Islamism and secularism are no dichotomy

The Moor Next Door, responding to a piece by Shadi Hamid on Islamist weakness, has a good piece on the reasons for the defeat of Islamist parties in North Africa, focussing on Mauritania and Algeria in particular.

Hamid writes: ‘it would be a mistake to assume that when Islamist parties lose, that this reflects a broader shift away from religious politics or from religion, and towards “secularism”’. He gives the reasons that Islamist parties in the Middle East often experience a degree of governmental repression that makes it difficult for them to establish an electoral presence, and that furthermore their electoral successes and failures should not necessarily be entirely attributed to their ‘Islamic’ character – there are all sorts of reasons why people vote and do not vote for a party and Islamism is only one of those reasons. He cites Christians voting for Hizbollah and secularists voting for Hamas as examples of this.

TMND extends this to the Maghreb. Algerian Islamist parties have been discredited by their failure to meet voters’ expectations and their relationship with the current regime, rather than their specifically Islamist nature. ‘Islamism is not unpopular in Algeria as such — it is unpopular in the form of specific parties and personalities’. In Mauritania, the main problem faced by Islamist parties is their lack of support from the black African demographic, and the secular, left-wing tendencies of much of Mauritanian politics. The conclusion reached is that Islamist electoral defeats are not just due to ideology or a sweeping wave of secularism but take place within a more complex political environment than is taken into account by much Western analysis. The writer warns, too, of applying Western paradigms of secularism and Islamism; ‘Islamism’ in the abstract is reductive when applied to Islamist politics, where religiosity is tied in with a host of other factors that stem from, well, politics. A narrative of ‘rise of secularism leads to decline of support for Islamism’ is thus over-simplistic and unhelpful.

This is true elsewhere in the Arab world – the Muslim Brotherhood, who enjoy widespread support in Egypt, are by no means the only opposition movement and their popularity should not necessarily be taken as evidence for support for an abstract ‘Islamism’. While the religious aspect is important, there is also the fact that the Brotherhood represents a viable alternative to the Mubarak regime, and one that often has direct influence in people’s lives, setting up medical clinics and youth training programmes. It is reductive, furthermore, to characterise the Brotherhood purely as an Islamist political party, given that it is a diverse movement with diverging and overlapping factions and aims, some political, some religious. Thus support for the Brotherhood, just like lack of support in Algeria and Mauritania for the MSP and Tawassoul respectively, is not necessarily a referendum on the abstract idea of an Islamist government.

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