The Dilemma of “Normalization”: Can Islamists Participate without Polarizing Politics?

This paper is part of ACW’s fourth book, titled The Arab World Beyond Conflict.

The dislike, or even hatred, of mainstream Islamist parties1 is assumed to lead to a desire to repress or exclude them from public life. This seems intuitive. It is indeed true that nearly all the activists, politicians, or commentators who support Islamist exclusion in the Arab world dislike those whom they wish to exclude.

In this chapter, however, I argue that there is nothing inevitable about the link between disliking a particular group or party and supporting their exclusion. It should theoretically be possible to oppose and even hate a particular group—and think their ideas are bad or dangerous—without taking the subsequent step of favoring their repression or removal from political life. In other words, there is a potential “third” constituency, beyond the traditional Islamist/non-Islamist divide, that could be ideologically anti-Islamist while supporting, advocating, and standing up for the right of Islamists to participate within the democratic process. Up until now, this group has been small and to some extent, particularly in Egypt, somewhat imagined, but the future of democracy and more modest political reforms depends on this constituency becoming significantly larger than it is at present.

Here, I start from the premise of granting the “badness” of Islamists in order to focus the debate on processes rather than the strong and often immovable ideological biases that arise from divides over religion’s role in public life. Discussing such foundational questions regarding Islam and the state tends to stop debate before it even starts. After all, if Islamists are “bad” (because they are Islamist), then their rights of participation must be curtailed. However, in most democratic theory, goodness, in a normative sense, has not generally been a prerequisite for inclusion (this is quite apart from questions over the use of violence, but the overwhelming majority of mainstream Islamist movements, by virtue of being mainstream, do not use violence2).

Which countries in the Arab world have something akin to truly democratic competition, whatever else their faults? There are only three exceptions to the authoritarian rule: Iraq, Lebanon, and Tunisia. Iraq always tends to be accompanied by an asterisk, due to the US invasion in 2003, which means that it is often omitted or simply forgotten in such discussions. In 2014, a year after the military coup in Egypt and after the Arab Spring seemed to have failed, a leader of Morocco’s Justice and Development Party (PJD) said, “We’re the one last Islamist party remaining in government in the region.”3 Although Morocco cannot be considered democratic due to the monarchy’s veto powers over matters of sovereignty, the PJD leader’s remark is telling for other reasons. As David Patel writes, “By almost any measure, the most successful mainstream Islamists in the Arab world are in Baghdad, where Islamists have governed Iraq since 2005 … Yet, Iraq and its participatory Islamist movements remain pariahs for comparative scholars.”4

After Iraq’s January 2005 elections, Ibrahim al-Jaafari of the Shia Islamist Daawa Party assumed the position of prime minister. Iraqi Muslim Brotherhood members served in various cabinet positions, including as ministers of higher education and planning. In Lebanon, Hezbollah—however much the United States and Saudi Arabia oppose it—has become a fixture of coalition governments. The point here is not that these groups are “good” (Hezbollah is a US-designated terrorist organization as well as an active participant in the Syrian regime’s mass killing of civilians) but rather that the more democracy there is in a given country, the more likely it is that Islamists will have significant political representation.

What is striking about these two cases is the extent to which Islamist participation has simply become uncontroversial. Few major politicians argue for banning the parties in question. This participation “norm” gains a certain momentum over time: the longer Islamist parties participate, the more difficult it becomes for political actors to argue for placing legal or constitutional restrictions on them. In turn, the less political actors argue for proscribing Islamist parties, the more the participation norm is strengthened.

Tunisia meanwhile finds itself somewhere in between Islamist participation and Islamist normalization. The Islamist Ennahda Party has participated in coalition governments as either lead party or junior partner for most of the period since the fall of dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali in January 2011. It has prioritized the cultivation of its image as a “normal” political actor intertwined in the fabric of Tunisian culture and society. Yet Islamist participation—and particularly the notion of Islamists leading government—remains controversial in secular circles, and Ennahda leaders continue to fear a return to the authoritarianism of the past. One way of judging the success of the ongoing Tunisian transition to democracy is to consider the extent of Islamist normalization.

Justifications for Islamist Exclusion

In an ideal world, it might be better if Hezbollah were not a major political actor in Lebanese politics with a large popular constituency. But in the real world—if democracy is, in fact, an important long-term objective—one’s commitment to democratization should take precedence over opposition to Hezbollah, however strongly held. But what if someone does not share the premise that Arab democracy is or should be a goal, either for the United States or for Arabs themselves? A different starting premise here completely alters the conversation, since a main justification, if not the main justification, for Islamist inclusion is that it is a cause or result—or both—of democratization.

