Last week, I wrote about the pragmatic nature of most Islamic political movements and how they have sacrificed ideology for power politics. This has been no doubt, a major failure of Islamic political movements, making it difficult to distinguish between them and regular political parties that exist in the political arena. Apart from this blunder, another shortcoming has been that Islamic political movements have taken on board an inbox approach to political change, through working within existing political parameters. The belief is that one can institutionalize Islam through the existing rules of the game, but an important question that arises is whether a political system allows room for internal systematic change to occur or not?  An answer to this is important as it will highlight the utopian perception amongst most Islamic political movements that they can initiate change from within.

A political system, regardless of its ideological framework has inbuilt mechanisms to prevent it from being changed from within. If one was to observe the Soviet Union, the Communist Party was the thinking organ and the survival mechanism for the communist political system that would prevent threats, challenges or deviation from the communist line. Therefore, it was virtually impossible for any political actor, or movement to emerge to change the political system from within, as they would have been marginalized and alienated immediately. In capitalist secular political systems, survival mechanisms are various, ranging from the de-centralization of power, to the existence of a two house legislative body, to the presence of multiple political parties, a judiciary and civil society organizations that have an interest in keeping in place existing political structures and processes. We saw, during the Cold War in the US, these survival mechanisms kick into to cleanse and keep communists out of the political system and a similar process is occurring today in Europe, with Muslims vetted extensively by political parties before allowing them to join or stand in elections to ensure there is no internal threat to the political processes in European nations.

Now taking this into consideration, how practical is it for Islamic political movements to bring change in the existing political systems in the Muslim world? If one was to look to recent experiences, one would be able to arrive at a conclusion. The rise of the political arm of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, the party of Freedom and Justice (PFJ) post Mubarak was short lived, with its government being brought down by contesting political parties and civil society forces that were not willing to allow a post Mubarak era to usher in and with them fighting to bring back the old order to secure their interests. Likewise in Tunisia, En Nahda was forced to form a coalition government, and then as a result of continuous political battles it had to stand down and allow a national unity government to come into being. Some may argue: what about AKP in Turkey? If one was to analyze the AKP, despite personnel changes and purges in military ranks, it has not changed the rules of the game; it continues to live by the Kemalist constitution and has not done anything to break Turkey away from the US geopolitical orbit. At the same time, the AKP has been checked by the Kemalists who have a vested interest in keeping place the Kemalist system post Ottoman Caliphate. In Pakistan, the MMA did nothing whilst in the National Assembly, it was out numbered, so kept in a straitjacket by competing political forces and even if it had a majority, it would have been brought to its knees by political competitors within and outside the political system.

One still hears from some, that if Islamic political movements could bring into place better managers, a competent team, make changes at the bureaucratic level, then they have a good chance of initiating Islamic change. But again, such arguments fail to understand the political system and the inbuilt survival mechanisms they have and the penetration of perpetual vested interests into the political system. Pakistan is a case in point, where the political system has been overtaken by vested interests that have spread their influence from the national to the municipal level, making it impossible for Islamic political movements to bring change without severe impediments and blockages at all levels of the political system.

Islamic political movements have to re-think their political strategy, as not only is it impractical for the reasons mentioned but also it is based on an incorrect understanding of change. True political change comes through understanding the key cornerstones of any political system; that of public opinion and support from power brokers in society. It is the public opinion which legitimizes existing political systems and it is the power brokers which securitize the political system protecting it from any internal or external threats. This means that public opinion needs to be re-conditioned and this requires active intellectual and political work in society, to challenge the thoughts and emotions that shape existing public opinion to create new public opinion for change. Once this is done, then winning the support of power brokers would be critical in transferring this new public opinion into authority, otherwise public opinion remains theoretical. Unfortunately, if one analyzes Islamic political movements, they lack any real intellectual and political work in addressing public opinion and lack any exertion to seek the support of powerful factions, focusing merely on trying to change the system from within. Islamic political movements are at an important juncture and they need to bring something new to the table in thought and strategy; otherwise they risk being marginalized not only by the political systems they work in but also the base they look to for support, as this support base is becoming tired of their energy being used. All they see is a wall being hit over and over again with no breakthrough, except that the wall gets larger and tougher.  

The writer is an assistant professor of political science at LUMS.