divisions evolve, what practices are changing within them, and are the various groups espousing different ideological or normative commitments? Did state policies – inclusion or exclusion – play any role at all in the shifting internal group dynamics?
  • What are more popular perceptions of these various organizations? As Muslim Brotherhood groups are vilified in many nations, is there evidence that public opinion is following the regime’s lead, or is the group again perceived as suffering and targeted because it refuses to become corrupt?
  • What is the effect of designating the Muslim Brotherhood as a terrorist organization on the various branches of that group? Saudi Arabia and the UAE have strong positions against the Muslim Brotherhood, even though Yemeni Brothers are fighting on the Saudi-backed side in the Yemeni war. If/when the U.S. Congress designates the Muslim Brotherhood as a terrorist organization, how will that affect the toleration of moderate Islamists in U.S.-allied countries like Morocco, Tunisia, and Jordan?
  • How are relations between various Islamist groups and non-Islamist groups changing? Is increased repression leading to cross-ideological alliances, perhaps in similar ways as explored in the inclusion-moderation literature? How can we best describe the lines of alliance and contention?
  • I repeat my intervention from previous years that one of the best ways to study Islamist politics from a new angle is to not study Islamist groups themselves, but to study other domains of activities and see where and how Islamists emerge into that picture. So instead of examining the effects of inclusion or exclusion on a specific group or movement, look at those effects across society, in a particular arena, and so on. We cannot de-fetishize Islamist politics by continuing to treat “Islamist politics” as a separate animal.
  • The literature on Islamists over the past 25 years has largely failed, I believe, in carefully considering the relations of these various groups to the larger political economies. We know that these regimes are differently engaged with and committed to various state-led or state-facilitated neoliberal projects, but we have paid less attention to how Islamists fit into such trends.[4] Most studies of the Muslim Brotherhood, for example, note that the group is committed to free trade (within Islamist constraints, although those seem to be easy to overcome), but focus on intra-group dynamics, group-regime dynamics, or relations with other social actors. There is little systematic exploration of connections with neoliberalism.[5] Given that much of the global politics of the late 20th and early 21st century is deeply connected to economic practices and priorities, it behooves us as scholars to think more systematically about how those processes, practices, and ideas have played a role in the shape of various Islamist politics.

Jillian Schwedler is Professor of political science at the City University of New York, Hunter College and the Graduate Center. She is author of “Faith in Moderation: Islamist Parties in Jordan and Yemen” (Cambridge 2006).

[1] http://www.roosevelthouse.hunter.cuny.edu/?forum-post=trump-bromance-autocrats

[2] The definition of “radical” is at least as fraught as that of “moderate.” Here I just it only to refer to a continuum, from those on one end who are willing to work within the existing system (moderates), to those on the other end, who seek the complete overthrow of the system, using violence if necessary.

[3] As I discuss in my 2011 review article, there is also little consensus on the effects of inclusion on moderation, in part due to substantive disagreement over the meaning of “moderation.”

[4] One exception has been the AKP and predecessors in Turkey, where the rise of these Islamists to power was examined in light of their commitments to neoliberal reforms.

[5] Deeb and Harb’s Leisurely Islam is an important exception.