For Arab liberals, the primary goal is often—and unsurprisingly—liberalism, with an emphasis on individual rights, women’s rights, some degree of social permissiveness, and opposition to state promotion of conservative religious interpretations. If perceived liberal goods come into tension with democracy, then liberals may decide to prioritize the former at the expense of the latter (as the overwhelming majority of “liberals” did in Egypt during the July 2013 military coup against the democratically elected government of Mohamed Morsi). As  this author has argued elsewhere, in religiously conservative societies such as Egypt and Jordan, where large constituencies advocate greater implementation of sharia, liberals understandably fear that democratization will reflect and strengthen such religious conservatism in the form of electoral support for Islamist parties and Islamist policies.5 If liberalism and more “enlightened” religion are treated as ultimate goods, then the pursuit of democracy would conceivably undermine the prospect of securing these goods. Egyptian liberal parties, for example, underperformed in successive elections and referenda during the 2011-2013 period, contributing to a perception that liberals were fundamentally disadvantaged by democratic competition. As the prominent liberal and parliamentary candidate Shadi Taha, put it, referring to his Islamist counterparts, “To them, it’s faith. You tell me how you can add faith to liberalism and I’ll build you an organization like [the Brotherhood’s]. That’s why religion always beats politics in any match.”6

After the coup—as well as after prominent liberals’ subsequent support for the August 14, 2013 Rabaa massacre, where the Egyptian security forces’ violent dispersal of protesters led to the deaths of at least 1,000—many western liberals argued that these liberals could not in fact be “true” liberals. But liberals, like anyone else, are capable of supporting coercion and violence while still being who they are. Not only that, their very liberalism—from a philosophical perspective—may have contributed to the willingness to support the 2013 military coup against a democratically elected government.

A year after the coup, the political theorist Faheem Hussain discussed the potentially liberal premises of military intervention into civilian life. “What will concern us,” he writes, “is to scrutinize philosophically whether a liberal justification for a military coup can be provided.”7 In his search for answers, he travels the canon of western liberal thought, from John Locke to John Rawls.

As Hussain argues, there is a long history of liberals striking Faustian bargains to protect hard-won liberties from overly pious masses: “Enlightenment philosophes were prepared to make a spoken or unspoken agreement with authoritarian interests, promising obedience and loyalty as long as core liberal values such as freedom of expression over private beliefs were maintained, at least those opinions that wouldn’t trouble the security of the state.” It makes sense, then, to compare Arab liberals not to western liberals today but to liberals during a comparable period in western history, when the choice between liberal values and mass democracy was starker. Hussain writes: “As the philosophes did before them, Egyptian liberals find themselves within societies that have religious majorities who view liberal ideas as at best religiously problematic, or at worst foreign or infidel.”

While the use of violence may not be legitimate, holding things other than democracy dear is. This is not to say that attributing priority to both liberalism (as constitutionally guaranteed rights) and democracy (as expressed through the results of elections) is impossible, but rather that they can be—and historically often have been—in tension.8

To acknowledge this is to offer the prospect of clarity to a confusing debate, where disagreements can simply seem too deep to make sense of. These disagreements often draw on fundamentally different starting assumptions about political philosophy, and those assumptions should be elucidated.

Participation Is Not Enough

Islamist participation is a positive and necessary first step, but it is not enough on its own. Moreover, if it does not develop into normalization, it can be counterproductive and lead to more—rather than less—polarization in societies. Egyptian politics during the transition is a clear example of how this suspended state can undermine democracy. Islamist groups, which included large numbers of Salafis in addition to the Muslim Brotherhood, participated en masse. But this participation never solidified into normalization, and perhaps it could not, considering the short time period in question. In other words, the very presence of Islamists in political life was highly contested and a major driver of polarization, particularly after the first parliamentary elections in 2011-2012 when nearly three-quarters of the seats went to Islamist parties. Moreover, the outsized, uninterrupted role of the military since the 1952 revolution, and its own self-conception as guardian of the Egyptian nation-state, always left open the possibility that electoral outcomes could be undone. References to military intervention in politics became commonplace in the first half of 2013, intensifying in the months leading up to the coup.

Participation in the absence of normalization runs the risk of being the worst of both worlds, putting a democratic transition on perpetually shaky ground. There are few cases of long-term participation without normalization (in part because of its destabilizing effects), so it is difficult to draw generalizations. However, the case of Turkey is worth considering. Its putative transition arguably began in 1946, with the first peaceful transfer of power through elections taking place in 1950. Islamist parties entered parliamentary politics in the 1970s, first with the National Order Party (1970-71) and then the National Salvation Party (1972-81). Each was banned. Its successors, the Welfare Party (1983-98) and Virtue Party (1998-2001), also ran afoul of restrictions on anti-religious activity and were dissolved. Fears of an anti-Islamist coup by the military or judiciary against the Justice and Development Party (AKP) continued through the late 2000s. In this respect, Islamist parties were never truly normalized, with military intervention remaining a Sword of Damocles nearly four decades after they first began participating in the political process.

