On the discourse of Islamist failure
Critics continue to dismiss Islamists for their shortcomings, as though being religious means one cannot make mistakes, writes Khalil El-Anani*
The logic of those who oppose Islamists reaching power, let alone keeping it, relies on the primary argument that they are not capable of offering a model of governance that is a beneficial alternative to the status quo. This logic becomes more entrenched as Islamists who have taken up rule have repeatedly failed, as has been the case in Sudan, Afghanistan and Algeria (late 1980s and early 1990s), in addition, more recently, to the experience of Hamas in the occupied Palestinian territories.
This discourse reproduces the same dismissive viewpoints that have circled the sphere of Arab elites over the last two decades, becoming politicised and mobilised against one of the effective currents in the Arab arena. Yet it offers no solutions that might wrest our societies from the political and intellectual absurdity to which they have been subject since the 1920s, when political Islam developed.
Without being pulled into the same hellish debate on the benefit, or lack thereof, of Islamists reaching power, not to mention the sensitivity of this topic and its influence on political development in the Arab world, it can be stated that an evaluation of the Islamist experience does not need to turn into a seasonal opportunity to haul this intellectual and political current to the gallows. Rather, it should be opportunity to unlock the essence of historical failure of Arab elites of all orientations to pursue the nation- state endeavour and meet its demands.
A reading of the discourse currently dominant on the experience of Hamas reveals the confusion present in the Arab mind on the evaluation of Arab political experiences. There are two levels. The first stems from preconceived ideas of Islamists in power. In its evaluation, this current uses derisive language with a taint of vengefulness, aiming to place a future veto on the participation of Islamists in politics. The second level is more open, its evaluation of Hamas stemming from its understanding of the defeatism of mixing the movement's particularities with its intellectual and ideological orientation that is congruent with other movements of wide popular influence.
In both its levels, this discourse has fallen into three errors. The first is reproducing the same old arguments on the futility of Islamists participating in politics. Some had thought this had been settled, particularly after confusion regarding the difference between Hamas's extremist and moderate wings had been removed. The second is dealing with the Hamas experience as evidence not only for the failure of Islamists in power, but as decisive proof that the movement to which it belongs -- the Muslim Brotherhood -- is barren. The third mistake is aborting the process of intellectual and political maturation in the Arab region where the historic estrangement between various ideological currents and the Islamic current has softened in the last decade.
In its evaluation of the experience of Islamists, the general characteristic of this discourse is found in its focus on the outcomes of the political process in which they are influential. It overlooks, however, the local, regional and international factors that play a decisive role in the success or failure of these experiences. Moreover, the experience of Islamists in power, with all their shortcomings, has not prevented the spread of Islamism's reach. Nor has it prevented Islamist representatives from gaining a majority of popular representation in elections, such as those that took place in Jordan, Yemen, Morocco, Egypt, Kuwait and Iraq.
Discussion of the failure of Islamists is not new. The French researcher Olivie Rawa talked about it 14 years ago in his well-known book The Failure of Political Islam. What is new is the supposed source of failure, for while Rawa spoke of the failure of the ultimate function of Islamist movements with regard to establishing an Islamic state, failure today is connected to the ability of Islamists to transform resistance movements into those that hold power, which requires an ability to run people's affairs and handle their economic and social concerns.
There is no dispute over the importance of evaluating the experience of Islamists. Yet it would be more beneficial to study the roots of the experience and not just its manifestations, and to focus on the reasons for the hold of this current over social capital in most Arab countries, as well as its success in maintaining its characterisation of being an alternative. This success has reached the point of becoming an automatic relation between democratisation and Islamicisation. Fair elections means Islamicising authorities, and political openness means Islamists taking hold of the public sphere.
The issue more worthy of discussion is why have Islamists succeeded while others have failed? Forcefully prohibiting Islamists from engaging in politics has only resulted in the opposite effect occurring, widening their support. This outcome many continue to belittle or treat with arrogance, arguing that Arab societies have not yet reached the necessary level of maturity to meaningfully select their representatives. The real crisis that other ideologies face is avoided; that being their inability to compete with Islamists in the public sphere and their insistence on criticising them without addressing social bases and convincing people of the seriousness of their platforms for change.
Judgment of the Islamist movement must essentially be a judgment of our societies, which represent an important variable in understanding the compositional nature of Islamic political currents in all of their intellectual and operational orientations.
The fact that Islamist movements usually characterised as moderate often fall into tactical error is not alone++(of itself) evidence that supports judging their political experiences as failures. The generalisation of such a judgment creates a situation in which the position of extremist wings is strengthened. It is sufficient to look at Ayman Al-Zawahari's recent defence of Hamas and his call for supporters to offer it assistance in what resembles an attempt to snatch the Palestinian cause from the hands of Hamas and hand it over to jihadists. The generalisation also consigns Arab societies to the domain of despotism on the basis that society is not yet mature, justifying the halting of the entire process of democratisation.
Naturally there are shortcomings that cannot be denied in the understanding of some Islamist movements of how to combine resistance and authority or the possibility of moving from the first to the second in normal circumstances. Yet these are shortcomings that Islamist movements do not monopolise; any others to whom this does not apply are an exception. The liberals did not succeed in ending Egypt's foreign occupation in the first half of the 20th century, and the nationalists did not succeed in combining their ideology with intelligent rule. The secularists, on the other hand, have not succeeded in finding a model that combines civil power with cultural particularities.
Some Islamist movements are, in fact, ignorant of the goals of political activity and are unable to differentiate between changing the ideas and religious beliefs of people and protecting their interests from a civil perspective. Yet the successful experiences of others, as in Morocco, Yemen, Jordan (in the early 1990s), Kuwait, and Turkey (assuming awareness of differences), represents a significant step on the path to effective politics and a departure from the strictures of puritan wings that distort the framework of some Islamist movement activities.
I don't understand why some insist on halting the process of internal intellectual and political development taking place in many moderate Islamist movements through constantly raising doubts over their ability to accomplish their goals. This is not to mention the naivety and double standards used in dealing with Islamists as though they are infallible angels whose mistakes are all the more unacceptable. Others of various ideological orientations are subject only to "soft" criticism that does not reach the point of disregarding their experience as happens with Islamists.
* The writer is a political analyst with Al-Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies.