The Islamists’ paradox: Inclusion and moderation

Khalil Al-Anani , AhramOnline Tuesday 14 May 2013

The theory of inclusion/moderation posits that the more ideologically fanatical parties are included in the political process, the more rational their conduct becomes. This has not been the case with the Muslim Brotherhood

Since Egypt’s January 25 Revolution, the condition of Islamists has dramatically changed. This requires rethinking the phenomenon, understanding its complexities and the challenges it poses, which promise to greatly influence decisions on the future of the country.

The most significant transformation in the Islamists’ dynamic and organisation structure over the past two years is growing politicisation that has integrated Islamists into the political process after the revolution, whether through participation in political parties and elections, engaging in the public domain, and involvement in issues and debates that touch upon most topics that the revolution forced into the public debate.

What is most notable about these transformations is the link between the inclusion of Islamists and the level of moderation in their ideological and intellectual rhetoric and political conduct. It is a topic that is not addressed by the elite or experts, although it is theoretically and practically central and important.

In other words, in order to understand and evaluate the political performance and ideological discourse of Islamists – away from superficial media coverage or political ideologisation – one must understand the dynamics and outcomes of the inclusion process of Islamists over the past two years, and how this has impacted the thinking, discourse and conduct of most of them. This should be done as part of a broader framework to allow comparison to other similar cases.

Over the past decade, the inclusion-moderation theory has been circulating in much literature about Arab Islamist movements. Arab and Western researchers and thinkers have made landmark contributions in this domain, including Amr El-Shobki, the late Hossam Tamam, Jordanian researcher Mohamed Abu Roman, and others.

In the West, one cannot overlook the theories and writings of Mona Al-Ghobashi, Jillian Schwedler, Carrie Wickham, Nathan Brown, Marc Lynch, Eva Wegner, Steven Brooke and many others.

The theory of inclusion and moderation is based on the simple notion that whenever ideologically fanatic parties and movements, as well as anti-establishment movements, are included in the political process, the more rational their ideological rhetoric and political conduct become. They become more realistic, pragmatic and respectful of the rules of the democratic political game.

This theory was proved successful in similar cases, such as in many socialist, leftist and religious parties after World War II in Germany and Italy, which were included in the political process and thus adapted and rationalised their political rhetoric and conduct.

This theory has also succeeded in other Islamic countries, such as Turkey, where Islamist parties and currents were gradually integrated since the 1970s until they reached power in 2002 under the leadership of the Justice and Development Party. Islamist Turks developed their rhetoric and intellectual and ideological discourse, and became a more culturally and socially conservative party rather than a fundamentalist religious one.

According to these examples and experiences, it was only logical that some researchers approached Arab Islamist parties and movements from the same angle, to test whether the theory of inclusion and moderation could be applied.

Thus, the question in the case of Egypt is: how far has the inclusion of Islamists over the past two years resulted in the moderation of their ideological discourse and political conduct? This may be a difficult question to answer right now for several reasons.

First, because of the short period that has passed to test the interactive dynamic between both variables (inclusion and moderation) in an objective and viable manner; second, the fragmentation of the Islamist plane and wide variety of Islamist players, which requires a definition of those who this theory is being tested on and applied to; and third, and most importantly, the criteria for measuring moderation.

Not only is there a heated debate among researchers about the concept of moderation, but also about the values and criteria for referencing the content of this moderation, which is coloured by the researcher’s cognitive and ontological bias, whether implicit or explicit. This is a dilemma that many researchers of Islamist movements admit to.

Despite the conceptual difficulties of measuring the extent and degree of needed moderation, one can confidently say the dynamic and cognitive map of Islamists after the revolution has changed on the dialectical relationship between the two variables (inclusion and moderation). Some hardliners have steered towards maturity and rationality, while some moderates became hardliners and dogmatic.

For example, many Salafists and jihadists adopted more realistic politics and some have sometimes described this as opportunism. Meanwhile, the Muslim Brotherhood, which is known for its moderation and strong pragmatism, has become more hard-line and obstinate about its positions in a manner that has perplexed observers and experts even more than politicians.

In other words, at a time when it was expected that the complete inclusion of the Brotherhood in the political process would lead to its adopting a discourse of consensus and soft policies towards other forces, there is a tendency by the Brotherhood to adopt very conservative and reserved policies that are not compatible with the revolutionary condition that Egypt has lived over the past two years.

Instead of the Brotherhood and its representative in power, President Mohamed Morsi, adopting a revolutionary political agenda and progressive religious and ideological discourse, many were surprised that the Brotherhood is veered instead towards the religious right, and is still hesitant about dismantling the structures of tyranny and corruption that were the main trigger of the revolution. At the same time, it is trying to clone the former regime to keep its grip on power.

While the political conduct of the Brotherhood has discouraged many and made them lose hope in the possibility of viable democratic transition, others viewed it as the group’s organisational, doctrinal and ideological authoritarian structure that existed before the revolution. Today, doubt is no longer confined to whether the Brotherhood has the political competence and skill to manage the affairs of state, but the group’s thought and ideological credibility and commitment to democracy as a value, conduct and discourse is also in doubt.

Meanwhile, the negative transformation in terms of the Brotherhood’s conduct and discourse is a serious challenge to the theory of inclusion and moderation in its current form. It also reveals the weakness of its interpretive model and the fragility of its main assumptions, and undermines its causal relationship.

First, a quick comparison between Brotherhood rhetoric and conduct before and after the revolution reveals that oppression, not inclusion, was the motivation for developing the group’s intellectual discourse and maturity and rationality of its political conduct. This is perplexing and perhaps requires behavioural and psychological study of the group.

Second, the sudden transformation of the Brotherhood and switching its political status from an opposition movement that was suppressed for decades to becoming the sole party in power, was not accompanied by any transformation or transition in vision, thought process or policies.

Third, unlike in the cases of Turkey, Morocco, Jordan, Yemen and Kuwait, the Brotherhood was not integrated gradually but was suddenly and quickly catapulted into the driver’s seat and put in charge of running the country and affairs of state without any technocratic experience, or psychological, ideological or organisational readiness.

Four, the Brotherhood’s sudden inclusion did not occur under normal circumstances or at lower levels that could help the group reposition itself or organise its thoughts and priorities. Instead, it came after a people’s revolution, followed by mismanagement and severe floundering by those who were in charge of democratic transition after Mubarak’s ouster.

Finally, the inclusion of the Brotherhood occurred at a time of high tension as well as identity, religious and social polarisation that mostly took the form of competition/conflicting rather than consensus/cooperation, not only among political and ideologically divergent forces, but also within the Islamist camp itself. This has put, and continues to put, the Brotherhood under pressure from political and religious outbidding, which forces it in the direction of reticence rather than openness.

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