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Behind the Success of Political Islam

April 3, 2013 in Economics

By Dalibor Rohac

Dalibor Rohac

It’s been over two years since the beginning of protests that led to the fall of authoritarian regimes across North Africa and the Middle East, and the Arab Spring is not what most observers hoped for. Egypt is in shambles, a nasty civil war rages in Syria, and political Islam is on the rise throughout the region. It looks as if the Arab revolutions will end up replacing bad governance and authoritarianism of secular dictators with bad governance and authoritarianism of would-be theocrats.

Worrying as it is, could the rise of political Islamism in places such as Egypt, Tunisia or Algeria have been avoided? Should the West have been tougher with the Muslim Brotherhood or the Salafists? Or perhaps more accommodating?

Not so fast. Before making sweeping judgments about failures of U.S. or European foreign policy, it’s helpful to look at the roots of political Islam. Perhaps its success has little to do with religion. Available data on voting behavior from Muslim-majority democracies, such as Indonesia, show that the links between being religious and actually voting for religious candidates is weak. In short, religiosity is a poor predictor of whom people vote for and why. While similar data from Arab countries is limited, it suggests that Islam has only a small impact on political attitudes.

The success of religious parties in the Middle East and North Africa is both good and bad news.”

What’s more, the Islamist policy agenda is indistinguishable from other political platforms. Consider the Ennahda movement in Tunisia, which has had the most detailed economic program of all Islamic parties in the region. Still, it offered few specifics, besides an endorsement of market economy and a pledge to fight inequality. Egypt’s Freedom and Justice Party (FJP) is even worse. Back in June 2011, the chairman of the FJP tried to shrug off specific questions about his party’s economic platform with a smile, saying that he “did not know much about the economy.”

At the heart of Islamic politics in the Arab world lies the Muslim Brotherhood, a group originally founded in 1928 in Egypt, and involved in politics, proselytizing and provision of social services. Over time, it has become a loose network of Islamic parties throughout the region, and also a widely emulated model of organization that combines political and religious activism with the provision of social services.

What makes the Brotherhood distinctive is its involvement …read more
Source: OP-EDS

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