Jadaliyya (J): What made you edit this volume?

Paola Rivetti (PR): Since 2013, I have been teaching modules of politics of the Middle East at Dublin City University. I realized the need for a collection of essays devoted to the analysis of the transformation of Islamist politics post-2011, mainly because of the somewhat scattered state of the current scholarship on the topic. I felt that there needed to be a volume engaging the trajectories of Islamist players in the region after the so-called Arab uprisings, one which engaged in broad comparative reflections. I also realized that my students would benefit from a publication of this sort.

Hendrik Kraetzschmar (HK): Before editing this volume, both Paola and I participated in a research project funded by the Gerda Henkel Foundation, which focused on the transformation of Islamism after the uprisings. The book is connected to the outcomes of that project. The volume brings together twenty-one chapters and covers a wide range of Islamist organizations active in twelve countries and with varying relationships to state power. Some aspire to conquer it, while others have traditionally disengaged from state politics but have strategically reconsidered their options post-2011. Others engage in civil society work and are virtually indifferent to elections and institutions. The same variety is present in terms of ideology, from actors who accept that democracy is compatible with Islam, to “rejecters” and “conditionalists”—as Kamran Bokhari and Farid Senzai call them.

Chapters explore how environmental changes have impacted “the menu of political action” available to Islamists, exploring specifically their decisions and behaviors when they are confronted with factors such as decreased/increased political competition with other Islamist and non-Islamist organizations, possibilities for alliance-building, changes in the discursive framing of political choices, and access to transnational financial networks.

J:  What particular topics, issues, and literatures does the book address?

PR and HK: Our book moves from the observation that since 2011, the position of Islamist players vis-à-vis the state has changed. Some have risen to power after years of persecution, while others have suffered from repression; some have accepted to be co-opted by the ruling elite and protect the status quo in exchange for some power, and others have engaged in a violent struggle against the state, aiming to re-establish an Islamic alternative, as can be seen in the case of the Islamic State (IS, ISIS). We attempted to address and summarize the numerous political options open to the various Islamist groups mentioned in the book, focusing around the concepts of “governance,” “pluralization,” and “contestation” (hence the title).

In terms of content organization, we identified four trajectories. They are not new, but we were interested in assessing their evolution post-2011.

The first trajectory concerns the transformation of Islamist parties from parties of the opposition to parties of power. Although their fortunes once in power varied, the challenges associated with political and economic governance have been present for all. This section includes chapters on: the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood and the challenge of pluralism (2011-2013) (Mariz Tadros), Iran’s elite and social polarization after 2009 (Paola Rivetti and Alam Saleh), the governance aspirations of the Islamic State (Truls Hallberg Tønnessen), Qatari charities as a site for negotiation of citizenship (Wanda Krause and Melissa Finn), neoliberalism and the fall of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt (Angela Joya), the rise of the Islamic left in Turkey and the challenge posed to the neoliberal AKP (Nazlı Çağın Bilgili and Hendrik Kraetzschmar).

The second trajectory is the rise in levels of societal polarization along “secular–Islamist” lines and its impact on both Islamist and “secular” domestic players. This section includes chapters on the PJD and Moroccan electoral politics (Mohammed Masbah), the transformation in the Egyptian Islamist parties as an effect of the competition with “moderate” and “secular” forces (Barbara Zollner), Islamist political societies in Bahrain (Marc Valeri), Islamist proto-parties in Kuwait (Luciano Zaccara, Courtney Freer, and Hendrik Kraetzschmar), the dialectic transformation of Tunisia’s Constitutional Democratic Rally and Nida’ Tunis into forms of politicized Islam (Anne Wolf), and the secular–Islamist polarization in post-Mubarak Egypt (Hendrik Kraetzschmar and Alam Saleh).

