Jillian Schwedler, Professor of Political Science at Hunter College:
The Arab uprisings were the most significant events to fundamentally shape and reshape Islamist movements across the region in the past decades. They changed the calculation for millions of would-be members and constituents in a manner as significant as that of the jailing of the Muslim Brotherhood by Gamal Abdel Nasser in the 1950s and 1960s until the release under Anwar Sadat in the 1970s. At that time, like today, the new generations of conservative and religious minded activists faced a choice between committing to a moderate path that sought to bring about political reform within the political system, versus a radical path that sought to use violence to overthrow political elites and entirely upend the existing political, social, and economic order. It is true that militant movements never went away. Just as al-Gama‘a al-Islamiyya and later Islamic Jihad were largely defeated inside of Egypt, some numbers fled and found growing militant-minded movements elsewhere. But on the domestic scene, those who wanted to realize change within their home political environments, the majority seemed to find the Muslim Brotherhood or similar movement the most appealing and mainstream option. Today, in most countries that option has been removed, and so the field of choice is radically altered. Even in places like Morocco and Jordan, where moderate Islamists continue to function legally on the political scene, those movements are under extreme pressure from numerous directions.
I have argued in recent years that we should shift our attention from the study of movements per se to the study of other domains of activity and to see how Islam is fit into those environments. Here I would like to also draw attention to another focal point, namely, the individual and personal trajectories of those who find Islamist movements appealing and desirable. That is, a member of one movement is not a static creature who joins at one point in their life and remains an unchanged and equally committed “member” for their career. Even before the uprisings, within particular movements that seemed rather unchanging overall, we saw not just the rise and different commitments of different generations, but also individuals who became disillusioned and left, others who turned in a more hardline direction, and those whose other life experiences shape who they are as individuals and thus their experiences and commitments towards a particular movement or set of ideas. Affiliations with the movement can change as one marries into a family tightly connected with the movement, or, conversely, that looks less favorably on the movement. Taking and leaving jobs, struggling with unemployment, changing urban development, borrowing money, building homes, and so on, can all affect how individuals relate to the political options and opportunities surrounding them. In this sense, we need to take seriously those personal trajectories.
In the post-uprising period, we need to contend with an entire generation that lived the euphoria of new possibilities only to see them crushed. I believe it is probably too early to make broad assertions of what the post-uprising repression is going to mean, how it will affect those generations. One obvious expectation is that a movement forced underground will fragment but reemerge in more extremist variations, likely in the next few years (or perhaps now, with ISIS as the new opportunity in town). But it is also possible that many who found the Muslim Brotherhood an exciting alternative to Mubarak’s regime will turn away from the movement entirely and direct their energies elsewhere. I think we should direct some attention not only to how individual movements are evolving and reconstituting themselves, but also to the biographies and experiences of individuals who have emerged as the new generation for these movements that now face a radically altered political environment, at least in most places.
It might be, for example, that populism and nationalism can take hold of some of those searching for a compelling movement to be a part of. Certainly, the many parallels that have been drawn with the rise of populism in the 1930s suggest that we should not assume that religious movements will absorb those seeking to be a part of a movement that makes them feel empowered and provides for them a narrative of pride, hope, and strength. Elsewhere in the region, in countries like Yemen, Libya, and Syria, state collapse or protracted civil war have rendered the emergence of traditional Islamist movements as a venue for political empowerment untenable. In their place, the choice for empowerment is largely the choice of which militia to join. Those clusters provide a variety of narratives of empowerment, some of which are glossed with religion, often but not only in the form of sectarianism. But none look like the familiar Muslim Brotherhood model of reformist social movement framed around Islam challenging the existing power structure. Those experiences will have a radical impact on generations who grow up in that context. We might even think about comparisons with Northern Ireland, where the Easter Sunday negotiations largely brought an end to the Conflicts and also left a generation of fighters, who had spent decades fighting the fight, in an unfamiliar post-fighting terrain and unsure of their place within it. We know after the end of the mujahideen fighting in Afghanistan in the 1980s, that a generation preparing for and waiting for their moment to fight the good jihad, began to look elsewhere for targets. These long-term and sustained conflicts are likely to have a similar effect on the generations to grow up under them, thereby affecting the ability for countries to climb out of them.