Back in 2008, as I was doing my first graduate studies course in political science at The American University in Cairo, discussions revolved around democratisation in the Middle East, and of course Islamists.
You can’t really escape the topic of Islamists when you discuss Middle East politics.
I remember being very blunt about the need to include Islamists in the political process, not exclusively from a rights-based approach, but from a pragmatic policy making approach. I always stressed that sooner or later it would happen. The weak dams of authoritarian regimes could never hold back Islamists from gaining the upper hand in regional politics. At the time, there was a select minority of academic scholars in the West that had pursued this notion. However, they were seldom heard.
The Arab revolutions have certainly demonstrated the ability of Islamists to mobilise masses. To some, this comes as an incomprehensible surprise or as a short-term phase that will decline once other political movements organise themselves better. Moreover there are those still convinced that Islamists are usually from the unprivileged strata of society; myths that have been repeatedly dispelled by social scientists.
It should be no surprise that Islamists are making most of the mobilisation not only in Egypt but the rest of the Muslim world. Islam has always had a heavy presence in the history of Muslims. Not so long ago in terms of human history, and regardless of its shortcomings, there was the Ottoman Caliphate the symbolised Islamic unity. It is only recently that Islam is not the only source of legislation and does not form the main platform for any political discourse in the Arab world.
Sure the decline of Islam came from within before it was easy for external and much more advanced powers to take advantage of and colonise Muslim lands. Still, however, most resistance movements in the region were Islamic and sometimes tribal as well. Most if not all the movements had a conscious attempt at what we would refer to today as social development were also Islamic. Despite the decline of the Muslim political and legal order, due largely to colonialism and fall of the Ottoman Caliphate, (also look at Sykes-Picot Agreement) the social and cultural heritage of Islam stayed intact and alive among its people.
Islam still continues to be deeply impeded in all aspects of life just as it was in the past. Still today, Islamic symbolism dominates normal life experiences like marriage, birth of a child, funerals and ceremonies associated with death. Every Friday, Muslims hear sermons about Islam. Every Ramadan, Muslims fast and listen to recitations of the Quran in night prayers. Every Eid, celebrations have Islamic significances that Muslims still engage with. Muslim greetings such as As-Salamu Aleykum, saying alhamdullelah (Thank God), to insha-Allah (God Willing), are some of many phrases embedded in day linguistics of Egypt. Therefore, it should not be so puzzling that Islamists in Egypt and elsewhere are a major political force. Islam is present in all aspects of life, it will only make sense that it will continue to transcend to the political sphere.
Islamic activism cannot be confined to ‘political Islam’. Islamic activism is present in charity organisations and preaching movements that call others to have a more conscious and more committed practice of Islam –activities which are all done for the sake of God. Similarly, political activism should be done for the sake of God, which highlights why some are willing to take high risks by being members of Islamists movements under oppressive authoritarian regimes.
Secularists are actually in a major disadvantage when it comes to spreading their ideas in Muslim majority countries, including Egypt. “Render unto Caesar the things which are Caesar’s, and unto God the things that are God’s” (Matthew 22:21) is contradictory to “Who so judgeth not by that which Allah hath revealed: such are disbelievers” (Al-Maeda: 44). It does not make sense that Muslims will leave their heritage for something that is intrinsically antagonist to their beliefs, and originally brought through colonialism.
All modern Islamist movements, if not all, have consciously came about to restore a sovereign Islamic political order. Of course the rise of Islamists cannot exclusively be explained in the realms of ideas and the cultural conditions as there are other dynamics and variables that can be examined; however ideas and cultural conditions are important and cannot be overlooked.
Islamists in Egypt like others elsewhere are struggling and pushing to reflect Islam in political life. They have not been granted political participation by the kind bestowal of their opponents; rather they have made room for themselves and will continue to do so. Once Islamists are getting closer to political leadership a new set of challenges arise, ones that are not solely overcome through the ability of mobilisation.