As extremists surge, future of political Islam tenuous?

The Islamist politicians who swept elections in the aftermath of the Arab Spring, undermining the militant thesis that violence offered the only hope for change, are now in frantic retreat, David D. Kirkpatrick reports for The New York Times:

Instead, it is the jihadists who are on the march, roving unchecked across broad sections of North Africa and the Middle East. Now they have seized control of territory straddling the borders of Iraq and Syria where they hope to establish an Islamic caliphate.

And they are reveling in their vindication.

“Rights cannot be restored except by force,” the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, the surging Qaeda breakaway group, declared last year after the Egyptian military removed President Mohamed Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood from office. Islamists must choose “the ammunition boxes over the ballot boxes” and negotiate “in the trenches rather than in hotels,” the group proclaimed, calling the more election-minded Muslim Brotherhood “a secular party in Islamic clothes” and “more evil and cunning than the secularists.”



“But others, led by the moderate Islamists here in Tunisia, argue that …if moderates hope to counter the jihadists and build democracies, their parties must be much more inclusive and conciliatory toward non-Islamist rivals and even those who participated in the old authoritarian governments,” Kirkpatrick continues:

The extremists always warned the moderates not to trust the military, said Rachid al-Ghannouchi, founder and chairman of Tunisia’s Islamist party, Ennahda.

“Unfortunately,” he said, “their predictions were true.” But Mr. Ghannouchi said the solution for the Islamist movement was not to fight back with weapons, but to further embrace pluralism, tolerance and compromise. “The cure for a failed democracy is more democracy,” he said, because “dictatorship disguised in religion is the worst kind of dictatorship.”….

Mohammed Sawan, leader of the Muslim Brotherhood in Libya, echoed the Tunisians, arguing that his faction needed to do a better job cooperating with liberals. “The battle in the Arab region isn’t about Islam or identity at all,” he said. “It’s about the fundamental values of democracy, freedom and rights. It has nothing to do with Islamists versus non-Islamists.”

With the downfall of Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, and the militant approach of Islamists in Iraq, Syria, Libya, analysts say the future of political Islam in the Arab world is tenuous, VOA’s Mohamed Elshinnawi reports:

Tarek Abdel Hamid, a former member of a militant Islamist group in Egypt, now a senior fellow at the Potomac Institute for Policy, said Islamists need to moderate their ideology and define a political model.

“In the past the military regimes in Egypt, Syria and Iraq used security measures to repress Islamists, but now because of their ideological defeat, the population turned against them, so they will have a very negative future.” he said.

“They are not fit to rule because they are still motivated by ideology not focusing on pragmatic solutions for citizens’ demands whether the economy, social justice, gender equality or freedom of religion,” he said.

But Shadi Hamid (above), an analyst at the Saban Center for Middle East Policy, said while the Muslim Brotherhood failed to govern in Egypt, he is convinced that political Islam will have a future.

“There is a widespread support in the deeply conservative societies in the region for Islamists’ objective of more mix of religion and politics, so if there is a popular demand for this, someone has to supply it,” he said.

When Islamists from around the region gathered last fall at the Middle East Studies Center in Amman, Jordan, to assess lessons learned, the NYT’s Kirkpatrick reports, the main conclusion was that “Islamists must now develop an idea of national partnership with the other forces,” Jawad el-Hamad, the center’s director, said in an interview.

But while what has happened in Egypt will not easily replicate itself in the region, Nathan Brown, a professor of political science at George Washington University, said that it has already affected thinking throughout Islamist circles everywhere.

“It has inspired some governments to move against Islamists and has made some Islamists reevaluate their surroundings,” he said. “Political Islam is hardly dead, but the movements that lead Islamism into the formal political process are likely to be just a little bit more leery of that path almost everywhere—and perhaps totally shut out of it in Egypt.”

Hamid said obituaries of political Islam are premature. 

