Islamism and Its Inclinations: A Review of "Islamism: What it Means for the Middle East and the World"

Michael Small
May 26, 2016

Islamism: What it Means for the Middle East and the World is author Tarek Osman’s attempt to distill the diverse, often misunderstood social and political systems of the Muslim world. Osman explains to the reader what Islamism is, and how, since its inception in the Arabian Peninsula, it has sought to govern and influence jurisprudence, culture, economics, and other aspects of the sociopolitical domain. By doing so, he clarifies what Islamism is not: monolithic or insentient. Summarizing Islamism’s ideological variations, Osman also describes the forms in which Islamist entities exist and have existed, from persecuted cabals to militant organizations to governing bodies and regional hegemons.

Continuing his summary of Islamism’s history, Osman writes on Islamist relationships—at times cooperative, contentious, and conflictual—with other movements and governments. Events such as the collapse of the Ottoman Empire in 1922, the rise and fall of Arab nationalism, wars with Israel, and the Arab Spring have forced Islamists into contact with one another, in addition to Salafists (oftentimes and erroneously conflated with Islamists, as Osman evidences), monarchs, secularists, nationalists, religious minorities, and Western powers. Osman details the histories of these relationships with seemingly disjointed events, but in aggregate they provide the reader with necessary narratives and baseline understandings of complex and dynamic situations. Though he does not dedicate a full chapter to it, Osman also details for the reader the relationship between Islamist entities and democracy.

These overviews mainly focus on the Islamist groups Annahda of Tunisia, the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, and Morocco’s Justice and Development Party (PJD). Osman details how each of the factions are inextricably linked with the political and social environments of their home states and abroad. Osman informs the reader of each group’s founders and guides, origins, times of triumph and defeat, and how the groups fared during and after the Arab Spring. Critical to the understanding of Islamism is its adaptive and evolutionary nature, an aspect that Osman successfully conveys to the reader.

Osman dedicates two chapters to speculating whether or not Turkish or Iranian Islamism can be suitable models for the Arab world. Here Osman provides histories of the Islamic Revolution of Iran and the rise of the Justice and Development Party of Turkey (AKP) that are as thorough as those that he provides for Annahda, the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, and the PJD. He provides analysis of both factions and their systems and predictions of how they would fare in Arab states. The predictions are substantiated by evidence, but Osman’s own views can mislead some readers, especially in his failures to mention some undesirable aspects of the AKP. Among these is the state’s continued persecution of Turkish (and now Syrian) Kurds. However, his pessimistic conclusions of whether or not the Iranian or Turkish models could work in the Arab world—where Osman claims that the AKP’s model is unsustainable, and that the Arab Islamist model may have a better chance in Persia—remains congruent with his theme that Islamism is far from monolithic.

Another important revelation presented by Osman is the oft-forgotten Gulf state interventions to sabotage the rise of, and even assist in the deposition of, Islamist parties during the Arab Spring. To countries such as Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, survival of their monarchies would be in peril if their populations witnessed the successful rise of Islamism by means of free elections. In his chapter on the Gulf’s relationship with Islamism, Osman again reveals the intricacies of a region and sociopolitical system that are often overlooked.

In a chapter titled “Islamism and the West,” Osman makes a point of revealing how insufficiently understood Islamism is to Western governments, much like it has been to a majority of his readership. This lack of understanding, along with influence of 9/11 on the mainstream perception of Islam, caused American and European governments to dubiously receive the success of Islamism in the wake of the Arab Spring. And when democratically-elected parties such as the Muslim Brotherhood of Egypt were overthrown, they glared at Western governments for being, in their view, hypocritical for their lack of intervention. However, Osman is careful not to pity the Islamists, as he makes mention of surreptitious political gamesmanship carried out by some factions and toxic “Jew-baiting” disseminated by others.

The concluding chapter is a succinct overview of how Osman sees Islamism struggling not only with adapting to its present environments, but with itself. With some parties and factions once again persecuted and forced underground, the reader, along with the author, is left to guess how they will react. And with a more global-minded youth rising in the Arab world, Islamism is being forced into interacting with even more movements and governments, and once again adapting and evolving.

The interwoven histories referenced throughout Islamism: What it Means for the Middle East and the World provides the reader with a better understanding of Islamism’s place in the Arab world during a time of warfare and political pandemonium, making it a relevant read for anyone serious about assessing the region today. Osman’s conclusion is much like the system he explains to the reader: open-ended and dynamic.