James Piscatori is Fellow of Wadham College and the Oxford Centre for Islamic Studies as well as a Member of the Faculties of Social Studies and Oriental Studies at the University of Oxford. Piscatori was formerly Professor in the Department of International Politics at the University of Wales, and Research Fellow at the Royal Institute of International Affairs, London. He is the author of Islam in a World of Nation-States and Muslim Politics (with Dale F. Eickelman). He is the editor of Islam in the Political Process and co-editor of Muslim Travellers: Pilgrimage, Migration, and the Religious Imagination. His article, “Islam, Islamists, and the Electoral Principle” appeared as the first in a series of papers for the International Institute for the Study of the Modern Muslim World (Leiden). In the article below, a summary of a piece written for Oxford Islamic Studies Online, Piscatori reflects on Islamists in power.
The resurgence of the Taliban in Afghanistan and Pakistan has raised concern once again about what Islamists would do if they came to power. Memories of the last time the Taliban were in control have left a powerfully negative image, and the examples of President Ahmadinejad in Iran and Hamas in Palestine have generated similar anxieties. But others point out that Islamists have evolved in more pluralist and participatory ways in countries like Iran and Turkey, in large part because the dictates of daily rule compel them to do so. There are, in fact, two schools of thought on the subject, each asking who influences whom: the Islamists or the ‘system’? One view holds that Islamists in power will impose their ideological agendas and change the social and political orders. The other view, by way of contrast, argues that the political system will change, in effect moderate, the Islamists. In the first, ideology is seen as paramount; in the second, the practical constraints of governing.
Specific case studies reveal that the record is mixed. In the cases of Iran, Palestine and Turkey, Islamist groups have stuck in parts to the values that have guided them, but the circumstances of governing and maintaining power have also induced expediency. Some observers of political Islam go so far as to suggest that ‘reason of state’ and the need for give-and-take bargaining may induce ultimate failure, with Islamists able neither really to adapt ideologically nor to govern effectively. But the experience of at least several countries points to another possibility – that Islamism can evolve both ideologically and pragmatically.