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Political Islam in the Middle East

Interviewee: Reza Aslan, Adjunct Senior Fellow
Interviewer: Toni Johnson
December 7, 2012

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The Arab Spring has led to significant political gains for Islamists in Egypt, Tunisia, and Libya.* CFR's Reza Aslan, an expert in religion and foreign policy, says Islamist parties initially benefited from being the most organized and having a reputation for being incorruptible, but are now faced with the challenges of governing. "[W]hat these Islamists are starting to learn, across the region, is that you can't maintain your incorruptible image while also having political power," he says, noting that the more political power Islamists gain, the more splintered they become. Aslan says the United States should continue to engage in these post-revolutionary states "in order to ward off the possibility that greater conflict and instability will allow the religious groups to take full control."

I asked Islamic Studies Professor Ebrahim Moosa a few months into the Arab Spring whether political Islam was waxing or waning in the Middle East, and his answer was, "We don't know." About eighteen months have lapsed since that conversation. Can you give an overview of where you think political Islam stood in the region two years ago and where it is now?

"I think what these Islamists are starting to learn, across the region, is that you can't maintain your incorruptible image while also having political power."

It was only natural that political Islam would rise to prominence in places like Egypt, Tunisia, and so on, because the Islamists were the most well organized and allegedly incorruptible opposition forces out there. So in the first election, after the downfall of these dictators, they were in the best position to take advantage of the political process. That's precisely what happened. But, I think what these Islamists are starting to learn, across the region, is that you can't maintain your incorruptible image while also having political power. That power tends to corrupt. Now in Egypt, we're seeing even former supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood demanding the downfall of Mohammed Morsi's presidency.

The Muslim Brotherhood is the oldest of these working political organizations, and this Brotherhood-led government is currently embroiled in a very tense political fight on the one hand with secularists and liberals, and on the other hand with Salafis over Islam's role in the Egyptian constitution. How do you see this playing out?

I think the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt is in a precarious situation, trying to balance the concerns of its constituents as well as the demands of those Egyptians—secularists, liberals and so on—who did not vote for them, but whom the Muslim Brotherhood represents now as the ruling majority in Egypt's government. Frankly, the draft constitution, despite its many faults—and there are many faults in this constitutional draft—is a good representation of this delicate balancing act. It neither tips too far in the camp of the Salafis who are looking for the state to become the arbiter of conservative Islamic moral values, nor does it tip too far in the camp of the secularists and liberals in making sure that it still pays homage to Islam as a source of law and to Islamic ideals and values as a foundation for the state.

As you've mentioned, the Brotherhood and these other Islamist parties were the predominant winners in a lot of these elections across the region because they were well organized. How much do their wins represent the ideological bent of the people versus just having the ability to get out the vote and having name recognition?

I think we need to reconcile ourselves to the fact that the vast majority of the population in Egypt is religiously conservative. Among that vast majority, an even larger majority has repeatedly stated that it wants Islam to play an influential role in their lives, in politics, in the government. So in many ways, the success of the Muslim Brotherhood in the political realm is reflective of the fact that they at least outwardly espouse the morals, the values, the concerns and the worldview of the majority of the Egyptian population. That's how democracies work. People tend to vote for candidates not based on their politics, or even on checkbook concerns. They tend to vote for those candidates who share their worldview and perspective. And the Muslim Brotherhood was able to take advantage of that.

Overall, how has the rise of political Islam changed the regional dynamics? Who's gaining in influence and who's lost influence?

That remains to be seen. The one thing that I will say, however, is that for years, scholars like myself have been saying that political participation has the power to moderate radical ideology in this region. If Islamists can be convinced to put down their guns and to pick up ballots, the necessity of governance, as opposed to the simplicity of being the oppressed opposition, will force them either to moderate their ideals or it will cost them their veneer of piety and incorruptibility; they'll be seen as nothing more than just another political party, which is also a good thing. In other words, success means moderation, failure means irrelevance. Either of those things are a much better outcome for peace and prosperity in the region than the continued oppression of political Islam.

How does this situation compare to the Iranian Revolution?

The Iranian revolution of 1979 bears no semblance whatsoever to what's been going on in the Arab Spring. It was an utterly unique event. First and foremost, it should be noted that '79 was by no means an Islamic revolution; that is actually post-revolutionary propaganda. I was in Tehran during the revolution. There were Marxists and Communists and secularists and Democrats, men, women, Jews, Muslims, Christians, liberal clerics and conservative clerics: a massive and diverse coalition of people united simply by their desire to see the shah go.

