Will Middle Eastern governments be Islamacized?

Tarek Osman offers four reasons why maybe not:

But this Islamization will not succeed. First, despite the piousness of the vast majority of Muslim Arabs, themselves the commanding majorities of the region, the Islamization efforts inherently challenge the national identities of each country. Despite clever rhetoric, Islamization means the domination of one component of Egyptianism, Tunisianity, Syrianism, etc, over other components that had shaped these entrenched identities. This is especially true in the old countries of the Arab world, the ones whose borders, social compositions, and crucially identities had been carved over long, rich centuries. And the more the Islamist movements continue to thrust their worldviews and social values, the more they will disturb these national identities, and the more agitated—and antagonized—the middle classes of these societies will become.

Second, these efforts at Islamization take place when almost all of these societies are undergoing difficult—and for many social classes, painful—economic transitions. And there is no way out. The ruling Islamist executives are compelled to confront the severe structural challenges inherent in the economies they inherited. Some are able to buy time and postpone crucial reforms through foreign grants (which come at a political price). But sooner or later, they will have to make the tough socio-economic decisions that these structural reforms require. Islamists in office will be blamed for the pains that will ensue. Rapidly, some of the constituencies that had voted them into power will seek other alternatives.

Third, demographics will work against these efforts at Islamization. Close to 200 million of the Arab world’s 340 million people are under 30-years old. As a result of the many failures it has inherited, this generation faces a myriad of socio-economic challenges on a daily basis. A culture of protest and rejection has already been established amongst its ranks, and young people will not accept indoctrination—even if it was presented in the name of religion. Almost by default, the swelling numbers of young Arabs, especially in the culturally vibrant centers of the Arab world (Cairo, Tunis, Beirut, Damascus, Casablanca, Kuwait, Manama), will create plurality—in social views, political positions, economic approaches, and in social identities and frames of reference.

Finally, this Islamization project, in its various parts, will suffer at the hand of its strategists and managers. The leaderships of the largest Islamist groups in the Arab world have immense experiences in developing and managing services and charity infrastructures, operating underground political networks, fund-raising, and electoral campaigning, especially in rural and interior regions. But they suffer an acute lack of experience in tackling serious political-economy challenges or administering grand socio-political narratives. Lack of experience will result in incompetence.

That is via @GideonRachman.


I dispute the "pious" nature of the vast majority of Arab Muslims. Wherever it has been permitted by the ruling power, Islam has become more of a social trapping just like other major religions, e.g. Easter Catholics. Only where national or local governance enforces strict laws do the people remain obedient to the strictures of Islam. In other words, it is piety by control not piety by choice.Like any other team, enforcement costs grow at an increasing rate with team size. Central governments have economies of scale in passing laws of piety and enforcing them through fear.

The relatively young age of Muslims is potentially hopeful or troublesome. While youths can lead radical change, they can take it in many directions. They could be more modern, Westernized and secular or they could become violent fanatics. Like gangs in the Western world, terrorist groups are good at making the youth feel included, important, and purposeful. And the terrorists don't need a majority - just a critical mass.

For these political calculations, it is the "Easter Catholic" kind of piety that counts.

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The argument forgets one pretty pervasive and pragmatic reason: Too many people love beer, sex and cigarettes. A sizable cohort wants to also dress western, watch porn, consort with single females, eat pork, gamble, earn interest etc.

People may not say it publicly but they do like the ability to kiss in public, have pre-marital sex without being stoned to death, commit adultery, commit petty theft without getting hands chopped off etc.

One big problem with selling Islamization these days (and with most other religion-ization), is that they are mostly not much fun.

Egypt is in turmoil because the folks who live there don't have enough to eat. I'm sure they would all love beer, sex and cigarettes, but a meal today that satisfies would be appreciated.

Whoever gets meals to these folks will have power.

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Islamization is not in conflict with the indulgences you mention!
Even the bombers of 9/11 dressed like western yuppies!

And history clearly indicates that the region is more conscious of Islam today than it was 100 years ago. This isn't the principled puritanical Islam of truly religious people who lived a century ago. This is an angry version of Islam that feeds on insecurities and seeks to destroy Western civilization.

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Also I think it's easier to sell Islamism today because it affords solace to under-achievers and losers in our society. Islam is the most left-wing of all major religions. No wonder its knee-jerk anti-westernism and its emphasis on the collective as opposed to the individual is so very appealing to poor people throughout the region.

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A couple of comments. The writer assumes an inexorable trend towards liberalization. Not a bad assumption, since the last half of the last century was pretty well that direction. It is easy to assume that tomorrow will be the same as yesterday, but we are finding that it isn't the case in many instances. There hasn't been a trend towards liberalization in Islam.

The Islamists have been the voice of opposition and rebellion for a long time. What happened in Egypt last week re establishes that state. If you want to rebel against the awful state of affairs in your country, pick an islamist group.

For all the hopes and wishes, theocratic Iran hasn't loosened it's grip on power. Hezbollah showing up in Syria changed the tides of war in that country.

The collapse of the influence of catholicism or other christian political power came as the left was able to offer a better future. It was interesting to watch Quebec, a stalwart Catholic province where the bishop had the ear of the premier, or was it visa versa. The intellectual left devised a vision of nationalism and economic advancement, without challenging the deeply held emotional and family ties to the Church. The Quiet Revolution removed the Church from any place of power within a generation, replacing it with Quebec as a distinct nation and culture, and Quebec as a social democratic welfare state. A remarkable achievement. The problem now is the social democratic welfare states are bankrupt, looking to immigrants from the middle east to replace the children they never bothered to have. And most of these places are looking more and more like the Catholic Church being replaced by the Mosque as a source of cultural and political power. Islam could very well collapse in influence in the Middle east, but to be replaced by what? Consumerism driven by accumulation of debt? If there was some economic advantage to be had I would think that they would be starting to learn chinese and implementing authoritarian states with some economic liberalization. And Islamists will still be the opposition and rebellious outlet. The only question is whether the economic growth that could give impetus to such a thing is going to happen, or will China's vision and dream collapse for the same reasons the social democratic visions have collapsed; someone somewhere has to pay for this nonsense.

I see something far darker. Syria and Egypt being the norm, with the western nations turned inwards dealing with similar gradual collapses of the institutions and ways that built their prosperity. We have lived through an anomaly, believing it was normal and deserved. I find it very interesting that it is foreigners who are fascinated by Detroit. In the US we avert our eyes.

American Christianists see liberals as jackboot thugs who imposed their liberal ideology on the Christianists by force and by indoctrinating their children in liberal public schools and making them gay.

But the Christianists are plotting a takeover....

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Dear Derek:

Thanks. Very interesting analogy about Quebec.

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Agreed, the author of the piece assumes that there is some sort of inevitable march to liberalism. In particular, his assumption that younger generations must be a force for liberalism is unwarranted.

This isn't to say that Islamists in power won't be given a bumpy ride for all the other reasons he mentions.

But I just don't see these societies ever generating the wealth necessary for liberalism to make much headway.

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The preservation of the social structures based on family, clan and tribe are essential to the preservation of the traditional Islamic system of administrations of territories and peoples. That structure is therefore critical to "Islam - ization," the latter taken to mean a form of political power structure.

However, as indicated in the principal post, the mechanisms available to those currently seeking to establish new power structures are based on the concept of a "State." Usually in the form of a nation, or something beyond a tribal element (though often retaining an ethnic element). In the constituency building necessary for the establishment of power through the mechanism of the State, it is necessary to diminish, and possibly eliminate the previous social structures of family, clan, and tribe; or, at least, to diminish or mitigate those influences which interfere with an expanding role for the state.

Sounds like a significant part of the current Republican Party base:

The preservation of the social structures based on family, clan and tribe are essential to the preservation of the traditional Christian system of administrations of territories and peoples. That structure is therefore critical to “Christian – ization,” the latter taken to mean a form of political power structure.

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How many centuries of war and persecution did it take before Christianists were not running the government of Europe?

How many centuries did it take in the Americas before the choice was made for secular government instead of fighting over who were the right Christians to rule over all the others?

And even two centuries of secular government has not eliminated in the US the demand for Christianist to dictate Christianist dogma on everyone. The conservatives in their strategy to takeover and shape the Republican Party have utilized the Christianist to gain a great deal of power just as Islamists have been the tools of conservatives in the Mideast and Africa to gain and hold power.

While the US laid out the principle of secular government, US pundits speak of the decline of Europe because they are shedding all Christianist influence and becoming highly secular.

If we look at Islam as beginning six centuries after Christianity, the fight over the role of Islam in government is at the point it was in the 15th century when the Christianists were in conflict and waging war across Europe over which Christianists would impose their brand on everyone, Christianists and pagans and infidels.