The third trajectory we engage is the pluralization of domestic Islamist actors and the growth of intra-Islamist competition and conflict—one of the most noticeable effect of the uprisings and regime change across the region. Chapters focus on the conflicts internal to Tunisia’s Islamism (Francesco Cavatorta), the reconfiguration of Egypt’s “Islamist Social Movement Family” in 2011 and 2013 (Jérôme Drevon), the impact of sectarian tensions on Iraq’s Shi‘a Islamist forces (Ibrahim al-Marashi), and—adopting a region-wide perspective, the reconfiguration of the international relations of the post-2011 Middle East following the evolution of rivalries between Islamists (Katerina Dalacoura).

Finally, the last part of the book is devoted to the resurgence of sectarian discourse and conflict in the region, notably between Sunni and Shi‘a Islam. Chapters examine the case of Yemen (Vincent Durac), Syria (Laura Ruiz de Elvira Carrascal and Souhaïl Belhadj), and Iraq (Chérine Chams El-Dine). The three chapters search for the causes of the confrontation in specific grievances, rather than in doctrinal tensions between Sunni and Shi‘a Islam, critiquing the notion of sectarianism and avoiding a simplistic representation of it. However, the authors recognize its performative influence. In order to tease out this conundrum, the three chapters turn to history and to an in-depth examination of the political relevance of identity politics to the wider population and political elites. The chapters, however, also demonstrate that anti-sectarian identities and mobilizations have been present in the countries under scrutiny.

The concluding chapter (Jillian Schwedler) wraps up the volume and proposes an innovative approach to the study of Islamist politics by moving away from an examination of single organizations and groups to an examination of contexts and events—which she calls as “Islamist-ness.” Contextual to her effort of renewing well-established analytical approaches, Schwedler also proposes an innovative categorization of the chapters included in the volume.

In terms of literature, every chapter adopts a specific focus and therefore engages with specific debates. The introduction (Paola Rivetti and Hendrik Kraetzschmar) calls for a rejection of exceptionalism, according to which organized political Islam is too peculiar to compare with non-Islamist social and political organizations. This approach has limited our understanding of the evolution and transformation of Islamist political and social forces when confronted with changing environments following revolutions, counter-revolutions, and regime change. Although this volume focuses on Islamist organized forces, the introduction engages with the scholarship examining non-Islamist political and social organizations in a context of change, in the hope that this will facilitate more systematic comparative analysis.

J: How does this book connect to and/or depart from your previous work?

PR and HK: For both of us, this is the first time we have worked on Islamist organizations, so in a way, it is a departure from our previous work. With that being said, it has massively enriched our broader research agendas. We are both interested in issues of political change, mobilization, and governance, so working on this volume strengthened our expertise in these fields.

J: Who do you hope will read this book, and what sort of impact would you like it to have?

RR and HK: We think this is an excellent volume because it represents a synthesis between the study of Islamism pre-2011 and post-2011. In fact, the volume presents continuity in some of the topics under examination, and change, as evidenced by the presence of “new” topics which traditionally have attracted less attention (i.e., neoliberalism), new theoretical reflections (i.e., citizenship and “silence” as a form of resilience), and new approaches (i.e., “Islamist-ness”).

This book, however, will also raise interest among non-academic experts. The issues dealt with are relevant to policymakers. Furthermore, all chapters are readable and heavily empirical, so we believe they will find readers among non-academics too.

J: What other projects are you working on now?

PR: I currently am in the process of writing a monograph on Iranian politics. I am also engaged in finalizing a co-authored paper with Shirin Saeidi on citizenship and state formation in precarious environments. As odd as it sounds, we are comparing asylum-seekers and undocumented migrants in Greece with pro-regime Hezbollahi activists in Iran. If funded, in 2019-2020 I will be part of a new project led by Erika Biagini looking at the negotiations of gender roles within Islamic movements active in different countries, from Indonesia to Italy and the United Kingdom.

HK: I am currently working on various aspects of party politics in the Middle East, including research on ideologies and party politics in Egypt. I am also involved in research on LGBTQ identities and activism in the region.


