Sign up now to receive our regular news briefs.

Is the Islamist Era Over?

July 18, 2013 5:36 am 5 comments

Hamas militants hold a poster of Morsi, as they celebrate in Gaza City soon after he won Egypt's 2012 presidential elections.

JNS.0rg – With the overthrow of Mohamed Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood government in Egypt, one is almost forced to question whether the global Islamist movement has been dealt a mortal blow.

The notion that the era of Islamism has come to an end is not as outlandish as it seems. While the faith of Islam crystallized in Arabia 15 centuries ago, the ideology of Islamism—which aims to place the imperatives of sharia law at the heart of a coercive and all-powerful state—is a product of the last century.

Like its totalitarian cousins—fascism, communism and national socialism—Islamism’s point of departure is a visceral loathing of the political liberties that are integral to liberal democracies. All these monstrous political systems were convinced that, once empowered, they would stay empowered.

Hitler, for example, spoke of a “thousand-year Reich.” At the height of the purges in the Soviet Union, Stalin told the writer H. G. Wells that, “socialist society alone can firmly safeguard the interests of the individual.” But the Nazi Reich perished in the ashes of Berlin in 1945, while the communist paradise of the Soviet Union went out of business in 1991.

Will 2013 go down as an equivalent year of defeat for Islamism? In answering that question, it’s hard to overstate the importance of the current turmoil in Egypt. After all, Egypt was where the Muslim Brotherhood was formed in 1928. It is the cradle of Islamism, and it is the country that gave the Islamist movement a pronounced taste of bitter struggle as far back as the 1950s, when the Egyptian dictator Gamal Abdel Nasser crushed the Brotherhood.

Yet Egypt is not the only Middle Eastern country where the Brotherhood’s insistence that “Islam is the solution” is being sorely tested. In Gaza, where Hamas, the Palestinian branch of the Muslim Brotherhood, has been in power since 2006, the Egyptian crisis has exacerbated an already febrile situation. Infighting among its leadership, as well as worsening relations with its one-time allies, Syria, Hezbollah and Iran, is leading many ordinary Palestinians to question the competence of Hamas. In turn, Hamas is discovering that thundering slogans and terrorist assaults on Israel cannot feed, clothe, educate and employ a population in Gaza, or anywhere else for that matter.

In Turkey, a country that is light years away from Gaza in terms of its economic development, the Islamist government of Prime Minister Reccep Tayyip Erdogan has faced angry demonstrations at home and severe censure abroad. Here, too, the citizenry is beginning to realize that the Islamists cannot deliver when in government—corruption, nepotism and contempt for free speech are all hallmarks of Erdogan’s regime, and its talk of Islamic values seems increasingly hollow against that context.

It’s a similar story for Islamist parties and governments elsewhere in the region. In Tunisia, the secular political parties in coalition with the Islamist Ennahda party have been alienated by Ennahda leader Rachid Ghannouchi’s support for Morsi in Egypt. In Sudan, the Islamist government of Omar al-Bashir, an indicted war criminal, remains embroiled in conflict with South Sudan, a largely Christian and African state that declared independence exactly two years ago. Meanwhile, Qatar, the oil-drenched monarchy deemed by Forbes magazine to be the richest country in the world, is rethinking its disastrous policy of supporting and financing Muslim Brotherhood affiliates around the Middle East.

Ironically, among some western policy analysts, there’s a widely held view that the current tribulations of the Muslim Brotherhood amount to bad news for democracy in the region. The military’s removal of the Brotherhood in Egypt, they say, will turn Islamists against the democratic process, just as it did when a similar scenario arose in Algeria in 1991.

But the idea that the Muslim Brotherhood was committed to democracy in the first place is arrant nonsense. In certain countries, the Brotherhood has made a tactical compromise by participating in elections; in those cases, like Egypt, where the movement has won, autocratic and unconstitutional measures have quickly followed.

Moreover, what this debate ignores is the critical point that democracy is about much more than voting. Elections in countries where the press is muzzled, where opposition parties are intimidated, and where the military plays an explicitly political role, are a farce. Platitudes about respecting the cultural differences of the Muslim world only cement the absence of those liberties that are integral to a healthy democracy.

A related argument asserts that election-friendly Islamists will, as a result of the Egyptian experience, now be pushed into the arms of violent jihadi groups. There’s a certain degree of truth to that claim; western dithering in Syria has strengthened the Al Qaeda-linked Al Nusra Front, and boosted the likelihood of a new war between secular nationalists and Islamists in the event that Bashar al-Assad’s bloody regime is removed.

But that line gives the Muslim Brotherhood far more credit than it deserves. Under Morsi’s rule, Egypt was as ugly and intolerant as it has ever been; any member of the Coptic Christian minority, which makes up 10 percent of the population, will confirm that. Having endured discrimination and pogrom-style violence during Morsi’s tenure, the Copts know only too well that the Brotherhood’s message to non-Muslims is simply this: convert or die.

Hence, there are many reasons to be both relieved and pleased that Islamism is now in marked retreat. Even so, we shouldn’t conclude that the triumph of liberal democracy will inevitably follow. In my estimation, it’s more probable that the Middle East will reflect the experience of Russia after 1991—anti-western, anti-democratic, and dominated by the military and the intelligence services—than of Germany after 1945, where a constitutional, stable democracy took root as a direct result of the Allied occupation. That is why, while the Islamists may be down at the moment, they are certainly not out.

