By Bader Alnutawa, Contributing Writer
Arab Spring & Islam

Islamism and The Future of Democracy by Andrey Korotayev, Arno Tausch, and Leonid Grinin, is a new book that argues that the Arab Spring was a catalyst for either democracy or Islamism. The book derives from literature on both democratisation and Islamism and the role of protesting and mobilisation when it comes to values and norms.

What is most interesting about this unique book is that it neither discusses democracy in the Middle East from a historical viewpoint nor discusses democracy and Islamism as absolute opposite results of Arab Spring protests. Instead, it discusses how grassroots mobilization can lead to the production of new socio-political divisions within society. This is very important as it addresses a somewhat notable gap in the literature on the contemporary Middle East. The authors do not perceive Islamism as indigenous to the region; they place the focus on the Arab Spring as a creator of space for Islamism. The authors attempt to speak to this topic in a broader sense regarding norms and values, making an intriguing remark that inherent values in the Middle East might play some role in Islamism being established as a result of the Arab Spring.

The first three chapters are important as they emphasize the contrast between Islamism and the Middle East’s frequent rejection of Islamists; despite such rejections, Islamists remain a part of the political landscape. The authors do not simply consider Islamists to be terrorists and Islamic fundamentalists. Instead, they think that they comprise a political section with values that clash at different levels of the Middle East. The main course of analysis is not about the passion and pace at which Arab Spring protests ignited nor is it about how peaceful they were; instead, the analysis is of the actual economic and ideological preferences of Arabs themselves. Because of that, the book focuses on Islamism, with the most prominent idea being that the Arab Spring joined Arabs together in protest versus secular authoritarianism. However, this does not mean that each Arab protester wanted democracy. Additionally, the authors clearly state that Islam can be a viable political ideology. They go into depth about the potential synergy between democracy and Islamism by separating Islamism from Islam.

Throughout the book, the authors aim to deconstruct their idea of the extended history of Islamist inconsistency. For them, Islamism is an ideology that constantly undergoes change according to the elites who, under secular authoritarianism, promise economic betterment but at the cost of free choice. Chapter two, in particular aims to evaluate Islamism in the Middle East by utilizing information to compare and contrast how Islamism in India and China developed. The authors pursue a cohesive analysis by applying the understanding of Islamist trends in those regions to a post-Arab-Spring Middle East that is nominally democratic. The book acknowledges how the Arab Spring made the Middle East a polarized political hub that facilitates the dominance of radical Islamist elites. However, the analysis does somewhat lose depth as it correlates Islamism with poor education when, in reality, many Islamists are well educated. The authors state that they approached the constantly changing Islamist groups with a multidimensional and multi-layered approach; but, in fact, they do not do so. The authors do not question if these Islamist groups actually change and merge with new political contexts.

The authors do not clearly define what they mean by Islamism, making their argument prone to critique as they cannot comprehensively evaluate Islamism without clearly stating the phenomena that they are putting to the test. Therefore, the book struggles to distinguish between Islamist groups that are considered nonviolent, such as Hizb ut-Tahrir, and peaceful Islamist groups that adopt norms and values that make them radical in dangerous ways in spite of being defined as nonviolent. The problem, then, is that the book does not take a nuanced approach to what Islamism really is. Ultimately, the book contributes to the Islamism and Arab Spring literature in an intriguing fashion. However, there are some questions still left unanswered, despite the book’s attempt at raising new and important discussion.