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The Middle East was ahead of its time—and certainly ahead of the West—on at least one thing: existential debates over culture, identity, and religion. During the heady, sometimes frightening days of the Arab Spring, the region was struggling over some of the same questions Americans are contending with today. What does it mean to be a nation? What do citizens need to agree on in order to be or become a people? Must the “people” be united, or can they be divided?

The fall of stagnant Arab autocracies opened up a divide over religion, illiberalism, and the relationship between Islam and the state. Liberalism—with its emphasis on nonnegotiable freedoms, ­individual autonomy, and minority rights—faced an uphill battle. Liberalism requires liberals, and there simply weren’t enough of them.

In the Middle East, Muslims went further, because they could. In the absence of a preexisting liberal consensus, alternatives to liberalism—in the form of Islamism—weren’t merely considered; they were voted into power. In Egypt and Tunisia, this period, brief as it was, represented a certain “­model” of peaceful intellectual combat. Political life was vibrant, perhaps too vibrant. The freedom to think differently and imagine alternative futures can be disorienting, and so the experiment was ended by those who had the power to end it.

Islamists, whom Westerners until not long ago (incorrectly) called Islamic fundamentalists, were the most vigorous objectors to a secular-liberal consensus that, at the time, seemed secure. As far as the post-Cold-War era was concerned, Islamist movements were carrying the banner of anti-­liberalism before anti-liberalism was cool. This was the “End of History,” when ideological alternatives seemed unimaginable. As Francis Fukuyama wrote, only Islam seemed able to offer a viable intellectual counterpoint to liberal presumptions. But even this exception seemed to hint at liberalism’s intellectual hegemony. After all, it was more difficult to convert to a religion than to subscribe to an ideology. In one of history’s ironies, what might have been a counterpoint became a confirmation.

Over the last century, hundreds of articles and monographs have attempted to outline a distinctly Islamic conception of politics and the state. Muslims’ encounter with the West—and Western colonialism—is what made this conception both possible and necessary. There had, of course, long been a rich classical Islamic tradition, focused on the primacy of the law, or sharia. But sharia was not law in the modern or Western sense. It was not codified, and it could not be found in any single repository. Rather, it was an organic and decentralized corpus of contingent rulings by jurists and judges.

This should not be a surprise. Islam and the legal corpus it generated were not designed for the ­nation-state. How could they have been? The Qur’an, which Muslims consider not only the word of God but God’s actual speech, was revealed in an era when nation-states did not yet exist. Islam’s crisis—one imposed on it by circumstances largely outside its control—arose from the need to accommodate Islam’s outsized public role within the inherently secularizing nature of the modern state. Beginning with the late Ottoman Empire’s ­Tanzimat reforms, which attempted to codify Islamic law for the first time, the modern state took it upon itself to systematize and regulate. And to regulate something was to ­domesticate it, lest it threaten state power and authority. The nation-state was not religiously neutral, nor could it be. Once the state had been elevated as the engine of legislation and the focal point of attachment and affinity, there was no real way to replicate the old sharia-based system, based as it was on a decentralized legal pluralism.

Though it was not their purpose, the Tanzimat hastened what the legal theorist Wael Hallaq calls the “evisceration” of the sharia. With increasingly uniform legal codes, the state was strengthened and the role of clerics weakened. Contrary to what secularists might assume, this change was not necessarily for the best. A self-regulating clerical class had provided a crucial check on the caliph’s executive power and authority. As keepers of the law, the clerics had ensured that the caliph was bound by something beyond himself.

Secularizing states wished to “rationalize” Islam and subordinate it in the service of the state. In a different way—but with similar effects—­Islamists, too, wished to rationalize Islam. Their goal, however, was not to constrain Islam’s role in politics and public life, but to unleash it.

In the early twentieth century, the so-called “Islamic modernists” observed the success of the colonial project on the one hand, and the many and varied Muslim failures on the other. Troubled, they asked—and tried to discern—what could be done. For centuries, Muslim thinkers had looked down on Christian Europe, which they viewed as backward and obscurantist. This sense of superiority became untenable as Europe closed the gap and soon enough eclipsed the Muslim world altogether.

