John Voll, Professor Emeritus of Islamic History at Georgetown University:

The Arab uprisings and subsequent developments are transforming the old politics of what has been called “Political Islam.” However, Asef Bayat notes, Political Islam “did not come to an end.” Instead, new approaches are emerging. Some post-Islamist political groups, for example, have “opted for non-religious states while advocating religious ethics in society.” This new situation involves a generational shift reflecting the growing importance of younger Muslims in the public arena. Nathan Brown observes that “the credibility of political parties, clear organizational frameworks, identifiable and authoritative leaders seem to have rapidly receded for many younger activists.”

In broader terms, expressions of politically relevant Muslim messages and actions are taking new forms that are not as state-oriented as the old-style movements. This situation may mean, Jillian Schwedler suggests, that “we should shift our attention from the study of movements per se to the study of other domains of activity and see how Islam is fit into those environments.” The diverse modes of activist expression during the Arab uprisings show that these “other domains” include pop music and other manifestations of pop culture, especially among the youth.

In our discussions of “Political Islam after the Arab Uprisings,” we all tend to concentrate on the changing nature of organized Islamist activities. However, even in the uprisings themselves, pop culture, although not expressed in formal Islamist or Islamic or “secular” movements, played important roles in shaping events. Pop music as in the hip hop of El General in Tunisia and Ibrahim al-Qashoush in Syria in the early days of the protests articulated popular sentiments remarkably effectively, showing, as Dave Randall notes, that “what the Arab revolutions showed is that occasionally… musicians are central to critical moments of mass struggle.” (Randall, Sound System, 2017,  166) This pop culture continues to be important as, for example, “Tunisia’s neglected youth find their voice in hip-hop.” (The National, Abu Dhabi, 17 May 2015) As we study post-uprisings political dynamics, the advice of Mark LeVine is important: “To understand the peoples, cultures, and politics of the Muslim world today… we need to follow the musicians and their fans as much as the mullahs.”(LeVine, Heavy Metal Islam, 2008,  3)

Pop culture in the public sphere is expressed in many ways in addition to music. Pop culture may not be directly political or religious in nature, but the emerging pop cultures of the youth in the Arab world shape the future of politics and religion. In Saudi Arabia, for example, creative artists working in many different media – from sculpture and painting to film making and performance – have been active in shaping culture in the public sphere. As Sean Foley states, this development “is a powerful force. Its practitioners offer important insights into the present and future of a kingdom that stands at the crossroads of the economic, political, and religious crises that shape both the Middle East and the contemporary world.”

As we look at Political Islam almost a decade after the beginnings of the Arab uprisings, it is important not simply to concentrate on the old-style movements and organizations and their political trajectories. Politically relevant Muslim activity is not confined to institutional politics and Islamist movements; it is also expressed in the popular culture of the public sphere. In this framework, “Pop Islam” is an “expression of a modern Muslim identity” (Radia Assou, in, 8 January 2013) We need to broaden the scope of our analytical vision beyond the boundaries of “Political Islam” to include politically relevant Muslim experience that may not fit within the narrow definitions of what is “political.”

[This roundtable is produced in partnership with Maydan.]