And even in the 21st century, Christianists plot to gain power over the world, with the open conflict in Ireland abated only out of war weariness. Or the distraction of Christianists going to war with Islamists.... Taking us back to the 9th century.

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At least in Egypt, it looks like political Islam will not succeed for a fifth reason: the Egyptian military will not allow it. Morsi was elected by a majority of Egyptian voters and, contrary to what Tom Friedman says, was an avowed Islamist. Large majorities of Egyptian voters then voted in favor of adopting a constitution advanced by the Muslim Brotherhood. Someone needs to explain these odd developments to me before I can be convinced that Islamists will not enjoy political success in a newly democratic Middle East.

Indeed. People (including many Egyptian liberals) don't seem to understand the power struggle that was taking place in Egypt. The military controls a vast proportion of the economy [1] which it uses to provide jobs to its veterans and profits for its leadership. It goes without saying that this control comes at the expense of private enterprise, since non-military personnel are at a severe disadvantage in terms of regulatory capture.

Partly for this reason, the Muslim brotherhood was in favor of massive scale neoliberal reforms both to strengthen the Egyptian economy and weaken the military's power [2].

Obviously, the forces of the status quo have won the day. But I don't think it reflects much more than the incompetence of the protesters who have handily restored power to the military, and the power of the military to begin with.

[1] http://www.npr.org/blogs/money/2011/02/10/133501837/why-egypts-military-cares-about-home-appliances
[2] http://www.businessweek.com/articles/2012-04-19/the-economic-vision-of-egypts-muslim-brotherhood-millionaires

If the MB wanted neoliberal reforms, in line with the military, then why did they have such trouble negotiating and agreeing to the IMF loan plan this past year?

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Turnout for the Constitution vote was 33% and the vote was 63%. Not great for a referendum. The tally for the runoff that elected Morsi was 51.7% to 48.3%, in an election that pitted the extreme wing of the Islamist candidates vs the Mubarak old guard. Would he have won a Condorcet style vote? I'd guess no, but of course that's not known.

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There has been a steady Islamification of Egypt away from Westernized modernity during the past 50 years:

There is nothing that indicates that this trend will be reversed any time soon.

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Mentioning Islam in a bad light is like a duck call to anti-Christian, anti-Western socialists.

Well sure, but the Ba'athists are pretty discredited at this point.

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Without wishing to denigrate the argument, Iran was ancient and had (still has) a middle-class. Its Islamic regime came to power in a wave of protest and revolution, and subsequently survived economic sanctions and public rejection at the ballot box due to incompetence at economic and foreign affairs management.

Maybe the argument is saying that we should expect few countries to become like Iran, since few have followed that path since the Iranian revolution, but none of the points Tyler highlights is a strong refutation of the prospect of Islamic regimes.

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Well, credible (Pew, as I recall) polling shows that an awful lot of them (a clear majority) want sharia law adopted and enforced. Are North Atlantic commentators thus misunderstanding the degree of ambiguity in the notion of "sharia" entertained by so many Egyptians?

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All we know for sure is that in Egypt and Tunisia, Islam is practically a cheat code in elections these days. Much of this is due to the superior organizing abilities of the Islamist parties compared to the ineptitude of the secularists/leftists. But there's also the simple fact that Islamists offer a much more compelling vision than the secularists, who have still not recovered intellectually from the defeat of Arab nationalism. They cling to anti-Zionism and mostly unreconstructed socialism--neither of which is a winning platform, since the former is universally shared and the latter is a dead letter. Read the Angry Arab (google it) if you want a showcase of the dead-end Arab leftist.

Tarek Osman's article is a recapitulation of what I once heard described as the "garbage theory": when radical groups come into power, they're suddenly judged not for their wacky ideas, but on whether their governments are good at picking up the garbage. They find themselves needing to make pragmatic compromises in order to rule effectively, which limits their extremism--or they refuse to compromise and are booted out. The garbage theory sounds nice but has basically never been proven accurate. Hamas didn't change when they came into power, Iran hasn't changed, Erdogan proved he was *good* at picking up the garbage, then got more Islamist (this is Turkey, not the Arab world, but the point stands). I don't think it'll work here. It looks like it has, but that's the short term view. In the long term the MB will be able to play the legitimacy card, and they'll get back into power knowing that they need to neutralize the military.

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Interesting comments from outside observers on the organizing effect of religion in Islamic societies.

