Islamism and Dissent vs. Identity in the Voting Booth

by Jeffry R. Halverson*

“If a group of people feels that it has been humiliated and that its honor has been trampled underfoot, it will want to express its identity.”                                                                                                                       – Abdolkarim Soroush

In a recent NY Times Op-Ed, Professor John W. Owen of the University of Virginia argues that the electoral success of Islamists after the Arab Spring is due to Islamism’s longstanding role as the dominant voice of political dissent. He writes: “Islamism is winning out because it is the deepest and widest channel into which today’s Arab discontent can flow.” It’s an interesting perspective, but I think it misses the mark. Islamism is not about dissent, it’s about identity.

I explored the electoral success of Ennahda in Tunisia and the future of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt previously on COMOPS. If you haven’t read those blog entries, I encourage you to do so. I won’t repeat that material here. Rather, I want to look at the broader issue of identity, which I think lies at the heart of Islamism’s current popularity.

As readers know, Tunisia and Egypt are the only two countries of the historic Arab Spring to hold democratic elections so far. These countries are commonly designated as Arab states. However, there was a time when the “Arab world” was restricted to the Arabian Peninsula and the southern Levant. It was only after the rise of Islam in the seventh century and the subsequent conquest of North Africa that the lands we know today as Egypt and Tunisia started a gradual shift toward “Arabness.”

‘Who is an Arab’ is a far more complex question than you might guess. The simple answer (my apologies Arabist scholars) is twofold: An Arab is someone who speaks Arabic (there’s even a saying by the Prophet Muhammad that ‘Arabness’ is conferred by the tongue) and/or shares a genealogical or cultural-historical heritage with an Arabic speaking people. Despite certain stereotypical images about what an ‘Arab’ looks like, I assure you that Arabs come in every shade and color of the human family. The Arabic language (including its enormous variety of dialects) is the real root of Arab identity. But what does this have to do with Islamist parties?

The Arabic language arrived with the Muslim expansion across North Africa in the seventh century. Arabic gradually became the dominant language of the peoples in those lands over time. This means that Islam is irrevocably bound to Arab identity, despite the fact that millions of Arabs are Christians. The Qur’an is actually the foundation of literary Arabic as we know it. The Arab tribes of the Peninsula were an oral culture and largely illiterate, and the rise of Islam transformed those conditions.

When you add in the fact that national identities (e.g. American, Iraqi) are a modern innovation developed in the West and largely imposed in North Africa by Western colonial powers, we are left with the fact that Islam served as the primary reference point for identity formation for centuries before that time, along with tribal and ancestral ties.

Jump forward to the independence movements in the Arab world of the mid-twentieth century. The British are ousted in Egypt and the French are ousted in Tunisia. The two young nation-states are independent and can choose a system of governance, including a legal system, for themselves. The dominant trend in the twentieth century was to try to ‘catch up’ to the powers of the age and borrow or adopt European systems and ideologies; not only nationalism, but socialism, communism, even fascism. This sort of borrowing extended into culture (even the way people dressed), technology and education as well. The most radical example in the region was Turkey, a non-Arab state, but still a neighbor with strong cultural ties. Among the Arabs, Tunisia came closest to following Turkey’s radical example. As we know, the post-colonial ‘experiments’ in the Arab states of Tunisia and Egypt ultimately produced the authoritarian regimes that would fall during the Arab Spring.

When Tunisians and Egyptians went to cast their votes this past year, they weren’t too concerned with particular candidates (nor were the election systems set up as such). The elections were about people expressing identities and aspirations freely, perhaps for the first time. Judging by the election results, a large segment of Tunisians and Egyptians who cast votes (note the qualifier) believe that it is important to retain or affirm an Arab-Muslim identity. So far these elections have been about asserting that sense of identity more so than caliphates or a desire to implement medieval penal codes or ban wine.

These elections also come at a time when the United States (its military might aside) is a cultural superpower across the globe. People in many parts of the world, not only in Arab states (note the NY Times recent piece on China), fear the loss of ‘who they are’ in the face of American (or Western) cultural or socioeconomic hegemony.  In my home state of Arizona, we have witnessed the strange, sometimes militant, response of Anglo-Americans who fear Hispanic cultural encroachment and cast votes accordingly. Those are identity votes too. I see little difference between them and those people in Egypt or Tunisia who vote for parties that champion longstanding identities rooted in Islam.