Ben Cohen is the Shillman Analyst for His writings on Jewish affairs and Middle Eastern politics have been published in Commentary, the New York Post, Ha’aretz, Jewish Ideas Daily and many other publications.


Leave a Reply

Please note: comments may be published in the Algemeiner print edition. Comments written in all caps will be deleted.

Current day month ye@r *


  • Arts and Culture Beliefs and concepts What’s That Huge White Bridal Dress Floating Over the Tower of David?

    What’s That Huge White Bridal Dress Floating Over the Tower of David? –  “What’s that huge white bridal dress floating over the Tower of David?” That’s what visitors to Jerusalem’s Old City asked last week. The wedding gown, created by leading Israeli artist Motti Mizrachi, is part of the 2nd Jerusalem Biennale for Contemporary Jewish Art, an event that blew into town as the Sukkot holiday got underway. Mizrachi, who lives and works in Tel Aviv, created the dress that floats majestically over the Tower of David, the main exhibition site […]

    Read more →
  • Features Opinion The Top 10 Places to Visit in Israel

    The Top 10 Places to Visit in Israel

    Israel is a holiday destination on many travelers’ bucket lists. No matter the style of holiday you are after, Israel has the answer. Whether you prefer to relax by the beach, hike up mountains in the desert, visit religious and historical sites, eat your way through the country or just enjoy some retail therapy, your journey through Israel will be one to remember. While there are obviously so many things to see and do, here is a list of 10 of […]

    Read more →
  • Pioneers/Philanthropists US & Canada Jewish American Fashion Mogul Ralph Lauren to Step Down as CEO

    Jewish American Fashion Mogul Ralph Lauren to Step Down as CEO – Jewish American fashion mogul Ralph Lauren announced his plan to step down as chief executive officer of the renowned fashion brand. The head of Gap Inc’s Old Navy brand will take over the position. The 75-year-old Lauren, who founded Ralph Lauren Corp. in 1967, will continue to serve as executive chairman and will continue leading the fashion house’s design team, according to a statement by the company. After the announcement, Ralph Lauren shares rose 3.79 percent while Gap shares […]

    Read more →
  • Featured Sports US & Canada Jewish Boxer Dustin ‘White Tiger’ Fleischer Scores Fourth Knockout Victory

    Jewish Boxer Dustin ‘White Tiger’ Fleischer Scores Fourth Knockout Victory

    Jewish boxer Dustin Fleischer, who said his quest is to become the first world champion descended from a Holocaust survivor, stayed unbeaten with a first-round knockout. Fleischer, nicknamed “The White Tiger,” moved to 4-0 with the defeat of Ira Frank on Saturday night in Beach Haven, New Jersey, near his home, he reported after the fight on his Facebook page. The 26-year-old welterweight has won all his bouts by knockout. Read full story at JTA.

    Read more →
  • Featured Israel Pioneers/Philanthropists Meet Israel’s Santa Claus, the Trustee Tasked With Handing Out Leona Helmsley’s Billions (INTERVIEW)

    Meet Israel’s Santa Claus, the Trustee Tasked With Handing Out Leona Helmsley’s Billions (INTERVIEW)

    Renowned New York attorney Sandor (Sandy) Frankel, one of four trustees of the Leona M. and Harry B. Helmsley Charitable Trust, was in Israel earlier this month to look at additional philanthropic options and to observe the progress of those endeavors already funded – to the tune of multi-millions. Frankel, who recently joined the prestigious Park Avenue law firm Otterbourg P.C., met with Israeli politicians and other bigwigs to get a sense from them about which projects in the country […]

    Read more →
  • Book Reviews Food Spirituality/Tradition ‘Pastry Secrets’ Arrive Just in Time for Rosh Hashanah

    ‘Pastry Secrets’ Arrive Just in Time for Rosh Hashanah – Babka. Strudel. Stollen. Danish pastry. Not to mention Gugelhopf and Charlotte. The names set the mouth to watering and conjure up lovingly concocted pastries that feed the body and comfort the soul. If you didn’t have a grandmother who baked these delicacies, you wish that you had. George Greenstein was never a grandmother, but his life as a baker provided his children and grandchildren with memories infused with the smell of fresh baked bread and rugelach. His daughters, Julia […]

    Read more →
  • Book Reviews Spirituality/Tradition Fusing Israeli and Holocaust History, Novel Offers a ‘Middle Eastern Western’

    Fusing Israeli and Holocaust History, Novel Offers a ‘Middle Eastern Western’ – There is a game that all of us have played at some time in our lives. We ask ourselves: What would my life be like if I had gone to this school instead of that one, or if I had married this girl instead of that one? In their newly published book The Ambassador, authors Yehuda Avner and Matt Rees play that game with modern Jewish history. Avner — who died earlier this year, and was a speechwriter, secretary and adviser to […]

    Read more →
  • Israel Lifestyle A Toulouse Fashion Student Finds Style and Harmony in the Holy Land

    A Toulouse Fashion Student Finds Style and Harmony in the Holy Land

    A unique group of young fashion bloggers and designers recently visited Israel to learn more about the country’s fashion industry and diverse culture. Hailing from the Philippines, Korea, Kenya, Japan, Brazil, Spain, France, Germany, Russia, and the U.K., the 10 participants toured the country and met with top Israeli fashion designers throughout last week. “It was an amazing experience,” said Meissene Maghni from Toulouse, France — one of the participants of the program. “I’m Muslim and I really wanted to see Israel […]

    Read more →