Being a multidimensional and ambiguous phenomenon, political Islam/Islamism has undergone significant transformations in recent decades. The relevance of the research topic is determined by the growth of Islamist groups and movements of various kinds, whose actions influence the political situation in the Middle East and beyond. The systematic approach used in this study made it possible to analyze not only individual aspects of Islamism but also to synthesize them into a single picture.

As a rule, new ideas arise during crises and/or sociopolitical upheavals as a reaction to stagnation and the desire to overcome it. Islamism organizationally took shape at the turn of the 1970‒1980s and achieved enormous popularity in the Arab world as an alternative model to Arab nationalism, which had discredited itself with defeats in the Arab‒Israeli wars, as well as the inability to unite all Arabs “under one roof” and resolve sociopolitical problems (Khairullin, 2019). The culminating result of the victory of Islamism was the Islamic Revolution of 1979 in Iran, which, despite its Shiite character, gave a powerful impetus to Islamist movements throughout the Middle East. Together with Iran, Saudi Arabia was active in proselytizing and was more likely to take a leading position in the predominantly Sunni region. The oil embargo of 1973, followed by the oil boom, strengthened the positions of the Saudi kingdom (Kepel, 2003).

The astronomical enrichment of the Saudis through the influx of petrodollars allowed them to promote the conservative Wahhabi version of Sunni Islam throughout the Middle East. The leadership of Saudi Arabia considered increasingly popular political Islam to be a new integration component, which, pushing the factors of language, culture, and ethnicity to the background, would unite not only the peoples and states of the Middle East but also Muslims from all over the world into a single ummah. The creation of an Islamic welfare state became the dream of many Islamist movements and groups in the Middle East (Vasiliev, 2020).

However, the events in the region in the early 1990s significantly weakened the mobilization, political, and cultural potential of Saudi Arabia’s strategy. In the first place, we mean Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait in 1991, because of which the Saudi kingdom had to call for help from American military forces to stop Iraqi aggression. The thought that “infidels,” represented by American soldiers, would trample on the sacred land of the Arabian Peninsula seriously undermined the authority of the Saudis in the eyes of Muslims throughout the region. Saudi Arabia’s positioning itself as the leader of the Sunni world and the guardian of two shrines (Mecca and Medina) were not correlated to its decision to bring in foreign troops to resolve the conflict.

The second cause in discrediting the Saudi strategy was the collapse of the illusions of the majority of the population of the countries of the region who came to the Persian Gulf monarchies (including Saudi Arabia) to earn money. Working in the oil fields did not improve the life of most Middle Eastern countries (perhaps, except for Egypt), and conservative Wahhabi Islam became associated with wealthy Gulf monarchies and aroused hostility (Kepel, 2003).

Finally, it was the temporary drop in hydrocarbon prices in the late 1990s that contributed to the decline in the popularity of Saudi-style political Islam (Akaev at el., 2012).


Against the background of the obvious ideological crisis of Islamism and the growth of radical Islamist groups, it was rethought in the spirit of liberalization. In particular, a new improved model of Islamism was proposed, supposed to adapt to the realities of the modern globalized world—post-Islamism.

Post-Islamists believed that under the dominance of secular authoritarian regimes, Islamism could not achieve its main goal—the creation of an Islamic state (Bayat, 1996; Roy, 2004). Islamism looks to the past (the ambition to create an Islamic state according to the model of the “golden age of Islam”), while post-Islamism looks to the future and can well get along with those democratic values that do not contradict the basic principles of Islam (Lauzière, 2005). One of the ideologists of post-Islamism, American‒Iranian researcher A. Bayat, defined post-Islamism as a state in which, after a series of experiments, even in the eyes of the most ardent supporters, the attractiveness, energy, symbols, and sources of legitimacy of Islamism are exhausted. Post-Islamism is an attempt to unite religiosity and rights, faith and freedom. It seeks to turn the founding principles of Islamism on the head, emphasizing rights instead of duties, pluralism in the space of a single authoritarian voice, historicity instead of fixed scripture, and the future instead of the past. At the same time, it is not anti-Islamic in nature but rather reflects a trend towards the resecularization of religion. In the first place, this trend calls for limiting the political role of religion (Bayat, 1996).

