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.
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 the social realm. Arab regimes typically allowed groups like the Brotherhood to run hospitals and schools as well as provide assistance to the poor. As a result, in 2006, the Brotherhood was running schools in every governorate in Egypt, as well as twenty-two hospitals around the country. Islamists have also been among the first and most effective to provide relief during large-scale disasters, such as the earthquake in Algiers in 1989. In other locations, Islamists run sports clubs, perform collective weddings or provide Sharia-friendly business finance.
As a result, Islamic political groups have trustworthy brand names—a unique asset in a political environment where most voters regard politicians as crooks (and for good reason). Election promises in transitional countries are not worth very much. But when a political organization can show a seventy-year record of social-service provision, people listen.
If you wonder why Islamists did not do particularly well in Libya, recall that the Muslim Brotherhood’s Justice and Construction Party was founded only in March 2012. Partly thanks to oil money, Gaddafi could afford to be a more thorough tyrant than his Egyptian and Algerian counterparts, and he succeeded in preventing independent religious groups from providing community services, schooling or health care.
The success of religious parties in the Middle East and North Africa are is both good and bad news. It is good news because political credibility and brand names are usually in short supply in transitional countries.
But it is potentially bad news because the fact that voters find such groups credible tells us little about policies they will really deliver—and those can easily be antithetical to liberty and democracy. Worse yet, as the examples of Hamas and Hezbollah show, organizations that can provide public goods can also successfully organize political violence.
Over time, as places such as Indonesia, the advantage that Islamists currently enjoy in the Arab Spring countries can be expected to weaken, particularly as other political groups establish their own brands and build their own reputations. But until then, the West needs to accept that Islamic political groups are an integral part of the Arab political landscape. No amount of alarmism or political posturing will change that.