Sometimes Islamist groups succeed. Sometimes they underperform. But they almost always matter.

This means that the United States needs answers for questions not just about the nature of Islamist movements, but also about the more politically thorny question of what the U.S. should do about them. How the U.S. and Europe should respond—or even if they should treat Islamist parties as distinctive in the first place—has been a contentious question since at least the early 1990s. The Arab Spring, two decades later, brought this “Islamist dilemma” back to the fore, and Washington found itself, again, conflicted.

The rise of the Islamic State and, more recently, the election of President Trump have complicated Washington’s view of political Islam. Some of the figures from Trump’s inner circle who held very skeptical views of Islam, such as former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn, former Chief Strategist Steven Bannon, and former Deputy Assistant to the President Sebastian Gorka, have now left the administration. But this brand of skepticism still holds enduring appeal for Trump’s base, and the president may feel tempted to return to it as a way of rallying his core supporters and distracting from other political woes.


Understanding the dilemma confronting the United States requires going back a few decades. Although we know from declassified State Department cables that the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood was on Washington’s radar during the 1950s and 1960s, American foreign policy granted no particular significance to Islamists, other than to wonder whether their religious nature might make them useful partners in checking the spread of “Third World” socialism.

Political Islam did not attract serious attention from American officials until the 1979 Islamic Revolution in Iran. For some time, the events of that year shaped American understandings of Islamism even though Iran’s Shiite revolutionary ideology wasn’t in line with the orientation of most other Islamists and was highly atypical even within Shiite history and tradition.

The event that set the tone for U.S. policy toward Sunni Islamist movements (of the Muslim Brotherhood ilk) was the Algerian parliamentary election of 1991. When it became clear that the Islamic Salvation Front (FIS) was poised to win the two-thirds majority required to change the country’s constitution, the military intervened to annul the results, plunging Algeria into civil war for the better part of a decade. In a spring 1992 speech, Assistant Secretary of State Edward Djerejian indicated that the Algerian army’s intervention had been prudent because Islamists coming to power through the ballot box would have been a case of “one man, one vote, one time.” In other words, Islamists would make instrumental use of the ballot box to capture the state, only to subsequently dismantle democracy.

Sunni Islamist movements, meanwhile, were evolving rapidly with the times. By the mid-1990s, there were clear signs that these groups could no longer be understood through the original vision of Islamist “founding fathers”—such as the Egyptian Hassan al-Banna or Pakistan’s Abul Ala Mawdudi. By the mid-2000s, Islamist parties had become fixtures in the mainstream politics of Morocco, Egypt, Palestine, Lebanon, Jordan, Yemen, and Kuwait. In Turkey in 2002, the Justice and Development Party (AKP), whose roots lay in Turkey’s Islamist movement, won its first landslide victory.

During this same period, U.S. policy toward Islamists remained quite cautious. In 1995, Washington announced that it was ceasing all contact with the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood. After the September 11th attacks, some of the more influential voices shaping American views of political Islam were those—such as Israel and Egypt—that wished to advance an understanding of Islamism consistent with their domestic interests. Soon, most Islamist parties in the Arab world decided to boycott the United States in a gesture of protest at the American invasion of Iraq. In 2006, America’s rejection of Hamas’s victory in the Palestinian elections seemed to confirm in the eyes of many the idea that the United States was simply unwilling to allow Islamists to govern, even when they won in free elections.

Looked at from a different vantage point, however, Washington’s reluctance to engage with Islamists seems guided more by basic realpolitik. The U.S. ceased contact with the Brotherhood in Egypt based on a request from its partner, the Egyptian government. It rejected Hamas’s victory at the polls out of concern for its close ally Israel—and because Hamas was a designated terrorist organization. Yet, at the same time, Islamist parties in various countries—including Yemen, Indonesia, Morocco, and Jordan—received various forms of support and training through democracy promotion programs funded by the likes of the United States Agency for International Development and the National Endowment for Democracy. There was no coherent, deliberate policy toward Islamist parties as such; it was a byproduct of other concerns.

In the pre-Arab Spring era, the Muslim Brotherhood and the many movements it inspired reached a consensus for how to pursue their aims: bide their time, do their best to build social influence within regime constraints, make small but significant inroads in parliament, wait for a democratic opening, and then, when it came, fill the political vacuum. There was no need to spend too much time pondering questions of governance, since the prospect of governing seemed so remote. The Arab uprisings challenged this model, then rendered it moot.

