Inevitably, the optimism surrounding the ‘Arab Spring’ has dissipated following the electoral success of Islamist movements in Tunisia, Egypt and Morocco. Islamism, an umbrella term for organisations seeking a greater role for Quranic jurisprudence in politics, is ideologically rooted in a reactionary rejection of Western-dictated modernity. Seemingly, this trend has disproven naive predictions of a liberal-democratic awakening. In contextualising the rise of Islamism within existing literature, some commentators turn to Samuel Huntington’s 1993 essay ‘The Clash of Civilisations’. This theory posits that geopolitics is pullulated with cross-cultural conflict; different cultural blocs with their own irreconcilable, internalised value sets determine which ideologies are more palatable. Resultantly, Western norms of democracy and free-markets are incompatible with the traditionalist cultural-societal outlook of the Arab World, grounded in Islamic dogmatism.
By contrast, I seek to rationalise the rise of Islamism through an ‘End of History’ prism, based on a 1992 essay by Francis Fukuyama. For Fukuyama, history is dialectic, culminating in ‘the end point of mankind’s ideological evolution….the universalisation of Western liberal democracy’. Hence, the desirable norm is the widespread consensus of liberal democracy and the discrediting of all alternative forms of governance. This hypothesis at first appears to be completely contravened by the ascendance of regressive, traditionalist Islamism. The Middle-East has proven so resistant to free-market democracy precisely because, in Islamism, an ideological alternative exists. However, I believe that the institutionalisation of Islamist movements may revitalise the ‘End of History’ premise, neutering and co-opting the last bastion of ideological resistance to the global status-quo.
The rise of political Islam was not an inevitable, organic process, but the result of an inter-woven patchwork of external and domestic factors. From a ‘Clash of Civilisations’ perspective, it is not the current success of political Islam that is most noteworthy, but its delayed entry into contemporary Middle-Eastern politics. For an ideology grounded in the Quran and the mosque, a document and a milieu familiar throughout the middle-East, it is astounding that it did not gain traction until after Arab states had experimented with a plethora of imported Western ideologies. Political Islam only came to fruition following the discrediting of these precepts after the humiliation of nationalist and socialist-grounded Arab states in the 1967 War with Israel. Hence, suggesting that Islamism is an inherent trait of Middle-Eastern cultural precedents is baseless.
Paradoxically, the Arab ‘national security’ states, where suppression of political freedoms is the norm, actually handed Islamists a unique monopoly on dissent. Though often persecuted, Islamists could retreat to their sanctified safe-havens of the local mosque, unlike secular opposition groups. This unique freedom of movement in an autocratic regime left Islamists uniquely placed to proselytise the disaffected. If the legitimacy of states lies in their ability to adjust to free-market globalisation whilst protecting citizenry from its excesses, the Egyptian Mubarak regime clearly failed, leaving 40 million citizens below the poverty line. The local Muslim Brotherhood responded to these inequalities, creating twenty-one subsidised hospitals and numerous welfare organisations. Thus, the Egyptian Brotherhood’s popularity results from their reputation as credible state-builders, not local cultural affinity with Islamic fundamentalism. Islamist groups, already suspicious of foreign influence, solidified their antagonistic stance towards Western notions of liberalism by opposing pro-Western regimes. The West, therefore, should pick their friends more carefully in future.
However, the Egyptian Brotherhood have also shown a desire to integrate into the existing geopolitical order, engaging in open meetings with American officials and pledging to maintain a peace treaty with Israel. As one American businessman said of the Brotherhood, ‘This is a movement that will make any neo-liberal happy’. The electoral success of Islamist groups brings them into the mainstream, de-mystifying and de-ideologicising them. One only needs to look at the Turkish paradigm. The Islamist AKP won power in 2002, promising economic and social reforms. The party has subsequently retained power with massive majorities, shunning Sharia law and instead seeking to join the EU and attract private-sector investment. Indeed, the AKP is now an observer in the European People’s Party. Could one have imagined when it was a proscribed, dangerous and indubitably more radical anti-Western organisation, that the AKP would seek inspiration from Europe’s wishy-washy, centre-right conservatives?
Hence, Islamist movements are not the inevitable offspring of ‘backward’ Arab culture; they are the ephemeral last gasp of an ideological alternative-seeking, impoverished populace. The recent moves by these parties suggest that they are attempting to integrate themselves into, rather than reject, the prevailing liberal-democratic global consensus. Though organised and radical in opposition, Islamic movements are becoming increasingly moderate as they come to power, courting the West and secular society. On a cautionary note, this optimistic outlook is not the inherent path for emboldened Islamist movements. Instead, this is but one road they could take. However, if this thesis is borne out, it will indeed be ironic that the end of history may be delivered by the institutionalisation of the last ideological barrier to free-market democracy.