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Post-Islamist Democracy

Asef Bayat
University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

The unfolding of the Arab Spring has fostered hope for a democratic future in the Arab world. But three years into the revolutions, cynicism and suspicion have begun to take hold. There is a lingering fear that the revolutions may have opened the path for an Islamist takeover. The rise of Salafist groups, the surge to power of religious parties in Morocco, Tunisia, and Egypt, and the widespread Muslim protests over the anti-Islamic US video The Innocence of Muslims in 2012, are seen as signs that the Muslim world is on the verge of yet another Islamist turn. Was the Arab Spring, after all this, simply a pathway for Islamist revolutions in the region?

There is no guarantee that revolutions that topple autocracies necessarily lead to the development of democratic institutions and a just social order. These depend on the subsequent struggles between the competing forces that the revolutions release: progressive and conservative, religious and secular, democratic and undemocratic, elites and the subaltern. I wish to suggest, however, that the general cynicism with respect to the Arab revolutions may be overstated. A good part of the anxiety over an "impending Islamist threat" comes from the habit of lumping together substantially different movements and ideas under the rubric of "Islamism," as if any Muslim man with a beard or woman wearing the hijab is necessarily "Islamist". Indeed, many of the groups and movements, such as the Tunisian al-Nahḍah, the Moroccan ruling Party of Justice and Development (PJD), or the Turkish Adalet ve Kalkinma Partisi (AKP) that are labeled in this way, are not, strictly speaking, Islamist. Instead, they may be characterized as "post-Islamist". And this distinction has important implications for the question of democratic polity in Muslim societies following the uprisings.

By Islamism I mean those ideologies and movements that aim to establish some kind of an Islamic order: a religious state, shariʿah law, and moral codes in Muslim societies and communities. Association with the state is a key feature of the Islamist movements. Islamists are eager to control state power not only because it ensures their rule, but especially because they consider the state as the most powerful and efficient institution that is able, whether through daʿwah (preaching) or duress, to spread "good" and eradicate "evil" in Muslim societies ("command good, forbid wrong"). This means that the Islamists' normative and legal perspective places more emphasis on people's obligations than their rights. People are perceived more as dutiful subjects than rightful citizens. So, Islamism is basically a duty-centered religious polity. Examples include Iran's hardliners; the Pakistani Jama't-i Islami, or Lashkar Tayyuba; the Indonesian Lashkar Jihad; and Somalia's Shabab al-Islami.

Post-Islamism is different. It is not un-Islamic or secular; it is religious. Yet it represents a critique of Islamism from within and without. It wants to transcend Islamist polity by emphasizing rights rather than simply obligations; it stresses citizenship; it tends to mix religiosity and rights, faith and freedom (in varying degrees), Islam and democracy, within a market economy. It wishes to establish a secular-civil democratic state, but at the same time to promote a pious society. Iran's reform movement, the Prosperity and Justice Party (PKS) in Indonesia, or Turkey's ruling AKP exemplify this type of religious polity.1

I have suggested elsewhere that the Arab Revolutions were more or less 'post-Islamist' in perspective.2 In fact, the language of religion was remarkably minimal or absent in the uprisings, even though the actors were overwhelmingly religious believers. In Tunisia, the demands were to oust the Ben Ali dictatorship, and to establish an accountable government. The Islamic al-Nahḍah leadership hesitated to join the protests when they flared up. But when al-Nahḍah eventually sided with the revolution, the exiled leader Rashid al-Ghannushi rejected a Khomeini-style revolution and state. In Egypt as well, the revolution was popular and civil, where religious language, nationalism, or anti-Western sentiments were largely absent. The major demand remained "bread, freedom, and social justice." In fact the main religious groups and institutions—the Salafis, al-Azhar, and the Coptic Church—opposed the revolution; and the Muslim Brotherhood refused to join the uprising at its outset. In Libya, the major "rebel group" in Benghazi was composed of professionals—doctors, lawyers, teachers and human rights activists—and not al-Qaeda, as Qadhdhafi claimed. Both in Yemen and Bahrain the religious opposition was composed of moderate parties that called for inclusive social and political reform.

This is very different from the Arab politics of the 1980s and 1990s, when the Arab political class was infused with a mix of nationalist and Islamist perspectives. The shift seems to have occurred largely since the early 2000s, when a new style of politics and discourse with a post-Islamist orientation began to develop. Broadly, it resulted from disenchantment with an Islamist political philosophy that was already enduring a crisis. Many Muslims sensed that Islamist rulers, instead of ensuring justice, had violated democratic principles and denied citizens of their civil rights. The image of Iran as a country that had established a full-fledged religious state was tarnished for its exclusivism and misogyny. The Islamic Republic spurred a widespread opposition which, as a response, mobilized to bring the post-Islamist Mohamad Khatami to power in 1997. In addition, al-Qaeda's violence presented a brutal image of Islam which most Muslims strove to disclaim. Muslim believers had become weary of Islamist politics that had exploited their faith for political gain; they chose to cherish their Islam while breaking away from Islamism. This kind of thinking informed the intellectual backdrop of a "new Arab public" that came to initiate the Arab uprisings.