Now it's true that in the post-revolutionary chaos of Iran, particularly as a result of Iran's instant pariah status in the West and the almost immediate war that began with Saddam Hussein's Iraq—an eight year war that left hundreds of thousands of Iranians dead—in the midst of that chaos, the forces in Iran that were most organized, that held the most currency with the masses, were the religious forces. Hence, that revolution gave way to the religious totalitarianism that we now see in Iran.

"The United States and the Western world must be deeply engaged in post-revolutionary state building in order to ward off the possibility that greater conflict and instability will allow the religious groups to take full control."

If there really is a lesson to be learned from Iran, it's not that political Islam necessarily leads to theocracy. It's that the United States and the Western world must be deeply engaged in post-revolutionary state-building in order to ward off the possibility that greater conflict and instability will allow the religious groups to take full control.

The United States has engaged with the Brotherhood-led government of Egypt, the Islamist-led governments of Libya and Tunisia. What has to happen for it to engage with Hamas, which won a majority of seats in the Palestinian elections many years before these other governments?

Well, first and foremost, it has to stop being afraid that the pro-Israel lobby will punish it for doing so. Moshe Dayan famously said that you don't negotiate with your friends, you negotiate with your enemies, and frankly, even Israel is in daily negotiations with Hamas when it comes to security matters, water resources, etc. So the idea that because Hamas is labeled a terror organization, the United States is forbidden from talking to it even to the benefit of its own interests, even to the benefit of Israel's interests, is, in my view, an ultimately disastrous and self-defeating policy.

Do you think things have changed enough to open the way for this now that political Islam is a mainstream political movement in the region?

The more that political Islam becomes successful in the region, ŕ la what's happened with the AKP in Turkey, the more the pressure will be applied on more radical groups like Hamas to moderate their own ideology. Not so as to be accepted on the international stage, but because it is to the benefit of their populations, as well as to themselves. So yes, if what's happening in post-revolutionary Tunisia, Libya, Egypt, leads to peace and prosperity, economic and political development, then the path for groups like Hamas and Hezbollah will be clear. It is just their responsibility to take it.

Several experts have noticed that Islamism is not monolithic. Some people say the term "Islamist" is overused and sometimes lumps in schools of thought that should be more carefully delineated. Can you talk a little about when to use the term "Islamist" or "Islamism," and when to qualify?

Islamism means nothing more than religious nationalism of the Islamic variety. It's the same kind of religious nationalism that one sees among, for instance, Christians in the United States. Scholars sometimes refer to them as Dominionist or Christianists. It's the same kind of religious nationalism that one sees in Israel among the religious Zionists, whose loyalty, as they themselves declare, is not to the state of Israel but to the biblical land of Israel. It's the same kind of religious nationalism that one sees in India amongst the BJP, who have created a new kind of Hindu orthodoxy, Hindutva as they call it, whose purpose is to fuse Hindu religiosity with the state. Religious nationalism, in other words, is a universal phenomenon. Islamism is just the Islamic flavor of it. And as one would expect, it comes in multiple versions, depending on the actual beliefs, practices, and worldviews of the Islamists themselves.

What I find interesting is not so much the diversity of Islamism. That seems obvious. What I find interesting is that the more these Islamists gain political power, the more fractured they become. The Muslim Brotherhood, for example, despite the aura of unity that it tries to present, both to the outside world and to the Egyptian population, is more fractured today than it's ever been. It's fractured along generational lines, along ideological lines. There are those among the Muslim Brothers who feel as though the organization has stilted, that its agenda is not suitable to the needs of modern Egypt. And there are those, who happen to mostly be in leadership positions (for now), who want to maintain the old struggles of the past among secularists, among Israel and the West etc. So I think, in a way, the more we encourage the Islamist parties to join the political arena, the more they are forced to present their ideas and agendas to the public, to make them part of the open market place of ideas in society, the more their ideology is going to fracture and moderate.

Are there any trends that concern you?

"What I will say is that in any stable and successful democracy, it is not any single political party that is going to define the state; it's the rule of law that will define it."

What I will say is that in any stable and successful democracy, it is not any single political party that is going to define the state; it's the rule of law that will define it. So what's happening in Egypt as they are drafting this constitution, as they are trying to negotiate all these post-revolutionary interests, that are clashing both in parliament and on the streets of Cairo–that process itself is going to go a lot further in defining the future of Egypt than whoever is president or whoever runs parliament. So our focus should be less on the Muslim Brotherhood and its ideals and more on the hard facts of the constitution and its negotiating of rights and values, privileges, and the rule of law.

*Editor's note: A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that Libya has an Islamist-led government.

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