A Better Chance for Islamic Parties

A Better Chance for Islamic Parties

Hezbollah and its Christian allies lost the election in Lebanon. President Ahmadinejad won his election, but the Islamic Republic lost credibility. Support for Hamas is falling in some polls. The Parti Islam Se-Malaysia (PAS) has rejected a deal to join the ruling United Malays National Organization (UMNO) in power. Egypt is clamping down on the Muslim Brotherhood (MB). The Indonesian Islamic parties got their lowest vote for ten years in the April 9th general elections.

Despite these reports key Islamic parties are getting stronger, and moving more center-stage. The Justice and Development Party (AKP) is in power in Turkey while wider coalitions including Islamic parties are lining up in Indonesia, Malaysia and Palestine, or pre-party structures are gathering parliamentary strength, as in Egypt.

From the Islamic Salvation Front in Algeria in 1990, to the 2006 elections in Palestine, to the recent Egyptian general elections, and the Iranian Presidential elections, the West becomes nervous when Islamic parties do well, understating their strength.

In Lebanon, Hezbollah seem to have accepted political defeat gracefully, although they apparently won a clear majority of popular votes, by a ten percent margin, but not of seats, as reported by Franklin Lamb in the PalestineChronicle.com. Wisely they did not take to the streets on this. To succeed long-term Islamic parties need to learn how to lose, and regroup, as well as how to win.

With no militia, no threat of a state within a state and less baggage as a surrogate for radical states, Hezbollah, (with its allies) could lose support through lost sponsorship or stand stronger on its own feet, winning votes for wider coalitions stressing economic and social progress. But Hezbollah cannot modernize politically until the Palestine-Israel dispute no longer provides the rationale for the status quo.

President Ahmadinejad won the presidential elections with a reported 2:1 margin, despite irregularities, in line with a US-financed pre-poll telephone survey. Iranian leaders miscalculated, turning a widespread election protest within the political system into the start of a popular movement against it, fanned by Western, Arab and Muslim critics, with political conservatives fearing its radicalism and liberals favoring change.

If Iran is to strengthen democracy and not rely on repression, then the two polarized Muslim political camps have to unclench their fists with each other. Then Iran and the US can do the same. President Obama seems still open to this, despite the previous Bush-backed $400 million destabilization program, and its links to violent opposition.

Mainstream political Islam has little in common with the Iranian Islamic revolution and is not about violence or terrorism, but about economic, social and political reform, driven by Islamic identity and motivation. Mainstream Islamic parties do not necessarily want an Islamic state. Most do not. They vary in how Islamic they are, and how much they represent broader nationalist or reformist platforms.

Islamic parties are making progress in Indonesia, Malaysia and Turkey as well as Palestine and Egypt.

Hamas is gaining recognition and poised to become part of the peace via a national Palestinian coalition. Helena Cobban of the Christian Science Monitor after interviewing Khaled Meshal in Damascus compares the political evolution of Hamas with that of the African National Congress and Sinn Fein. She is right. It has more in common with them than with most Islamic parties. (Jakarta Globe 27.06.09).

In Egypt 88 members of parliament have won seats on an MB platform, on an urban groundswell for reform and new leadership. They seem to have more in common with the Turkish AKP, or the Indonesian Prosperous Justice Party (the PKS).

This Islamic Egyptian parliamentary opposition could conceivably win an election in Cairo. In today´s Egypt this is revolutionary. Western silence on Egyptian democracy is such that if you listen hard you can hear the rice growing in the Nile delta.

Meanwhile the PAS in Malaysia is seeking to reform a Muslim-majority nation in a rainbow coalition with non-Muslim political parties and supporters.

Arief Munandar writes in The Jakarta Post (30.06.09) that despite predictions of sunset for Indonesian Islamic parties, whose combined vote fell to 26 percent in the April general elections, they are now part of a winning coalition for the direct presidential elections on July 8th, which has a combined 67 percent support in the polls, led by incumbent President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono and his Democratic Party.

Indonesian Islamic parties have everything to play for up to 2014, when there will be a generational change in national political leadership, with “enough room not just to survive but even to grow”, as Munandar concludes. He suggests they should focus on social problems, unemployment and health care.

He advises them “to base their bargaining position on high standards of political ethics and behavior, rather than resorting to threats or arrogance in the media”.

All of these movements can learn from the AKP in Turkey, where you can support an Islamic Party in power, swim on the beach with your family or friends and go to a disco afterwards. As we do in Indonesia.

Maybe, despite a negative press, political Islam is learning to swim with the tide.

Terry Lacey is a development economist who writes from Jakarta on modernization in the Muslim world, investment and trade relations with the EU and Islamic banking.

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