With the ascent to power of Ennahda in Tunisia and the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt post Arab Spring, “Islamism” is the latest new, important buzzword in the news. The reactions in the American media have ranged from mildly cautious to downright panicked, but they all seem to have one thing in common: none of them really know what Islamism is.
Robert Wright’s column in The Atlantic is case in point. The way he uses “Islamism” varies across the article, as at different points he equates Islamism with religiosity, devoutness, “militant Islamic sentiment”, and Muslim conservatism. What doesn’t change is his premise that Islamism is something for America to be wary of. (Though the column is called “A Case for Not Fearing Islamism”, the reason Islamism shouldn’t be feared is that its political potency might be waning, not because it isn’t necessarily worrisome.)
Simply put, Islamism is none of those things. Conventionally speaking, Islamism is often defined as the application of sharia law in government. This would be a helpful definition, were it not for the fact that interpretations of what sharia is and how to apply it vary so widely that it’s impossible to know what the phrase “application of sharia law” even means in any given context.
The reason there is no common understanding of applying sharia is that the legal system-cum-social order that was predominant in Islamic societies—in particular Sunni societies—until the 19th century was based on entirely different structures and principles than modern, state-centered government. Because of the fundamental incompatibility between the two, there is no obvious way to incorporate sharia into modern political structures, and it has been argued that it’s not even possible.
Yet this is precisely what Islamism purports to do. Islamism is a 20th-century political ideology that Islam should be the basis for governance, and that the state should operate by, and enforce, Islamic norms and principles.
If that definition seems vague, that’s because it is. In truth, no one knows what a Sunni Islamist government looks like because there’s never really been one.* In the decades that Islamism has existed as an ideology, its proponents have operated almost entirely in opposition, where they never had to articulate specific proposals or measures. There was just the ubiquitous slogan: “Islam is the solution.”
We do know what Islamism looks like outside of government, however. Many Islamist groups build their political bases through populism, engaging in extensive social support activities while simultaneously appealing to popular piety. In this context, “Islam is the solution” is aimed less at the government or the society at large and more so at individuals, that their lives and the lives of those around them will improve if they become more devout and upright Muslims.
As a result, Islamist groups tend to be overwhelmingly inward-looking, focused primarily on Muslims’ behavior and piety rather than anything else. (Islam, after all, is the solution only for Muslims.) While it’s certainly true that a government can attempt to promote piety and moral behavior, how it might go about doing that is an open question, and that says nothing about how it would approach any other aspect of governance.
More to the point, regarding American fears of Islamists’ foreign policy, there’s no clear way that promotion of popular piety translates to interstate relations. We can’t necessarily assume that an Islamist-run Egypt for instance will be less open towards Israel than it had been under Mubarak. The Muslim Brotherhood’s anti-Israeli stance was politically expedient in opposition, but the government might find that that doesn’t work so well once in power. (And of course just because Islamism is an ideology doesn’t mean that everything Islamists do is ideologically driven.)
As far as terrorism goes, while there have been Islamist terrorist groups, particularly off-shoots of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, almost all of them have disappeared since the 80s, and the Brotherhood itself has long since renounced violence. Contrary to popular belief, most jihadist groups like Al-Qaeda are not Islamist, because they’re either nihilists without any coherent ideology** and/or outward-looking extremists (such as those who just want to attack the West).
None of this is to say that the newly elected Islamist governments in Egypt or Tunisia will be cuddly and friendly, nor is it to say that they’ll start chopping off smokers’ fingers and attacking unveiled women. It is merely to say that there’s little telling what they’ll be like. In fact, I would wager that the two governments will be more different than similar. But they will both couch their policies in religious language and base their rule on Islam. What that means in practice is anyone’s guess.
* Iran has an Islamist government, but the religious structures that underlie the Iranian state are Shi‘i and have a very different conception of how authority is constituted than those found in Sunnism. Saudi Arabia utilizes a modified form of Hanbali Islamic law, but its ruling ideology revolves around legitimization of the monarchy more than anything else; Turkey’s ruling AKP party is simply “Islamist” by Turkish standards (read: pro-religion), while still governing by the country’s secular constitution and government. Hamas is an Islamist party in power in Gaza, but it’s pretty much impossible to say that they can govern in any real sense of the word. Lastly, militant “governments” such as the Taliban pre-2001, Shabaab in Somalia and the current rebels in Mali don’t really have a coherent ideology to speak of, but rather employ an ad hoc method of enforcing a totalitarian moral code—similar to other Third-World guerilla movements when controlling territory—that has nothing to do with Islamic law. Only Pakistan might count as Islamist, but its government is so schizophrenic as to defy meaningful definition.
** Hakimiyya is the term for an “ideology” espoused by figures like Sayyid Qutb that purports that there can be no rule by man, only rule by God. While this is intended by Qutb to mean that sharia is the only legitimate form of government, as noted above, there is no clear conception of what that means (even for Qutb). All it is, then, is violent tendencies lacking any real thought structure behind them. (It’s also utterly impractical; at some point, some person will have to make decisions about how the society should run itself. Otherwise it’s just anarchy.)