Islamists and the Arab Uprisings


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  • Abdullah Al-Arian

This event is cosponsored by the Abbasi Program in Islamic Studies at Stanford University and the Ten Years On Project, 



During the height of the mass uprisings against authoritarian rule, excitement about the prospects for a more just and representative political order across the Arab region was often tempered by questions concerning the role that Islamist parties would play in post-authoritarian transitions. Movements that maintained deep social roots but were often on the margins of state power were poised to implement an Islamist political project decades in the making. The outcomes of the subsequent transitions, particularly the legacy of destructive civil conflicts, foreign interventions, and authoritarian resurgence, have frequently obscured attempts to understand the impact of the Arab uprisings on Islamism. 

This talk examines these recent developments by placing them within a broader historical analysis that traces the evolution of Islamist thought and activism from its tentative embrace of the nation state to its wholehearted entry into national party politics. It argues that, by the eve of the uprisings, the posture of Islamist movements reflected a set of political commitments that had emerged largely at the expense of their ideological program and social mission. Rooted in the historical and recent acceptance of state institutions and political structures, expressions of Islamism by parties across the Arab region reflected a shift that subsumed long held beliefs beneath the needs of (alternately or in combination) democratic pluralism and political expediency, most clearly visible in the transformation of Tunisia’s Ennahda Party. That tension has been exacerbated in the wake of political defeats experienced by many of these movements, particularly Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood. While the “Islamist idea” is likely to endure its current bout with state repression, its survival as a political force in the future will depend on its determination to complete this evolution, a process that was both accelerated and interrupted during the critical moments of the Arab uprisings.


Abdullah Al Arian

Abdullah Al-Arian is an associate professor of history at Georgetown University in Qatar where he specializes in the modern Middle East and the study of Islamic social movements. He is the author of Answering the Call: Popular Islamic Activism in Sadat's Egypt (Oxford University Press). His upcoming book compares the historical experiences of Islamist movements in six different Arab states and will be published by Cambridge University Press. He is also editor of the Critical Currents in Islam page on Jadaliyya ezine.


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