By Oliver James
On the 20th of April the Henry Jackson Society welcomed Tarek Osman, author of Egypt on the Brink and presenter of the BBC series Islam Divided. He was here to discuss his new book Islamism: What it Means for the Middle East and the World.
The Arab Spring was cautiously welcomed by the West, with many analysts characterising it as a secular break with the region’s legacy. But Tarek Osman contends that political Islam was the real successor, with Islamist parties winning most elections after the revolutions. The interpretation of the term ‘Islamism’ is as varied as the different groups operating under its banner, and Osman uses this work to grapple with the very basics of Islam as the basis of political legitimacy. From there, Islamism retraces the past two centuries of political Islam across the Arab world, Turkey and Iran, while eschewing an analysis of Islam from a religious point of view.
The term Salafism is often used liberally when describing various groups or organisations in the Arab world. Osman based a seminal chapter of Islamism on an effort to define the term holistically. He suggests that the doctrine evolved as a response to European modernity and intervention, beginning with Napoleon’s invasion of Egypt. That response, according to Osman, can be traced to the modern political aspirations of groups such as the Islamic State. Conversely, Islamism contrasts the history of Salafism with the rise of secular leaders such as Kemal Ataturk and Gamal Abdel Nasser, who attempted to evolve the role of Islam in society in an alternative fashion.
Following a spate of attacks against Egypt’s Christian community in recent weeks, Osman’s analysis of the changing role of minorities in the Middle East is timely. Islamism contends that the current perceived hostility towards Christians is in stark contrast to what Osman describes as an era of liberalisation between the mid-19th and mid-20th centuries. Across the region, particularly in Lebanon, Tunisia and Kuwait, both women’s rights and the acceptance of different religions flourished. It was during that period that Egypt’s first Prime Minister Nubar Pasha, a Christian, rose to prominence. Through tracing the roles of both the Maronites in Lebanon and the Copts in Egypt, Osman highlights the evolution of their position in society, and the role social and political Islam played in that change.
Islamism is not only prevalent in the Arab world. As a Shiite Islamic republic, Iran’s experiences of political Islam are fundamentally incomparable with those of its Sunni neighbours, according to Osman. Through Islamism, Osman suggests that Tehran has never reached a point which Arab Islamists might envy. Looking wider afield, Turkey’s credentials as a secular republic have come under question due to the rapid rise of the AK Party. Islamism puts forward the notion that 90 years of top-down secularisation provided the ideal opportunity for the rapid rise of what Osman describes as a party of Islamist origins. But addressing the question of whether the AK Party’s rise is a model for other Islamists, Osman says the verdict is split.
In the final section of Islamism, Osman tackles current issues within Islamism across the region. Despite the high profile of various militant groups in the Middle East, Osman focuses on mainstream groups which constitute the bulk of political Islam.
In answering questions from the audience, Osman highlighted how technology has created a unique scenario for the proliferation of different ideas and movements. With 40% of the world’s Muslims under the age of 25 years old, Osman suggests that social media presents an opportunity – neither intrinsically bad nor good – for what he calls ‘theological entrepreneurship’. Due to an increase in competition of sources of religious ideas and information, Osman says that it poses the risk of rendering traditional seats of learning as obsolete. He also highlighted that fact that converts to Islam, more so in Europe than the United States, often bring their own unique interpretation of Islam.