Nathan Field has a new briefing up today over at World Politics Review in which he discusses the much vaunted decline of political Islam and prospects fro the future:
Several French scholars, such as Gilles Keppel and Olivier Roy, have been making this argument since the early 1990s. The only trouble was a subsequent string of Islamist electoral victories that seemed to undermine their thesis.
But in light of Islamist losses in recent elections in Algeria, Jordan, Kuwait, Lebanon, and Bahrain, talk of the decline of Political Islam is reemerging. Influential Washington Post journalist David Ignatius recently wrote of a region-wide, anti-Islamist backlash whose central theme, according to a specialist he cited from the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington, is that “the Muslim parties have failed to convince the public that they have any more answers than anyone else.”
He also cites the recent al-Itijah al-Muakis edition devoted to the prospects for political Islam as evidence of the current debate.
Could elections be a misleading barometer of the success of political Islam? Field again:
Clearly, Islamists are not winning elections. This does not, however, mean a decline of Political Islam, let alone Islamism as a broader movement. First, given the authoritarian nature of Arab political systems, official election results are not necessarily accurate or even meaningful measures of the influence of Islamist groups.
This is true to a certain extent and we notice that in the more constrained political environments, such as in Egypt where outlawed Muslim Brotherhood candidates standing as independents won some 88 seats in the 2005 parliamentary elections, Islamist parties have enjoyed moderate success. However, this is not an all-encompassing trend. In the recent Moroccan local elections, for instance, the Islamist Justice and Development Party (PJD), which had heretofore been making steady gains since its inception in 1997 to hold the second-largest number of MPs in parliament, witnessed a marked downturn in its fortunes:
[…] results yesterday showed the PJD coming in sixth with just under five per cent of the vote, while its main competitor, the Authenticity and Modernity Party (PAM), swept into the lead with nearly a fifth of council seats.
It appears that, just as other principally ideological parties have had to compromise their ideals and sacrafice them at the altar of electoral pragmatism, Islamist parties or those with a manifesto influenced primarily by Islamic teachings must tone down some of their more conservative or reactionary views and election pledges to market themselves more effectively to the emerging young urban eleite across the Arab world whilst attempting to maintain their core support amongst the more religiously inclined rural poor.
Another factor that Field touches on is confidence in democracy as a catalyst for change:
In a June 30 Al-Jazeera article, Arab journalist Yassir Zatara argued that the single most important factor explaining Islamist setbacks is the public’s lack of faith that participation in the democratic process can lead to positive change. For groups trying to change the status quo through politics, as Islamists are, such sentiment is a major obstacle to their ability to mobilize large numbers of supporters on Election Day.
It would appear that despite the siren calls of Islamists to participate in elections and affirm their conscious decision to put Islam at the heart of future political change, the voters are more sceptical and, never having lived within a mature democracy, are suspicious of the corrupting effects of the party political system and the perceived sluggish pace of democracy.
Another factor noted by Field, is the emergence of a pan-Salafist movement, as evidenced by the success of Salafist television channels and increasing awareness of Salafist modes of dress in the public sphere:
Other social trends, too, are weakening the political popularity of traditional Islamist parties. For instance, the rising popularity of Salafi movements that focus on the perfection of personal piety, while generally avoiding participation in politics, does not help Muslim parties’ ability to get people to the polls either.
I disagree wth his assertion that Salafist movements are confined to the urban poor. In Egypt, there is anecdotal evidence of the appeal that Salafism holds for the educated youth from the middle classes. Islamic education is also a factor: as those graduates of the Islamic faculties of al-Azhar and Cairo University are eschewing the popular Islam of old for the dress conventions, scholars and attitudes of the international Salafi movement.
Non-Arab Muslims, particularly those from the US and Europe are also having an impact on adherence to Islam in the Middle East: most non-Arab Muslims travel to Arabic-speaking countries to take courses in Arabic and religion from scholars seen as more ‘authentic’. This steady migration has catalysed an exchange of ideas between Muslims from different cultural backgrounds in wich both parties have brought influence to bear on the other.
I think his conclusion is the most noteworthy part ofthe briefing:
Ultimately, judgments about the fate of Islamism must be made, not by the standards used to judge Western political parties, but according to the criteria Islamists themselves use to define success or failure.
The basic goal of all Islamists, from Salafis to the Muslim Brotherhood, is the revival of Muslim society, and the reversal of the perceived decline it has been experiencing for several centuries. All Islamists agree that this decline occurred because of a shift from the original foundations of its greatness, Islam. Thus, they agree that revival means the re-Islamicization of society through ridding it of what they consider corrupting Western ideas, such as secularization.
Participation in politics is one tactic Islamists use to achieve this reform, and it is the area that attracts the most attention in the West. In almost no case, however, does it take priority over other fields, such as Da’wa (preaching) and teaching Muslims how better to practice their religion at the grassroots level.
Islamists may not be winning seats in rubber-stamp parliaments. But when they look at their societies today, in nearly every area, they see a greater Islamic presence than they did 30 years ago. Meaning that they see the “Islamist movement” — the term used by Islamists to describe themselves — as wildly successful. And by their criteria, it is.
Whilst political Islam has not seen the sort of wide-ranging and extensive poltical gains that its main exponents and seminal ideologues has envisaged, Islamism as a whole can point to the success of meeting its goals of re-Islamising society. I would qualify this by saying that, athough it might appear as if society is more Islamic that it was 20 or 30 years ago in the Middle East, this sort of assertion proceeds from a false benchmark: the societies of the Middle East immediately following independence were driven by socialist ideals of the redistribution of wealth and social justice; these societies were probably less ostensibly Islamic as evidenced by the various leaders of Middle Eastern countries such as Abd el-Nasser and Hafez al-Assad and their early popularity, than at any time in the previous millenium. Whilst we may view the increasing popularity of Salafist media, ‘authentic’ Islamic dress such as turbans and niqabs cutting across cltural and linguistic divides, this does not necessarily translate into more relgious adherence. Indeed, I’d wager that, since I first came to the Middle East, outside of the key relgio-cultural festivals of devotion such as Ramadhan and Eid ul-‘Adha, mosque attendance has dropped considerably. And whilst thismay mean that more people are choosing to pray in private, I think it’s more indicative of the encroachment of the twin effcts of modernity and secularism on Arab societies. Somthing that political Islam, as part of the wider Islmis da’wah movement or not, will have to address.