I have often argued that the word ‘Islamism’ is not a helpful one, as it is confusing and not specific enough. Here, I would argue that we need to move away, not just from the term itself, but also from the substance of what it has come to represent in the popular debate.
At the time of writing this article the elections in Egypt had just began after some months of instability following the changes ushered in by the ‘Arab Spring’. The results will not be known until after publication, but the Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party is expected to win around 40% of the vote and the Noor party of the Salafis around 20 per cent.
While some are hailing this as a success of ‘Islamism’, I would like to suggest—perhaps counter-intuitively—that it is actually an indication of the demise of Islamism; at least old style, traditional Islamism of the type that sought to create an ‘Islamic state’, an Islamic version of a Hobbesian Leviathan to govern society. Such a scenario can be seen in Afghanistan in recent years, or Iran, where the clerics sit above politicians elected by the people. But the Arab Spring mandates an altogether different vision: a transition towards a free, open, democratic and secular politics—a more Rawlsian direction.
There are no certainties here. It is difficult to say precisely where the parties mentioned will head, and indeed what impact the tension between the Noor Party and the Freedom and Justice Party will create. But in recent years the success of the AKP in Turkey, and the model evolving there, has had an important influence on democratic, Islamist politics across the world. There must be few things in the world as sobering as the reality of having a country to run—mouths to feed, jobs to create, borders to defend and the media to hold you to account (now including social media). That is when election slogans evaporate, and reality hits home.
Whatever happens in Egypt, the public debate will create (entirely natural, and largely healthy) tensions for another generation as a new public culture evolves under a more open form of governance. At the same time, it is likely that (if relative freedom prevails) more secular and liberal political parties will establish a stronger presence within the political spectrum and enhance their campaigning abilities (which were no match for the organised infrastructure of the Muslim Brotherhood, or the finances at the disposal of the Salafis at this election). If this is true, then what we are seeing now is the starting point of a journey towards greater liberalisation and freedom, not the opposite.
But looking at events ‘over there’ in the Middle East automatically begs the question: what does that mean, if anything, for Muslim activists here in the UK, Europe and other parts of the West? For decades now, some activists have looked to the Islamist movements for inspiration. But with the recent developments post-Arab Spring, the evolution of the AKP in Turkey, and the natural process of settlement, some are arguing that the stratification developing within the Islamist movements is just as important as the split between Islamists and non-Islamist Muslim activists. If the old slogans of ‘Islam is the solution’ are being replaced with notions of ‘freedom and justice’, an insistence on a politics of ‘national unity’ and compromise, and talk of a ‘civil state’ (dawla madaniya) as opposed to an ‘Islamic state’ in the Muslim world, what does that mean for Islamist-influenced movements and their agendas in the West?
We stand at a crucial moment, at which the cracks that have been appearing for decades may lead to new glaciers being formed. Some people, increasingly disenfranchised with the ‘old politics’ of Islamism and its irrelevance, are looking for a new vision that is more rooted in the West; one that is more local, and is concerned with thinking about, and engaging seriously with, the question of what it means to be a Muslim living in modern Britain; and being honest in the process of that quest without presuming that we have ready-made solutions to take off the shelf to deal with our challenges. This calls for integrity and soul-searching, and crucially, for people to work together—be they Muslim or not—to think, analyse, evaluate and to find lasting solutions to the real issues we all face collectively.
This, a more open and embracing vision of who we are, and what Islam means to us will be realised when there is a shift towards a post-Islamist paradigm among activists in the West. But can this happen? I would argue that it must.
(This blog appeared in emel magazine, issue 88, January 2012)