Wonder if a Mullah is sitting in front of his computer wondering about the organizing effect of Baptists in Texas elections on such issues as abortion and gay rights. Would he be any better able to judge?

One thing I'm certain of is that there are Mullahs who are very familiar with the collapse of the political-Catholic power in the second half of the last century. where the Church went from the core organizing principle of society to almost an afterthought. The left accomplished that, but if I had similar goals and aspirations regarding Islam I would be called islamophobic by the the very same people.

You probably would be, but to be fair, a very sizable percentage of those opposing the "spread of Islamization" and shariah-ization are actually Islamophobic. They will denounce a new mosque opening and the retraction of an anti-Islam book in the same sentence, when the two are very different things.

The other difference between your Catholic example and the situation in Islam is that we are not in a Muslim country and thus have very little power to influence societal change in those countries. I would love to wave a wand and secularize Arab countries, but that's never going to happen. So people pass silly laws against shariah-ization in the States where Muslims represent around 1% of the population.

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Lol @ Mulp. It must be hard sustaining the vision that christianity is just as threatening/bad/whatever as Islam today.

As for the rest, the OP quote is incoherent at best and ridiculous at worst.

1: This assumes something quite unproven, that islamization harms nationalism. I'd say Iran, Pakistan, Afghanistan provide a quick rebuttal to that claim.

2: Countries in transition are somehow supposed to be resistant to islamization? Based on what? Wishful thinking, fairy dust and unicorn farts? Assuming what mustbe proven yet again.

3: Youth = diverse culture = liberalism? Once more, assuming what has yet to happen. And diversity doesn't mean good in the islamist framework. Do have a look at the diversity of opinion between Islamic Jihad and Hamas, one of which thinks they should be committing acts of terror to regain the entire country of Spain as an islamic Waqf, and one of which thinks that with the Israelis still so prominent, maybe they could just demand the return of Andalusia for now, and work on the rest of Spain when that problem is solved.

4: This assumes that people with experience governing underground groups are less qualified than those who have been governing what exactly? What if the theocrats are actually competent? What if they are just less incompetent than the options? Has this writer ever heard of offering evidence for his ludicrous pronouncements?

TL:DR - The whole OP is one gigantic [CITATION NEEDED]

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"administering grand socio-political narratives"

Fascinating phrase; I'd like to know more about what it means. Who, for example, administers grand socio-political narratives in the U.S.?

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This is really wishful thinking. Bottom line: Who cares if Islamists "succeed" in creating the societies they desire? What matters is they successfully disrupt the ones that function in ways we would consider liberal and civilized.

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1. This argument proves way too much. By this logic, nothing would change ever. Find-and-replace "Islamization" with, literally, anything. Secularization. Neoliberal economics. Communism. Pan-Arabism. Industrialization. Metalworking. See, they'll never happen because it would imply that things will change from their current state. Well, obviously. That's what Islamization is: a change from the current state in favor of more emphasis on religious. The Norsemen will never abandon their old gods!

2. This is by far the strongest point, but it ignores the degree to which Islamization has already occurred. If these countries fall into a Malthusian scenario--and I think there is persuasive if not conclusive evidence that is happening--anyone in a position of responsibility is going to get blamed for not getting everyone fed. But what I think is happening is that Islamic NGOs are providing for the welfare of much of the poor. They can't actually feed everybody, but the government gets the blame. This does make Islam very popular. The result being that no one can come to power without at least seeming explicitly Islamic.

3. Projection, cant, handwaving. Vibrant young people will create plurality of diversity through social identity! To the extent that young people do tend towards radical ideologies, sensible liberal government isn't the automatic outcome.

4. Islamist parties don't have to turn their countries into a crystal-spires-and-togas utopia, they don't even have to do the best job they possibly could, they just have to seem better than who they're replacing. And really, they have "immense experiences in developing and managing services and charity infrastructures, operating underground political networks, fund-raising, and electoral campaigning, especially in rural and interior regions" but they don't have "experience" in managing a bloated civil-service bureaucracy? I'm sure they can reward their supporters with government jobs just as well as anyone else.

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My guess? Probably. As per Bernard Lewis, Islam was and is the only major world religion that did not go through the Enlightenment and, as a consequence, was not subordinated to secularism. As a result, fundamentalist, radical, jihadist Islam wishes to subjugate (or destroy) rather than be subjugated. In an all or nothing conflict, put your money on the group that wishes to go "all in." That is certainly not true of the governments of the Middle East and, what's worse, is generally not true of the governments of most Western nations.

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