In the years that preceded the Arab Uprisings, the term "Islamist," particularly in the West, often carried connotations of a monolithic movement. The word served as shorthand, but it blurred significant distinctions that have long existed within the movement. Political Islam has always included a variety of views, particularly regarding timing and tactics. Islamists have long held differing positions regarding the acceptability of violence, and they have stood at numerous points along an ideological axis that ranges from gradualism and moderation to fast-track radicalism.
Since the fall of a number of Arab dictatorships, however, it has become even more apparent that Islamists come in a wide variety of tactical and ideological flavors. That was on prominent display in the aftermath of the recent attacks against American diplomatic missions in the Middle East.
What has become increasingly clear is that Islamists themselves are engaged in a fierce political battle to determine their own identity.
In some respects, taking a stand on the issues of the day was simpler for the region’s Islamist leaders when secular dictatorships made the matter mostly academic, or theological. But now that the groups have taken power, they can no longer hold fast to distant goals, while ignoring practical considerations. And the choices they face have become more complicated. Competing power centers and demands for democracy have arisen within organizations that were once strictly hierarchical. Perhaps most important, there are now costs associated with every decision.
Broadly speaking, the term "Islamist" encompasses individuals who follow a similar foundational ideology, heavily influenced by the writings of Hassan al-Banna and Sayyid Qutb. It usually refers to people who view Islam as their driving force in politics and who generally share the goal of making Islam not just the religion, but also the law of their lands. But the continuum of political views and tactical approaches among Islamists is enormous. At the most extreme end of the spectrum, it includes a small minority of radicals who view acts of terror as acceptable means to achieve their objectives. The vast majority of Islamists, however, are still trying to work out how to play the game of politics in the new ideological battlefield.
A case in point is Egypt, whose former president, Hosni Mubarak, had long warned that if he lost power he would be replaced by Islamists. As it turns out, he was exactly right. But the question remains, what exactly does it mean that Egypt is governed by Islamists?
The answer to that question is unclear even to the Islamist leaders who have handily won every election Egypt has held since Mubarak was toppled.
Since entering politics with tremendous electoral success, Egypt's main Islamist groups have experienced severe rifts and infighting. That is particularly true of the country's Salafist power structure, the more conservative of the two major streams of political Islam in Egypt.
Last year, Salafis pulled off a breathtaking performance during Egypt's first free parliamentary elections. Their party, Salafi al-Nour, exceeded everyone's expectations, taking more than 24 percent of the legislature's seats, second only to the Brotherhood's 47 percent. The results relegated liberal and secular parties to little more than spectators, but they opened up the Islamist parties to a new rivalry.
Salafis want a quick return to the ways of 7th-century Islam. They advocate immediate imposition of Sharia, Islamic law, and support segregation of the sexes and limited rights for women and non-Muslims. By contrast, the Brotherhood says it seeks a more gradual transition to Sharia.
The most pressing concern for Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi, however, is stabilizing the country’s economy and restoring growth. That has often meant placing practical issues ahead of social, religious and even spiritual ones -- a choice that has not always been well-received by his critics on the right.
Still, both groups are in the process of settling myriad issues dealing not only with their political objectives but also with their political tactics and procedures. The realities of political life have created new rifts, new power fiefdoms and new centrifugal forces that could tear the organizations into more splinter groups.
When demonstrators targeted the U.S. Embassy in Cairo on Sept. 11 under instructions mainly from Salafi Islamists, for instance, they placed President Mohammed Morsi, of the Muslim Brotherhood, in a political quandary.
As the assaults on the embassy unfolded, Morsi and the Brotherhood initially offered support for the protesters. The first official word of apology for the attacks and condolence for the killing of a U.S. diplomat in Libya came not from the country's president but from the head of the Muslim Brotherhood, Khairat Shater.
Shater, the most powerful figure inside the Brotherhood with a long track record of dealing with the West, was the Brotherhood's original candidate for the presidency before his disqualification by elections officials led to Morsi's rise. Seeing Washington's anger rise over Morsi's failure to speak out forcefully against the anti-American attacks, Shater wrote a letter to the New York Times rejecting the protesters’ actions.
The letter carried an implicit criticism of Morsi's handling of relations with the U.S., and reflected Shater’s concern that Morsi was playing with fire by alienating Washington.
As it happens, Morsi and Shater belong to the same current within the Brotherhood, which is unofficially divided between the younger generation that wants relations with the U.S. and Western aid, and the older, more conservative figures, who are more strongly wedded to the group's decades-old anti-Western ideology. Morsi and Shater both favor accepting aid and establishing commercial links with the West.
Islamists had historically reserved a special status for Washington as their sworn enemy. But that was before they had to govern. The question now is much more complicated. And Morsi's attempts to have it both ways -- negotiate financial assistance from the U.S., while supporting anti-American demonstrators -- was an impossible balancing act.
It was perhaps the first real stumble for Morsi, who has managed to maintain popular support in Egypt despite drawing intense criticism from all sides.
Salafis have castigated him for not pushing harder to make Sharia the law of the land. He has also come under fire for requesting a loan from the International Monetary Fund, whose interest-bearing credit lines some see as conflicting with Islamic law.
But Salafi leaders are themselves enduring withering criticism as well.
The Nour party denies a serious internal rift, but the divisions are becoming more acrimonious. The party has developed a deep split between reformers and hardliners, and the party chief, Abdel Ghafour, has already been publicly overruled after trying to cancel internal elections to choose local committees. After the elections came under criticism, Ghafour ordered them postponed, but he was rebuked by the party's Supreme Committee, which said he had no authority to reschedule the vote.
Though ostensibly a squabble over party rules, the dispute in fact amounts to a challenge to Ghafour’s authority and points to the emergence of new and competing centers of power within the organization. Members are demanding more democracy within the party at precisely the time when the group will have to make important policy choices.
Clearly, the dominant ideology in postrevolution Egypt is Islamist. But divisions are deep and wide-ranging among those who see their Muslim identity as the blueprint for their and their country's politics.
Islamists were never truly monolithic. They were always divided. And their divisions are about to become more profound, more visible and consequentia