The fall of the Arab dictators brought to power not the revolutionary protagonists, but those opposition movements that had built solid organizations, i.e. Islamic groups. However, the rise of the Islamic parties in the national elections may not necessarily signal a tide of Islamist revolutions in the Arab countries—after all, religious parties in Libya and Algeria lost to their secular and liberal counterparts. Rather, it may herald the coming of some kind of post-Islamist polity. Thus, in Morocco, for instance, even though the Islamic Justice and Development Party (PJD) formed a government and party leader Benkirani became the Prime Minister, it did not push for an Islamic state or shariʿah law. In fact the PJD had already transcended its 1970s Islamist (Shabab al-Islamiyya) past, evolving into a legal political party which now works within Morocco's political structure. Meanwhile, Tunisia's al-Nahḍah exhibits an explicitly post-Islamist disposition; it has remained committed to electoral democracy since the January 2011 revolution, and like its Turkish AKP counterpart, has shown interest not in a religious state, but in a civil and secular one; yet it wants to promote a broadly conceived pious society. Al-Nahḍah, AKP, and PJD may be conservative, but they are not necessarily Islamist.

In Egypt, things have been more complex. The Muslim Brothers have recently experienced some crucial shake-ups. Even though the Brotherhood has lately been uttering the language of "elections", "people's power", "democracy" and the like, their discursive shift has been pushed largely by events rather than resulting from a systematic evaluation of their past Islamist and exclusive ideology. The conflicting statements of different Muslim Brothers leaders in post-Mubarak Egypt have pointed to a growing discord over how the Brothers imagined themselves. The old guard has continued to speak of Islamism and shariʿah, with leaders such as Mohammed Badi' and Mahmoud Ezzat committing to the ideas of Sayyid Qutb on issues of internal discipline and organization. But the revolutionary events and the brief rule of the Brothers profoundly unsettled the movement, causing splits, expulsions, and erosion. The popular Abdel-Monem Abul-Fotuh was expelled from Brotherhood; he then formed his own party of Strong Egypt. Along with dozens of prominent members, many youths of the Brotherhood embraced post-Islamism of the AKP type, lashing out at the old-guard leadership for its authoritarianism, secrecy, and gender bias. In an early wave of defections, the youths of the Muslim Brotherhood formed five new political parties, including Tayyar Misry and Hizb al-Adl, all standing in opposition to the Brotherhood's leadership. More importantly, the two short years of the Brothers' regime cost the group an unprecedented loss in sympathy and support among ordinary Egyptians.

Related to the ideological shake-ups among the Islamist movements has been a change in societal sensibilities. A value survey conducted between June–August 2011 (in Egypt, Iraq, Lebanon, and Saudi Arabia) confirmed that the revolutions fit the definition of post-Islamist and were mostly post-ideological. For instance in Egypt, some 85% of respondents said the revolution was for democracy, economic prosperity, and equality, while only 9% stated it was for an Islamic government. This result was confirmed by a TNS poll on Egypt (reported by al-Masry al-Youm) suggesting that 75% of Egyptians wanted a civil rather than a religious state.

Notwithstanding the current instability and uncertainty in the post-revolution Arab states, in the end, some form of electoral democracy and competitive elections may not be far-fetched. Aside from a shift in the thinking of Islamists and their constituencies in favor of a more inclusive polity, the Arab revolutions have by default created a pluralist public sphere where (unlike their 20th century counterparts) a single political force could not monopolize power in the name of revolution. The active presence of multiple political actors (religious and secular, conservative and liberal) can potentially serve to institutionalize political pluralism. Tunisia and Libya may pave such a path. Egypt would have fared better if the military had not forcefully removed President Morsi from power, and in turn if the Brotherhood had been as inclusive as the post-Islamist al-Nahḍah and Turkish AKP.

But the great challenge for post-Islamist polity is how much the post-Islamist religious or moral ethics could accommodate citizens' individual rights and liberties: their lifestyles, religious freedoms, gender rights, or non-religious ethics. In addition, to what extent the post-Islamist embrace of neo-liberal economy can address the popular demands for social justice. We have already seen how, in Tunisia, Egypt, or Turkey, restrictions on certain individual and civil liberties have been compounded by a broad neglect of demands for jobs and justice, thus instigating widespread protests from multiple constituencies. At the political level, the likely clash between post-Islamist ethics and liberal values (of individual, gender, and civil rights) might result in some kind of "illiberal democracy", where electoral democracy may go along with some variable curbs on liberties. This trajectory may not be too far from the experience of Western democracies, which have seen in their history many restrictions on individual and civil liberties. However, if electoral democracy prevails, it can open the space for debate and discussion over these very issues, and possibly extend the scope of these liberties. But this will not come easily; it would depend on the incessant struggle to enhance democratic space and emancipatory projects. Thus, electoral democracy, even if "illiberal", does matter; not only on its own merit, but also for the sake of extending democratic space and the domain of rights.

1For details see Asef Bayat, ed., Post-Islamism: The Changing Faces of Political Islam (Oxford University Press, 2013).

2Asef Bayat, "The Post-Islamist Revolutions", Foreign Affairs, April 26, 2011.


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