Over the past four decades or more, the issue of political Islam, in all its forms—from the Muslim Brotherhood to its extremist offshoots and literature—has been a fertile topic for Arab and Western academics and scholars. Theses specialists—along with entire research centers and think tanks across the globe—have dedicated their academic careers to this issue, analyzing and investigating the phenomenon of political Islam, each from their own specific viewpoint, whether positive or negative.
The general academic trend is of the view that political Islam is on the rise, with researchers exploring ways of securing coexistence and conducting dialogue, as well as how to refine and tone down extremist ideas, particularly those advocating the use of violence, which is something that many Islamist groups have adopted. These studies also aimed at containing these ideas and concepts both within the local community and as part of the rules of the international game, particularly as this phenomenon has extended across the world as a result of immigration and the presence of large Muslim communities in Western countries. This is not to mention the terrorist acts carried out by some of the violent offshoots of political Islam.
The events associated with what has been dubbed the ‘Arab Spring’ and the subsequent arrival of the main Islamist trend to power in several Arab republics, seems to have prompted some researchers and analysts to reconsider previously-held views. This included views regarding the importance of coexisting with the Islamists and allowing them to operate freely in the political arena. However doctoral theses and treatises about the failure of political Islam and its inability to rule or solve the traditional problems of developing societies have now begun to emerge. Of course, these studies are based on what happened in Egypt, Tunisia, and Libya over the past two and a half years and—more significantly—the Islamist experience of rule in both Sudan and Iran.
These particularly Western studies and analyses perhaps focus most on the Jihadist ideology and jihadist organizations, particularly Al-Qaeda and its offshoots. This is due to the numerous terrorist acts carried out by these groups, with incidents of violence and bombings taking place across the world. However as is the case with terrorism throughout history—which is a phenomenon that preceded Jihadism—this is something that has no political horizon or future because in the end sabotage and murder cannot attract genuine supporters who are able to represent a mainstream trend in any society.
There is no better example for judging the failure or success of political Islam to achieve an awakening or lead a society than the Sudanese ‘Salvation’ experience and the arrival of the Revolutionary Command Council for National Salvation (RCC) to power. This is a regime that is still in control of the joints of the Sudanese state today. The achievements of this government after more than two decades in power are the best evidence of political Islam’s failure:
South Sudan seceded after the failure to reach a formula for coexistence following a war in which religious slogans and jihadist literature was utilized as a justification for the Dababin (suicide bombers) and everything else.
The economy failed to live up to the people’s aspirations, and this is evidenced by the recent protests that broke out in the capital Khartoum against price hikes, the widening gap between social classes, and issues pertaining to the distribution of wealth. Even if the recent decision to lift fuel subsidies are economically justified, this decision was not accompanied by any convincing developmental projects or hope for the future that could help the Sudanese people swallow this bitter pill.
As for Iran—which witnessed the first experience of the rule of political Islam—it is easy to notice the public restlessness behind the Green Revolution which followed Ahmadinejad’s victory in the penultimate presidential elections. This is something that also can be seen in the attempts being made by current President Hassan Rouhani—who came to power on the back of moderate electoral slogans—to ease restrictions on society and give the impression that his administration is able to shake off Iran’s international isolation as a result of the country’s previous foreign policy.
There are also no studies or reports indicating that Iran is making any economic achievements under political Islam, instead being a rentier state relying on the country’s oil resources.
The Muslim Brotherhood came to power in a number of Arab Spring countries, and it may say that it has yet to be given an adequate opportunity. However, the Brotherhood’s performance in Egypt was a catastrophic failure. This led to their ouster just one year after they came to power on a wave of popularity, with the general public being willing to grant them a chance. We also do not see any success for political Islam in Tunisia, which has ground to halt, or in Libya, which has become hostage to chaos, militias, and factionalism.
Foreign Affairs magazine published a review of The Failure of Political Islam by the well-known academic Oliver Roy; this book made an important observation that the current phenomenon of urban “neo-fundamentalism” has nothing to do with the views of Muslims scholars and intellectuals seeking harmony between social traditions and heritage and modernity. In other words, Roy maintains that neo-fundamentalism does little more than channel the anger of urban youth regarding the lack of opportunities afforded to them into political opposition, using political Islam as a cover. These projects also fail to offer any real economic alternatives.
The problem lies in finding a genuine developmental project—with the requisite political and economic facets—to meet public aspirations that generally revolve around what non-Muslim nations have achieved, in addition to anger over the failure of previous projects. The people have discovered that they were deceived by the Islamists and that Islamist rule has nothing to offer them, while they are also fed up with the violence and societal division that accompanies political Islam.
The question that must be asked now is: What next? This is something that requires us to think outside of the box regarding the post-Islamist era.