“You can kill an organization but killing an idea is much more difficult. Even if we saw Islamists at an existential threat, their vision for the society is deeply entrenched in the region,” he said. “In spite of repression of Nasser in Egypt, Hafez Al Assad in Syria and Ben Ali in Tunisia we saw the Muslim Brothers in Egypt and Syria, and [the] Ennahda movement in Tunisia recovered and reemerged once there was a political opening.” he said. 

“The struggle for and within political Islam is important for what it can tell us about how beliefs and ideology are mediated and altered by the political process,” he said.


Arab transitions: ‘more democratic, less liberal’?


Credit: NDI

Credit: NDI

The troubled transitions of the Arab Spring pose a thorny question for Western observers: Do Arabs have the right to decide — through the democratic process — that they would rather not be liberal? Brookings analyst Shadi Hamid asks.

This is the Middle East’s difficult twist, he writes for The New York Times:

For secularists and liberals, certain rights and freedoms are, by definition, nonnegotiable. They envision the state as a neutral arbiter that stays out of the private lives of its citizens. On the other hand, even the most “moderate” Islamists want the state to promote a basic set of religious and moral values through the soft power of the state machinery, the educational system and the media. As one of Ennahda’s “hard-liners,” Sheikh Habib Ellouze, told me in February 2013: “There aren’t any of us who do not believe in the rulings of Shariah. All of us believe in banning alcohol one day. What we disagree on is how best to present and express our Islamic ideas.”

Liberals would say that their solution is the only acceptable compromise. In a liberal society, everyone — secular and Salafi alike — can freely express their religious preferences. But the notion that liberalism is “neutral” can be accepted only within a liberal framework.

TEMPTATIONS ISLAMISTIslamists cannot fully express their Islamism in a strictly secular state, argues Hamid, the author of Temptations of Power: Islamists and Illiberal Democracy in a New Middle East:

If elected Islamist parties have to give up their Islamism, then this runs counter to the essence of democracy — the notion that governments should be responsive to, or at least accommodate, public preferences. Asking Islamists to concede who they are and what they believe is also unsustainable and perhaps even dangerous, pushing conservatives outside the political process.

The implications are clear, if somewhat unsettling. For democracy to flourish in the Middle East it will have to find a way to truly incorporate Islamist parties and, by extension, it will have to be at least somewhat illiberal…..

The ideology and ideas of Islamists need to be taken seriously as something deeply and honestly felt. Islamist movements do, in fact, have a distinctive worldview and vision for their societies. If anything, what their detractors say is at least partly true (and it’s something that many Islamists themselves will admit in private): There is, in fact, a “politics of stages” — you concede your Islamist objectives in the short term to strengthen your hand in the long run.

But, as troubling as this may be for Arab liberals, mainstream Islamist movements have been and are likely to remain committed to a democratic process, Hamid suggests:

The lesson of the Arab Spring isn’t that Islamist parties are inimical to democracy, but that democracy, or even a semblance of it, is impossible without them. When there are democratic openings — whether that’s in 5, 10 or 15 years — Islamists might look different and talk differently, but they will still be there, waiting and ready to return to political prominence, and perhaps even power.


Shadi Hamid is a fellow at the Brookings Institution’s Saban Center and the author of “Temptations of Power: Islamists and Illiberal Democracy in a New Middle East.”

Rising Political Islam in Pakistan: Causes and Consequences

PakistanReligion, politics, and policy are inextricably linked in Pakistan, and together tied to Pakistan’s relationship with the United States. Pakistan embarked on its first democratic transition of power last year. The success of this experiment will hinge on how well Islamic parties—who are showing their strength within the political landscape—can contribute to civilian rule, shun violence, and mobilize support for political reform. However, these parties are diverse in their policy goals and political intentions and cannot be painted with a broad brush, as often occurs in the United States.

The speakers at this forthcoming event will provide a look at the rise of political Islam in Pakistan and how understanding these internal dynamics can help shape a better bilateral relationship.

