PROJECT LEADERS: SHADI HAMID AND WILLIAM MCCANTS
THE PROJECT ON U.S. RELATIONS WITH THE ISLAMIC WORLD


The rapid succession of events in the past four years—the Arab Spring, the Egyptian military coup, and the rise of ISIS—have challenged conventional wisdom on political Islam. After the democratic openings in 2011, mainstream Islamist groups—affiliates and descendants of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood—rose to newfound prominence after decades in opposition, but grappled with the challenges of governance and deeply polarized societies. The subsequent “twin shocks” of the coup in Egypt and the emergence of ISIS are forcing a rethinking of some of the basic assumptions of, and about, Islamist movements, including on: gradual versus revolutionary approaches to change; the use of tactical or situational violence; attitudes toward the state; and how ideology and political variables interact.

Rethinking Political Islam is the first project of its kind to systematically assess the evolution of mainstream Islamist groups across 12 country cases—Egypt, Tunisia, Morocco, Syria, Yemen, Libya, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Jordan, and Pakistan, as well as Malaysia and Indonesia. The project engages scholars of political Islam through in-depth research and dialogue to consider how the Arab uprisings and their aftermath have shaped—and in some cases altered—the strategies, agendas, and self-conception of Islamist movements.

Each author has produced a working paper that draws on on-the-ground fieldwork and engagement with Islamist actors in their country of expertise. Authors then write reaction essays focusing on 1) how reading the other country cases has made them think differently about their own country of focus, and 2) broader observations on regional commonalities and divergences. These are presented on the Brookings website in a real-time format, so readers can track responses and reactions between the authors as they grapple with each other’s cases and respond to feedback. Finally, authors will produce final drafts incorporating additional insights gleaned from the months of dialogue and discussion. In short, readers will be able to follow along and see how a diverse array of Islamism scholars have “rethought” their cases.

Reaction essays will be posted here in October 2015 and the final drafts will be posted this winter.

Join the conversation on Twitter using #RethinkingIslamism

Egypt

Steven Brooke, University of Texas at Austin
Since July 3, 2013, Egypt's government has embarked on an extensive campaign to dismember the Muslim Brotherhood's formidable network of social services. With electoral participation, civic activism, and social service provision now foreclosed, street activism has become the lone vehicle for Brotherhood mobilization. This paper uses the lens of the Brotherhood's schools and medical facilities to show how regime repression and the rise of alternative models of social service provision are incentivizing the Brotherhood to adopt more confrontational methods of opposition.

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Tunisia

Monica Marks, University of Oxford
A series of regional and local challenges—including the rise of Salafi-jihadism, the 2013 coup in Egypt, and local suspicions over its aims—have prompted Tunisia’s Ennahda party to narrow its range of political maneuver and rethink the parameters of its own Islamism. Ennahda has assumed a defensive posture, casting itself as a long-term, gradualist project predicated on compromise, a malleable message of cultural conservatism, and the survival of Tunisia’s democratic political system.

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Morocco

Avi Spiegel, University of San Diego
Moroccan Islamists have proven resilient in the wake of the Arab Spring and have offered a different model of Islamist participation that partly reflects the country’s unique monarchical context. The Brotherhood-inspired Justice and Development Party (PJD) has secured a foothold in government through an accommodationist posture towards Morocco’s monarchy, while the anti-monarchical popular movement Al Adl Wal Ihsan has sustained its appeal and access through non-violent activism.

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Syria

Raphaël Lefèvre, Carnegie Middle East Center
After 30 years in exile outside of Syria, the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood has become an important component of the western-backed Syrian opposition. Despite its influence, the expansion and radicalization of the Islamist scene in Syria challenges the legitimacy of the Brotherhood’s gradualist approach and constrains its presence on the ground.

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Yemen

Stacey Philbrick Yadav, Hobart and William Smith Colleges
After the country's uprising against President Ali Abdullah Saleh, Yemen's multi-factional Islamist party Islah enjoyed new opportunities for institutional power, joining a coalition government in December 2011. But, while the Muslim Brotherhood faction within Islah initially seemed ascendant, it has since found itself targeted by the Houthi movement, weakened in relation to other factions within the party, and increasingly dependent on external actors to retain its political relevance.

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Libya

Omar Ashour, University of Exeter
Libya’s diverse Islamist actors played a substantial role in the 2011 armed revolution against Moammar Gadhafi and the subsequent collapse of Libya’s democratization process into armed conflict. The advances of ISIS in Libya and the breakdown of Brotherhood electoral activism in neighboring Egypt, however, present an ideological and recruitment challenge to Libya’s Muslim Brotherhood and Salafi factions.

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Saudi Arabia

Toby Matthiesen, University of Oxford
Saudi Arabia’s fragmented Islamist field has displayed a diversity of responses to the coup in Egypt, the conflict in Syria, and the Saudi-led war in Yemen. While a group of younger Saudi Islamists and intellectuals have embraced elements of democracy, the war in Syria, the authoritarian political system, and domestic sectarian tendencies have rallied support for the ISIS model of violent political change.

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Kuwait

Courtney Freer, LSE Kuwait Programme
In the face of a government crackdown, Kuwait’s diverse Islamist opposition—composed of a Muslim Brotherhood affiliate and various Salafi groups—has emphasized compromise and gradualist reform over radical domestic political transformation. Particularly after the Egyptian coup and the rise of ISIS, Kuwait’s Islamists have put aside their strict social agendas and worked more closely with non-Islamist opposition to advance common democratic aims, suggesting that exclusion can in fact spur the moderation of mainstream Islamists.

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Jordan

David Siddhartha Patel, Brandeis University
The events of the post-Arab Spring period have not fundamentally altered the goals and tactics of the Jordanian Muslim Brotherhood or changed the dynamic of its relationship with Jordan’s monarchy. The 2015 split within the group initiated by the Zamzam Initiative reflects long-growing divides between Palestinian-Jordanian Islamists and Transjordanian Islamists that preceded the Arab Spring.

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Pakistan

Matthew J. Nelson, SOAS, University of London
Mainstream Islamist parties in Pakistan such as the Jama’at-e Islami and Jamiat-e-Ulema-e-Islam have demonstrated a tendency to combine the gradualism of Brotherhood-style electoral politics with missionary activities and, at times, support for proxy militancy. As a result, Pakistani Islamists wield significant ideological influence in Pakistan, even as their electoral success remains limited.

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Southeast Asia

Joseph Chinyong Liow, The Brookings Institution
Although the Arab Spring prompted greater discussion of Islamism in Southeast Asia, links between Southeast Asian Islamists and their counterparts in the Middle East have remained nebulous. While Southeast Asian Islamists have largely eschewed revolutionary approaches to political change, some parties have remained explicit about their desire to not only Islamize society but to establish an “Islamic state.”

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