by Courtney Freer & Naeman Mahmood
Substantial literature about parties whose platforms mix Islam and politics has posited that such organisations enjoy electoral advantages in Muslim-majority states. Indeed, the ascent of Islamist groups can be attributed to their ability to function in the social and cultural realm and not solely in the political one. Secular groups have been stifled by governmental suppression, whereas Islamists can garner support through religious and social gatherings that are impossible to control. Many authors have focused on the unique ability of Islamist movements to provide social services in the absence of effective state social welfare networks. As Olivier Roy describes it, Islamism aims to deliver both on ideological and practical promises: ‘Islamism is the sharia plus electricity.‘ Islamists enjoy the considerable advantage of being able to act through informal social networks – a benefit that is particularly important in authoritarian settings, as influencing the informal and social has definite political consequences.
What was once considered an advantage, however, seems to have become a political liability for Sunni Islamist groups. Indeed, in the years since protests swept the Arab world in 2011 ushering in Islamist-led governments in Egypt and Tunisia, these governments have been replaced by increasingly authoritarian regimes in both states. Meanwhile, Western states like the US and UK have considered designating the best-known nonviolent Sunni Islamist group in the world, the Muslim Brotherhood, as a terrorist organisation; and in 2014, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE did so. What once appeared to be a clear political advantage, then, has arguably become more dangerous. But should we consider the reversal of Islamist fortunes in Egypt and Tunisia anomalous rather than setting a new trend for the long-term viability of these movements? How does including other country cases, particularly examining states which did not witness change during the Arab Spring, change our outlook about the loss of the Islamist disadvantage in recent years?
The Tunisian and Egyptian cases teach us interesting and valuable yet ultimately limited lessons about Islamists in institutionalised positions of political power. These cases in which Islamists have contested (and won) a plurality or majority of seats can tell us only a limited amount about Islamism as a whole, particularly since Islamist movements do far more than merely contest elections. However, findings from the Arab Spring do indicate that the traditional Islamist modes of mobilisation outside of political institutions have not had sustained their ability to win or retain seats in parliament in the face of increasing political crackdown, suggesting an end to the so-called Islamist advantage.
Looking the Gulf, we find that, since the Arab Spring, Sunni Islamist groups in Bahrain have failed to articulate agendas independent enough of the ruling family to earn seats in parliament. Meanwhile, Shi’i groups have been effectively stifled, as they have become increasingly associated with opposition movements and thus the object of government surveillance and crackdown. In 2018, all opposition groups were banned from contesting parliamentary elections. Bahrain therefore provides examples of Sunni and Shi’i Islamist groups experiencing a distinct political disadvantage since 2011. Bahrain’s Muslim Brotherhood has struggled to earn votes, as it has failed to develop an agenda sufficiently distinct from the ruling family to attract voters. Indeed, since 2011, ‘[i]ts agenda is […] shaped by national context and a good relationship with the ruling Al Khalifa ideology, rather than ideology or any imagine connection to a transnational organization.’ Despite the fact that some Islamists in Bahrain have become increasingly loyalist, the case confirms the existence of an Islamist disadvantage after the Arab Spring protests.
Turning to Kuwait, Islamists did not gain substantial seats in parliament in the aftermath of the Arab Spring, nor did they become the object of crackdown. Instead, Kuwait’s Shi’i and Sunni Islamists have remained capable of contesting (and winning) seats in parliament and articulating specific policy preferences. Kuwait’s Shi’i Islamists have, since 2008, have become reliably pro-government voters in parliament, showing the resilience of loyalist Islamist groups; in fact, during the years of an opposition-wide boycott (2012–16), Shi’i political blocs made substantial gains. In this instance, then, it was not any advantage inherently associated with Islamist movements that has guaranteed Kuwait’s largest Shi’i bloc political survival, but instead its willingness to work alongside the regime. Meanwhile, Sunni Islamists ranging from Salafis to the Muslim Brotherhood continue to work with other segments of an ideologically broad-based political opposition in the hopes of effecting political change. The Kuwaiti case, then, challenges the notion that 2011 served as a turning point for Islamist fortunes. Even there, however, when speaking with one member of the Muslim Brotherhood, he explained that his organisation would not run more than three candidates in the 2023 polls, for fear of arousing suspicions from the regime that ‘we are trying something.’ Even in an environment in which Islamist mobilisation is still somewhat successful, consideration of how such successful mobilisation is viewed by authorities is still relevant.
Iraq perhaps more clearly challenges the narrative about 2011 being a decisive turning point for Islamist fortunes. Indeed, in that country, the Sadrist Movement has dominated Shi’i Islamist politics in Iraq since the early 2000s, with the party having won 73 seats in the 2021 elections – the largest single party in those polls and more seats than all other Shi’i Islamist movements combined. Nonetheless, scholars like Fanar Haddad argue that a victory for Shii Islamist parties in Iraq is not necessarily a victory for Islamism. In the words of Robin-D’Cruz, ‘These parties are increasingly autonomous from religious-clerical leadership they are transactional in their political alliances with Islamist and non-Islamist groups alike, and their electoral platforms make scant reference to Islamist ideology.’ On the Sunni side, however, the Iraqi Islamic Party represents a different type of Islamist group – one which seeks to uphold the ideology of the Muslim Brotherhood yet has thus far failed to find a substantial national following.
Ultimately, portraying 2011 as a decisive turning point for all Sunni and Shi’i Islamists across the Middle East is both short-sighted and based on the examination of limited country cases. While Islamists certainly still face suspicion from governments and voters alike, this is hardly new, and with the AKP in Turkey now entering its third decade in power, any notion of the beginning of a post-Islamist age after the Arab Spring appears based solely on experienced in Egypt and Tunisia, rather than on the broader region.
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