The Islamic modernists were the original “­Salafis”: a word commonly associated today with ultraconservative literalism, theocratic rule, and religious violence. But for these first “Salafis,” the basic thrust was quite different. They hoped to return to the unadulterated Islam of al-Salaf al-Salih, the early generations of Muslims who were closest in time and proximity to the Prophet Muhammad. But for these reformers, the purification of Islam meant moving away from literalism, not toward it. This was how they would revive Islam and restore it to its proper place. They had little confidence in a weakened clerical class that had responded to its own marginalization by retreating further into obscure topics and circular legal commentaries.

The modernists—most prominent among them men like the pan-Islamic ideologue Jamal al-Din al-Afghani (d. 1897), the Egyptian theologian ­Muhammad Abduh (d. 1905), and the Levantine theorist Rashid Rida (d. 1935)—were alarmed by the influx of Christian missionaries under colonial rule. They feared that ordinary Muslims, who they believed held to superstitious, mystical understandings of Islam, would fall under the sway of Christian arguments about the contradictions of the Qur’an and Islamic inferiority more broadly. Their solution was innovative and distinctly ­modern: They would affirm the inherent rationality of ­Islam. In this respect, Rashid Rida’s apologetics are illustrative. For Rida, Islam is the “religion of reason,” “the ally of the sciences,” and “nearer to mankind’s innate disposition and intelligence.” He advises his ­readers: “You may come to know your religion’s truths through logical proof and evidence.”

Rida portrays Christianity, in contrast, as otherworldly, irrational—a religion of magical thinking. “[The word ‘reason’] is not mentioned in the Bible,” Rida writes with palpable disdain. In a somewhat revisionary account, Rida downplays the Prophet Muhammad’s association with supernatural acts, arguing that by the seventh century, “humanity had entered that stage of maturity and independence in which men’s minds are not given to submitting to the incredible or unnatural.” It seems odd to present seventh-century Arabia as a font of intellectualism or a place inhospitable to a belief in miracles. But Rida was a product of a very different age; he was trying to make Islam as modern as possible at a time when it was being attacked for being the opposite.

After Rida, the successor to the modernist legacy was none other than the Egyptian schoolteacher Hassan al-Banna (d. 1949), the founder of the Muslim Brotherhood—the world’s oldest and most influential Islamist movement.

Modernity and Islamism are, ironically, intertwined. It is nearly impossible to imagine one without the other. The very premise of “Islamism”—the idea that Islam and Islamic law should play a central role in political life—would have met with blank stares at any point prior to the nineteenth century. In ­pre-modernity, the notion that Islam provided an overarching moral, legal, and political order would have been completely unremarkable. It went without saying, so it wasn’t said.

With the emergence of secularism as both a challenge and a threat, Islam would, for the first time, become an enterprise to be fashioned, developed, and advocated for. Groups like the Muslim Brotherhood began to speak explicitly of promoting al-mashrou’ al-Islami—literally “the Islamic project.” But what did it mean for a religion to become a project? This Islam was self-conscious and mannered. Hence the paradox inherent in ­Islamism: In order to retrieve what was lost—this supposedly pure, original version of itself—Islam would need to be transformed into something new and unprecedented. Islamism was not so much a reaction to modernity as an expression of it.

Hassan al-Banna himself was not a religious scholar, and he seemed largely uninterested in recruiting clerics to the cause. Instead, he preached in crowded coffeehouses across Egypt. In his memoirs, Banna recounts that these captive audiences were initially confused, even “astonished,” by his impromptu sermonizing. But it worked. His formula was to take a complex religion and make it easy for the masses to understand. His focus was not on what Islam was, but on what Islam could do. One of his tracts was titled, “Are We Practical People?” Presumably, his answer was yes.

The Brotherhood’s slogan was “Islam is the solution,” an update of Rida’s argument that when Muslims were most faithful to Islam, they were most successful in gaining territory, knowledge of the sciences, and technological prowess. Unlike Christianity, which had been in a relatively weak political position during its first centuries, Islam had enjoyed consistent, impressive earthly gains from the time of its founding. Until the modern era, there was never a period without a great Islamic caliphate. To call Islam the “solution” was implicitly to recognize that the link between faith and worldly fortune, so long enjoyed by Islam, had been broken.