As successful examples of building a post-Islamic society, one can cite Turkey and Iran, which at the turn of the 1990s‒2000s managed to combine Islam with individual freedom and choice, connecting their image with democratic values (Bayat, 2007). Note that later the authoritarian style of government intensified in both countries, which cast doubt on the possibility of success in building a post-Islamic society. In addition, in the 2000s a number of politically nonexhausted Islamist parties proved that their electoral potential was still strong, and they still strove to achieve political power. For example, repression and severe restrictions in electoral rules did not prevent the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood from showing good results in the legislative elections in 2005. The Moroccan Justice and Development Party also performed well at the turn of the 1990s‒2000s, showing the positive dynamics of the growth of deputy mandates in the legislative body of the country. Nevertheless, it cannot be denied that in the countries under consideration, within the evolution of ideological paradigms, liberal tendencies were manifested.


The revolutionary events of the Arab Spring significantly adjusted the ideological architecture of the Middle East. The fall of authoritarian regimes and the growth of protests in support of democratic principles led to another discussion about the “decline of Islamism” and the onset of a new “post-Islamic dawn.” Describing the new post-Islamic society, the Western European researcher F. Cavatorta uses the term new Islamists to describe the new religiosity associated with the Arab uprising and spontaneous collaboration with institutionalized political Islam (Cavatorta, 2012b).

During the Arab Spring, Tunisia and Morocco became new examples of the formation of a post-Islamic society. The success of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt is difficult to fit into the post-Islamist paradigm due to its short duration and the inability of the Egyptian Islamists to hold on to the political arena (Ketchley, 2017).

In Tunisia, the moderate Islamist Renaissance Party (Ennahda), ideologically related to the Muslim Brotherhood, showed firm intentions to reach compromise and make consensus decisions that were far from its initial campaign promises (Cavatorta, 2012a). As a result of the parliamentary race in 2011, Ennahda won, receiving 89 out of 217 seats. In the parliament, between 2011 and 2014, the party took a pragmatic approach and formed the Troika coalition, which included the Democratic Forum for Labor and Liberties and the Congress for the Republic. Temporary rapprochement for tactical purposes allowed the Islamists to take a dominant position and influence the formation of the political agenda in the Tunisian parliament (Vasil’ev et al., 2019).

Obviously, to achieve the common goal—the transition from authoritarianism to democracy—Tunisian Islamists were ready to make a temporary tactical rapprochement with non-Islamist parties. Representatives of Ennahda repeatedly stressed the compatibility of Islam with democracy and advocated a free and just society in Tunisia (Cavatorta and Merone, 2015). However, the energetic policy of the Islamist party stalled in 2014, when it failed to become the leader in the next parliamentary elections. The loss of positions was due to the deepening contradictions amid provocations from conservative and radical groups regarding the future of the country’s Basic Law. They were dissatisfied with Ennahda’s statements that Sharia would not be the only source of legislation (Khairullin, 2019). The Islamists took second place in terms of the number of deputy mandates and lost the opportunity to influence political decisions in the parliament. Nevertheless, the party managed to stay in the political arena as opposed to the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt.

The Moroccan moderate Islamist Justice and Development Party (PJD) (close to the Muslim Brotherhood and sharing the same name as the ruling party in Turkey) also showed the ability to take advantage of the favorable political environment and uphold democratic rights and freedoms. As a result of the political struggle, Moroccan Islamists won the 2011 parliamentary elections and formed a government. Despite opposition from the royal authorities, the PJD repeated its success in the parliamentary elections of 2016. According to the Belgian researcher S. Zemni, the PJD can be called post-Islamist in the sense that it does not so much seek to restore the original Islamic city of the time of the Prophet as to create a social order in which justice is guaranteed through respect for Islamic values that have their genealogy in sacred texts (Zemni, 2013).

The examples of building a post-Islamic society in Iran and Turkey are unstable and dubious. However, the Tunisian and Moroccan models, which approached the transformation of political Islam based on integration into democratic choice; the civil state; and the separation of religion and politics, seem to have succeeded in approaching the core of the post-Islamic idea.

The Arab Spring contributed to the qualitative transition of a number of Salafi movements from preaching to active participation in political elections. Note that the Salafi concept, formed in the 13th‒18th centuries, is based, first and foremost, on the idea that Islam has been distorted over the past centuries by various innovations, and to get rid of them, it is necessary to return to the times of Prophet Muhammad and the four righteous caliphs—the “golden age” of Islam. This goal is a constant source of inspiration for Salafists (Naumkin, 2005). Representatives of this movement spread their ideas through preaching activities, which included calls (da’wāt) and a complete refusal to participate in politics (Wiktorowicz, 2006). It is also worth noting that Salafism and Islamism—a trend in Islam and the political ideology formed based on it—cannot be identified (Khairullin, 2020).

