Wishful thinking, present and future

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Since the collapse of the Soviet Union and the socialist bloc at the beginning of the last decade of the 20th century, Western political theory has been beset by a wave of conceptions and projections founded upon a common premise: that the intellectual, political and social phenomena characteristic of the “old” world have given way to a radically different, “new” world. The features of this new world are still vague. Nor are there any terms to describe it that do not begin with the prefix “post-.” We are thus inundated with such ambiguous expressions as “post-modernism,” “post-communism,” “post-nation-state,” “post-national sovereignty” and “post-bipolarism.” Another term that has gained currency in Western political writing since the 1990s is “post-Islamism.”

This vogue of “post-” prefixed terms has not been restricted to Western writings. As usual, it has begun to infect some Arab political writings, which, in spite of their gloss of rational independence, have lifted, sometimes literally, their ideas from Western writings, this being the only means of disseminating that vogue in Arab intellectual and political thought.

Although the purpose of this article is to discuss the term and substance of the “post- Islamist phenomenon,” it is important, first, to make some preliminary observations on the “post-” fashion in general. First, the attempt to describe the “new” world by adding this prefix to a range of phenomena that characterised that world which Western intellectuals, along with their Arab disciples, believe had begun to vanish a decade ago, implicitly or explicitly suggests that those phenomena subsided along with the end of the “old” world. At the same time, it sheds little useful light on the precise features of the new world that supplanted the phenomena thought to have vanished. Some suggest that recourse to the “post” prefix is merely a handy way to describe a world that is still in flux, the contours of which, therefore, have yet to take clear shape. This may well be the case, but then this very state of flux militates against hasty and biased conclusions regarding the end of certain phenomena, particularly when the tangible effects these phenomena had on the world are still manifestly evident.

A second problem with “post” prefixed terms is their temporal and substantive ambiguity, apart from the fact that they reflect a rigid perception of historical evolution. The term “post- Islamist phenomenon,” for example, suggests the end of the Islamist phase and the beginning of another era, but one that is so amorphous as to defy definition and, therefore, the ordinary confines of temporality. Anything can be “post- Islamist” and that anything can last to perpetuity. Simultaneously, the post- vogue entrenches the centrality of the phenomena to which the prefix is affixed, thereby superimposing a rigid time grid upon historical progression. History is thus arbitrarily divided into three phases, such as “pre-Islamism,” “Islamism” and “post-Islamism.” In addition, this three-phase temporal grid implies, or even takes as its explicit premise, that each successive phase is the antithesis of its predecessor, and seems to doom human evolution to an endless cycle of alternating between two, or at the most three, antithetical phases. Such reductionism defies the intricate dynamics of human evolution, in which the interplay between hundreds of complex phenomena cannot be abridged to such precipitate handles as “pre” and “post.”

Turning now to the subject at hand — the “post-Islamist phenomenon” — it is interesting to note that the writers who posit this concept fail to delineate clearly what constituted the Islamist phase in the wake of which we are purportedly living. Similarly, the various synonyms that have been used to describe this phase — “political Islam,” “Islamist movements,” “Islamist awakening” — leave us equally bereft of precision and clarity. Such generalisation and confusion has led to the diffusion of the impression that Islam, in all its religious, political, social and ideological dimensions, has ended, or at least is about to end. True, some proponents of “post-Islamism” have been a little less nebulous, and careful to restrict the scope of this term to the Islamist groups, ideas and movements that began to emerge in various Muslim societies in the mid-1970s. However, here too the sweeping generalisations and judgements implied by such expressions as “the end of …” and “post-this or that” are equally offensive.

To these writers, the Islamist phenomenon, or rather, to be a little more precise, the Islamist movements, are a single, homogenous phenomenon, regardless of the differences between the societies in which they arose and regardless of the diversity of the ideological groupings involved. All share essentially the same properties, with the espousal of violence and the proclamations of heresy topping the list. In asserting that Islamism, as condensed into this conglomerate list of properties, has ended, these writers rely on a tangible development of the late 1990s as their sole criterion, which is that most groups that had espoused violence in the name of Islam had begun to modify their positions at that time. However, the so-called Islamist movement, which these writers have condemned to historical oblivion and which must undergo the various processes of change that affect all human and historical phenomena, was never the monolithic homogeneous creature that the proponents of “post- Islamism” make it out to be.

A closer approximation to reality is that the Islamist movement has always consisted of two sorts of groups, the only common denominator between them being their affiliation to Islam. Apart from this, there is a vast difference between their interpretations and applications of Islam. Thus, on one hand, there are those Islamic groups that espouse violence and justify the recourse to violence on the basis of a strictly literal reading of Islamic scripture. These groups claimed the right to pass judgement on individuals, societies and states solely from the standpoint of how these entities measure up to their notion of the true faith, leading to an insane cycle of religious violence against everyone they targeted for their wrath.

