By Frederic Volpia & Ewan Stein

This paper examines the trajectories of different Islamist trends in the light of the Arab uprisings. In the following section, we track the evolution of statist and non-statist Islamist activism in the region in light of changing state dynamics.


3. Islamist variations

We do not claim that these trends encapsulate the entire complexity of contemporary Islamic activism or that the substantive differences we identify will necessarily retain their significance for all time.

Our orientation toward national state institutions as our focal point is a heuristic device enabling us to map the contemporary patterns of interaction between Middle East regimes and Islamist activism and understand how specific trajectories of state and Islamist governance can come together to either strengthen or weaken a polity.

3.1. Statist Islamism

For some scholars “political Islam” refers to those groups and movements that actively engage with the state and national-level politics, unlike “fundamentalism”, which eschews formal politics and focuses on the social sphere.

Recognizing that “the political” extends deeper than the state level, and also acknowledging the well-established conceptual problems with the term “fundamentalism”, we use the term “statist Islamism” to refer to institutionalized participation in the politics of the nation state.

This variant of Islamism is exemplified by the Muslim Brotherhood, although it has outgrown the Brotherhood as an organization.

The model of political action and the ideological programme elaborated by Hasan al-Banna, and more recently by Yusuf al-Qaradawi, Rached Ghannouchi and others, have been highly influential and embraced and adapted across the Middle East: actors like Ennahda in Tunisia, the Saudi “Sahwa” movement, or Islah in Yemen, have Brotherhood roots or links.

Ideologically, this current has come closest to reconciling Islamic doctrines, and the sharia as the source of all legislation, with liberal forms of democracy.

Socially, it has grown within the middle classes in the Arab world and is intrinsically connected with the expansion of education, urbanization and other facets of “development” in the region over the course of the twentieth century.

In the main, statist Islamists have not been revolutionaries in the sense of seeking to overturn the existing social order. Their Islamism, rather, evolved as a reformist discourse through which often lower-middle class activists could connect with a broader popular constituency and challenge the claims of the (usually more secularized) establishment to speak for the nation.

They also appealed to the aspirations and fears of dissatisfied middle classes, which, generally speaking, sought the improvement, rather than destruction, of existing systems.

Islamism’s claims were thus advanced not on the basis of challenging social hierarchies or the economic model, but in terms of an attack on corruption, moral laxity and neglect of religion, all of which, in their view, produced the socio-economic ills of the community.

The economic problems were to be solved not by a drastically new system of governance or redistribution of wealth but by elites’ recognising and acting upon their obligations to Islam and sharia.

Statist Islamism evolved in line with shifts in models of state governance and, concomitantly, forms of societal activism.

The Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, and elsewhere, had often been “moderate” to the extent it was willing – where permitted – to work within existing systems and broadly accepted the centrality of the nation-state as the locus of political identity.

Hasan al-Banna had rejected party politics as divisive and elitist, in line with the rest of the nationalist movement in Egypt at the time. Brotherhood intellectuals such as Sayyid Qutb and Muhammad al-Ghazzali supported nationalization and developed ideas reconciling socialism with Islam in ways that reflected and helped inform the official ideology that was Nasserism.

Following the limited political opening under Sadat, more “liberal” democratic ideas and practices were incorporated into the movement – in contrast to other components of the resurgent Islamist movement that shunned or confronted the state.

Moderation” was a growing trend among Islamist groups through the 1980s and 1990s. This corresponded to a time of partial political liberalization across the region.

The Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood entered elections for the first time in 1984. In Algeria, the sudden and ill-structured political liberalization of the late 1980s enable the Islamic Salvation Front to mobilize voters and to become the leading political party of the ill-fated Algerian democratic transition (which ended in the 1992 military coup).

In Tunisia, Ennahda slowly made gains through-out the 1980s during periods of political liberalization that culminated in their participation to the 1989 parliamentary elections; a short-lived opening that would prove inconsequential as President Ben Ali entrenched his power by closing down the political field in the ensuing years.

In Jordan, the local branch of the Muslim brotherhood would eventually gain the approval of the monarchy to form a political party, the Islamic Action Front, in 1992.

In Morocco, faced with the unwillingness of the main Islamist movement of the country al-Adlwa-Ihsane to formally recognize a monarchic system of governance, the Moroccan King, Hassan II, facilitated the entry into politics of another Islamist formation in 1996.

This party, which would later become the Party of Justice and Development, was allowed to participate in formal politics because it was willing to recognize the legitimacy of the monarchy.

Over time, the possibility of aggregating demands for political inclusion increased as those movements “moderated” their ideological programmes as a result of political learning and strategic adaptation to a partially free political environment.

In the three decades or so prior to the Arab uprisings, Islamist groups had softened core ideological goals (such as the establishment of an Islamic state) and instead embraced norms related to human rights and democracy.

There was, however, a “ceiling” beyond which Islamist movements would not moderate. Although the high-profile activities of Muslim Brotherhood parlia-mentarians and the ideological innovations of “New Islamists” contrasted markedly with the image of Islamism as a revolutionary, counter-system, force, this wasatiyya, or centrist, trend was by no means dominant within Islamism as a whole.

Not only was it contested from within the Brotherhood and like-minded groups, producing internal tensions and schisms, but it was also rejected outright by grassroots movements, most notably salafis.

