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  • Islamist Parties after the Arab Spring
  • Camille Pecastaing (bio)


Islamism emerged as a political vision in the last decades of the 20th century. It first became an instrument of political action in the years before World War I, when Muslim organizations of a new type appeared in Indonesia and India.1 The new organizations were modern yet not entirely Western, modeled after political parties and trade unions yet retaining characteristics of traditional Muslim social institutions, in particular Sufi Brotherhoods. The first Islamist party, the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, was founded in 1928 and served as a model for many Islamist parties as they were established across the Arab world.2 Organizational growth was inspired by a colonial experience where local leaders and intellectuals witnessed European regimes besieged at home by rambunctious trade unions and subversive political parties. This is the model they sought to emulate, and, in effect, Muslim nations would have both communist and fascist parties. The Syrian Lebanese Communist party was founded in 1924, four years after the foundation of the French Communist Party. The Syrian Social Nationalist Party was founded in 1932, a year before Hitler took power in Germany.3 Islamist parties differed from their secular counterparts by bringing Islamic content to the ideological platforms and to the grassroots social work. Da'wah was the way. Shariah was the program. Islam was the solution.4

Islamist organizations thrived as colonization buckled, but their success was halted at independence by secular autocrats and military strongmen. In Egypt, Nasser, who took power in 1952, had already come to blows with the Muslim Brotherhood by the end of 1954. When they did not repress the Islamists, the new Arab autocrats instrumentalized them to counterbalance a [End Page S-39] turbulent leftist scene. Mere tools in the hands of tyrants, Islamists spread in the social sphere but were stifled in the political arena.

Then came the 1979 revolution in Iran and the establishment of an Islamic Republic. Islamism, or Political Islam, was all of a sudden the ideology and governing principle of a country that only a few years before had imagined itself as a great power. In the years that followed, taking stock of the new reality, scholars intensely argued whether Islam was compatible with democracy.5 While the abundant literature explored the dynamic and contingent nature of the social history of the Muslim people, and raised complex questions about the characteristics of democracy, the public debate was reductionist and essentialist.6 Critics and apologists turned to verses of the Quran and the governing practice of Prophet Muhammad in Medina as an ultimate set of variables to explain the behaviors of social and political actors some thirteen centuries later. Attention was paid to language, as if the pre-existence of a democratic vocabulary decided the success of democratic practice.7 Ultimately, the debate converged on two questions: whether non-Islamists (non-Muslims and secular Muslims) could participate in an Islamic democracy and whether Muslim notions of gender allowed for equality before the law. Often, the prime social variable for consideration was the makeup of the population. "Muslim-majority state" became a criterion of analysis, taking attention away from other social and economic structures of those countries, not to mention their disparate histories. The debate was also static, ignoring the transformational effect that political organization and activism would have on Muslim identity and social practice.9

In the 1980s, Iran and Pakistan were rare examples of Islamic Republics, and experiments for what Islamic democracy was like. Empirically, those regimes were clearly democratic, to the extent that they organized competitive elections, but also clearly illiberal, which, given the autocratic nature of the regimes in the region, could not be easily imputed to Islam alone.

The theoretical question whether Islamism could be compatible with democracy reached Arab shores in 1991, when an Algerian Islamist party poised to win parliamentary elections could have made a claim on the government. Pointing at Iran, opponents warned stridently that Islamist parties were only electoral vehicles to seize power and impose theocracy—one person, one vote, one time.9 Ultimately, the claim that Islamists were atavistically bound to upend the system through which they had come to...


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