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April 05, 2010

Underestimating Religious Parties
Posted by Shadi Hamid

A quick follow-up on yesterday's post: the Western tendency to underestimate the strength of Islamist parties is not just limited to the recent Iraqi election results. There's a bigger issue here.

Analysts always seem to be finding signs of Islamist decline, and I think we've seen more of this trend the past couple years. I remember after the 2007 Moroccan elections when everyone seemed to think, or assume, that Islamists were the biggest losers. It was certainly true that the Islamist PJD performed below expectations but it was also true that the PJD won more votes than any other party and increased its parliamentary seats from 42 to 47. Not exactly a resounding defeat.

Yes, many Islamist groups, including the Muslim Brotherhood and Jordan's Islamic Action Front, are dealing with internal divisions and struggling to devise a coherent response to regime repression. But, if that's the case, then Islamist weakness reflects not their declining popularity but rather that Arab regimes are very good at repressing their strongest opponents. 

And even when Islamist parties suffer relative defeats in the electoral arena, it does not necessarily follow that they've suffered such defeats because they are Islamist. In other words, voters can decide not to vote for Islamist parties for a whole host of reasons that have nothing to do with their Islamist character. Similarly, just because people vote for Islamist parties does not necessarily mean that they have any particular affinity for Islamism as such. There is a reason, after all, that some Christians vote for Hezbollah, and many secularists for Hamas. 

In short, it would be a mistake to assume that when Islamist parties lose, that this reflects a broader shift away from religious politics or from religion, and towards "secularism" - the kind of thing we like to believe is happening in the Middle East but, for both better and worse, rarely does and most likely won't. 


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