The Islamist movement may appear stronger than ever, but a close look suggests two weaknesses that might doom it, and perhaps quickly.
Its strengths are obvious. The Taliban, Al-Shabaab, Boku Haram, and ISIS take Islamism – the ideology calling for Islamic law to be applied in its entirety and severity – to unbearable extremes, rampaging and brutalizing their way to power. Pakistan could fall into their hands. The ayatollahs of Iran enjoy a second wind thanks to the Vienna deal. Qatar has the highest per capita income in the world. Recep Tayyip Erdogan is becoming Turkey's dictator. Islamist operatives swarm the Mediterranean toward Europe.
But weaknesses within, especially squabbling and disapproval, could undo the Islamist movement.
Infighting became vicious in 2013, when Islamists abruptly stopped their prior pattern of cooperation among themselves and instead began internecine fighting. Yes, the Islamist movement as a whole shares similar goals, but it also contains different intellectuals, groups, and parties with variant ethnic affiliations, tactics, and ideologies.
Its internal divisions have spread fast and far. These include Sunnis vs. Shiites, notably in Syria, Iraq, and Yemen; monarchists vs. republicans, notably in Saudi Arabia; non-violent vs. violent types, notably in Egypt; modernizers vs medieval revivalists, notably in Tunisia; and plain old personal differences, notably in Turkey. These divisions obstruct the movement by turning its guns inward.
The dynamic here is ancient: As Islamists approach power, they fight amongst themselves for dominance. Differences that hardly mattered when in the wilderness take on great importance as the stakes get higher. In Turkey, for example, the politician Erdogan and the religious leader Fethullah Gülen cooperated until they dispatched their common enemy, the military, from politics, when they turned against each other.
Unpopularity, the second problem, may be the biggest peril for the movement. As populations experience Islamist rule first hand, they reject it. It's one thing to believe in the abstract about the benefits of Islamic law and quite another to suffer its deprivations, ranging from the Islamic State's totalitarian horrors to the comparatively benign emerging dictatorship in Turkey.
Signs of this discontent include the large majorities of Iranians who reject the Islamic Republic, the wave of exiles out of Somalia, and the massive Egyptian demonstrations of 2013 protesting a single year of the Muslim Brotherhood in power. As with fascist and communist rule, Islamist sovereignty often leads to people voting with their feet.
Should these two tendencies hold, the Islamist movement is heading for trouble. Some analysts already see the Islamist era having ended and the emergence of something new from its wreckage. For example, the Sudanese scholar
The enemies of Islamism have much work ahead. Muslims must both fight this movement and develop a compelling alternative to its goal of implementing Islamic law, explaining constructively what it means to be a Muslim in 2016. Non-Muslims can serve as their helpful auxiliaries, providing everything from applause to funds to guns.
Islamism's mounting problems offer grounds for confidence but not for smugness, as another reversal in course could take place at any time. But if current trends hold, the Islamist movement will have been limited, much as fascism and communism before it, damaging Western civilization, not destroying it.
Whatever the trend, defeating Islamism remains the challenge.