Before the events of the Arab Spring, the Salafis did not engage in political activities and limited their presence in the social sphere—except for, perhaps, the Salafis from Kuwait (Khairullin, 2020). However, the events of 2011 and 2012 radically changed the situation: Salafi political parties began to appear in some Middle Eastern states.

They were formed in Egypt, Tunisia, and Yemen. In Morocco, Salafi movements showed an active civic stance and were able to influence the outcome of the parliamentary elections in 2011 and 2016. The participation of Salafis in political elections led to an ideological split into two camps: some supporters considered politics an integral part of modern life and a tool for upholding Islamic principles, while others considered participation in political elections as a temporary action.

Although the liberal-minded part of the Salafists did not achieve significant success and did not become an active political force, the emergence of Salafi parties indicates significant shifts towards the liberalization of the traditional Salafi doctrine.

A significant trend towards liberalization was also observed in the ranks of the traditional Islamist organization Muslim Brotherhood on the eve of the events of the Arab Spring. After having lost the parliamentary elections in November‒December 2010, the liberal-minded members of the Muslim Brotherhood created the Freedom and Justice Party, which won the early elections in 2012 thanks to its democratic program and slogans. Thus, the President of Egypt and leader of the party, M. Morsi, in an interview to the Asia and Africa Today, stated that since the people in Islam were the source of power, democracy would be an integral part of the party’s course (Vasil’ev and Petrov, 2012). Thus, within the ranks of the Muslim Brotherhood, moderate Islamist views prevail, and there is a trend towards greater liberalization of the organization, which takes the form of democratic Islamism.

Among other things, in the past few years, the public’s trust in Islamist movements and Islamism in general has been declining. This dynamic is facilitated by the failure of moderate Islamist parties and movements to achieve power and their inability to solve socioeconomic problems, as well as the activities of radical Islamist groups. According to researchers from Princeton and Michigan Universities, trust in Islamist parties and trust in religious leaders have declined in six key Arab countries over the past five years, which has also affected mosque attendance. Thus, in 2013, 8% of the surveyed Arabs called themselves nonreligious (“inactive Muslims”); by 2018, their share increased to 13% (Akyol, 2019).

Trust in Islamist parties that share an ideological affinity with the Muslim Brotherhood declined significantly, and their popularity and legitimacy are at their lowest among the Arab public, dropping from 47.5% to 19.8% between 2011 and 2019 (First Annual…, 2020).

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Organizationally formed at the turn of the 1970s‒1980s, Islamism acted as a liberal ideological model able to correct the sociopolitical mistakes of Arab nationalism. However, the movement failed to achieve its goal—to build an Islamic state—and constantly faced opposition from authoritarian regimes, which led to an ideological crisis and a rethinking of Islamist ideas in the early 1990s. As a way out of this situation, a more liberal version of Islamist ideas was proposed, post-Islamism. However, the examples of post-Islamic societies in Iran and Turkey proved to be short-lived due to the rise of authoritarian tendencies. In addition, the success of a number of Islamist parties at the turn of the 2000s showed the continuing potential of Islamism. The events of the Arab Spring accelerated liberal democratic tendencies, which were also reflected in Islamist ideology. In particular, moderate Islamists who advocated the reconciliation of Islam and democracy have succeeded in Tunisia and Morocco, which has led to a resurgence of post-Islamic ideas. The growth of liberal tendencies intensified with the emergence of Salafi parties in a number of states in the Arab world. However, the liberal approaches of the Islamists are enduring difficulties that do not allow them to fully achieve their goals. Radical Islamist groups, which also underwent evolutionary development during the Arab Spring, are a special problem on this path.

Against the backdrop of ongoing instability in the Middle East and North Africa, it is hardly surprising that the effectiveness of the slogans of Islamist parties, movements, and Islamism in general is declining, reflecting a certain disappointment on the part of the population. Of course, this trend is not very pronounced, but the current position is not comparable with the popularity of Islamism in the 1970‒1980s or during the Arab Spring. Moreover, the decline in the popularity of Islamism testifies to the liberalization of public consciousness and the gradual secularization of social and political relations in the Middle East. In turn, the liberalization of the political consciousness of conservative Salafis and moderate Islamists indicates a significant transformation of Islamism, which may lead to the emergence of new modifications in it.