It is telling that the AKP, which first came to power in 2002, would explain away its increasingly authoritarian behavior as being necessary for normalization, in effect undoing the artificial imposition of Kemalist and secular ideology. AKP officials and leaders have often spoken of the secularists who previously repressed them—and denied them a normal political existence—as deserving of punishment and purging.9 These are the two sides of participation without normalization, producing polarizing and potentially dangerous behavior by both those who deny normalization as well as those who are denied it.

Participation with Normalization: The Cases of Indonesia and Malaysia

There are, however, more cases of participation with normalization. I have already mentioned examples from the Arab world, but perhaps more successful—and promising—are Indonesia and Malaysia (and to a lesser degree, Pakistan). Here, too, Islam plays an outsize role in public life. According to Pew surveys from 2011-12, 93 percent of both Malaysian and Indonesian Muslims say religion is “very important” in their lives, easily surpassing the percentage who say so in Egypt, Turkey, or Tunisia, while 86 percent of Malaysian Muslims and 72 percent of Indonesian Muslims favor making Islamic law the official law of the land in their countries.10 This is the supply side of Islamism, but it does not—and does not need to—translate into support for Islamist parties.

An individual can support some Islamist ideas without being an Islamist. Such is the case for the vast majority of the citizens of Malaysia and Indonesia, where Islamist parties only receive the backing of a small, if still significant, percentage of the population. This is precisely what is so interesting about these examples: demands for sharia legislation have spread well beyond the usual Islamist suspects, enjoying the sanction and support of ostensibly secular ruling parties. As the scholar of Islamism in Southeast Asia Joseph Liow notes, most Malaysian states have laws on the books regarding sharia criminal offenses, backed by government-sanctioned religious bodies. “A large segment of the incum­bent UMNO party,” he writes, “has also been either sympathetic to this push or, in some cases, actively involved in agitating for implementation of sharia.”11

Indonesia, meanwhile, has featured the passing of more sharia ordinances on the local level than Egypt, Tunisia, Turkey, Algeria, Morocco, or Lebanon. Democratization has gone hand-in-hand with decentralization, which has allowed more conservative provinces and localities to experiment with religiously inspired legislation. In one article, the Indonesia scholar Robin Bush documents sharia bylaws implemented in South Sulawesi, West Java, and other conservative regions. They include requirements for civil servants and students to wear “Muslim clothing”; for women to wear the headscarf to receive local government services; and for residents to demonstrate Qur’anic reading ability in order to be admitted to university or to receive a marriage license.12 But there is a catch: according to a study by the Jakarta-based Wahid Institute, most of these regulations have come from officials of secular parties like Golkar.13

How is this possible? In Indonesia, the implementation of sharia is part of a mainstream discourse that cuts across ideological and party lines, again suggesting that Islamism is not necessarily about Islamists but about a broader population that is open to Islam playing a central role in law and governance. As Liow writes, “The piecemeal implementation of sharia by-laws across Indonesia has not elicited widespread opposition from local populations.”14 Islamism, contrary to popular belief, does not necessarily require the existence of Islamists.

This is the defining characteristic of countries where Islam and Islamism have been normalized: the role of Islam in politics is still controversial, to be sure, but it is no longer a raw, existential divide that threatens the very foundations of democracy. In short, normalization does something that becomes particularly important during democratic transitions. It lessens the stakes and takes what might otherwise be sources of antagonism and political violence and transforms them instead into “normal” issues that can be debated and disagreed on as mere policy differences and not as absolute, incontrovertible truths.

The Costs of Normalization

In Southeast Asia, democratization has fueled Islamization. If the latter has depended on the former, then it casts the process of democratization in a more complicated light. There are tradeoffs, and these “costs” of normalization may be perceived by liberals as simply too high to bear, considering their ultimate aims beyond democracy, as discussed earlier. Significant Islamization has obscured and weakened some of Indonesia’s and Malaysia’s pluralistic traditions. The most striking example is the 2017 Jakarta gubernatorial elections, where a Muslim candidate, Anies Baswedan, rallied his conservative supporters and stoked anger and outrage against the incumbent, Ahok, who is Christian. What followed was a religiously charged campaign, replete with accusations of blasphemy, for which Ahok, as of writing, is serving a prison sentence.15 The link between elections and targeting minorities is not necessarily unique to Indonesia. Regarding India, Michael Cook writes, “the political advantage to be gained by Hindu politicians from a successful communal riot is clear enough.”16

