Two distinct views on what Islamists in power would do have emerged. The first view holds that Islamists will follow a dogmatic and intolerant agenda. "Talibanization," reflecting the experience of Afghanistan from the mid-1990s to the American invasion of 2001, serves as a metaphor for Islamists who seize power and institute what is sometimes called "medieval" or "barbaric" rule. Also in this view, if Islamists come to power through elections, it will be "one person, one vote, one time." In the words of the prominent scholar of Islamic studies, Bernard Lewis, "[Islamists] are willing to see [liberal democracy], at best, as an avenue to power, but an avenue that runs one way only" (Lewis, 54).The second view argues that the daily demands of governing will either moderate the Islamists' idealism or, at the least, reveal a fundamental impracticality that will limit their appeal in the future or doom them to failure (Fuller, 203-204). Olivier Roy has argued that the need for consensus in governing and the enduring importance of nationalism mean that the "logic of the state" will win out over the "logic of the shariʿah" (Roy, 83). The first school of thought holds that Islamists will transform the political order; the second, that Islamists will be more changed by the political system than they will change it....
According to the contours of the contemporary debate as we have seen, Islamists in power will either transform the system or be transformed by it. The inescapable implication is that the former scenario is mainly radicalizing whereas the latter is largely moderating. Although elements of both are sometimes present, the behavior of Islamists in power falls closer to that anticipated by the second school of thought. But moderation or ultimate failure—the two possible outcomes of this school—counts for less than pragmatism. To the extent that pragmatism emerges, it provides the basis for adaptation. This is certainly an important development in its own right, but there could be a longer-term effect. By following an astute, rational, problem-solving approach while holding on to a culturally distinctive identity, pragmatic Islamists may be agents of change, blending religious values with secularized ways of thinking that eventually transform their perspective on the ends, as well as the means, of power.
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.