A protest in Jakarta, Indonesia, 2017 / Wikimedia Commons

Across the Muslim World, Islamism is Going out of Vogue

Imran Said
Imran Said
14 min read


Though the Taliban has once again taken power in Afghanistan, they have come back at a rather inopportune time. Across the Muslim world, many seem to be souring on Islamists, defined as those who derive legitimacy from Islam and advocate for modern states to be governed along Islamic precepts, both economically and judicially. Over the last few years, Islamist governments have fallen out of power across the Middle East and Africa, haemorrhaged support in Turkey, and failed to make headway in Southeast Asia.

Islamism was once seen as an unstoppable force throughout most of the Muslim world, its proponents representing the most organized and influential voices in opposition to the often corrupt and incompetent secular leadership of Muslim countries. In more authoritarian states, mosques regularly served as one of the few “safe spaces” for citizens to vent their disenchantment about the state of society, ensuring the institutions of Islam a prominent place in the larger anti-statist opposition. Many Islamist groups further amass popular support by filling the gap left behind by woefully inadequate welfare systems and, in turn, providing their own social services, including schools and hospitals.

The issue is that once Islamists manage to get themselves into power, they frequently prove incapable of delivering on their promises. Islamist governments have often been, at best, incompetent and out-of-touch (as has been the case in the Arab world) and at worst, economically disastrous (as has been the case in Turkey and Sudan). In the more consolidated democracies of Malaysia and Indonesia, Islamist movements are fractious and riven by internal divisions and overly ambitious leaders. The Taliban may be back, but it would be a mistake to overstate the power of Islamist movements around the world.

Islamists' Woeful Governance in the Middle East and North Africa

The failure of Islamists to bring about change and effective governance was brought vividly to the fore with the fall of the moderate Islamist party Ennahda in Tunisia on July 25th, 2021, after Tunisian President Kais Saied invoked emergency powers to fire the prime minister and suspend parliament (in which Ennahda had been the largest party). The fall of the Islamist government was largely supported by the public. Just a day prior to Saied’s suspension of parliament, the country had been gripped by anti-government protests demanding the dissolution of parliament, with groups in the cities of Kairouan and Sousse storming local Ennahda offices and tearing down banners. In the city of Tozeur, a party headquarters was set ablaze.

Saied’s seizure of power, despite being condemned by almost all political parties and civil society organizations within Tunisia as a coup, has been successful because he has tapped into rising public anger over a stagnating economy, political paralysis, and an incompetent response to the COVID-19 crisis. At the time of the coup, Tunisia had recorded the highest per capita death rate from COVID-19 in Africa, while a sluggish vaccine rollout had seen only eight percent of the population fully vaccinated by July 28th. Small businesses received no government support whilst economic activity was restricted, most notably, the country’s crucial tourism sector, which suffered grievously. In 2019 the tourism sector’s share of GDP stood at 14 percent, so its hit was deeply felt. In November, Tunisia’s National Institute of Statistics announced that the unemployment rate had risen to 18.4 percent in the third quarter of 2021. Much of the blame for these deteriorating conditions would be attributed, rightly or wrongly, to the Ennahda party.

The collapse in fortunes of Ennahda was arguably the logical end-result of a decade-long identity crisis within the party, dating back to the 2011 Tunisian Revolution, which saw the overthrow of the strongman President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali. At the heart of this crisis was Ennahda’s struggle to square the role of Islam as the basis for the party’s legitimacy with being able to compete in a proper multiparty electoral system in a country with a large secular base. In May 2016, Ennahda ceased its proselytising activities and began focusing exclusively on politics, a transition that proved difficult as the party found itself alienating its traditional conservative base while also struggling to appeal to newer voters. Ennahda further aggrieved its grassroots supporters over its inability to enact socioeconomic change, feeding perceptions that the party has been co-opted by the country’s pre-revolutionary secular elites.

As of now, Tunisia’s fragile democratic transition remains in flux. Saied, who currently rules by decree, has announced that Tunisia will hold a referendum on proposed changes to the constitution on July 25th, 2022, while new parliamentary elections are scheduled for December 17th, 2022.

Meanwhile in Morocco, another moderate Islamist party, the Justice and Development Party (PJD), was removed from power not by a coup but through the ballot box. On September 8th, 2021, Moroccan voters handed the PJD a crushing defeat, with the party losing some 90 percent of the seats it held in parliament. As noted by independent researcher Abdul-Wahab Kayyali, what made these results all the more shocking was that unlike Tunisia, Morocco had handled its pandemic relatively well, with reasonable numbers of cases and a successful vaccine rollout.