Excerpt from Chapter 1:

What is then the regional and domestic impact of the Arab uprisings and their aftermath on Islamist political and social organisations, their behaviour, programmatic development/outlook and their interaction with other domestic and transnational forces? This book is concerned with precisely these questions, epitomised by the concepts of governance’, ‘pluralisation’ and ‘contestation’ spelled out in its title. Including a wide range of country-based case studies and covering countries from Iran in the East — whose ‘Green Movement’ of 2009-10 was a prelude in many ways to the subsequent Arab uprisings — to Morocco in the far West of the MENA, it offers a comparative analysis of how Islamist organisations have been affected by and dealt with changes brought about by the uprisings and their longer-term implications. Drawing on original research, the individual chapters present an analysis of political Islam that is underpinned by a rejection of ‘exceptionalist’ thinking, according to which organised political Islam (that is Islamist political parties, social movements, NGOs and charitable associations) is too peculiar to compare with non-Islamist social and political organisations. Exceptionalism contends that what makes Islamist actors unique is their ideology — that is Islamism— which, according to this approach, plays a predominant role in determining Islamists’ choices and political strategies over ‘rational’ and interest-driven calculations. It follows that, as emphasised by Elizabeth R. Nugent, scholars have rarely compared Islamist and non-Islamist political and social organisations. Once such examples is the Sage’s Handbook of Party Politics, which focusses on a wide range of party ideologies and models from different corners of the planet, yet hardly devotes any attention to Islamist political parties, their experiences and workings.

The lack of serious comparative engagement with Islamist social and political organisations is the result of a scholarly approach in political science that goes back to the 1960s and 1970s and that tended to overlook Islamism as a meaningful socio-political force. As Volpi and Stein explain, Islamism hardly featured as an analytically relevant factor, as academic debates were dominated by modernisation and class theory. Indeed, wherever considered, Islamism tended to be dismissed as the expression of conservative social forces, historically obsolete and doomed to disappear. This nurtured the perception of Islamism and Islamist organisations as ‘exceptional’, contributing to their isolation from other social and political players. This treatment of Islamism as a tangential and temporary phenomenon only changed after 9/11. Then, the dominant approach to its study became the prism of security, radicalism and terrorism, exposing the ‘exceptional’ propensity of Islam and Islam-inspired politics towards violence and radicalism, as well as their incompatibility with democracy.

Although this volume focusses on Islamist social and political forces, our contributions aim to facilitate dialogue and interactions with the scholarship that has examined other, non-Islamist political and social organisations in a context of change. Far from downplaying the relevance for Islamists of religion as a moral compass informing policy choices, the volume highlights that the behaviour of Islamist organisations is very similar to that of political parties and socio-political organisations more broadly in contexts of change, be it liberalisation, authoritarian resurgence or regime change. Our analyses and the findings expose significant parallels to studies conducted on other, non-religious political and social organisations in changing and (potentially) unstable environments, such as for instance on communist parties in Central Asia and Eastern Europe following the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. Anna Grzymala-Busse and Pauline Jones Luong examine the post-1991 state-(re)building in post-communist Central Asia and Eastern Europe, locating elite competition at the core of this process. The structural constraints which affected intra-elite contention and consequently party politics in the region — such as access to the competition itself thanks to the existence of some previous organisational structure upon which elite factions may claim their share of power, ideational and material resources, access to the administration and bureaucratic system, to international business networks and the ability to fit strategic discursive and policy templates — apply to contexts where Islamist organisations have taken part in the process of institutional bargain post-uprisings as well as to settings where countries experienced regime change or where an intra-elite compromise could be found to assure continuity for the ruling authorities.

Similarities not only revolve around context, however, but extend to the choices and behaviours of Islamist organisations too. When it comes to political parties, for instance, contributors to this volume underline that moderate Islamist parties have chosen to respect the political limitations imposed by higher authorities, such as a ruling monarch, in exchange for the possibility to govern and/or participate in institutional politics. As highlighted by the case of the Moroccan PJD and its post-2011 rise to power, or the strategic choice made by the Bahraini Shi‘a political society Jamʿiyyat al-Wifaq al-Watani al-Islamiyya (Entente – National Accord Islamic Society, henceforth al-Wifaq) at the time of the Pearl Roundabout protest movement in 2012, parties disassociated themselves from the protesters in exchange for political inclusion. Mohammad Masbah, who authored the chapter on the PJD in Morocco in this volume, talks about a ‘pragmatisation’ that underpinned the party’s post-2011 choices, a statement that echoes Marc Valeri’s examination of the behaviour of al-Wifaq, as well as that of the mainstream Sunni Islamist opposition in Kuwait by Luciano Zaccara, Courtney Freer and Hendrik Kraetzschmar, despite the significant differences that exist in the outcome of the three experiences and the fate of the parties/forces in question.

