In “Understanding Political Islam,” Cato Institute’s policy analyst Dalibor Rohac writes, “… Iraq, where the divisive politics, authoritarianism, and sheer incompetence of the government of Nouri al-Maliki have played a decisive role in the process of radicalization of Iraqi Sunnis.”
The rise of political Islam into prominence poses important questions both for people in the MENA region and for policymakers in the West. Since 9/11, the thrust of Western foreign and security policy toward the MENA region has aimed at containing radical forms of Islam. In practice, that often meant cozying up to authoritarian regimes, as long as they were secular, since these were seen as superior to their theocratic alternatives. When the Egyptian military brought down President Mohamed Morsi in early July 2013, there was a sense of relief among many in Washington. American neoconservative commentator Bill Kristol, for example, articulated it in the following way:
I think they prefer the military to rule to the Muslim Brotherhood ruling—I think an awful lot of people in the region prefer that. An awful lot of the Arab governments prefer it. And it’s not clear to me that we shouldn’t prefer it.3
One of the dominant narratives of political development in the MENA region sees religion in politics as a symptom of backwardness, and as something that can be expected to wither away as nations grow more prosperous, modern, and democratic. It also associates religiosity with a set of theocratic beliefs on how society ought to be governed. Naturally, the prominence of explicitly religious parties in the Arab world then becomes a cause for concern.
This account of religious politics is not completely wrongheaded. Religious identities matter to people, and religions—including Islam—often have normative implications about how the society ought to function. Given that religious beliefs seem to be at the core of Arab societies’ cultural identity, it is not entirely implausible that the rise of Islamist politicians in the aftermath of the fall of secular authoritarian regimes in the region is a simple response to the popular demand for more religious content in politics. If that narrative is true, then the prospects for secular liberal democracy in the region may be very limited.