The non-statist trends inside and outside the Muslim Brotherhood thus structured, to a great extent, the political horizons of the statist ones. Nonetheless, ideological and behavioural moderation enabled Islamists to sell their programmes to more secular-leaning constituencies as well as to a sceptical, if not Islamophobic, outside world.

3.2. Non-statist Islamism

Non-statist Islamism is not so much “apolitical” as it is “infra-political”: local-level organizational, preaching and charitable activity. Grassroots activism is central to political Islam as a whole, as local networks help to structure support for, and seek to constitute, an Islamic society.

While da’wa (proselytising) has taken many forms over time, contemporary grassroots Islamism tends toward a conservative interpretation of the “fundamentals” of Islam – a trend most evident in salafism.

Islamist parties across the region have tended to emerge from and link with networks of charitable associations and other grassroots institutions.

Salafism, which may be the most important grassroots Islamist phenomenon of recent decades, encourages a focus on the community rather than the state. Although it tends to be ultra-conservative, with an ideal society inspired by teachings and practices from the time of the prophet, salafis’ articulation with traditional Muslim customs is not as straightforward as it might seem.

The ease with which salafi actors can find their public in Muslim communities depends on their ability to insert their theological approach into the pre-existing religious practices of the local community.

The ability and willingness of the state to cater for marginal groups diminished considerably from the late 1970s in the context of economic restructuring.

As populist-authoritarian regimes metamorphosed into post-populist ones, large sections of society were forced to rely on self-help strategies, kinship networks and other “informal” mechanisms to compensate for exclusion at the national level.

Grassroots Islamism operated alongside, or sometimes in place of, such existing support mechanisms. Salafis tend to promote an ascetic lifestyle and consider consumerism to be a distraction from religious duties.

Such perspectives appeal to disenfranchized youth for whom consumerism may not be an available option.

Salafi and jihadi movements across the region are also directly influenced by political changes initiated at regime level. Salafis’ avoidance of formal political engagement has benefited them at the grassroots level, sometimes with the approval of the state authorities.

Indeed, salafis have benefited from the intolerance of regimes towards statist Islamists and jihadists. Although salafis have not completely escaped state repression, particularly post-9/11, because regimes have finite resources at their disposal they have tended to concentrate their repressive strategies on politicized and armed Islamists.

In allowing or facilitating the expansion of Islamist grassroots infrastructure, regimes signaled their limited capacity to govern peripheral, rural or “informal” urban areas.

This has left by default, and sometimes by design, the social field more open for salafis. Many regimes have sought to channel activists from politically active and militant Islamism toward a less overtly threatening salafism.

In Egypt, the contemporary salafi movement originated (like the Muslim Brotherhood and the jihadis) in the student movement of the 1970s, and developed as a “safe” alternative to these two movements through the 1990s.

In Algeria, after the banning of the Islamic Salvation Front and the armed confrontation with Islamist guerrillas in the 1990s, the military-backed regime was content with the growth of salafism as an alternative to both political and armed activism.

Yet, even if many grassroots activists, for principled or pragmatic reasons, eschew politics, their activism has played a role as part of a broader Islamist movement in building constituencies for Islamist parties.

So called jihadis, advocates of the establishment of an Islamic order through the use of violence, have been a persistent trend in Arab politics in recent decades.

Typically they endorse jihad in furtherance of an idealized Islamic community on ideological/theological grounds, although some also turn to violence in response to the attempts by the state to repress other forms of Islamic activism, which, as highlighted by Hafez, make armed struggle a meaningful strategic choice for these organizations.

Even if leaders of jihadist groups may come from relatively well-off backgrounds (with Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri being good cases in point), violent activism commonly takes place among marginalized or dislocated communities.

Jihadis generally emphasize a warrior ethos that shuns material possessions and rewards.

They emerge particularly where the authority and legitimacy of the state are contested, absent or have been undermined and generally represent by-products of uneven, stalled, or indeed reversed, processes of state formation, as well as of the transnational flows of ideas and people encouraged by globalization.

Jihadi movements of the 1980s and 1990s generally failed to capture state power due to the superior military capabilities of the incumbent authoritarian regimes – for example, the Algerian civil conflict of the 1990s – as well as their inability to mobilize large constituencies favouring radical change.

As the security capabilities of Arab regimes increased, national-based Islamist guerrilla movements increasingly turned toward more transnational forms of action to compensate for a lack of domestic success.

The trajectory of the Armed Islamic Group (GIA) in Algeria, which reinvented itself as the Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat, and finally as Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) illustrates well this trend.

Overall, jihadi failures in the face of coercive states have led to the concentration of violent Islamism in places where central coercive power is weak. The migration of Al Qaeda in the Arabic Peninsula (AQAP) from Saudi Arabia to Yemen is one example.

The further weakening of state power in Yemen, as well as in Libya, Syria and Iraq, has correspondingly opened up opportunities for renewed violent activism in these countries.

to be continued


Frédéric Volpi is Deputy Director of the Institute of Middle East and Central Asia Studies and Senior Lecturer in International Relations at the University of St Andrews. He is the author of a number of books on political Islam and democracy in the Muslim world, and is coordinator of the BRISMES research network.

Ewan Stein – Senior Lecturer in International Relations. His research interests include the international relations of the Middle East, particularly the role of ideology and intellectual dynamics, political Islam, and the politics and foreign policy of Egypt.


University of Edinburgh



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