* Jeffry R. Halverson is an Islamic studies scholar and an Assistant Research Professor in the Hugh Downs School of Human Communication at Arizona State University. He is the author of Theology and Creed in Sunni Islam (Palgrave Macmillan 2010), Searching for a King: Muslim Nonviolence and the Future of Islam (Potomac 2012), and co-author of Master Narratives of Islamist Extremism (Palgrave Macmillan 2011).

4 Responses to “Islamism and Dissent vs. Identity in the Voting Booth”

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  1. Cameron says:

    Thanks for the interesting post Jeff. One thing I’m curious about though is how far we can go in labeling the motivating factor behind these votes simply as identity. Particularly in the Egyptian case, people view government services as largely broken and unable to meet their needs. Like people everywhere, Egyptians are trying to make ends meet and provide for their families, but are finding that to be ever more challenging. I haven’t been on the ground asking people what’s motivating their votes, but I think it’s safe to assume that people are craving a government that can bring stability and economic improvement to Egypt. To stick with the theme of NYT op-eds, and to hear from someone who apparently has been talking to people on the streets, I’d like to reference this article ( by Friedman. Skipping to the sixth paragraph we find him quoting female Egyptian voters discussing things like education, jobs, pollution, and medical care. Those are the most pressing issues on their minds.

    At least one difference between the identity voters you mention in Arizona and the voters in Egypt is the daily life that they’re living. Although I’m sure the nativists among us Arizonans run the socio-economic gamut, I think that we would find a greater percentage of Egyptian voters on the lower end of that scale. They’re facing a broken system, not simply an identity crisis.

    In fact “identity crisis” is probably too strong of a word for me to use. We saw that when a young female blogger posted nude photos of herself online many of the liberal parties denounced the move and tried to assure Egyptians that this sort of behavior was not something they condoned. That was largely in response to religious conservatives trying to paint the incident as the inevitable result of liberalism. I don’t think that the parties that American media often label as “secular” would actually embrace that term. From conversations I had with Egyptians this past summer, it mainly has a negative connotation that flirts with atheism, which remains a strong taboo in Egyptian society. At least publicly, everyone has a religion. It’s even written on their national ID card. Therefore I don’t think the liberals are trying to win elections by promoting a secularization that could provoke Muslims to defend their identity at the polls.

    Rather, I’m guessing that people are instead casting their votes for the people they believe can best turn around the Egyptian economy and deliver fair, just governance. Given that no party has necessarily provided a detailed plan to do those things, I think it somewhat comes down to the question, who do you trust? And I would agree that identity comes into play here. Some people identify with the Muslim Brothers as the group that has been working to improve Egyptian communities in the past and present and that can be trusted to put Egyptians’ best interests first. The Salafis have largely been campaigning against the MB on the basis that they don’t actually represent the average Egyptian like the Salafis do. According to them, it’s the Salafis that are your neighbors in the rough parts of town, that are struggling just like you, the ones with whom you can identify. As one woman in the Friedman article says, the Liberals haven’t been out in those neighborhoods. They don’t have the history of providing social services like the MB that they need to gain the trust of those neighborhoods.

    So in the end, I would suggest that we look at identity as important in the Egyptian elections in the sense not simply of voting for Islam as a national identity, but voting for which party people identify more closely with based on a number of factors that include religion and religiosity along with socio-economic status, prior community involvement, and proximity to the old regime.

  2. Erik says:

    Although I am certain that Arab-Muslim identity is part of the key to Islamists’ electoral success, I think that this analysis to easily dismisses the fact that Islamist parties in Egypt and Tunisia are essentially “big tent” parties (to borrow a western electoral expression).

    In Tunisia, support for Ennahdha was based for many purely on its religious bona fides. Many other supporters thought it would be the least corrupt party (furthest from the former regime). Still others identified with its identity as an Arab-Muslim party.

    Today in Tunisia one is beginning to see the fissures between these elements in the party as the government begins the difficult process of governing. For those who voted for Ennahdha because of its perceived un-corruptability, there is widespread concern over government appointments that are seen as nepotistic (see the new Tunisian foreign minister). The more fundamentalist supporters are trying to pull the party into cultural debates. At the same time, figures like Moncef Marzouki fully embrace the identity issue, while eschewing religious questions.

    In the end, the problem is that it is difficult to box a large percentage of the population into a single view. That goes for republicans and democrats as well as for Arab Islamist parties.

