Asef Bayat, Professor of Sociology and Middle Eastern Studies at University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign:
I think one of the most striking effects of the Arab spring was to dispel the dominance of Islamism in Middle East politics. For decades Islamism had been so prevalent that any major upheaval in the region would, it was thought, likely be ‘Islamist’ in character. But clearly this was not the case. None of the uprisings in Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen or Libya assumed religious language– not even in Bahrain where the conflict appeared in terms of ruling Sunni elite against the Shi’a majority. The language of protests in earlier phase of the Syrian uprising was quite similar to others. Only when Bashar al-Asad reportedly released hardline Jihadists from prison and foreign countries got involved did the language of Jihad enter the Syrian conflict. So, on the whole, the Arab Spring showed that people could and did engage in other types of politics.
Yes, religious parties like al-Nahda in Tunisia, Muslim Brothers in in Egypt, and Party of Justice and Development (PJD) in Morocco, did win elections and assume governmental power immediately after the uprisings (in Libya, though, the Islamists in fact lost to secular parties). But as such this was not the ‘Islamist winter’ that the uprisings were supposed to unleash. In Egypt, the Muslim Brothers did come to power; but the very experience of taking office entailed a sharp drop in their popular support, and exit of ‘youth’ groups with post-Islamist proclivity from the Brotherhood. In Morocco and Tunisia, the predominant trend pointed not to Islamist, but some kind of post-Islamist trajectory, in that these parties opted for non-religious states while advocating religious ethics in society.
But what about ISIS and Jihadi streams? Did their ascendency and drama not point to a new trend in Jihadi Islamism? It is true, the Arab spring seemed to unleash groups like ISIS or various Salafi groups in the Arab public sphere; but so too did it reveal trends like Femmen Attack with its bare-chest activists in Tunisia, mass public kissing in Morocco, de-veiling in Egypt, or coming-out of atheists in the Arab world. My point is that revolutionary ruptures tend to open space for the surge of all sorts of ideas, trends, and collectives; these include both ultra-conservative and ultra-liberal trends, which in the Arab countries, however, they surfaced on the margins of society. But with respect to the mainstream, the Arab revolutions signified a post-Islamist moment, with the average Arabs espousing mostly post-Islamist sensibilities.
Of course, this has not meant the end of political Islam. Rather, the local and global contingencies have continued to shape contrasting trends in political Islam. For instance, currently Indonesia’s Muslim democracy is being challenged by politicians who employ conservative religiosity to gain electoral support and in doing so cultivate illiberal Islamist politics. In Egypt, as was expected, some trends within the Muslim Brothers have moved towards violent methods following the killings and mass arrest of the Brotherhood activists since 2013. And the story of Turkey’s Justice and Development Party (AKP)’s authoritarian shift is too well-known to elaborate here, even though the question remains as to what extent AKP leader Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s descent into authoritarian rule has anything to do with Islam or Islamism. Yet against these ‘hardline’ trends, we also see counter-trends towards ‘moderation.’ The ‘moderate Islam’ of Prince Muhammed bin Salman (MBS) of Saudi Arabia is important. Of course, MBS is not an inclusive democrat; far from it; he has already exhibited his reckless repression of dissent in Saudi Arabia and in Yemen. Yet his ‘liberal’ garb to coopt the restless Saudi youths of the Arab Spring generation can follow unintended consequences; it can undercut support for conservative Salafi Islamism that for years has provided ideological nourishment for various Jihadi trends in the Muslim world. But perhaps more important is Tunisia’s al-Nahda and its institutional post-Islamism, when the party separated its political work from religious da‘wa. Al-Nahda can offer both a concrete model and an ideological vista for Islamists to rethink their strategy; it has already instigated a good debate in the Arab public sphere.
Diaspora Islamist activism has assumed a new momentum since the Arab uprisings. But there is no certainty that the diasporic experience would necessarily alter the perspectives of the exiled Islamists. Yes, experience of living abroad, observing different cultures of Islam, and contact with other movements and worldviews may have ‘moderating’ impact. But the inability to tackle life in diaspora can make activists revert to themselves, to the comfort zone of their own marginal communities, so reinforcing the old and familiar ideas rather than adopting new and challenging ones.
But I think ‘generational shift’ (in the sense of Karl Manheim) in the leadership is crucial in how Islamism may evolve. Despite differences in local and national circumstances, the shared epochal experience has already shaped much of the worldviews of Islamist leadership in the recent years. While the Islamism of the Cold War tended to be left-oriented, distributionist and populist, the current Islamism seems to have largely taken the free market for granted. So, while some kind of left populism characterized the Islamism of the 1980s and 1990s (for instance, in the views of Ayatollah Khomeini of Iran or Mahmoud Mohammed Taha of Sudan) we see today a tendency towards neoliberal populism among both Islamists and post-Islamists—for instance, in the thinking of figures like Mahmoud Ahmadinejad of Iran, Kheirat al-Shater of the Egyptian Muslim Brothers, or Turkey’s Erdogan, who are not interested in distribution and welfare, but ‘prosperity’ through individual entrepreneurship. This represents a significant shift to what might be called ‘neo-Islamism’ of our neoliberal times.