Like their Tunisian counterparts, what killed the PJD was a loss of trust among voters. In Morocco’s hybrid political system, most major decisions are already made by the king. Bearing this in mind, Kayyali argues that the party’s complete co-opting by Morocco’s monarchy alienated the electorate. This had started in 2017 when the reigning King Mohammed VI replaced the popular former prime minister Abdelilah Benkirane with Saadeddine Othmani, triggering major divisions within the party. The party proceeded to go along with policies that often blatantly contradicted its conservative principles, including economic liberalization, the legalization of cannabis, and the normalization of relations with Israel, angering both religious and secular voters.

In Turkey, Erdoğan's Islamist Justice and Development Party (AKP) has seen a dramatic slump in its support base, as the economy reels from a particularly severe currency crisis of Erdoğan’s own making. According to recent official statistics, consumer prices jumped 36.1 percent in December 2021, up from 21.3 percent in November, the highest rate of inflation since October 2002, when inflation had reached 33.45 percent. Owing to Erdoğan’s unorthodox economic strategy of maintaining extremely low interest rates, the Turkish Lira lost some 44 percent of its value against the US dollar in 2021. The results for ordinary Turks have been disastrous—GDP per capita has sunk to 2009 levels, while some 3.2 million Turks have fallen into poverty. A recent piece by Nikkei Asia noted that Turks now purchase iPhones as investments - ‘[i]n lira terms, Apple's handheld asset can shoot up in value in mere hours.’

Despite this, Erdoğan has committed to his eccentric strategy of combating high inflation through the lowering of interest rates, citing Quranic precepts prohibiting the practise of usury. “[T]hey complain we keep decreasing the interest rate. Don’t expect anything else from me. As a Muslim, I will continue doing what our religion tells us” he declared on state television on December 19th. Taking aim at the independence of the central bank, Erdoğan has thus far dismissed three central bank governors since 2019, and further sacked three central bank policy makers in October. Erdoğan is seemingly alone in this line of thinking—the majority of central banks operating in the Muslim world remain largely autonomous and happy to utilize usury.

“Mr. Erdoğan’s ‘what our religion tells us’ statement shows a subservience to medieval notions about finance, no matter the harm they cause,” argued Daniel Pipes, President of the Middle East Forum. Pipes warned that Turkey risks becoming another Venezuela. On the ground, Erdoğan’s traditional support base, including those residing in the conservative heartland as well as the business community, have increasingly condemned his reckless monetary policies. A new savings scheme announced by the government in December 2021 to save the lira has seemingly had little impact in stopping Turkish savers from flocking to foreign currencies in a bid to protect their savings.

Islamism in Sudan: “terminal decline”

Outside of the Middle East and North Africa, Sudan saw the most spectacular fall from grace of any Islamisation project across the Muslim world. In April 2019, a peaceful popular uprising led to the downfall of the military dictator Omar al-Bashir, and with him, 30 years of authoritarian rule by the Islamist National Congress Party (NCP).

Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir, Wikimedia Commons

In 2018, a spike in bread prices caused by the government’s reduction of flour subsidies, triggered mass protests, which must be understood within the larger context of years of economic mismanagement and corruption by the al-Bashir regime. Interestingly, the overwhelming majority of those involved in the uprising were under the age of 30, illustrating that even those who had grown up in the Islamist regime reject its values.

The modern roots of Sudanese Islamism can be traced to an offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt. In Sudan, the Brotherhood’s ascent to political power came in 1977, when they allied with then-President Jaafar Nimeiri. This allowed the Islamists to penetrate Sudan’s institutions and to introduce Shariah within the country’s judicial system. Nimeiri would be overthrown in April 1985, and the brief political liberalization which followed would allow the Muslim Brotherhood-led National Islamic Front (later to be reformed to the NCP) to consolidate their position.

In June 1989, a group of Islamist-minded military officers led by Brigadier General Omar al-Bashir overthrew the then-civilian government and installed a military junta. Having backed al-Bashir, the NIF used their heightened power to further intensify the Islamization of Sudan. The period of 1989 to 1996 would prove the peak of Islamist rule in Sudan, with a harsher version of Shariah introduced throughout the country, which served as a base for radical groups from around the world, most notoriously hosting Osama Bin Laden from 1991 to 1996. The honeymoon between al-Bashir and the Islamists proved temporary though. In 1999, al-Bashir threw Hassan al-Turabi, leader of the NCP and the main ideologue of the Islamist movement, into prison, helping create a split within the Islamist movement.

The economic situation in Sudan would continue to deteriorate, particularly following the independence of South Sudan in July 2011, which suddenly deprived Sudan of the vast majority of its oil fields (and thus almost 60 percent of its total tax revenues). Among other factors, the introduction of Shariah in Sudan helped flame armed resistance in the Christian and animist south against Khartoum. All of this would culminate in the overthrow of al-Bashir in April 2019, and the replacement of his regime with a Transitional Military Council (TMC). The TMC would eventually reach a power-sharing agreement with the Forces of Freedom and Change (FFC) alliance, which represented the street protests that had overthrown al-Bashir, and which would be in force until general elections to be held in 2022.

