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The ISIS-ification of Islamist politics

A student supporter of the Muslim Brotherhood and Mohamed Morsi shouts slogans in protest against the military and interior ministry in front of Cairo University on April 9, 2014. (Amr Abdallah Dalsh/Reuters)
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This post is part of the “Islamist Politics in the Shadow of the Islamic State” symposium.

The rapid emergence of the Islamic State, also known as ISIS and by the Arabic acronym Daesh, has increasingly led to the “Daeshification” (or ISIS-ification) of Islamist politics. Scholars of Islamist movements and the movements themselves have been forced to redefine their ideologies, strategies and rhetoric in the face of this new force. It might be difficult, at least for now, to gauge the actual popularity of the Islamic State among other Islamist movements, particularly “veteran” ones such as the Muslim Brotherhood and its sisters. However, it is clear that these groups have been forced to adapt. The Islamic State’s rise has had both direct and indirect effects on the internal politics and debates of Islamist movements, particularly after Egypt’s coup of 2013 and the unprecedented repression and animosity against Islamists across the region.

This pressure has been reinforced by the tendency among media, policymakers, think-tankers, commentators, etc. to blur the lines between Islamist groups. Politicians and policymakers, particularly in the Middle East, are keen to link the Islamic State to other Islamist groups such as the Muslim Brotherhood in order to vilify and demonize the latter. For these politicians, the “threat” is not the Islamic State, but rather those movements that contest elections, have social networks, respect the rules of the game and seek power. Hence, the “war on terror” is the political bandwagon that validates their narrative about Islamists. Such rhetoric serves the interests of the Islamic State, which aims to represent itself as the most authentic and realistic alternative for Islamists. By declaring a caliphate (khilafa) and creating a state, they claim to have achieved what other Islamists failed to do. It is in the Islamic State’s interest to show other Islamist movements as reckless and less “Islamic” in order to delegitimize them and recruit more supporters. The blurring of the lines between different groups aids their cause by facilitating outreach to disaffected members of other groups, and magnifying its perceived strength.

The broadest effect has been what I call the “Daeshification” of the Islamic terrain. Islamism, as a political ideology, resembles a fashion market where Islamists can promote and sell their ideologies and ideas. Over the past three decades, this market has witnessed the ups and downs of different types of Islamism starting with the “revolutionary” Islam after the Iranian revolution in 1979 and moving to the “awakening Islam” (al-sahwa al-Islamiyya) during the 1980s and 1990s. During the 2000s the so-called “light Islam” was propagated by the new preachers, and now we are in the moment of the “unruly” Islamists in places such as Iraq, Syria, Yemen, Egypt’s Sinai, Libya, Nigeria and Europe. Throughout these waves, Islamists have competed, fought and outsmarted each other. They are involved in a battle over “hearts and minds” to expand their constituencies and increase their appeal among young Muslims.

The Islamic State is seizing the current moment to present itself as a role model for young Islamists around the globe, pushing them to adopt its ideology and emulate its tactics and strategy. The Islamic State hopes to become a hegemonic socio-religious force by capitalizing on the failure of the so-called Arab Spring, the weakness of the Arab states and the decline of moderate Islamists. Its appeal reflects not only the young Islamists’ mistrust in other Islamist movements but also their admiration of the Islamic State’s boldness and capabilities. Despite its brutal and barbaric behavior, The Islamic State’s support is growing across the region from Yemen to Algeria. Indeed, it is through this barbarism and aggressiveness that the Islamic State can attract and persuade supporters to join its ranks and to experience its boldness themselves as if it is an entertaining game.

Therefore, in order to understand the paradox of the Islamic State’s brutality and appeal among young Islamists and Muslims, scholars need to consider the role of emotions in studying Islamism. As Jeff Goodwin and James M. Jasper have argued, emotions form the raw materials for [social] movement sympathy and recruitment. It is also important to integrate social psychology and passionate politics into the study of Islamists, particularly of radical Islamists. To understand how and why some individuals act in the extreme — such as Amedy Coulibaly, who was involved in the kosher supermarket attack in France, or Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, who is on trial for the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing — their motivations and psychology need to be unraveled.

Despite the enormous differences between the Islamic State and the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, the former’s rise and boldness coupled with the crackdown against the Brotherhood has created divisions and rifts within the Brotherhood, triggering intensive debates between the leadership and youth. These debates anchor around three key issues: the viability of political participation, the use of violence and the relationship with the current regime. However, this is not to say that the Brotherhood will follow the Islamic State’s path or adopt its ideology, but rather to shed light on the movement’s current crisis and examine its consequences on the movement’s future.

After decades of participating in formal politics, contesting elections and vying for public office, many of the Brotherhood’s youth members seem to be abandoning this path in favor of street politics and protests. Driven by frustration and despair, youth members have lost faith in formal politics and view it as leading to nowhere. One year and half since the removal of President Mohamed Morsi, the movement maintains its weekly protests relentlessly. With many first- and second-tier Brotherhood leaders in prison or in exile, the youth have become more influential and are now running the movement’s activities. True that protests reinforce the organizational cohesion of the movement, but it also denotes that the movement has abandoned its old ways of doing politics. Its youth seem to have reached the conclusion that power doesn’t necessarily stem from the ballot box but it can also be gained from defiance and rebellion.

Despite the fact that the Brotherhood had denounced violence decades ago, the brutal repression and regime humiliation renewed the debate over the use of violence. While the movement’s leadership remains committed to peaceful protests, some of its youth have considered using “tactical” violence against police forces. Until now, the use of violence in this context is more political than religious. It is driven mainly by the frustration and disenchantment of the Brotherhood’s young members. The political and security pressure against the Brotherhood has put its leadership in a tough position between the regime and the youth who have become increasingly angry and dissatisfied with the movement’s tendency to accommodate regime repression.

One of the longstanding features of the Brotherhood is compromise with the regime. However, this has not been the case since the July 3 coup. The Brotherhood has replaced its flexible and accommodative character with a more rigid and confrontational one. Members and leaders of the movement seem to be determined to challenge the regime despite its brutality. As a result, the Brotherhood is involved in a collision course not only with the military but also with other institutions including the judiciary, police, media and state bureaucracy. For the first time since it returned to political life in the 1970s, the Brotherhood is rejecting the rules of the game and seeking to change them. The bold and defiant attitude among the young Brotherhood reveals a stark generational gap.

While these debates are not likely to be settled soon, they reflect the ongoing transformations and changes occurring within the Brotherhood in a time of unprecedented repression. These debates may lead to more cleavages within the movement, particularly between the leadership and the youth, and could put the future of the Brotherhood at stake. Furthermore, the rise of the Islamic State combined with the repression against moderate Islamists opens wide gates for radicalization and extremism in the region and could reshape Islamist politics for years to come.

Khalil al-Anani is a visiting professor at George Washington University and an adjunct professor at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced and International Studies (SAIS). His forthcoming book is “Inside the Muslim Brotherhood: Religion, Identity, and Politics” (Oxford University Press).