April 14, 2014 – 2:30 pm, 1030 15th Street, NW, 12th Floor (West Tower), Washington, DC

A discussion with

Husain Haqqani

Author of Magnificent Delusions: Pakistan, the United States, and an Epic History of Misunderstanding; and Senior Fellow and Director, South and Central Asia, Hudson Institute

Haroon K. Ullah

Author of Vying for Allah’s Vote: Understanding Islamic Parties, Political Violence, and Extremism in Pakistan; and Member, Policy Planning Staff

US Department of State

Moderated by

Shuja Nawaz

Director, South Asia Center

Atlantic Council


The Atlantic Council’s US-Pakistan Program is a comprehensive approach to US-Pakistan relations, focusing on the key areas of security, economic development, and public policy. The program explores these issues and their relevance in order to develop a long-term, continuous dialogue between the United States and Pakistan. This project is generously supported by the Carnegie Corporation of New York.

On Twitter? Follow @ACSouthAsia and use #WagingPeace


Husain Haqqani is the former ambassador of Pakistan to Sri Lanka (1992–93) and the United States (2008–11). He is currently senior fellow and director for South and Central Asia at the Hudson Institute and co-edits the journal Current Trends in Islamist Ideology published by Hudson Institute’s Center for Islam, Democracy, and Future of the Muslim World. Ambassador Haqqani is also director of the Center of International Relations and professor of the practice of international relations at Boston University. Ambassador Haqqani is the author of Magnificent Delusions: Pakistan, the United States, and an Epic History of Misunderstanding.

Haroon Ullah joined the secretary’s Policy Planning Staff in November 2013. His portfolio includes public diplomacy and countering violent extremism. Previously, he served as director of the Community Engagement Office at the US Embassy in Islamabad. Prior to joining the State Department, Dr. Ullah served as a Belfer fellow at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government and focused on democratization, counter-terrorism, and religious political parties in the Middle East and South Asia. Dr. Ullah holds a BA from Whitman College, an MPA from Harvard, and a PhD from the University of Michigan. He also recently authored Vying for Allah’s Vote: Understanding Islamic Parties, Political Violence, and Extremism in Pakistan and Bargain from the Bazaar.

Indonesia’s Islamists struggling to win votes in world’s largest Muslim-majority country


Credit: NDI

Credit: NDI

Islamic-based parties are poised for what could be their worst showing since Indonesia’s democratic era began in 1999. At least two of the parties are polling so low that they might lose any presence in the House of Representatives, The New York Times reports.

“You’re looking at a substantial drop for them,” said Paul Rowland, a Jakarta-based political consultant. “They are not a significant factor,” he tells Times reporter Joe Cochrane:

The slide in popularity, first noticed in the 2009 elections, appears to be worsening despite studies showing that Indonesians are becoming more pious.

Why political Islam has not taken deep root on a national level in the world’s largest Muslim-majority country — where about 90 percent of people are among the faithful — is a complicated question. The reasons lie in Indonesia’s history as a secular nation and in the Islamic parties’ own recent record.

No Islamic-oriented politician has been a serious candidate since direct presidential elections began in 2004. A poll released last week by the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Jakarta found that the top five contenders in Indonesia’s next presidential election, to be held in July, each represented a secular nationalist party.

The rise of the Muslim Brotherhood and resurgence of Wahhabi/Salafi groups in the wake of the Arab awakening prompted some observers to call for “a renaissance of Islamic pluralism, tolerance and critical thinking.”

Indonesia Nahdlatul_Ulama_Dinamika_Ideologi_Dan_Politik_Kenegaraan“What we are facing today is even more dangerous than physical acts of terrorism: that is, the onslaught of extremist ideology, which is provoking a visceral backlash in the West, in an ever-escalating cycle of hatred and violence,” said Kyai Haji A. Mustofa Bisri, deputy chairman of the Nahdlatul Ulama, Indonesia’s mass Islamic movement, and Holland Taylor, the head of LibForAll and its International Institute of Qur’anic Studies.

With 50 million adherents and some 14,000 madrasahs, the NU is the world’s largest Muslim organization.

Indonesia has been held up as a potential model for Arab transitional states for demonstrating the compatibility of Islam and democracy, and the pluralist potential of its distinctive form of civil Islam.

