INTERVIEW: Author Tarek Osman on the past and future of Islamism

INTERVIEW: Author Tarek Osman on the past and future of Islamism

William Armstrong -
INTERVIEW: Author Tarek Osman on the past and future of Islamism

This file photo taken on April 08, 2011 shows an Egyptian protester waving his national flag as tens of thousands gather for a protest at Cairo's Tahrir Square two months after president Hosni Mubarak was ousted. AFP photo

Clashes between secular and Islamist political forces came out into the open in many places after the Arab uprisings of 2011. The revolts lifted the lid on tensions that had long bubbled under the surface, though in places like Turkey the divide had defined politics for many years. 

Sectarian strife across much of the Middle East is commanding most headlines today, but the question of the role of religion within majority-Muslim societies remains crucial. A new book by writer and broadcaster Tarek Osman, “Islamism: What it Means for the Middle East and the World” (reviewed in HDN here) explores these questions and imagines possible future paths for religious politics in the region. 

Osman spoke to the Hürriyet Daily News about his book.

What is your working definition of “Islamism”?

Islamism is the manifestation of any view or interpretation of Islam in governing, legislation, political legitimacy, or invoking that view or interpretation as the identity of any society. It is not another term for political Islam; and so it is not political groups or parties having their interpretation of Islamic heritage as a frame of reference or of inspiration. It is a much wider umbrella.

The uprisings across the Arab world in 2011 were largely led by young secular-minded activists. But Islamist groups with greater organization and social reach were among the main beneficiaries in the immediate aftermath. How did this happen?

The groups that came together in 2011 in different Arab countries did not have clear political objectives. Keep in mind that the slogan “the people want the fall of the regime,” which became a symbol of many of these uprisings, did not appear in the first few days of these uprisings, whether in Tunisia, Egypt, Syria, or other places. The uprisings were haphazard, quickly evolving phenomena, which grew from an expression of anger at political and economic conditions into revolts against political elites, into serious uprisings that wanted to topple presidents or families that ruled for decades. 

Once that objective materialized, for example in Tunisia and Egypt, these different groups that coalesced during the uprisings lost all that had brought them together. They had different – and in several cases, opposing – political and economic views; more crucially, they had conflicting understandings of basic notions such as the role of religion in society, the identity of their society, and the shape of their society’s future.

These major differences meant that the allies in the uprisings quickly became political opponents and in some cases enemies. And in open political environments, such as in different parts of the Arab world in 2011 and 2012, the groups that had the stronger brands, the more animated constituencies, the simpler messages, the larger resources, and the longer experiences in their countries’ politics, were the ones that won the initial electoral contests. And those happened to be the Islamists.

The book describes a division between Islamism and secularism that has often taken the form of a division between “secular” regimes and Islamist civil society. But what about ways that authoritarian regimes have tried to grant themselves popular religious legitimacy through religious laws and affiliating with religious institutions? In Turkey, for example, the “Turkish-Islamic synthesis” project after the 1980 military coup helped pave the way for the subsequent rise of Islamist parties.

The division that surrounds political legitimacy, social identity and frame of reference, the role of religion in society, and the shape of the future – all across the wider Middle East (which I define as the Arab world, Iran, and Turkey) - transcends the struggle between old regimes in the Arab world and political Islamist groups. There are many variations within political Islam, not just on tactics and marginal points, but concerning key issues (for example, regarding the role of Islamic jurisprudence in legislation, the rights of minorities, and even regarding the allegiance to modern secular states). So it is not correct to look at political Islam in the region as a single bloc. 

The divisions within the secular side are even more acute. There is a struggle between regimes (that call themselves secular) and various social groups, and especially the young seculars who triggered the Arab uprisings. There is also a clear animosity between older and younger generations of Arab (and to some extent Iranian and Turkish) secularists. Plus, the region-wide alliance that appeared against political Islam in the past five years was actually led by monarchical, tribal regimes, mainly in the Gulf, some of which rely on forms of Islamism, for their own legitimacy. This tells you how fraught the scene is. It also tells you that when one looks at the camp opposing political Islam, it is important to recognize that it includes forces that are not necessarily secular.

And this relates to your point about regimes using religion to bolster their legitimacy. This is a very old phenomenon in the wider Middle East. But that usage is no longer powerful in bestowing legitimacy. Younger generations in the region, and particularly in the Arab world, have diminishing respect for old institutions, inherited traditions, and entrenched heritages. The result is that attempts to use religious institutions to tamper the anger of the youth or to secure their buy-in now have limited impact, because these institutions themselves have major problems retaining the veneration they used to enjoy in their societies.

You describe post-2011 as “a time when the region is undergoing arguably its most transformative change since the fall of the Ottoman Empire,” with the uprisings lifting the lid on critical differences that had been suppressed for decades. Would you say the current state of sectarian civil war in the region is a next phase of that process of uncovering? Or should it be seen as something else entirely?

I don’t think we have sectarian civil wars across the entire region. There are several wars in the eastern Mediterranean - a part of the Arab world that, for centuries, has had religious tensions - in which sectarian animosity is a key feature. But in my view, several of these wars, even in the eastern Mediterranean, also have important geopolitical dimensions to them. 

The wider point, however, is that your first point, I think, is more correct. These sectarian wars are part of the struggles over identity, a feature of the failure of modes of government that were there for decades. These wars are also attempts by different communities to cling to what they know, as opposed to falling into vacuum. So these wars – and the sectarian dimension in them - are a part of that process of transformation, of emerging from the heavy burden of the past, of discovering new ideas for these societies’ futures. And actually, these wars should not be surprising in a region in which almost all key ideologies of the previous century failed, a region that suffers acute socio-economic challenges, and a region in which religion continues to play a major political and social role.

But I think these wars will not continue for a long time. Resources are limited, and already the price in blood is becoming too high. And there will be, in the foreseeable future, fatigue from the different struggles that have been consuming large parts of the eastern Mediterranean in the past five years. I think these wars will be followed by a period of isolation, in which different communities will detach themselves from others. This will mean the emergence of statelets, most likely in which sectarian identity plays the leading role. But that also will be transitory. Economic realities, as well as several cultural variables, will generate forces that will try to bring these different, detached communities together. The new structures will not be on the same borders, commons, or even names of the states we had in the last century. So that period of isolation will be followed by a period of re-aggregation along new lines and ideas.

The struggle between Sunni and Shia powers is going on across the Middle East and across borders. But how is it affecting internal religious-secular divisions within states? 

It depends on which states you are referring to. In Syria, Lebanon, Bahrain, and Iraq, the sectarian dimension is fraying – or has already frayed - the chords that link different communities together. This means that in some cases there are serious questions regarding whether the political entity itself remains viable. But in other parts of the Arab world, the political, social, and cultural struggles going on between religious and secular forces, and within these camps, are not directly affected by the sectarian problems elsewhere. But there is an important link that observers should not underestimate: That is that the entire region is examining its heritage of the past century and a half, and these different examinations affect each other. If someone in Turkey sees the Eastern Mediterranean mired in wars in which religion is at the heart, then that affects how that Turkish person perceives the role of religion in his or her society. His/her response might be to insist on the need for a secular state, or he/she could come to believe that there is a need for regional religious/sectarian solidarity. So again the struggles feed each other. But they are all, through different facets, social transformations on a scale we have not seen since the fall of the Ottoman Empire.

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