Temptations of power

Temptations of power

This is not a place for a book review, but Shadi Hamid’s “Temptations of Power: Islamists and Illiberal Democracy in a new Middle East” (Brookings Institute Book, 2014, Oxford University Press) needs to be mentioned, even if briefly, since Islamism and the Middle East never cease to be hot topics. At the end of the Cold War, it was “the rise of Islamism” and then “the failure of Islamism” and then “the post-Islamism” and finally “the end of post-Islamism” have all been controversial topics of political and intellectual debate.

Hamid’s book is more focused on the rise and fall of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt after the Arab Spring, with some references to the Jordanian Brotherhood and the case of Tunisia. Nevertheless, it draws some more general conclusions on the politics of “Islamism in opposition,” as opposed to “Islamism in power.”

The compelling argument of Hamid is that he challenges the popular assumption which claims that political repression breeds radicalism whereas politics of democracy paves way for moderation. Instead, he suggests and shows that political repression forces Islamists to moderation as in the case of Egypt and Jordan. Needless to say, he does not mean to support political repression against Islamists, but he just suggests that politically correct assumptions may be misleading to understand Islamist politics and their weaknesses which eventually lead to failure. Besides, his warning against confusing “moderation” with “pragmatism” is much needed to overcome the long-cherished but misleading clichés concerning the literature on Islamism and/or Islamist politics. In short, his book is full of food for thought in these respects and should be credited for that.

Since Hamid’s book is “an argumentative book” rather than a book on the intellectual and political history of Islamism, I am not inclined to be critical of his oversimplifications about the rise of political Islam since the 1970s in the Middle East. I only need to remind that the reasoning of the rise of Islamism as compensation for the fall of secular ideologies after the war of 1967, is too for beginners.

More important is his failure to elaborate more on the relation of “1980-90 accommodation and the tolerance period” with Islamists by the Egyptian and Jordanian regimes and the perceived threat of Iranian revolution. I think, especially nowadays, we need to think more about the shortcomings of the past politics of balancing Iranian revolutionary zeal with Sunni Islamist radicalism.

 Finally, Hamid mentions the Turkish experience very briefly at the end of his book, but does not say anything substantial about Turkey and seems not to be interested in Turkey at all. In fact, Turkey could be a very good example for Hamid’s arguments, since the discourse on the so-called Turkish model of co-habitation of Islamism and democracy has long been based on false clichés, such as that Islamists’ pragmatism would lead to moderation and democratization. The fact that the model has collapsed with the rise of authoritarian politics by Islamist governments further proves Hamid’s point.

It is a true that the case of Turkey is too peculiar to compare with the Arab countries’ stories, yet its peculiarity should make the concerns about the prospects of Islamist politics even more serious. Given that in this most secular, liberal and Westernized country in the region, Islamists who came to power out of free elections ended up with de-democratization, meaning Islamism should be debated with less wishful thinking. Islamist politics should be debated more in terms of rights and freedoms for those who live in Muslim-majority countries than in terms of fashionable neo-Orientalist culturalism, which paves the way for neo-authoritarianisms.