The Secret of Islamist Success

October 31, 2012 • Commentary
This article appeared in Foreign Policy on October 31, 2012.

In Syria’s horrific civil war, Islamists, ranging from the Muslim Brotherhood to radical Salafi groups, are leading the fight against Bashar al‐​Assad. Once the war is over, Sunni Islamic political groups are bound to become the most important political force in the country. But Islamic politics is on the rise throughout the region, not just in Syria. In Egypt, the Brotherhood’s candidate, Mohammed Morsi, was elected the country’s fifth‐​ever president in June of 2012. In Tunisia, the Islamic Ennahda (“Renaissance”) movement won 41 percent of all votes and 89 seats in the 217‐​seat legislature in the 2011 elections. In Morocco, the has become the ruling party following the November 2011 elections. What is driving the ascent of Islamic politics in Arab countries? Islam certainly plays an important role in the life of Arabs, and religion is also present in their political life. However, contrary to what common sense might be telling us, that is not the whole story.

Available data from Muslim‐​majority democracies suggest that the statistical link between personal religiosity, and actual voting for religious candidates, is quite weak. In other words, religiosity is a poor predictor of whom people vote for, and why. The existing data from Arab countries is limited, but it suggests that Islam has only a small impact on political attitudes. A study by political scientist Mark Tessler seeks to identify the determinants of attitudes towards democracy; he finds that religion has only very little explanatory power in accounting for support for democracy in Arab countries. Similarly, in Indonesia — the most populous Muslim‐​majority country in the world — religiosity seems related to voting behavior. (For corresponding studies, see here and here.)

Rather, the key to the success of Islamic parties lies in their organizational structure. Many Islamic political groups in the Arab world are part of the Muslim Brotherhood, an organization founded in 1928 in Egypt. Involved in politics, proselytizing, and the provision of social services, Egypt’s Brotherhood has become a model of Islamic political organization and the basis for a loose network of religious political organizations throughout the region.

Of all the legally registered NGOs and associations in Egypt, an estimated 20 percent are run by the Brotherhood. In 2006, the Brotherhood was running 22 hospitals and schools in every governorate of the country. In Jordan, the Brotherhood operates the huge Islamic Hospital in Amman and the al‐​Afaf Charitable Society, providing collective weddings and matchmaking services. (The image above shows an al‐​Afaf‐​organized wedding in Amman in 2008.) When an earthquake struck Algiers in 1989, Islamic groups were among the first and most effective organizations to help the victims by providing them with shelter, medical care, and food. In other places, Islamists run sports clubs, help people find accommodation, host collective weddings, and help set up businesses through Islamic investment vehicles.

More strikingly, it is difficult to link Islamic politics to a clear policy platform, so the support for Islamic candidates cannot be reliably identified with any consistent pattern of policy preferences. The economic policy platforms of Islamists are generally vague, encompassing a broad support for free markets, but also stressing the importance of social justice and the need to combat corruption. The Ennahda movement in Tunisia, which has by far the most detailed economic program of all Islamic parties in the region, calls for a fight against inequalities driven by “exploitation, hoarding, [and] monopoly.” In other countries, the economic agendas of the parties are so poor on specifics that the appeal of Islamic politics cannot plausibly lie in the substance of their economic policies.

So why do people vote for the Islamists? Economists can provide a non‐​obvious solution to this puzzle. It has been long known that politicians in new and emerging democracies suffer from a credibility problem. Politicians in transitional environments are either new, with no political history or reputation, or old, in which case they were probably active under the previous authoritarian regime. In either case, it is not clear whether they can be trusted. New democracies are also characterized by a lack of trusted “brand name” political parties that voters could reliably associate with specific policy agendas.

It is no surprise that in most transitional environments, promises about policies and the provision of public goods are not trusted by voters. Instead, electoral competition is organized around promises of special favors and transfers to interest groups — the only kind of commitments that are credible. As a result, new democracies tend to be plagued by patronage, clientelism, and bad governance. If you have doubts, just think of Latin America or post‐​communist Eastern Europe.

The advantage of Islamic parties, including the Brotherhood, lies precisely in the fact that they are able to make credible promises about the provision of public goods. There are three fundamental reasons for this: First, they have a long history of organization, and therefore possess trusted “brand names.” Second, they tend to be involved in large‐​scale provision of local public goods and social services where government has repeatedly failed to do so, such as providing community services, welfare, schooling, healthcare, or humanitarian aid. Third, in most cases, Islamic parties were not part of the official rent‐​seeking structures of the old regimes. As a rule of thumb, Islamists actively opposed the secular Arab regimes — often at great personal risk. In Syria, for example, Brotherhood membership was a capital offense between 1980 and 2011.

This also helps explain why Libya is one of the Arab Spring countries where the Islamic electoral advantage did not manifest itself. The Muslim Brotherhood’s Justice and Construction Party in Libya was founded only in March of this year, and because of Qaddafi’s repression, the Libyan Brotherhood lacked grassroots organization and involvement in public goods provision. (These factors also characterize some Islamic organizations in other Arab countries.)

To say that the rise of religious parties in Arab Spring countries has nothing to do with religion would be an exaggeration. Religion matters for politics because religious organizations are a natural node for providing public goods and social services, which accounts for the reputation that the Islamic parties have built over time.

Thus religious parties in the Middle East and North Africa are succeeding for a good (rather than a radical) reason. Does that mean that we should remain complacent? Not necessarily, because while religious groups are good at organizing the provision of public goods, they may also be good at organizing political violence. Hamas and Hezbollah are prime examples of groups with a long history of successfully providing community services to their adherents — and conducting terrorism against their enemies. The encouraging news is that, if the Arab Spring countries remain democracies, the electoral advantage of Islamists will likely dissipate over time as secular politicians acquire the skills and invest in the channels of communication needed to make credible electoral promises — just as it happened in Indonesia. Until then, Islamists are likely to remain an integral part of Arab political life.

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