When Islamism gained ground during the 1970s and 1980s, it was initially dominated by revolutionary movements and radical tactics. Over the next 30 years, however, the religious revival in Arab societies diversified, and social shifts reined in radicalism. The toll of death and destruction that radical Islamism left in its wake also diverted interest in militancy.
Even the proliferation of media free from overbearing state control played a role. In the mid-1990s, Al-Jazeera became the first independent satellite television station in the Arab world. Within a generation, there were more than 500 such stations. Many offered a wide range of religious programming -- from traditional sheikhs to liberal Muslim thinkers -- which in turn introduced the idea of diversity. Suddenly, there was no single truth in a religion that has preached one path to God for 14 centuries.
Islamists also changed both through victory and defeat -- or a combination. Shiite Islamists won a political victory in Iran's 1979 revolution, when Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini rose to power. But three decades later, the world's only modern theocracy was increasingly ostracized by the world, leading many Islamists to ask, "What went wrong?"
In Algeria, Sunni Islamists were pushed aside in a military coup on the eve of an election victory in 1992. The party was banned, its leaders imprisoned. A more militant faction then took on the military, and more than 100,000 people were killed in a decade-long civil war. The bloody aftermath of the Arab world's first democratic election had a ripple effect on the calculations of Islamist groups across the region.
As a result of their experience with the power of government repression, Islamists increasingly compromised to get in, or stay in, the political game. In Egypt, the Muslim Brothers ran for parliament whenever allowed, often making tactical alliances with secular parties. In Kuwait and Morocco, Islamists abided by the political rules whenever they ran for parliament, even when it meant embracing those countries' monarchies. Morocco's Justice and Development Party recognized the sacred dimension of the king in order to participate in elections, while Jordan's Muslim Brotherhood publicly supports the king despite growing discontent among the Arab Bedouin tribes.
A generation of Islamic activists forced into exile also played a major role in redirecting their movements. Most leaders or members ended up spending more time in Western countries rather than Islamic nations, where they came into contact with other secular and liberal dissidents as well as non-government organizations such as Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, and Freedom House. These new connections facilitated the flow of ideas, and their movements' evolution.
In the 1990s, exiled activists increasingly framed their agendas in terms of democracy and human rights. They acknowledged that simplistic slogans like "Islam is the solution" were not enough to build programs or coalitions capable of removing dictators. Rachid Ghannouchi, co-founder of Tunisia's Ennahda Party, concluded almost 20 years before the Arab uprisings that democracy was a better tool to fight dictatorships than the call for either jihad or sharia.
The Social Revolution
Islamists have changed because society has changed too. The rise of Islamists has reflected the social and cultural revolutions within Muslim societies as much as a political revolution.
A new generation has entered the political space, especially in the major cities. It is the generation of Tahrir Square, the epicenter of Egypt's uprising against Hosni Mubarak. When the uprisings began, two-thirds of the Arab world's 300 million people were under the age of 30. They are better educated and more connected with the outside world than any previous generation. Many speak or understand a foreign language. The females are often as ambitious as their male counterparts. Both genders eagerly question and debate. Most are able to identify and even shrug off propaganda.
The shift does not necessarily mean the baby-boom generation is more liberal or more secular than their parents. Many Arab baby boomers are attracted by new forms of religiosity that stress individual choice, direct relations with God, self-realization, and self-esteem. But even when they join Islamic movements, they bring along their critical approach and reluctance to blindly follow an aging leadership.
The transformation is visible even among young Egyptian Salafis, followers of a puritanical strain of Islam that emphasizes a return to early Islamic practices. They may wear baggy trousers and long white shirts in imitation of the Prophet Mohammed. But they also often wear shiny sunglasses and sport shoes. They are part of a global culture.
For decades, the Salafis opposed participation in politics. But after the uprisings, they completely reversed course. They jumped into politics, hastily registering as political parties. At universities, clubs of young Salafis -- including females -- have joined public debate forums.
The influence of the current baby-boom generation will be enduring. Their numbers are likely to dominate for much of their lives -- potentially another 30 to 40 years -- because the fertility rate has plummeted almost everywhere in the Arab world since their birth.
The Three Camps
During the centuries-old debate about Islam and democracy, Muslim religious scholars and intellectuals fell into three broad camps.
The first camp rejects both democracy and secularism as Western concepts that are not even worth refuting. In this fundamentalist view, participating even in everyday politics, such as joining a political party or voting, is haram, or religiously forbidden. This has been the position of the Wahhabi clerics in Saudi Arabia, the Taliban in Afghanistan and, for decades, the various Salafi schools across the Arab world.
The second camp claims that returning to the "true tenets" of Islam will create the best kind of democracy. In this conservative view, the faithful may deliberate to understand the true path, but the idea that religion is the ultimate truth is not negotiable. These Islamists invoke the concept of tawhid, or the oneness, uniqueness and sovereignty of God, which can never be replaced by the will of the people.