This is Why The Islamists Are Winning

Many people in the Middle East, Asia and the West work overtime these days trying to understand the expanding wave of Islamist political groups that are winning elections and sharing power. Mainstream Islamist parties winning democratic elections are often perceived in many Western lands and Israel as a dire threat. Not all Arabs and Asians are happy with the victorious Islamists, either. It is important to interpret correctly why the Islamists are winning, and what they really represent.


I have had many opportunities in the past few years to participate in conferences, seminars, lectures and friendly dinner conversations with Arab, Asian, European and North America colleagues. With only a few exceptions, what I have heard largely reflects the distorted analysis pervading much of the Western media. Analysts from outside the Middle East quickly become confused by the synthesis of phenomena that manifest themselves simultaneously in Islamist politics, in a way that they do not in Western culture. These include religion, national identity, good governance, and resistance to foreign occupation or subjugation.


We hear and read a lot about hopes for a revived Islamic caliphate, suicide bombers enticed by virgins in heaven, Islamofascism, the need for reformation and modernization in Islam, the urgency of embracing secularism in Arab-Islamic society, problems with education in religious schools, anti-American, anti-Israeli incitement in Arab media, and other ideas. Such views suffer from two fundamental constraints: they either reflect Western historical traditions and assume that Islamic societies must follow the same trajectory of democratic reform and modernity; or, they focus only on the religious vocabulary of the Islamists, without grasping the political and national issues that drive them.


In their own historical and national contexts, Islamist movements are not a new or sudden phenomenon. Indeed, they have deep roots. The current wave of Islamist political movements’ winning elections in the region is the third wave of Islamism since the 1970s, and it is probably the most important one.


The first wave, in the late 1970s and mid-1980s, challenged Arab regimes largely as clandestine opposition movements or low-key social organizations. Politically, it was violently suppressed throughout the Levant and North Africa.


The second wave of Islamism, in the 1990s, took a violent form, in Algeria, Syria, Egypt and other places, including Al-Qaeda-style terrorism. This was primarily aimed against Arab regimes, not Israel or the United States. This second wave of violence and terror usually occurred after Arab regimes (and most Western powers) rejected attempts at political inclusion and participation by Islamists. At the time, Islamists were returning home from Afghanistan with heightened doses of political militancy and military training, as well as a sense of invincibility after helping to liberate Afghanistan from Russian occupation.


Now we are witnessing the third wave of Islamism in our time, with groups like the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and Jordan, Hamas in the Palestinian territories, Hizbullah in Lebanon, and Justice and Development in Turkey, as well as others, winning power through democratic elections. They learned the hard lessons of the first Islamist waves, notably that neither brute terror nor clandestine social activism would help them achieve their goals.


The significant new element in this wave of “electoral Islamists” is that they have combined into a single force those separate elements that had fragmented their citizen activists and the mass movements over which they presided there. Islamists should be called religio-nationalists, or theo-nationalists, because they now tend to combine the twin forces of religion and nationalism. “My God and my people” may be the two most powerful mass mobilization forces ever invented by human civilization. Islamists are using them politically in a most efficient way, having crafted a message of hope, defiance and self-assertive confidence that responds firmly to the multiple complaints of their fellow citizens.


The wide extent of triumphant political Islamism provides important clues as to this movement’s real meaning and impetus – at least for those who wish to see the real world, rather than imagine a more exotic and menacing world out there. Islamists of various hues and shades have won big, or have become significant opposition forces, in virtually every place they have competed politically in the past few years, whether at the municipal or national levels, in Turkey, Pakistan, Iran, Palestine, Egypt, Morocco, Iraq and Lebanon, to mention only the most notable.


This wave of victories is not due to a longing for virgins in the afterlife or the consequence of poor primary education. It is the consequence of a modern history combining the cumulative pain of poor, often corrupt and brutal, governance, with foreign military occupations and threats (mostly from Israel, the U.S. and Britain recently). Most ordinary people consequently feel they have been denied their cultural identity, political rights, national sovereignty, personal freedoms and basic human dignity.


Islamist groups in turn have responded with an irresistible package that speaks to the citizenry about religion, national identity, legitimate governance, and resistance to foreign occupation and subjugation. That’s why there is nothing surprising about victorious Islamists. The best response to their victories, whether you like or dislike the Islamists, is to understand the political, national and personal issues that have generated their victories, and to address the real grievances behind them, rather than to wander off into intellectual swamps and fantasylands.


Rami G. Khouri writes a regular commentary for THE DAILY STAR (