On the other hand, there are those social- political groupings that espouse an Islamist programme and that view Muslim individuals, societies and states as fellow affiliates in religion, against whom violence cannot be sanctioned. The Islamic programme advocated by these groupings is intended to reorganise Muslim societies on the basis of Islamic law, which in essence is a human creation produced from the accretion of 15 centuries of efforts on the part of hundreds of Muslim jurists of diverse national origins and Islamic schools of thought. The interpretations of the Qur’an and Prophetic Hadith that gave rise to this body of law extended beyond the literal to embrace perceptions of the higher aims of Islamic law, the spirit of revelation and the practicalities of human welfare. As such, Islamic law to these groupings can be read in its socio-historical context and is far removed from the absolutist version espoused by the first type of Islamist groups.

In view of this more realistic portrait of the Islamist movement, it is impossible to subscribe to the theories regarding the recent past and near future of this movement as propounded under the “post-Islamist phenomenon” school of thought. The Islamist movement has undergone two central changes in recent years that have added to it new dimensions and expanded its geographical, human and substantive scope, rendering it secure from the extinction posited by many thinkers.

The first development is that the militant Islamic groups have shifted away from their literalist approach to the interpretation of Islamic scriptures towards the socio-historical mode of exegesis that characterises the mainstream Islamist groupings. The most tangible manifestation of this transformation is that the overwhelming majority of the militant groups have declared their renunciation of violence against Muslim states and societies and are now seeking to assimilate into the domestic political arena, in accordance with established national laws regulating political action and regardless of the obstacles they encounter in the process of assimilation. The reasons for this shift in outlook are too numerous and intertwined to do justice to them here. However, it is important to assert that the most salient factor is that dynamic to which Islamic history offers abundant testimony and in accordance with which militant Islamic groupings flare up only briefly and quickly revert to the second type of socio-political groupings, which constitute the actual structure for the progression of Islamic history.

The second development, which gave impetus to the foregoing shift in outlook, was that in the mid-1990s, radical Islamic groupings began to reorient their vision outwards, away from their societies, toward issues around which there is widespread popular and official consensus in the Arab and Islamic worlds. The Palestinian cause and the deterioration to which it has been subjected since the arrival of Netanyahu to power in 1998 are the focal point of these issues. Suddenly, militant Islamist groups, which had called the violence they unleashed against their own societies jihad, “discovered” that there was another holy war to wage. This war is truer to the real meaning of jihad and to the spirit of national resistance being waged by other groups that call themselves Islamic, but that focus their energies on resisting the Israeli occupation of their land, not on killing the rulers and citizens of their own countries on the basis of spurious condemnations of heresy.

The two pivotal transitions that the Islamist movement is still passing through indicate that this movement as a whole is assuming a new form and substance markedly different from those that characterised it during the past three decades. Through their shift in attitude toward recourse to violence, radical groups have begun to acquire the socio-political prerequisites for expansion and self-perpetuation — a process that will gain further impetus once these groups overcome some major deficiencies that still pervade their thinking and modes of operation, and fully reconcile themselves with the age in which they are living. Simultaneously, the moderate Islamist groups in many Arab and Islamic countries have been able to disseminate their central beliefs regarding the role of Islam in the organisation of social and political life among such a diversity of political and intellectual forces that it has become difficult to demarcate distinct ideological boundaries. Perhaps the clearest manifestation of this development is the Algerian Islamic Salvation Front (FIS). Ten years ago, the FIS was the only Algerian Islamist grouping with a clear non-violent political platform for reform. Today, there are dozens of political parties and groups that espouse the core principles the FIS advocated, in spite of their natural differences over subsidiary issues. Nor do there exist credible indicators to suggest a movement counter to this trend, which raises serious questions over the premises underlying the “post- Islamist phenomenon” rubric.

Similarly, the second major transition — the reorientation of focus from internal to external causes — is also likely to persist, particularly in light of the developments that took place in the aftermath of 11 September. The military operations against Afghanistan, what is taking place in Palestine and Israel today, and the very real possibility of aggression against other Arab and Islamic states, in the near future, form a powerful impetus for advancing the Islamist movement to the forefront of that chain of imminent clashes against Western forces, and the US and Israel in particular. Certainly, a climate charged with perceptions that give rise to such terms as the “clash of civilisations,” “Crusades” and “holy war,” behind which reside very similar mindsets, will intensify the impetus behind the Islamist movements. It would thus appear that the notion of a post-Islamist era is little more than wishful thinking on the part of those who thought up the term. Certainly, it is neither an academically sound prediction of the future, nor even an accurate depiction of current realities.

The writer is an expert at the Al-Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies and managing editor of the annual State of Religion in Egypt Report.

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