Center for World Conflict and Peace

Center for World Conflict and Peace

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Why Islamists are Winning: A Rebuttal to John Owen

Last Friday, University of Virginia Professor John Owen, one of my academic and intellectual mentors, penned a New York Times opinion piece on the success of Islamic candidates and parties in recent Middle East elections. Throughout his career, the bulk of Owen's work has focused on the role of ideology in conflict and peace relations in international and transnational politics. (Among other examples, this is his latest book and here is his first book, which I proofread, edited, and contributed comments.) In his opinion piece, Owen now looks at the role of ideology in domestic political environments.

Owen puts forth the argument that "frustrated people" have rallied around a long-established single ideology: Islam. He writes: "Today, rural and urban Arabs with widely varying cultures and histories are showing that they share more than a deep frustration with despots and a demand for dignity. Most, whether moderate or radical, or living in a monarchy or a republic, share a common inherited language of dissent: Islamism."

He correctly points out that political Islam isn't a new phenomenon. It dates back well before the Arab Spring and the 9/11 period more generally. "Invented in the 1920s by the Muslim Brotherhood, kept alive by their many affiliates and offshoots, boosted by the failures of Nasserism and Baathism, allegedly bankrolled by Saudi and Qatari money, and inspired by the defiant example of revolutionary Iran, Islamism has for years provided a coherent narrative about what ails Muslim societies and where the cure lies."

As such, political Islam has functioned to provide opponents of repressive governments a sense of identity and a shared way of looking at the world. It has also served as a political narrative for opponents. And it's done all of things for a long time. Indeed, political Islam has become entrenched within opposition circles. This is precisely why Owen argues that Islamism is like a channel "dug by one generation of activists and kept open, sometimes quietly, by future ones. When the storms of revolution arrive, whether in Europe or the Middle East, the waters will find those channels. Islamism is winning out because it is the deepest and widest channel into which today’s Arab discontent can flow."

There are two problems with his piece, however.

(1) Owen has outlined why political opponents--the people and groups who are now winning elections--are Islamists. They're simply traversing a well-worn political path that's been put down years ago. They've simply adopted the language of political dissent from their ancestors. Which makes sense. As people and groups have found meaning in political Islam, it's taken hold in communities and then was eventually passed down to subsequent generations.

But what Owen doesn't broach, despite the title of his piece, is why the Islamists are winning. To answer this question, he needed to look at the variation in the groups and candidates competing for public office in places like Egypt and Tunisia. After all, the issue at the heart of his piece is: why are the Islamists winning elections and the secularists and liberals aren't? What's the difference between the former and the latter? Is it simply that one side is Islamist and the other isn't? That's the story that Owen paints, and it's, at best, incomplete.

(2) The reason Islamists are doing so well is because of their institutional structures and organization and their capabilities. Take Egypt as an example. Simply put, the Muslim Brotherhood and the Salafis have been successful in the parliamentary elections because both were better organized and possessed a larger base of resources relative to their political rivals. They accrued these advantages over years, often laboring underground, out of sight of the government. Once the political system opened up this past spring and the Islamists were able to campaign freely and publicly for public office, they had a considerable head start over other factions. They didn't have to reinvent the wheel, so to speak. They had a well-oiled political machine up and ready to go. The revolutionaries and other liberals, by contrast, had to create their own political apparatus from scratch. It's no accident that the Islamists were much better at getting people to work on various electoral campaigns, crafting political messages, transmitting and selling these messages to the public, canvassing for votes, and garnering support from the masses. It's these organizational advantages that translated directly into success at the ballot box.

More to the point, think about this counterfactual: let's assume for the sake of argument that political Islam has been the dominant opposition discourse, just as Owen suggests, but change which side was best organized and prepared for the parliamentary elections. In particular, let's say that the liberals and secularists, not the Islamists, had the superior institutional infrastructure. Would we see any difference in electoral outcomes? Without a doubt. The liberals and secularists might not have won elections, but they certainly would have narrowed the gap in support, putting them on a much more equal footing with their Islamist political rivals.

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