Do Muslims automatically vote Islamic? That’s the concern conjured up by strongmen from Tunis to Tashkent, and plenty of Western experts agree. They point to the political victories of Islamic parties in Egypt, Palestine, and Turkey in recent years and warn that more elections across the Islamic world could turn power over to anti-democratic fundamentalists.
But these victories turn out to be exceptions, not the political rule. When we examined results from parliamentary elections in all Muslim societies, we found a very different pattern: Given the choice, voters tend to go with secular parties, not religious ones. Over the past 40 years, 86 parliamentary elections in 20 countries have included one or more Islamic parties, according to annual reports from the Inter-Parliamentary Union. Voters in these places have overwhelmingly turned up their noses at such parties. Eighty percent of these Islamic parties earned less than 20 percent of the vote, and a majority got less than 10 percent — hardly landslide victories. The same is true even over the last few years, with numbers barely changing since 2001.
True, Islamic parties have won a few well-publicized breakthrough victories, such as in Algeria in 1991 and Palestine in 2006. But far more often, Islamic parties tend to do very poorly. What’s more, the more free and fair an election is, the worse the Islamic parties do. By our calculations, the average percentage of seats won by Islamic parties in relatively free elections is 10 points lower than in less free ones.
Even if they don’t win, Islamic parties often find themselves liberalized by the electoral process. We found that Islamic party platforms are less likely to focus on sharia law or armed jihad in freer elections and more likely to uphold democracy and women’s rights. And even in more authoritarian countries, Islamic party platforms have shifted over the course of multiple elections toward more liberal positions: Morocco’s Justice and Development Party and Jordan’s Islamic Action Front both stripped sharia law from their platforms over the last several years.
These are still culturally conservative parties, by any standard, but their decision to run for office places them at odds with Islamic revolutionaries. In many cases, they’re actually risking their lives. Almost two decades ago, even before his alliance with Osama bin Laden, Egyptian jihadist Ayman al-Zawahiri wrote a tract condemning the Muslim Brotherhood’s abandonment of revolutionary methods in favor of electoral politics. "Whoever labels himself as a Muslim democrat, or a Muslim who calls for democracy, is like saying he is a Jewish Muslim or a Christian Muslim," he wrote. In Iraq, Sunni Islamic revolutionaries recently renewed their campaign "to start killing all those participating in the political process," according to a warning received by a Sunni politician who was subsequently assassinated in Mosul.
What enrages Zawahiri and his ilk is that Islamists keep ignoring demands to stay out of parliamentary politics. Despite threats from terrorists and a cold shoulder from voters, more and more Islamic parties are entering the electoral process. A quarter-century ago, many of these movements were trying to overthrow the state and create an Islamic society, inspired by the Iranian Revolution. Now, disillusioned with revolution, they are working within the secular system.
But today’s problems for Islamic parties may recall an earlier historical moment, the watershed period of the early 20th century when demands for democracy and human rights first gained mass support in Muslim societies from the Russian Empire to the Ottoman Empire. Then as now, violent Islamic movements such as the Ottoman-era Islamic Unity Society objected to electoral politics. But that was not what ultimately undermined democracy in Muslim societies. Instead, secular autocrats, such as Mustafa Kemal Ataturk in Turkey and Reza Shah in Iran, suppressed pro-democratic Islamic movements, driving Islamists underground and helping to radicalize them.
Today, too, dictators and terrorists are conspiring to keep Islamic political parties from competing freely for votes. Government repression has been successful in one sense — Islamic parties have won few elections. In a broader sense, however, it is failing: According to the World Values Survey, which has polled cultural attitudes around the world, support for sharia is one-third lower in countries with relatively free elections than in other Muslim societies. In other words, suppressing Islamic movements has only made them more popular. Perhaps democratization is not such a gift to Islamists after all.