by Emile Nakhleh
Does repression force Islamic parties to moderate? This is the key question Shadi Hamid raises in his seminal book on political Islam, governance, and Islamist “illiberal” democratic ideology.
Temptations of Power: Islamists & Illiberal Democracy In a New Middle East is a first-rate, thorough, yet controversial study of what drives political Islam as well as the complex relationship between political Islam and repressive regimes. The focus is on Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood, Tunisia’s Ennahda, and Jordan’s Islamic Action Front.
The book is a welcome primer on contemporary political Islam and should be a required reading for students, academics, policymakers, policy and intelligence analysts, and anyone interested in the contemporary Middle East and the rise of Islamic political parties and movements. The author focuses on mainstream Sunni Islamist movements, the largest and most established of which is the Muslim Brotherhood, traces Islamists’ brush with political power, and examines at length their performance once in power, as in Egypt and Tunisia.
Shadi Hamid, a Fellow at the Brookings Institution, has spent several years interviewing Islamic activists and political party leaders in Egypt, Jordan, and Tunisia. He started writing the book before the eruption of the Arab revolutions in 2011 and interviewed numerous senior leaders and thinkers of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, including the deposed Egyptian president, Mohamed Morsi. The author’s deep expertise in political Islam’s ideologies, politics, governing style, and tactics is clearly visible in this highly welcome book.
The author advances several hypotheses, which should keep scholars of political Islam occupied for years to come. Perhaps his most controversial thesis is that regime repression has pushed Islamists “along a more moderate path.” He examines “two distinct phases in the Islamist narrative—one defined by the experience of repression and the other by the democratic openings made possible by the Arab revolutions.”
Islamists’ electoral strategies were carefully developed in order not to arouse the suspicions of the regime, the ruling party, or other non-Islamist parties. By running a limited number of candidates in any particular election, Islamists emphasized their motto of “participation not domination.”
While Islamists opted for elections and political participation in Egypt and Jordan, according to Hamid, they were far from being liberal democrats. The Muslim Brotherhood, for example, views itself not as a traditional political party but as a religious, social, and educational movement or organization.
Despite their active participation in electoral politics, “the goal of Islamist groups is the ‘Islamization’ of society, [which] goes well beyond the political realm.” The author expertly discusses the stages of Islamization, which the Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamist groups have pursued to Islamize the individual, the family, and the society at large. Once in power, Islamists have pursued a form of “illiberal democracy” by infringing on the liberties of others. In essence, moderation in the past four decades has not made Islamists liberal democrats.
Islamists have been more comfortable in opposition than in power. Rachid Ghannouchi, head of the Tunisian Enmahda, according to the author, warned Islamists that they would be “loved by the people before they get to power and then hated afterward.”
The book’s central argument, which is perhaps the most controversial as well, is that regime tolerance of the opposition, including allowing more political freedoms, did not necessarily lead to moderating policies promoted by Islamists. On the contrary, the author asserts, “increasing levels of repression, rather than resulting in radicalization, can have amoderating effect on Islamist groups, pushing them to reconsider and redefine their policy priorities.”
Islam, Politics, and Ideology
As governing parties, Islamists have sought popular support for their policies by moving to the center. The Muslim Brotherhood (MB) preached that “freedom and Islamization were not opposed but rather went hand in hand.” In the hundreds of hours of interviews, which the author conducted with MB activists and leaders, he sought to understand how and why Islamists adopted more moderate ideologies when they actually gained state power.
He challenges the prevailing view in academic literature, which states that Islamists moderate in response to “political participation and inclusion.” He tosses out the accepted “inclusion-moderation” hypothesis and the so-called “pothole theory of democracy” which maintain that when in power Islamists tend to focus on bread-and-butter issues and less on ideology. Hamid strongly argues that engaging Islamists, either on the part of the ruling regime or by outside actors, does not automatically push them to moderate.
This is a radical challenge not only to academic theorizing about Islamists’ political strategies but also to Western governments’ policies of Muslim world engagement, especially since the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. Policy makers in Western countries have urged authoritarian regimes in the Arab Muslim world to open up their political systems and allow mainstream Islamists to contest the political space. Regimes are told that as Islamists experience more freedom and less repression, they would move away from radicalization and extremism and move toward the moderate center.
By contrast, the author argues that, when faced with extreme repression and the threat of eradication by the regime, Islamists tend to moderate. Despite continued regime repression and the massive arrests and convictions of MB leaders, the Muslim Brotherhood’s commitment to democratic politics has remained unshakeable. The MB followed a similar policy during Mubarak’s repressive regime. In the 1980s and 1990s, the MB formed political alliances with other parties in order to elect some of their members to the national legislature—first, with the Wafd Party and then with the Labor Socialist Party. Later on, MB parliamentary candidates ran for elections as independents.
Despite Egypt’s “turn to repression” in the 1990s, the MB continued to participate in parliamentary elections and to reach out to the West with their message of moderation, pragmatism, pluralism, and inclusion. In response to regime accusations in the 1990s depicting the Islamists as “regressive and close-minded,” the MB submitted more detailed statements to the public and to the outside world emphasizing their commitment to pragmatism and inclusion. The MB’s 1994 statement included sophisticated analysis of their commitment to pluralism, inclusion, women’s rights, and minority (read Christian) rights.
The last chapter “The Past and Future of Political Islam,” offers a brilliant analysis of the political ideology of political Islam, the recent experiences of political Islamists, and the lessons the region and the international community should take from these experiences. Although the MB committed huge political and ideological errors in its first year in office under Mohamed Morsi, it would be naïve and shortsighted to see the experience as a failure of political Islam itself. Although Morsi’s failure resulted from policies of a specific Islamist party in a particular country under unique circumstances, it could offer instructive lessons to other Islamist political parties that aspire to govern.
Sophisticated as this book is, the author did not establish a convincing causal relationship between repression and moderation and whether Islamists’ moderation was a response to regime repression or a strategy for survival.
For example, why was the MB “forced” to moderate, as Hamid puts it? If MB Islamists were “forced to moderate by their circumstance,” did those circumstances include regime repression, popular calls for democracy, the fear of liquidation by the regime, or a desire to win elections? Did the Islamists’ moderation reflect liberal tendencies or an innate desire to survive under repression? Were the frequent compromises the MB in Egypt and the Islamic Action Front in Jordan made in response to regime repression a sign of moderation or a strategy for survival? Was the shift the Muslim Brotherhood made toward political participation in the mid-1990s tactical or strategic? These critical questions are too often left begging.
Hamid does an excellent job, on the other hand, in discussing the role of foreign actors, especially the United States, in the MB’s evolving stance on democratic politics.