The twilight of Islamists: Middle East turns to future as failed ideology fades
The past decade confounded the expectations of those who have absorbed the civic myths of Islamism. Among them is the illusion that Islamist regimes are devoid of corruption, greed, and sheer incompetence – but after failed stints in power, the Islamist twilight is well underway.
Ten years of abysmal governance has left Islamists’ reputation, and government representation, in shambles: The Moroccan Justice and Development Party (PJD) were trounced at the polls, losing 90 percent of the seats it had held, amounting to 12 seats in the 395-seat parliament.
The demise of the PJD echoed that of neighboring Islamist outfits such as Tunisia’s Ennahda party. Their share of the vote fell from 28 percent in 2014 to 20 percent in 2019 – but dwindling support was just the tip of iceberg. Most recently, President Kais Saied invoked Article 80 of the Tunisian constitution to dismiss Prime Minister Hichem Mechichi and suspend Parliament following an uptick in civil unrest directed at Ennahda’s poor track record at the helm of government. The move proved enormously popular among frustrated Tunisians.
Ennahda and the PJD are merely two cases within a broader trend sweeping the region – one in which Islamists are on the defensive after being associated with a decade of endemic corruption, economic paralysis and poor governance. The truth is, after decades supposedly preparing for power, Islamists found themselves unready for the task. But what exactly is left of Islamist influence in the Middle East? Not much, with just fragmented pockets of control remaining in Gaza and north-west Syria – both held by militant-extremists: the former by Hamas and the latter by Hayat Tahrir al-Sham.
Islamism in its various forms was not only a reactionary response to the void caused by economic grievances and deep structural flaws in the sociopolitical fabric of states that saw the rise of Islamist regimes. It also was in part fed by the idea that when given a fair chance, Islamists would rise as a potent force in regional politics. Supporters believed the two tended to go hand in hand – they deemed Islamist parties morally superior, unsullied by power, and even adept at providing social services that would reverse generations of failed policy.
Until 2011, few could test this hypothesis – but over a decade later, the verdict is clear: Islamists’ brief experiments at governing failed. More importantly, their stints in power confirmed a suspicion long held by critics across the Arab World: Islamists are motivated less by Islam than by amassing power in its name; less by ideology than by self-interest; less by public service than by personal gain.
The Muslim Brotherhood’s Mohamed Morsi is a clear case in hand: once elected, the President swiftly declared his decisions beyond judicial review, attended rallies where clerics urged Egyptians to join a war in Syria, rushed through a flawed constitution, and exacerbated the sclerotic socio-economic conditions that prompted the very protests that got him elected.
Brushing aside a plethora of shortcomings, Islamists presuppose that societies evolve in whatever way governments wish them to – particularly in response to a narrow, divisively politicized interpretation of Islam, as well as seemingly scrupulously counted votes. This was never as relevant as it seemed when Islamists vying for power after the Arab Spring took their turn in governance. Now it is an anachronism – as much an artifact of the past as a rusting smokestack.
Islamism’s civic myths reflect not only a mindset that sees society’s problems as susceptible to engineering solutions, but also reflect a false confidence that citizens and state resources will remain as vulnerable to ideological compulsion in the future as they have been in the past. Today, that belief is equally anachronistic in a region dominated by a young, technocratic, globalized, and forward-looking populace that sees straight through the facade of Islamist rule.
It is therefore unsurprising that support for political Islam in the region is at an all-time low. Data from the Arab Barometer captures the magnitude of the plunge: Across six pivotal Arab states, pollsters found that public trust in Islamist parties is witnessing a dramatic decline. In addition, the share of Arabs who think religious leaders should have influence over government decision-making is also steadily declining. The attitudinal shift sweeping the region is unlike that which characterized a certain version of the Enlightenment – fiercely anticlerical and blindly antireligious – but rather one that frees Islamic thought from the shackles of power-hungry ideologues committing atrocities in the name of religion.
Alongside crises of governance and corresponding legitimacy, is a third: A crisis of identity. While pan-Arabists yearn for a time rife with conflict and a false dichotomy between east and west, Islamists look back further, to a time when caliphates were the dominant global force. Fortunately, both visions fail miserably in representing the region today, and thus Islamists are inherently out of touch with those they seemingly wish to represent. The region is too rich and diverse to be dominated by an ideological unity, not to mention one premised on regressive nostalgia manifesting in civil war, sectarianism, and economic stagnation. The Middle East today yearns for a unity of prosperity: a bright future premised on effective governance, economic reform, sustainable development, equality, compassion, and tolerance – outcomes and values more closely aligned with true nature of Islam.
Over the past decade, it has become glaringly clear that feeding the Islamist crocodile a taste of power only whets its appetite. Socio-economic prosperity, coexistence, and multilateral dialogue – not zero-sum fissures – are compelling Arab societies to reconfigure themselves in ways that Islamists neither comprehend nor welcome. But as they do, and as their twilight gets dimmer, the naive view that the arc of history inexorably bends in their favor will be shattered at similar pace.