The collapse of the al-Bashir regime would prove a crippling blow to the power of the Islamists. The NCP was banned in November 2019, while restrictive laws on women’s behaviour and clothing were soon repealed. In July 2020, restrictions on apostasy and the importation and consumption of alcohol by non-Muslims, as well as public flogging, were also scrapped. Furthermore, in October 2020, the Juba Peace Agreement was signed, which reiterated the commitment of the Sudanese government to end the rule of Islamic law.

On October 25th, 2021, the Sudanese military launched a coup, placing the current transitional prime minister, Abdallah Hamdok, under house arrest and imprisoning cabinet members and other government officials. On November 21st, an agreement between the military and Hamdok saw the latter released and reinstated to his position in return for a cabinet reshuffle to one more pliant to the military, alongside a delay of elections to mid-2023. The public reaction was one of outrage, with ongoing street protests demanding a restoration of the democratic transition process. On January 2nd, Hamdok resigned, citing a political impasse between the civilian and military government, leaving the military in sole control and the UN currently attempting to host negotiations between Sudan’s major stakeholders.

While it is uncertain whether the Islamists will be able to fully reinsert themselves in Sudanese politics through the vehicle of the military, they must now contend with operating from a substantially weaker position. Following the break in relations between al-Bashir and al-Turabi in 1997, Sudan’s Islamist project went into what one commentary called “terminal decline,” as the al-Bashir regime sought a more pragmatic government focused on regime survival. Ultimately, attempts by Islamists to transform Sudanese society along the lines of Shariah only brought incessant wars to Sudan’s periphery (including a genocidal war in Darfur and the secession of South Sudan), alongside severe economic mismanagement and corruption, thereby eroding their legitimacy in the eyes of Sudan’s young population.

Southeast Asia’s divided Islamists

In Southeast Asia, Islamist groups have also faced hurdles in the more consolidated Muslim democracies of Malaysia and Indonesia. As I’ve written previously for Quillette, the creeping Islamization of Malaysia which began in the 1970s is distinguishable from other Islamist movements around the world by its ethno-nationalist character, insofar as political Islam was utilized by Malaysia’s leaders to enforce social divisions between Malaysia’s majority and more rural Muslim-Malays and its wealthier, more urban Chinese minority, as well as to  uphold the institutional supremacy of the Malays.

In the long term, this status-quo was never sustainable. In a historic general election held in May 2018, the incumbent coalition, Barisan Nasional (National Front), led by the United Malay National Organization (UMNO), a party which explicitly stands for Malay-Muslim supremacy and which had run the country since independence from the British in 1957, lost to the multi-racial Pakatan Harapan coalition led by former Prime Minister Mahathir bin Mohamad. The defeat of BN was attributed in large part to a massive corruption scandal surrounding then prime minister Najib Tun Razak and linked to a debt-laden state-development fund 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB).

However, it would appear that the Pakatan Harapan coalition did not prove sustainable either, brought down by infighting between Mahathir and his supposed-successor (and long-time rival) Anwar Ibrahim. Promises of major reforms stalled, and it proved difficult to completely break away from the allure of the so-called Malay Agenda, which revolved around the institutional supremacy of the Malays and Islam (to the detriment of non-Muslims including the Chinese). In March 2020, Pakatan Harapan was brought down through the defection of MPs to form a new coalition with the opposition (including UMNO) organized exclusively for the interests of the majority Malay Muslims.

And yet, the new coalition proved even shorter lived than Pakatan Harapan, brought down by both factional infighting (mainly over the discomfort of UMNO at playing a junior role within the government) and the government’s incompetent handling of the COVID-19 pandemic. In August 2021, Malaysia surpassed India’s per-capita COVID-19 death toll. For a country in which race and religion dominate public discourse, the collapse of a coalition ostensibly united by the ideologies of Malay and Islamic supremacism demonstrates, in many ways, the hollowness of the Malay Agenda in the face of a complete inability to govern. With another change of government on August 21st, 2021, it seems evident that the increasingly fractious nature of Malaysia’s political system will prove a hindrance to the Islamization project, so long as Malaysia’s Malay-centric parties prove unable to cooperate on any meaningful level.

In neighbouring Indonesia, the world’s most populous Muslim country, and certainly one of its more vibrant democracies, the institutionalization of Islam has also faced resistance. As I have noted in a previous piece for Quillette concerning Indonesia’s momentous presidential election in April 2019, the creeping Islamization of the country’s institutions (e.g., schools, bureaucracies, etc.) and society has been identified as one of the biggest challenges to Indonesia’s more than two-decades old democracy and pluralistic society.

