Sunday, November 22, 2009

Islamist Politics at MESA

Greetings from the 2009 annual meeting of the Middle East Studies Association, where I've had the pleasure of attending four panels so far, all of which were interesting. One which probably has some interest for readers was Islamist Parties and the Political Process, which examined Islamist political movements in Morocco, Libya, and Algeria with eyes on inclusion in the formal political process, trends toward moderation, and competition among movements for members.

I write this based on my notes and the abstracts on the panel web site, but warn anyone who clicks through that ideas can shift between the submission of the abstract and the actual paper, and I think something like that happened with the paper "Public Religion, Democracy and Islam: Examining the Moderation Thesis in Algeria" by the University of Notre Dame's Michael Driessen. At the very least, while I guess some of what's in the abstract makes sense given the paper, my own notes picked up on different themes, perhaps because history is a less theory-driven field than political science and the abstract couched its topic in terms of theory. That said, he talked about the nationalization of religion which has taken place during the past decade or so as a means of co-opting Islamists and government attempts to manage religion, but also notes that, once the religious ideas are floating around, ideas, attitudes, and behaviors develop independent of both government and opposition Islamist influences, which he called an "individualization" of Islamist ideas. (Or was the government competing with the Islamists? The abstract suggests the former, but my memory the latter.)

The well-known Algerian Civil War of the 1990's was an influence seen in the paper of Noureddine Jebnoun of the University of Montana, which was called "The Libyan Islamic Fighting Group (LIFG): From Armed Confrontation to Ideological Reversal." That conflict led the Libyan government to perceive and sell the perception of Islamist forces in their own country as a major threat, and quelling that threat was one of the objectives behind the Qadhafi regime's reconciliation with the United States. Since then the LIFG has come to seek its own reconciliation with the Libyan regime, renouncing both violence and the practice of takfir, or rejecting another's claim to me Muslim, in what Jabnoun sees as a sincere change of attitude.

The other two papers (a fifth presenter was unable to attend) dealt with Morocco, and were focused to some extent on the Justice and Development Party's position in Moroccan politics and society. The government has legalized its political participation, and today it is the largest opposition party in parliament. However, St. John's University's Azzedine Layachi argues in "Official and Popular Islam: The PJD and the Struggle for Legitimacy," this cannot be seen as a successful co-option of Islamism into the Moroccan regime as the PJD does not represent the bulk of Moroccan Islamists. Layachi put forward the idea that it might ultimately be on the same path as socialism in North Africa, gradually losing contact with its grassroots in gaining inclusion without being able to act on any of its agenda.

The University of Texas's Avi Spiegel focused exactly on those grassroots supporters with his study of the political attitudes of youth in Rabat, Casablanca, and the belt along the train tracks between them. In addition to the PJD, he looked at the JSO, or Justice and Spirituality Organization, an illegal rival of the PJD, as a means of conceptualizing not the relationship of an Islamist movement to the state, but the relationship of Islamist movements with each other. In this case, the two organizations acted as rivals competing for supporters and therefore resources. Spiegel portrayed a fluid world, but argued for a broader trend in which, instead of disillusioned youth pushing seasoned movement leaders to take more radical stances, movements' desire to broaden their base among youth led to an increasing moderation of an initially highly conservative religious message. I forget if this was addressed by Speigel, Layachi, or both, but in entering parliament, the PJD has added to its traditional focus on public morals and family law one on political reform which it uses to compete for public support.

Similar ideas came up later in the day in a panel on political change in Iran and Kuwait in a paper by the University of Oslo's Bjorn Olav Utvik called "Electoral Religion: Salafis and Muslim Brothers Competing for Votes in Kuwait." One of his points was that due to Kuwait's somewhat open political system, one gains relevance in that country through election to parliament, and therefore in order to compete with the Muslim Brotherhood in the country, the Salafis had to enter the political fray. Since doing so, however, the Salafis have drifted well away from the common image of Salafism: The slogan of the most prominent hadhar Salafi MP is "Shari'a, stability, development," and all have taken on broader social and economic causes. In response to a question, Utvik, who was also at the morning session on North Africa, thought the idea of parties moderating to successfully compete for influence among the broader public made sense.

This has been a long post, so I won't say much about my own thoughts stimulated by all this, but I did think of Hamas, which has entered politics but focused on aspects of government other than moral reform, even in Gaza which it now dominates. The group has thus in a sense "moderated," but one side effect is that hardline elements then form their own groups, such as the al-Qaeda-like one from a few months ago. This, I think, represents a response both to Hamas's moderation and its inability to achieve much through its chosen strategy. The base unit of politics is not the autonomous organization, but the individual, and when individuals are free to choose whether or not to join organizations, those organizations will permutate based on their view of the benefits of recruiting new members and the strategies they employ to do so.

(Crossposted to American Footprints)

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