Widely considered a democratic beacon in a volatile region, Indonesia’s reform process was characterized by a “remarkable opening-up of political space [and] regeneration of civil society.” Its transition reportedly has a particular resonance for U.S. President Barack Obama, who lived there as a child and has lauded its shift from authoritarian rule.

But analysts now say that Indonesian voters are more concerned with reducing poverty and improving education than with the religious symbolism of the Islamic-based parties, the NYT’s Cochrane adds:

“The Islamic parties have very little economic credibility,” said Gregory Fealy, an associate professor of Indonesian politics at the Australian National University in Canberra.

Beyond that, a poll released March 31 by the Indonesia Network Elections Survey found that less than 1 percent of voters supported a political party because it represented their particular religious beliefs.

“Sixty years ago, people thought that politics and religious behavior were inseparable in Indonesia. It was a part of the Islamic identity to vote for an Islamic political party,” Mr. Fealy said. “Today you can express your piety but vote for anyone you want.”


Time for ‘paradigm shift’ to end Pakistan military’s support for Taliban

jinnahIt’s time for Pakistan’s military to re-think its support for the Afghan Taliban, says a leading analyst.

But this would require a paradigm shift which cannot take place without civilian input and oversight, writes Raza Rumi, director of the Islamabad-based Jinnah Institute.

Since the start of so-called ‘talks’ between the government and a committee nominated by Tehreek-e-Taliban (TTP), 175 people were killed in 40 attacks by the assorted militias directly or indirectly linked to the TTP and its patron al Qaeda. The talks’ saga was baffling even for the most optimistic observers.

Is the doctrine of strategic depth dead?

For years, Pakistani state’s tolerance for the TTP predicated on the calculation that it could not annoy the Afghan Taliban due to the future transition in Afghanistan where Indian influence had to be countered.

There is a view within the state that TTP is a means for Afghan Taliban to attain strategic depth within Pakistan increasing their leverage over the Pakistani state. Perhaps this is the time for the military to re-think its support for the Afghan Taliban. But this would require a paradigm shift which cannot take place without civilian input and oversight.

RazaRumiPhotoAtherKhan-1391959657-970-640x480Is there a strategy?

While the civilian leadership and the military grapple with the extraordinary situation — 8000 security personnel have been killed by the militants in the past few years — the absence of a comprehensive strategy dogs the future of counter-terrorism operations.

Further, the issues of state capacity to tackle terrorist methods have not been fully addressed. The police which has to be at the forefront of the counter-terrorism (CT) operations remains under-funded, ill-equipped, working under varying legal and institutional frameworks. Two provinces (Punjab, KP) have retained Police Order of 2002, while the other two (Balochistan, Sindh) have discarded it. The federal territories are even more ungoverned and this explains the rise of militant hideouts in Gilgit-Baltistan, Fata and other places. The legal system especially the courts and prosecution are unable to act as effective institutions for CT related matters. Without focusing on these areas, military operations can only have limited results.

 Countering extremism

Over the past few weeks, the most dangerous fallout of the talks-mantra has been increased legitimacy for the terrorist outfits. Political parties such as the PTI, the JI and to an extent even the PML-N, have justified peace through appeasement; and the media, out of fear, has given unprecedented space to the extremist mindset.

Maulana Aziz who fought against the state from the Red Mosque platform and whose cohorts killed army officials has been arguing on prime time TV as to why Pakistan’s constitution is un-Islamic. Al Qaeda thinks the same. Former generals have also been scaring the public of the evil designs of the US and how it is responsible for almost all terrorism in the country.

There is little or no counter-narrative to these dominant voices. Political parties are divided and wary of the Islamist narratives that may result in their unpopularity at the polls. This defeatist mindset is not a new occurrence. In fact it is a perennial theme of Pakistani politics rooted in the manufactured Islamo-nationalist identity of the state.

This extract is taken from a longer article. RTWT.

The Jinnah Institute is supported by the National Endowment for Democracy.