  3. Visitor says:

    From a distance, abstractions such as identity [or “dissent”] may seem like explanations for events such as the election results in Egypt and Tunisia, but for local analysts in those countries, the reasons are much more concrete and obvious. In Egypt, it all goes back to the dissolution of the former ruling party, the NDP, and with it the networks and patronage systems that dominated “politics” in Egypt for 60 years in various forms starting with the Arab Socialist Union. Suddenly the field was wide open. The big FJP win in Egypt was a result of three factors. The first was the platform of the party, which focused on the very issues, social justice and decent governance, which the revolution itself was all about. Second, the MB enjoyed a reputation for honesty and dedication at the grassroots level and the public’s familiarity with their social services over many decades.

    The dozens of other new parties that were formed within the last year were too young to have any grassroots following and their platforms seemed confusing. It was difficult to discern the differences among their very similar platforms. It really was, as Egyptian commentators noted, an “alphabet soup” that would baffle any voter, anywhere. These new parties admitted that even delaying the elections a few months, something a few of them pushed for, would not have gained them much. They recognize that it will take years, even decades to build up a constituency anywhere near that which came ready-made for the newly minted MB party, the FJP.

    The only other meaningful competition came from the Salafis, who did an about face from their former position against electoral politics to form their own party, Al Nour. They too have a reputation at the grassroots level for social services, though they are more associated in the minds of Egyptians with cultural issues, i.e., the Islamification of society. In fact, they have worked predominantly in the desperately poor ‘ashwaiyyat, the illegally built popular neighborhood on the outskirts of Cairo and other towns and cities around Egypt that house as much as 50 % of the urban population. Living conditions in these areas are terrible and they are deprived of most basic government services such as water and electricity. Among the “services” provided by the Salafis has been to take action against drug gangs and other criminals, protecting the residents from the worst of slum living. Among the most valuable aspects of this role has been the protection of women against the behavior of men on the street and conflict resolution within families and among neighbors.

    Tunisians also say that with the demise of the ruling party, Annahda had name recognition and respect in a field of relative unknowns. It is important to remember, however, that there are another 50% of the populations of these countries that voted for other parties. It is also true that these newly elected parties will have to deliver on their platform promises or be challenged the next time around by a more coherent opposition. The thing to watch in both these developing industrialized countries is how the countries’ significant organized labor forces evolve politically, especially if they gain the right to unions free of the government affiliation and control.

  4. halverson says:

    Thanks for these thoughtful responses to my blog entry. Each of your responses keyed in on the range of “on the ground” factors that motivated voters to support Islamist parties in Egypt and Tunisia. I don’t see anything inherently wrong about the insights you’ve offered. But I think that some further discussion of the utility of the broader analytical lens of “identity” in these cases is warranted.

    There is no doubt that issues or concerns about unemployment and corruption (among others) were motivating factors in the voting booth. It goes without saying that these Islamist parties, especially the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt (despite the “new” FJP), enjoy longstanding positions in these societies that the secular-liberals have not. Nevertheless, the Islamist parties, despite the familiarity they enjoy among the people, are completely unproven in the political arena. It’s difficult for anyone to charge them with political corruption when they have never governed. Now add in the fact that the Islamists were, at best, a secondary faction in the Arab Spring uprisings that overthrew the dictators and delivered democratic elections. That leaves us with some interesting questions about why over 40% of voters in Egypt and Tunisia cast their support for the Islamists.

    Both John Owen and I addressed these questions by employing a broader analytical lens (a pragmatic strategy, to be sure) that allows observers to examine the trend on a transnational level. I deployed identity and disagreed with Owen’s choice of dissent. This sort of approach is what academics often engage in doing, otherwise we’ll engage in post-structuralist dissections until the end of time. Furthermore, if we want to look closer at “on the ground” local realities as an explanation for Islamist popularity, we will stumble into a multitude of details, differences, qualifiers and nuances that leave little value for outside observers.

    For example, take an issue like unemployment. On a national level, unemployment rates are high in Tunisia. But economic conditions in Tunis are very different than conditions in Bizerte, Kairouan or Tataouine (I recently visited each of these cities). Yet Islamists did well in each of these places. There are also plenty of wealthy and middle-class Islamists in Tunisia and Egypt. Indeed, there were plenty of Muslim Brotherhood beneficiaries from Sadat’s al-Infitah. To cut to the chase, how does one explain the broader motivating factor that unites the wealthy family in Zamalek, the unemployed laborer in Giza, and the middle-class businessman in La Goulette? If we want to break it down, it is perfectly legitimate to say that every individual has their own mind and motivations for voting a certain way. In that case, we need to do some serious data collection. But the work of analysts and scholars is generally to see “big pictures” that help others, such as readers or students, to understand our world. My argument was that the lens of identity is the best strategy to do so in this case, and I’m sticking to it.