Banna sought to change society slowly and progressively, starting at the individual and moving to the family, the community, and eventually the government. In theory, this makes sense if one wants to reshape politics without antagonizing politicians. In practice, playing the long game becomes difficult when presented with the temptations of power and electoral success. As demonstrated by some of the Islamist responses included in our new volume, many Muslim Brothers after Egypt’s 2013 coup have pondered the tension between rushing into electoral politics and taking a step back to rebuild their social base on the local level.
There is a danger in viewing success and “winning” primarily in electoral terms. As Avi Spiegel, an expert on Moroccan Islamism, argues:
We love measuring and tracking “democracy,” focusing on winners and losers, on horse races, victories, and defeats. We study these things, I suspect, because we are guided by the belief, perhaps even the zeal, that these outcomes matter—that the winners of elections actually win something. Yet, in authoritarian contexts—even post–Arab Spring contexts—does electoral success translate into success writ large?
The bargain in Morocco has been clear enough. The Justice and Development Party (PJD), the country’s main Islamist party, accepted the confines of a system in which the monarchy enjoys veto power over all major decisions. In return, the PJD is allowed to legally exist, participate, and even enjoy a bit of power (but not too much). In practice, this means that the PJD cannot, assuming it wanted to, significantly alter or transform the country’s politics. Looking forward five, 10 or 15 years, it is difficult to envision the PJD accomplishing much more than it already has.
Pakistan’s Islamists provide an intriguing counterpoint to the Moroccan “model.” Yet it is a counterpoint that very few Moroccans—or Arab Islamists anywhere—seem much interested in. Jamaat e-Islami, Pakistan’s Muslim Brotherhood analog, usually wins only a handful of parliamentary seats, yet, as Spiegel points out, the movement may very well be more influential than its Moroccan counterpart, in terms of “influencing judicial appointments, religious tradition, educational mores, and societal norms writ large.” There are other ways of winning besides, well, winning.
In Southeast Asia, Islamist parties, while gaining a significant share of the vote, have not been able to win outright on the national level. They have, however, helped “Islamism” spread throughout society and become normalized, with even ostensibly secular parties embracing the idea that Islam—and even explicit sharia ordinances—have an important role to play in public life. The lesson here may appear counterintuitive. The worse Islamists do in elections, the less of a threat they pose to their non-Islamist competitors, who, in turn, seem to have less of a problem appropriating Islamist styles for their own electoral purposes.