Center for Strategic Communication

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).