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Facing The New Islamist Challenge – Analysis


With the recent death of Osama bin Laden and the ongoing Arab Spring, global jihadism has suffered some serious setbacks of late. In its wake, the more gradualist and pragmatic “participationist Islamism” appears to be gaining ground, and the West should prepare for the new challenges it will pose.

By Lorenzo Vidino for ISN Insights

As the ten-year anniversary of 9/11 approaches, al-Qaida and the global jihadist movement have suffered two important blows. Unquestionably, the death of Osama bin Laden is the first, although the full implications of his demise can only be assessed with time. Even though the al-Qaida founder had long relinquished a central operational role, the symbolic value of his death is indeed high. But arguably the global jihadist movement has suffered a significantly more damaging blow from the Arab Spring, a trans-Arab protest movement that, while sharing none of its ideas and tactics, has achieved in a few months more than what al-Qaida has in 20 years.

Middle East
Middle East

To be sure, neither blow is likely to prove lethal to the movement and jihadist-inspired terrorism will hardly disappear in the near future. Supporters of jihadist ideology still exist from Indonesia to the gritty suburbs of most European cities, and future terrorist attacks are almost a certainty. Indeed, jihadist movements could gain traction in newly formed pockets of instability, as they have done over the last few years in ungoverned areas of Pakistan, Somalia, Iraq, Yemen and the Maghreb.

Yet, while it is unquestionably premature to announce its demise, jihadism may have passed its prime. Polls clearly show that an overwhelming majority of Muslims worldwide are disenchanted with its brutality, divisiveness and ineffectiveness. The recent uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt have shown the flawed nature of jihadism’s core message: that only indiscriminate violence can topple the region’s authoritarian regimes and bring about change. Jihadism’s popularity, of course, could rise again – particularly if the great expectations brought on by the Arab Spring are not met with some tangible results. Nevertheless, al-Qaida’s tactical and ideological weaknesses have become glaringly obvious.

The ‘participationist’ paradigm

If jihadism is facing an identity crisis, “participationist Islamism” is newly confident. Islamism, in its gradualist and pragmatic approach embodied by the Muslim Brotherhood and its offshoots worldwide, seems poised to reap the rewards of its three decades’ old decision to abandon violence, instead focusing on political participation and grassroots activities. Although they played only a marginal role in the Arab uprisings, Islamist movements are likely to be among the main beneficiaries of the Arab Spring, possibly using their political mobilization skills and grassroots legitimacy to gain positions of power in the nascent democracies of the region.

At the extremes of the Islamist continuum sit jihadists like bin Laden on one end and modern Islamists like Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan on the other. Erdoğan has successfully blended respect for electoral democracy and effective economic policies with Islamist-inspired social conservatism and foreign policies. It is apparent that between these two antagonistic views of Islamism, history is tilting in Erdoğan’s direction.

Scores of Islamist movements that, unlike jihadist groups, can count on widespread popular support and are seeking to play a significant role in their countries’ political systems are openly praising Erdoğan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) as an example to follow, and flocking to Ankara to learn its secrets. The Turkish model is not likely to be replicated with the same characteristics everywhere and could arguably represent the mildest taste of Islamist-flavored democracy, tempered by the country’s deeply engrained secular tradition, strong and staunchly anti-Islamist military, and the very nature of the AKP, which underwent an internal reformation before taking power. Islamist parties in other countries might take more extreme positions, like Hamas-controlled Gaza, for example, not just in its confrontation with Israel but also in its forms of societal control. Yet, the future course of Islamism clearly lies mainly in political participation, not indiscriminate violence.

That is not to say that participationist Islamism will not pose a challenge to the West. Islamist ideology, even in its participatory and more moderate version, remains deeply divisive and controversial, often at odds with core Western values and interests. Domestically, there are legitimate concerns about the sincerity of Islamist parties’ commitment to democracy and their positions on religious freedom, women’s rights and free speech. Internationally, most of the positions of various Muslim Brotherhood-inspired parties are on a collision course with Western policies in the region, starting with the cornerstone issue of Israel.

The Islamist challenge to the West in the near future is therefore likely to be less from bullets and more from ballots. Heralding al-Qaida’s demise, as some commentators enthusiastically did in the aftermath of bin Laden’s death, is unquestionably premature, but the jihadist threat does appear to be on the wane, as its ideology appeals to an increasingly small milieu. Participationist Islamist movements, on the other hand, are part and parcel of the societies of virtually all Muslim-majority countries. They are also likely to play a significant role in the post-authoritarian political life of those countries, albeit with different dynamics and proportions in different places.

Lumping participationist Islamists with al-Qaida and other jihadist groups is not only incorrect but counterproductive. At the same time, however, believing they are unproblematic and genuinely committed to liberal democratic values is flawed and naïve. The West must engage Islamist parties, while avoiding both ideological preconceptions and wishful thinking.

Dr Lorenzo Vidino is a Visiting Fellow at the Center for Security Studies, ETH Zurich. His latest book is The New Muslim Brotherhood in the West (Columbia University Press, 2010). Published by International Relations and Security Network (ISN)

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