In western democracies, electoral campaigns also often exacerbate popular sentiment against minorities, in part because doing so can be quite effective. Discussing Hungary, Peter Kreko writes, “The refugee and migration question was central in the 2018 electoral campaign. Unlike in 2014, economic issues hardly figured. Baldly put, the central Fidesz claim was that Brussels and [billionaire George] Soros were scheming to flood Europe with Muslim migrants … Before the refugee crisis, Fidesz’s popularity was on the decline. After it, Fidesz not only recovered but added half a million new voters.”17 To pretend that democracy is a panacea, or to expect that more established democracies are immune, is to raise expectations that generally cannot be met. The danger of such expectations is that they can drive support for authoritarian reversal, as we have seen in the post-Arab Spring Middle East.

Again, liberals can (theoretically) argue, as many western liberals did in centuries prior, that the establishment of constitutional liberalism—along with mass “enlightenment”—should precede universal suffrage. But this order is difficult to replicate artificially. With democratic elections becoming a relatively uncontested normative good, it is difficult, if not impossible, to expect most citizens to abide by an indefinite postponement of democratic life. This means that replicating the sequencing of liberalism first, then democracy later, almost invariably requires high levels of repression. In effect, then, this is what many Arab liberals are arguing—and have argued—is necessary. This is not to delegitimize their arguments—they would only be illegitimate, after all, if one considers authoritarianism absolutely unacceptable—but rather to lay out more clearly the stakes of the debate.

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1 I define “mainstream” Islamist groups as movements and their affiliated political parties which operate within the confines of institutional politics, accept the notion of the Westphalian nation-state, and enjoy popular support. I am not making a normative judgment about the content of their beliefs. This includes the Muslim Brotherhood and other movements that use the Brotherhood as a frame of reference.
2 In certain exceptional cases like that of Hamas (in effect the Palestinian equivalent of the Muslim Brotherhood), the groups in question do not use violence as a matter of unchanging theological conviction, in contrast to extremist organizations like al-Qaeda and the Islamic State.
3 Avi Spiegel, “Morocco,” in Shadi Hamid and William McCants, eds., Rethinking Political Islam (New York: Oxford University Press, 2017), p. 69.
4 David Patel in Shadi Hamid and William McCants, “Rethinking Political Islam,” Brookings Institution, May 6, 2016,
5 Shadi Hamid, Temptations of Power: Islamists and Illiberal Democracy in a New Middle East (New York: Oxford University Press, 2014).
6 Interview with author, Shadi Taha, November 20, 2011.
7 Faheem Hussain, “Egypt’s Liberal Coup,” Faheem Hussain – Some Thoughts, August 13, 2014, A shorter version was published on Open Democracy,
8 See, Dalia F. Fahmy and Daanish Faruqi, Egypt and the Contradictions of Liberalism (Oxford: Oneworld, 2017); Fareed Zakaria, The Future of Freedom: Illiberal Democracy at Home and Abroad (New York: W.W. Norton, 2003); and Richard Youngs, The Puzzle of Non-Western Democracy (Washington, DC: Carnegie Endowment, 2015).
9 See Shadi Hamid, Islamic Exceptionalism: How the Struggle Over Islam is Reshaping the World (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2016), pp. 173-76.
10 Pew Research Center, Forum on Religion & Public Life, “The World’s Muslims: Unity and Diversity,” August 9, 2012, pp. 131, 201, es: c but without English subtitnes with English .
11 Joseph Liow, “Southeast Asia,” in Shadi Hamid and William McCants, eds., Rethinking Political Islam (New York: Oxford University Press, 2017), p. 186.
12 Robin Bush, “Regional ‘Sharia’ Regulations: Anomaly or Symptom?” in Expressing Islam: Religious Life and Politics in Indonesia, Greg Fealy and Sally White, eds. (Singapore: Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, 2008), pp. 3-4, 11,
13 Ibid., p. 7.
14 Liow, “Southeast Asia,” Rethinking Political Islam, p. 185.
15 For more on the religious dimensions of the campaign, see Jon Emont, “Does the Quran forbid electing Christians?” The Atlantic, April 18, 2017,
16 Michael Cook, Ancient Religions, Modern Politics: The Islamic Case in Historical Perspective (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2014), p. 98.
17 Péter Krekó and Zsolt Enyedi, “Orbán’s Laboratory of Illiberalism,” Journal of Democracy 29, no. 3 (2018): pp. 39-51,