‘Pragmatisation for participation’ is similar to the strategy adopted by former communist parties in Eastern Europe during the post-1989 ‘transition period’ in response to both liberal democracy and the market economy. Margit Tavits and Natalia Lekti argue that ex-communist and leftist parties in Central Europe adapted to the free-market mantra by promising (and, once in power, carrying through) cuts to public spending in order survive as credible participants in the new institutional politics and become viable political choices in the eyes of the electorate. In Hungary, for instance, the former Communist Hungarian Socialist Party (known by its Hungarian acronym, MSzP) was able to shed its pariah status in society at the beginning of the political transition, when it re-oriented its economic policies, showing commitment to democracy and the market economy. Once elected, the MSzP government implemented a stabilisation package that cut spending for social welfare and accelerated privatisation. In post-1989 Poland as well, the former ruling party — the Communist Social Democracy of Polish Republic (known by its Polish acronym SdRP) — remained a discredited political force, whose local party offices were often robbed or attacked, and local members assaulted. Again, as with the MSzP in Hungary, its political fortunes changed, however, once it committed programmatically to market-economic principles and reforms. While a monarch imposing the rules of the game was absent in Eastern Europe, former communist parties were fighting for political inclusion and electoral success by abiding to the limitation of a post-1989 political agenda pillared around capitalism and liberal democracy, avoiding appeals to nostalgia and socialist ideology, and by actively engaging in tough and aggressive anti-welfare economic reforms. As Tavits and Lekti put it, these parties needed to show that their leaders were capable managers, rather than obsolete ideologues. In order to stand any chance of success in a changing political and economic environment, they pragmatically abided to the new rules of the game.

However, far from homogenising the trajectories of Islamist political parties and organisations in the region, the volume also explores cases in which political and social actors decided not to obey extant structural limitations, choosing exclusion from the formal political sphere instead. The chapter by Barbara Zollner on Egypt, for instance, highlights how strategic and rational calculations may motivate the decision of Islamist parties to stay out of the formal political sphere, thus offering a different perspective on ‘pragmatisation’ as the ability to maximise one’s interests in a given environment. Indeed, pragmatisation and the obedience to extant rules in exchange for political inclusion do not necessarily overlap, as Nathan Brown reveals in the case of Kuwait, Jordan, Palestine and Egypt. Brown explains that here, Islamist organisations have preferred to protect their credibility as oppositional forces or critics of the ruling elite by staying away from the formal political game, which would have imposed strict limitations on the scope of their political action and possibly co-opted them. Again, this choice is not confined to Islamists, especially in the case of political parties/organisations that operate in authoritarian environments. Looking at the case of Zimbabwe, which is compared against all countries that experienced an authoritarian presidential election between 1990 and 2008, Tavishi Bhasin and Jennifer Gandhi explain that opposition parties often choose electoral boycotts rather than participation to avoid complying with political limitations they do not agree with or accepting circumstances they do not see as favourable. When it comes to politically unstable contexts — such as those that experienced regime change in the MENA region in 2010-11 and subsequently free election — or to contexts characterised by competitive authoritarian elections, boycotts may also represent a powerful bargaining chip for political parties to maximise their interests in a new, or quickly changing, environment. In other words, structural and environmental factors seem to be determinant, although not the only ones to be relevant, in the electoral strategy that oppositional forces choose but, while there is a robust scholarship on this topic produced by Area specialists, only a few scholars have engaged in cross-area comparisons.

Hendrik Kraetzschmar and Paola Rivetti, eds., Islamists and the Politics of the Arab Uprisings: Governance, Pluralisation and Contention (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2018).