This rationalization of Islam lent itself to flexibility and pragmatism. The Brotherhood’s tent was a big one. Banna avoided getting into details, which he felt would only alienate potential recruits and sow division. The outward form of an Islamic state was left vague by design. Since no one knew how it was to be organized, anyone could fill in the particulars of the imagined polity according to his hopes and desires. The Brotherhood could accommodate itself to the nation-state, if that’s what was required. The state could retain its current structure, but be Islamized. What about parliamentary democracy, with its implicit premise that sovereignty was located in the people, rather than God? The Islamic precedent of Shura, or consultation, could be repurposed to conform with democratic expectations. In what, for Islamists at least, was Islam’s “golden age”—­running thirty years from the death of the Prophet ­Muhammad to the assassination of his son-in-law Ali—caliphs had been “elected” by notables and men of learning.

Even on issues like women’s rights, the Prophet pushed important changes, forbidding female infanticide and guaranteeing women the right to own property and earn their own income. So one may claim, as many Muslims do, that Islam is not in tension with women’s rights. (Gender equality is a different matter.) On economic issues, the practice of Zakat, or mandated charity, redistributed income from rich to poor, allowing Islamist ideologues such as Sayyid Qutb to write treatises on the importance of social justice in Islam. Finally, since the Sharia provided a check on the caliph’s executive authority, Islam’s apparent preoccupation with legality wasn’t too far off from what moderns call “rule of law.”

None of this meant that Islamists were becoming liberals. They were still defiantly illiberal, insofar as they wished to put constraints on what they considered immoral behavior. They sought to restrict alcohol consumption, keep businesses closed on Fridays, implement neo-natalist policies, and criminalize blasphemy. They hoped to increase religious programming on television and “Islamize” the educational curriculum. They were Islamists, after all. But short of becoming something other than what they were and probably would always be, their pragmatism allowed them considerable room to maneuver. At times, Islamists could appear too pragmatic, leading to accusations that they were concealing their true intentions.

This political dexterity also presents us with a different paradox: It is precisely Islam and Islamic law’s ability to accommodate modern ideas that makes Islamism—so often portrayed as anti-modern—relevant and resonant in today’s politics. As the Princeton historian Michael Cook notes in Ancient Religions, Modern Politics:

Where the Islamic heritage stands apart is in providing a compelling parallel to European egalitarianism. Without question this has been one of the most attractive features of this heritage under modern conditions, a source of almost lyrical inspiration to leading Islamists.

There was a dark side, however. Brotherhood-­inspired Islamist movements could not, in the end, resist the secularizing premises of their politico-­theological outlook. They, like everyone else, were products of an environment in which the state was ever-expanding and increasingly intrusive. Across the Arab world, even as it failed to meet basic expectations, the state ­was everywhere. When it was absent, which was often enough, its absence was felt. And so Islamists came to see the state as both the source of and the solution to their problems. They could bide their time, and then one day when the opportunity was ripe, they would acquire the levers of the state through democratic means.

Though various Brotherhood branches ran parliamentary candidates from the 1950s through the 1980s, it was only in the post–Cold War period that they began to prioritize electoral competition. ­Banna’s coy ambivalence was replaced by something approaching certainty. What once had been primarily religious movements founded political wings and political parties. Through a flurry of statements and platforms, they committed themselves to procedural democracy. In this sense, Islamists, like nearly everyone else, were influenced by the end of history, and rightly so. For all its faults, democracy was the best way to push for gradual political change. But their embrace of democratic means to effect political change indicated little about their ultimate objectives. What did Islamists really want?

In this respect, Islamist parties, despite their “moderation” or perhaps because of it, fell into the old populist trap of defining themselves in opposition to something real but failing to articulate a distinctive vision of what the state could be. The rest of us, as observers, may judge that this was for the best: If they didn’t know what they wanted, they would not succeed in altering the state and its foundations. For Islamists, however, this lack of vision would prove to be their Achilles heel. They would be feared and disliked for who they were, regardless of what—or how little—they did. It was the worst of both worlds. They were different enough to be hated by their opponents, but not different enough to follow through on their promise, however inchoate, of providing a ­genuine alternative to liberalism and the world liberalism built.

