Middle East Roundtable
A post-Islamist age?
by Emmanuel Sivan
Dieser Artikel braucht eine/n ehrenamtliche/n Uebersetzer/in!
Haben Sie Lust?
We are already in a post-Islamist age, or so argue many
analysts, mostly American and French. For Radical Islam, they claim, is on
the wane all over the Muslim world, al Qaeda being just a final (but doomed)
explosion of those revolutionary energies which have created so much havoc
in the last three decades. In a way, they have a point, provided one
considers only the Jihadi aspect of that broad socio-cultural and political
movement that is Radical Islam.
Yet if one looks at the movement as a whole--made up of a plethora of
groups, more or less structured, loosely coordinated and often
overlapping--one perceives that it is still vigorous and exercises a lot of
influence in various Muslim societies.
The greatest feat of Radical Islam is its sheer survival despite decades of
ferocious state repression. It has, at the same time, made tremendous
inroads into the hearts and minds of Muslim believers. Already by the 1970s
the militant Islamic discourse, with its inbred suspicion of "imported"
modernity, that "new apostasy", began to dominate the public sphere. It
replaced pan-Arabism and Marxism, and maintains this hegemony to the present
Thus it has influenced gender roles, not just in the spread of the veil but
also in shaping the attitude of high school educated females who tend to
prefer family and child rearing tasks over career and self realization (the
latter used to be more popular among this social group in the pre-Islamist
era); it bought about an erosion of relations with indigenous Christians
(for example, the situation of Copts in Egypt). Governments have succumbed
to militant pressure, censoring books, plays and films critical of
traditional Islam. The Islamist media--notably in the form of audio and
videocassettes--is growing, and religious activism has become the major
avenue for venting protest. Young militants engage in grassroots vigilantism
against alcohol, pornography and TV satellite dishes, impose Islamic dress
codes and monitor the behavior of tourists. Other activists mount court
cases and press campaigns against permissive writers and artists, or
mobilize mass demonstrations against the rising cost of living, which often
succeed in deterring governments from abolishing subsidies for basic
foodstuffs and cooking gas. They are practically the only ones to organize
mass rallies in favor of introducing a constitution.
This success proceeds, above all, from organizational ability, as manifest
in the strength of the voluntary associations fathered by Muslim radicalism.
These not only create support and clientele networks for the movement, but
also show that Islamic values can be implemented nowadays: in medicine (by
clinics staffed by volunteer doctors and nurses), in social welfare (through
neighborhood solidarity groups and Muslim, i.e., interest-free, lending
Moreover, the Islamists have a knack for tailoring the message to changing
circumstances. Over the last 15 years or so, the message has been the
failure of the all-providing nation-state, created by the populist-military
regimes as well as by traditional monarchies. The blame is deftly put not at
the door of the command economy for dependence on oil revenues, but rather
on the moral dissoluteness and the secularism (implicit or explicit) of the
The inroads of the Islamists are not limited to the lower urban classes,
which are the worst hit by the economic policies cutting public
expenditures. Islamist associations have sprung up among professional
classes, whose high income and sophistication enable them to endeavor to act
independently of the state, an unheard-of phenomenon in the 1950s and 1960s,
and try to shape decision-making within their professions, and later to
stake out a position on wider public issues, e.g., in favor of the immediate
application of the Shari'a (Islamic law) or in backing court cases presented
by "concerned citizens" against prominent secularist thinkers. The latter
have a particularly telling chilling effect on liberals, whose voice has
consequently become much weaker in recent years.
Perhaps more important is the osmosis of radical ideas into the conservative
religious establishment. The tilt to the right, especially among young
clerics, has been evident and is creeping inexorably into the upper ranks,
where pressure groups vociferously clamor against changes in the divorce
laws, against a ban on female circumcision, for stricter censorship on
"public morality" issues and the like.
The difficulty the radicals have in translating social-cultural vigor into
political influence is well known. The violent option has been tried time
and time again and ended in utter defeat, most recently in the late 1990s.
Some participation in the political process is allowed (in Jordan, Morocco,
Kuwait, Algeria, Yemen), yet elections are tampered with and those Islamist
candidates elected to parliament have seen their role restricted more often
than not to mere protesting and posturing.
Participation in governments has usually been short-lived and quite
disappointing in terms of policy-making. In other countries (Egypt, Syria,
Tunisia) even this paltry political role is unthinkable.
The Islamists do limit, however, the margin of action of the powers-that-be
through the deterrent effect of their public protest. Governments think
twice before cutting subsidies, amending family status laws, or relaxing
censorship on delicate moral topics. Yet the most politically pervasive
impact of Radical Islam may be detected among the modern middle class. The
latter favors broad human and civil rights and the evolution of a
participatory polity. The bourgeoisie is fearful, however, of the rise of
Radical Islam, the sole organized force likely to benefit from
liberalization. The experience of Islamists in power (Iran, Sudan,
Afghanistan) is there for every bourgeois to ponder. They thus have to
acquiesce in the harsh regimentation of political life, which was the
response of most regimes to the domestic terrorism of the 1990s. They
embrace authoritarian regimes for fear of the alternative.
Herein lies the most devastating, long-term effect of Muslim
radicalism-slowing down the march towards democracy. It is not the effect
the radicals intended, yet the cunning workings of history make it all too
real, nevertheless. -Published 31/7/03©bitterlemons-international.org
Emmanuel Sivan teaches Islamic History at the Hebrew University of
Jerusalem. Among his many publications are Radical Islam (Yale UP, 1990),
Mythes Politiques Arabes (Paris, Fayard, 1995) and Strong Religion (Chicago
an internet forum for an array of world perspectives on the Middle East and
its specific concerns. It aspires to engender greater understanding about
the Middle East region and open a new common space for world thinkers and
political leaders to present their viewpoints and initiatives on the region.
Editors Ghassan Khatib and Yossi Alpher can be reached at