Understanding Islamism, por Rami G. Khouri

Rami G. Khouri

March 15, 2006

Rami G. Khouri is editor-at-large of the Beirut-based Daily Star, published throughout the Middle East with the International Herald Tribune.

Mainstream Islamist political parties that win elections throughout the Middle East and Asia are often perceived in Western lands and Israel as a dire threat. Not all Arabs and Asians are happy with the victorious Islamists, either. It is important to interpret correctly why the Islamists are winning, and what they really represent.

I have had many opportunities in the past few years to participate in conferences, seminars, lectures and friendly dinner conversations with colleagues from throughout the Arab, Asian, European and North American worlds. Analysts from outside this region quickly become hopelessly confused by the synthesis of several phenomena that manifest themselves simultaneously in Islamist politics, in a way that they do not do in Western cultures. These include: religion, national identity, legitimate good governance and resistance to foreign occupation or subjugation.

So, many analysts in the West and Israel explain Islamist victories with ideas about hopes for a revived Islamic caliphate, suicide bombers enticed by virgins in heaven, Islamo-fascism, the need for reformation and modernization in Islam, the urgency of embracing secularism in Arab-Islamic society, problems with madrasas (and education more broadly), the anti-American, anti-Israeli incitement tendencies of Arab media and other ideas.

Such views suffer from two fundamental constraints: They reflect Western historical traditions and assume that Islamic societies must follow the same trajectory of democratic reform and modernity; and they hear only the religious vocabulary of the Islamists, without grasping the underlying political and national issues that drive them.

In their own historical and national contexts, the Islamist movements are not a new or sudden phenomenon. In fact, the current wave of Islamist political movements winning elections in the region is the third wave of Islamism in our generation since the 1970s, and probably the most important one.

The first wave, in the late 1970s-mid 1980s, challenged Arab regimes largely as clandestine opposition movements or low-key social organizations. It was harshly suppressed politically throughout the Levant and North Africa. The second wave of Islamism in the 1990s took a violent form, in Algeria, Syria, Egypt and other places, including bin Ladenist-style terror. This primarily targeted Arab regimes, not Israel or the United States, especially?as in Algeria and Egypt?where terror followed failed attempts at political inclusion and participation. Islamists were returning home from Afghanistan with heightened political militancy, technical training in explosives and other violent methods and a sense of invincibility after helping to liberate Afghanistan from Russian occupation.

So we now witness the third wave of Islamism in our time, with groups like the Muslim Brotherhood, Hamas, Hizbullah, Jamaa Islamiya, and Justice and Development parties in several countries winning power through democratic elections. They learned the hard lessons of 1975-2001, that neither brute terror nor clandestine social activism will achieve their goals.

The significant new element in this wave of Arab-Asian electoral Islamists is that they have combined into a single force those separate elements that had previously fragmented their citizen activists and mass movements. Islamists now should be called religio-nationalists, or theo-nationalists, because they combine the twin forces of religion and nationalism.

"My god and my people" may be the two most powerful mass mobilization forces ever invented by human beings and exploited by political minds. Islamists use religion and nationalism efficiently, having crafted a message of hope, defiance and self-assertive confidence that responds directly to the multiple complaints of their fellow citizens.

The wide extent of triumphant political Islamism provides important clues about its real meaning and impetus for those who wish to see the real world, rather than imagine a more exotic and menacing world out there. Islamists of various hues and shades have won big, or become a significant opposition force, virtually every place they have competed politically in the past few years, at municipal or national levels, from Turkey, Pakistan and Iran, to Palestine, Egypt, Morocco, Iraq and Lebanon, to mention only the most notable.

This wave of victories is not due primarily to a longing for virgins in heaven or the end result of lousy primary schools. It is the consequence of a modern history that combines the grueling, cumulative pain of poor, often corrupt and brutal, domestic governance, with foreign military occupations and threats (mostly from Israel, the United States and the U.K. recently). Huge numbers of ordinary Arabs and Asians consequently feel they have long been denied their cultural identity, political rights, national sovereignty, personal freedoms and basic human dignity. Islamist groups have responded with a powerful package that speaks to their citizenry about religion, national identity, legitimate good governance and resistance to foreign occupation and subjugation.

There is nothing surprising about victorious Islamists who appeal to their constituents with a religio-nationalist message, any more than a victorious George Bush who makes similar successful appeals to his voters. The best response to the triumphant Islamists, whether you like or dislike them, is to understand the political, national and personal issues that have generated their victories and to address those real grievances, rather than to wander off into intellectual swamps and fantasylands.