The Rise of Islamist Actors: Formulating a Strategy for Sustained Engagement

by Quinn Mecham

For a full text copy of the brief, click here.

In the past six months, “Islamist” parties or blocs have won elections in four countries in the Arab world: Tunisia, Egypt, Morocco, and Kuwait. Islamists may also yet emerge as dominant political actors in other countries affected by the popular uprisings in the Arab world, such as Libya, Yemen, and Syria. While these groups are not new, they are taking advantage of new political opportunities to expand their influence and to develop their political strategies, much like Turkish or Indonesian Islamist parties have been doing in the context of democratic competition. In the process, Islamist parties in the Arab world are rapidly evolving and divisions amongst Islamist politicians are being played out in very public ways, leading to the formulation of new political platforms and even the creation of new Islamist parties.

Policy Recommendations

  1. Recognize the similarities between Islamist groups and other political groups, including the way they respond to the political incentives of their systems. Islamist groups look increasingly like other political groups the longer they engage in the political processes within their regimes. Considerable research has shown that often Islamists will “moderate” their ideology and behavior the more they directly participate in their political systems.
  2. Proactively engage with a wide range of Islamist organizations, particularly those that have committed themselves to competing in electoral processes. Islamist groups vary widely in their ideology, but most groups are intrigued by the possibility of developing a relationship with the United States.
  3. Distinguish the appropriate level of political engagement based on the political relevance of the Islamic group, not on the basis of its religious ideology. Political engagement should never be seen as supporting or condoning the ideology of an Islamist group, and this should be made explicit as the U.S. engages with these groups.
  4. Support political pluralism and equal treatment, without distinction for religion or gender. Engagement with Islamist groups does not in any way compromise the United States’ ability to support political and social values—rather, it enhances it.
  5. Promote an independent media and freedom of speech. Islamist groups represent a vision for society that is not universally shared by the publics in which they operate.
  6. Work to strengthen legal systems that provide equal access regardless of religious ideology. A perceived lack of order and security strengthens support for Islamic law, which may not benefit all populations equally.
  7. Publicly reinforce U.S. support for democracy and good governance in countries where Islamist parties operate. Despite several prominent recent addresses by top officials regarding American intentions in the Middle East and beyond, the United States is often viewed as hostile to democratic aspirations in Muslim-majority countries.
  8. Work together with Islamist groups to support freedom of association. The Obama administration has consistently stated that civil society is an important pillar of a robust democracy. Islamist groups should also have a vested interest in supporting freedom of association since they were denied such rights under former regimes.

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