The partification of Islamist movements has been one of the most important features of Islamist evolution since the 1990s. For decades, Western analysts and policymakers alike had encouraged mainstream Islamists to embrace the democratic process, de-emphasize their religious origins, and form “normal” political parties. This was a natural fit for these groups, which, having been established by doctors, engineers, and teachers, weren’t necessarily strong on theology but knew how to get out the vote, and get out the vote they did. This prioritizing of elections—some Islamists themselves came to see it as an “obsession”—offered an easy out from difficult and divisive debates around the nature and purpose of the nation-state, issues that became all the more relevant when Islamists in Egypt, Tunisia, Morocco, and Yemen all had opportunities to govern during and after the Arab Spring.

Having faced any number of setbacks, Islamist parties in each of the 12 countries we focus on in our new book have had to contend with basic questions of how change actually happens when elites and “deep states” oppose Islamists and when regional and international actors are suspicious of them, if not outright hostile. How Islamists deal with these challenges, naturally, has a lot to do with how the various revolutions, stalled revolutions, or non-revolutions evolved in each particular case. For example, were rulers toppled, therefore inviting a leadership vacuum that well-organized Islamist groups could then fill? Did state structures collapse after revolution, thereby provoking outbreaks of violent conflict or civil war? Where rulers were not toppled, how did Islamist parties balance nominal loyalty to existing regimes with popular demands for political change?

A common challenge faced by Brotherhood-inspired organizations is the tension that arises between their movements and their political parties, which are often described as “arms” or “wings” of the movement. The imperatives of seeking votes are often not the imperatives of a movement seeking social transformation. A preacher’s extreme sermon might excite a small core but alienate the masses needed for electoral success. Meanwhile, a party leader’s call for moderation to avoid alienating militaries or monarchies might depress the turnout of conservative supporters.

This dilemma was particularly acute after the Arab uprisings, when mainstream Islamists had to decide to what extent to contest elections. Some, like the Egyptian Brotherhood, maintained a blurry relationship between movement and party (with the latter ultimately dependent on the former), leading people to blame the movement for the party’s misfortunes and vice versa. Tunisia’s Ennahda is perhaps the most unique case, with party and movement being one and the same before transforming into a party and declaring a separation between “religious” and “political” activities. While such a move was generally welcomed by Western observers who saw this as the holy grail of moderation, it raised a new set of questions around what it meant to be an Islamist party that was no longer, in its own telling, “Islamist,” but rather “Muslim Democratic.”

Many Western observers may have wanted Ennahda to become Muslim Democratic, but did their own supporters? Islamist parties, after all, have been successful, in part, because they are not just parties; they represent broader-based movements, which provide organizational discipline, social service provision, funding for electoral campaigns, and broader reach into less politicized sectors of society.

The tension between party and movement is particularly evident among mainstream Islamist groups like the Brotherhood, which, over time, came to see elections as the primary mechanism for both social and political change, even when it came at the cost of traditional core concerns like preaching, religious education, and social service provision. Indeed, if there is one finding that emerges clearly from the failures of the Arab Spring, it is that Brotherhood organizations, particularly in the Arab world, view electoral victory as the definitive measure of success.

* * *

That was not always the case. The Muslim Brotherhood, founded in 1928 by a schoolteacher named Hassan al-Banna, was originally concerned with preaching, education, recruiting new members, and opposing colonialism (and, later, the creation of Israel). According to its bylaws, the Brotherhood aimed “to raise a generation of Muslims who would understand Islam correctly and act according to its teachings.” Until 1934, the bylaws forbade direct political action.

Banna sought to change society slowly and progressively, starting at the individual and moving to the family, the community, and eventually the government. In theory, this makes sense if one wants to reshape politics without antagonizing politicians. In practice, playing the long game becomes difficult when presented with the temptations of power and electoral success. As demonstrated by some of the Islamist responses included in our new volume, many Muslim Brothers after Egypt’s 2013 coup have pondered the tension between rushing into electoral politics and taking a step back to rebuild their social base on the local level.

There is a danger in viewing success and “winning” primarily in electoral terms. As Avi Spiegel, an expert on Moroccan Islamism, argues:

We love measuring and tracking “democracy,” focusing on winners and losers, on horse races, victories, and defeats. We study these things, I suspect, because we are guided by the belief, perhaps even the zeal, that these outcomes matter—that the winners of elections actually win something. Yet, in authoritarian contexts—even post–Arab Spring contexts—does electoral success translate into success writ large?

The bargain in Morocco has been clear enough. The Justice and Development Party (PJD), the country’s main Islamist party, accepted the confines of a system in which the monarchy enjoys veto power over all major decisions. In return, the PJD is allowed to legally exist, participate, and even enjoy a bit of power (but not too much). In practice, this means that the PJD cannot, assuming it wanted to, significantly alter or transform the country’s politics. Looking forward five, 10 or 15 years, it is difficult to envision the PJD accomplishing much more than it already has.



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