The end of political Islam has been predicted time and time again for more than 20 years. The trajectory followed by the regime in Iran, the crises in Algeria, Egypt and elsewhere pointed to the conclusion drawn by Olivier Roy (followed by Gilles Kepel): “The failure of political Islam” and its inevitable end, which had already begun. Scholars and analysts are, however, sometimes unclear about how exactly to define and outline the notions of ‘Islamism’ and ‘political Islam’.”
At both ends of the semantic spectrum, it is essential to know at what point the reference to political Islam ends. Can it be termed political Islam when a tiny group of violent extremists — with no organised structure to speak of and no articulated political vision — kills innocent people in different parts of the world? At the opposite end of the spectrum, has the evolution of the Turkish “model,” from Necmettin Erbakan to Recep Tayyip Erdogan, along with the thoroughgoing transformation of the Justice and Development Party (AKP) removed it from the category of political Islam? Similarly, what of the changes that the Islamist movements have undergone in the 20th and early 21st centuries: Do they still represent political Islam? How to describe the ideology enforced in some monarchies which assert that democracy and the principle of elections itself must be rejected in the name of Islam? Is this not a political ideology oriented and nurtured by a specific understanding of Islam? Is there not a temptation to attach the “Islamist” label to any political movement that invokes Islam while taking a position — sometimes in uncompromising terms — against the West?
Before announcing the end of “political Islam,” it would first be necessary to agree upon a precise definition, to arrive at an understanding of what is subsumed by the term. Scholars and analysts, be they political scientists or sociologists, have thus far failed to reach a consensus. Who could doubt that all Islamist organisations or movements have undergone substantial changes during the 20th and early 21st centuries? A simple comparison of the arguments used by the pioneering opponents of colonialism, Al Afghani and Abduh, and those of contemporary Islamists shows that the range of opinions and strategies has greatly expanded over the course of their historical experience, in both success and failure. Over nearly a century, the official leadership of Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood (the Guidance Bureau: Maktab Al Irshad) has undergone substantial development over questions like democracy, women, political pluralism and the role of civil society. In addition to the changes at the leadership level, the organisation has been constantly wrought by generational conflicts arising out of contradictory visions and strategies. Have the newest generation of Muslim Brothers jettisoned the paradigm of their elders? Are they no longer “Islamists?” Such a conclusion may be extreme, but it must be admitted that the legalist incarnation of political Islam has undergone a mutation, not only in the terminology it employs, but also in the substance of its ideology and the priorities it sets in its political commitment. After nearly a century marked by obstacles and threats, how could it have been different? The same general pattern can be observed from Morocco to Egypt, from Tunisia and Algeria to Libya, Syria and even further east, to Pakistan, India, Indonesia and Malaysia.
Seen in this light, the Iran experience is instructive. Influential personalities, from the philosopher Abdul Karim Soroush to former prime minister Mir Hussain Mousavi, had supported the 1979 Islamic Revolution before modifying their views and developing, from within, positions critical of the regime and calling for indispensable reforms. If some have ceased to recognise a political role for Islam in the light of what they consider to have been a negative experience, others, like Mousavi, Mehdi Karoubi, the new-elected reformist President Hassan Rouhani, and most of the reformists claim to have remained faithful to the founding ideology but oppose what they see as a betrayal of its spirit by the last regime, where a portion of the religious hierarchy wields authoritarian control. They have another vision of what the Islamic Republic should be, but they would by no means to wish to drop the notion of “Islamic” from their political outlook. In fact, they were to invoke it in demanding more transparency, an end to arbitrary arrests, censorship and the cronyism of the clerical caste. For them, such practices run counter to religious principles and betray the principles of the 1979 Revolution, which set out to moralise politics in the name of Islam, not to use it to monopolise power. To such an extent, according to Reuters and the Israeli daily Haaretz, Barack Obama can see little difference between the policies of Ahmadinejad and Mousavi: With either man, future relations promised to be fraught with tension. The regime is far from shaky. It can be expected to exercise a decisive influence in the region for years to come — alongside that of its Lebanese ally, Hezbollah, and of course in Syria.
No less compelling is the Turkish example. The distance travelled between the positions of current Prime Minister Erdogan and those of his long-time mentor, former prime minister Erbakan, seems clear-cut and in some respects, radical. When he took office, Erbakan, an economist by training, wished to create a counterweight to the G8, in the spirit of early 20th-century Islamism and the pan-Islamism that had inspired it. In the spring of 1996, he directed Turkey’s foreign and economic policy southward and eastward, inviting Egypt, Iran, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Indonesia, Malaysia and Nigeria to join the D8 (“Developing Eight”). It was anticipated that the participating countries, all with Muslim majorities, would work together to shift the centre of gravity of their economic relations. Erbakan noted at the time: “Trade among European countries is between 70 and 80 percent, while trade among Muslim countries is only 7 per cent. We must increase the percentage.” The intent was clear: In addition to carrying out an Islamisation policy at home, a new “Islamic” power bloc was to be created through economic means within the existing world order. Though the project fell through, it pointed to what would distinguish Erdogan from his former mentor. Where Erbakan had adopted an Islamist and deeply anti-capitalist approach (though not a communist one — he spoke of “another way”), Erdogan’s priorities were different. He turned towards the West and the European Union, petitioning to integrate Turkey into a union that would be primarily economic. In accepting secularism, carrying out constitutional reform and steering away from former Islamist slogans, he appeared to inverse priorities: Turkey must now assume a strong position in the international economy and follow the globally accepted rules in order to gain recognition as an indispensable political player (hence the “zero problems with our neighbours” policy).
In its domestic policy, the AKP is a conservative party that strives to remain faithful to Islamic religious and moral traditions. It by no means shares the literalist reading of religion that prevails in Saudi Arabia (the AKP advocates reformist Islam), but a similar political and economic configuration can nonetheless be detected: An emphatic ideological reference to Islam (reformist in Turkey, literalist in Saudi Arabia) accompanied by an acceptance of the neo-liberal capitalist economic order. It can be observed that whenever such a configuration appears in a Muslim majority country, there is hesitation in the West to stigmatise that country by defining it as “Islamist”— as though being less anti-capitalist made a country less Islamist. In other words, Islam is acceptable, and can be assimilated into the respectable categories of political science, on condition that it accepts the laws of the market.
Tariq Ramadan is professor of Contemporary Islamic Studies in the Faculty of Oriental Studies at Oxford University and a visiting professor at the Faculty of Islamic Studies in Qatar. He is the author of Islam and the Arab Awakening.