This was made most visible during the 2019 elections, when incumbent President Joko Widodo (commonly nicknamed Jokowi) faced off against long-time rival and ex-general strongman Prabowo Subianto. That election had seen Prabowo attempt to curry favor with hard-line Muslims and run a campaign against Jokowi by portraying him as an enemy of Islam and the ulema (religious clerics), as well as a secret communist. In response, Jokowi appointed senior cleric and veteran politician Ma’ruf Amin as his running mate in order to build up his own support base among conservative Muslims.

The choice of Ma’ruf Amin had appalled more moderate and minority voters given his streaks of intolerance. He had most notably played a prominent role in the 20-month imprisonment of Basuki Tjahaja Purnama (also known as Ahok), a former Chinese Christian governor of Jakarta, on charges of blasphemy. Some Indonesians had given up hope before the votes had even been cast. Writing in the New York Times in February 2019, Indonesian novelist Eka Kurniawan argued that “conservative Islamic groups, backed by radical groups, will win—have already won—the election.”

Despite all of this, one could argue that the political power of Islamists in Indonesia has been overstated. As noted by Indonesian researcher Nick Kuipers in one pre-election study of the campaign platforms of 72,486 candidates at all levels of government (including for national, provincial, and district legislatures), it was found that only 5.7 percent of candidates had actually explicitly referred to religious themes in their platforms.

As later argued by Indonesian academic Yohanes Sulaiman shortly following the election, Jokowi’s eventual victory over Prabowo (carrying 55 percent of the vote) was a victory for moderates. This was despite their aversion towards Ma’ruf, ultimately having decided to vote for Jokowi in response to Prabowo’s hardline Islamist campaign. The lesson of the 2019 election, Yohanes argued, is that Islamists could inspire enough revulsion from moderates to get them out to the polls. Writing later in December 2020 on the return of radical Muslim cleric Rizieq Shihab to Indonesia and what this means for Islamic extremism in the country, Yohanes noted that Indonesian Islamists largely suffer from the general unpopularity of their leaders (due to their intolerant views), as well as the fractious nature of the larger movement due to their leaders’ personal ambitions. To take one example, after having previous blasted Jokowi as an enemy of Islam, Prabowo currently serves as his defense minister.

Furthermore, reformist Muslim organizations have also sought to steer the direction of Islam within the country towards more liberal interpretations. One organization of note has been Nahdlatul Ulama (NU), which means “Reawakening of the Islamic Scholars” in Bahasa Indonesia. At 90 million members and followers, it is the world’s largest Islamic organization. In response to the rise of the Islamic State in 2014, NU initiated calls for Islamic reform, including rejecting the notion of a global caliphate and stressing the importance of equal citizenship between Muslims and non-Muslims. NU members are also influential within the government. Yaqut Cholil Qoumas, a former NU member and the current Minister of Religious Affairs, was one of three ministers who in February 2021 signed a joint degree banning the imposition of headscarves on students in public schools. In addition, NU has also been at the forefront of calls for normalizing relations with Israel.

Don’t overstate the power of Islamists

This isn’t to say that Islamism as a movement has completely subsided within the Muslim world. Not at all. In many countries, Islamist parties remain powerful, well organized, and with great mobilization capabilities. In cases such as Turkey or Sudan, it is too early to tell whether the Islamists have been truly beaten, as they may very well cling onto power. The innate conservatism of many Muslim countries will no doubt ensure Islam a prominent role in their political dynamics going forward. As well, in the cases of countries like Malaysia and Indonesia, the Islamization phenomenon has often occurred more at an institutional level (such as the education system) rather than through the electoral success of Islamist parties.

However, it would be a mistake to exaggerate the power of Islamists or to presume that political Islam is some sort of unstoppable force in the Muslim world. In Tunisia, Turkey, and Malaysia, Islamist parties ultimately proved incapable of enacting promised changes or providing material prosperity, souring their support base by failing to meet their constituents' expectations and by (in some cases) attempting to shift towards political pragmatism (e.g., Ennahda in Tunisia).

Islamism as an ideology may be great at mobilizing people, but this doesn’t necessarily translate towards effective governance, as has been proven again and again. In the more consolidated democracies of Malaysia and Indonesia, Islamist movements often remain divided.

Nor should we presume that Islamists don’t face pushback. In Tunisia, the large secular segment of the population forced Ennahda to moderate their positions, while Indonesia’s pluralism and powerful civil society have likewise kept Islamism at bay.

Over the last decades, the failure of secular authoritarian strongmen throughout the Muslim world to provide good governance and meet the material expectations of their peoples doomed their regimes and saw their eventual replacement with Islamists. And yet, having been unable to deliver as well, Islamists’ brief taste of power may very well be coming to a close.

Imran Said Twitter

Imran Said is a freelance writer currently based in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. He has written on international security, history, and politics for several publications.