By now, there are enough examples of Islamist parties in power to suggest that their ultimate failure was intellectual rather than political. Islamists believed that once they acquired executive authority, the very fact that they were Islamists would be enough. As long as they, as individuals, were morally superior, their virtue and moral conduct would (somehow) enable them to succeed within the existing state without having to articulate a cogent alternative.

Tunisia’s main Islamist party, Ennahda, provides an intriguing model—palatable to internal skeptics and external patrons alike—of what Islamists could become. Over the course of the Arab Spring, Ennahda’s leaders had worked diligently to dilute their Islamism and present a gentler, progressive image. As they sometimes described it, their party was different not because of anything they might do, but because of who they were. I remember an odd but instructive conversation with Noureddine Arbaoui, a longtime Ennahda figure. In their election campaigns, Ennahda candidates had increasingly tried to portray themselves as technocratic problem-solvers. I asked Arbaoui why exactly Ennahda would do a better job on the economy than secular parties that had more economists in their ranks and more experience in government. “The program of Ennahda, the program of secular parties, they’re similar,” he admitted. “So, then, what makes me as a citizen vote for Ennahda? It’s like what [Turkish president Recep Tayyip] Erdoğan said: ‘We don’t steal.’” He offered the example of why Palestinians had voted for Hamas over Fatah in their elections:

When Hamas gets funding for job-creation programs, out of 100 dinars, you know that 90 will go to people who deserve it, 10 dinars might get lost in some corruption. If you give the same 100 dinars to Fatah, 90 dinars will go to corruption, even though it’s roughly the same program.

I could tell that Arbaoui thought this sounded appealing to a Western researcher like me. In this account, Islamists were like secularists, but better—because they were less corrupt, presumably because they feared God. Arbaoui’s comment betrayed a belief that the religious commitments of Islamists made them not just better people, but better politicians. This was the traditional Islamist premise taken to a new extreme, ostensibly in the service of modernity and moderation. As the French scholar Olivier Roy puts it in The Failure of Political Islam, “For Islamists, a discussion about institutions quickly turns into a discussion about determining the virtues and personal qualities of those qualified to fulfill the various functions.” The institutional setup of the modern state is treated as a given. Instead of changing the foundations of the state in a way that centers Islam, the Islamist project is reduced to accepting existing structures, as if they always were and always will be.

This problem—if one sees it as such—is not unique to Islamism or Islamists. It turns out to be quite challenging to come up with a fundamentally different way of organizing a polity. It is difficult to see beyond the state. For everyone except the almost extinct population that remembers the twilight of the last great empires, the nation-state is all we’ve ever known.

Are we at the end of history?

In a sense, Islamism was the most promising candidate for a post-liberal future. Groups like the Brotherhood enjoyed something Christian conservatives and illiberal populists in the West have only occasionally had: a real shot at majority support and electoral victories. But the state apparatus is powerful. It constricts the imagination, confining liberalism’s critics to the pursuit of often symbolic modifications to a structure that works according to its own powerful logic. In the attempt to reconcile premodern Islamic law with the modern ­nation-state, the latter won. In rationalizing Islam, Islamists became so focused on what worked that they lost the ability—if they ever had it—to think beyond modernity’s assumptions.

As for me, I wouldn’t want to live under a democratically elected Islamist government—or, for that matter, a democratically elected Catholic integralist one. But for those who feel profoundly unsettled by late liberalism and its hold on our political imagination, a capitulation to the way things are is a nonstarter.

I am torn. Having lived under regimes that jealously guard their jurisdiction over religion—most Muslim-majority states, even ostensibly secular ones, have ministries of religious affairs—I still believe there is something liberating about the liberal ideal of religious noninterference. Of course, in late liberalism, this image of neutrality becomes more and more an illusion. Liberalism, even if it begins in its “classical” form, always ends up wanting more for itself. The post-liberals are correct on this point, despite my discomfort with their solutions.

Perhaps it is well to dream, to resist the profound dissatisfaction that appears to be the mark of the modern condition. But for now, these are dreams of alternatives that do not yet exist.

Shadi Hamid is a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and assistant research professor of Islamic studies at Fuller Seminary. He is the author of The Problem of Democracy: America, the Middle East, and the Rise and Fall of an Idea.

Image by Harold Litweiler via Creative Commons. Image cropped.