When Islamists Wield Power

When Islamists Wield Power

In response to a point Hitchens makes in a recent piece on Gaza, Andrew Sullivan writes,

The truly good news of the last couple of years has been the decline in support for al Qaeda and other Jihadist elements in Muslim public opinion. What we have learned is that once Islamists actually wield  power, their popularity collapses.

Thee first sentence is correct. The second sentence is not. It is not true that once Islamists wield power, their popularity collapses. An important, but often overlooked, distinction should be made here. Islamist parties that win power through the democratic process, at either the local or national levels, tend to actually be relatively popular. Islamists that come to power through undemocratic or violent means – the National Islamic Front in Sudan, the Taliban in Afghanistan, or the mullahs of Iran – tend to be unpopular. And they”re unpopular not necessarily because they are Islamist, but because they are authoritarian and brutal. (Similarly, the reason that the Egyptian and Jordanian regimes are unpopular is not because they are secular, but because they are authoritarian and, at times, brutal).

There have been numerous examples of democratically-elected Islamists governing at the local and national level (Indonesia, Malaysia, Pakistan, Algeria, Jordan, Turkey). Few, if any, of them were outright failures, most were at least as successful as comparable secular parties, some were moderately successful, and at least one – the AKP in Turkey – has proven very successful. In countries like Egypt, Islamists have been allowed to “govern” non-governmental bodies, such as the professional associations (i.e. the Engineering and Doctors’ Unions). By most accounts, the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt enjoyed significant success in managing the unions to the point where the regime took them over out of fear of their growing popularity (see Geneive Abdo’s work for more on this).

In short, there’s little reason to think that the “Islamists can’t govern” thesis is correct. There is, of course, the example of Hamas. But Hamas is something of an exceptional case: it doesn”t govern an actual state. In any case, Hamas (as well as Hezbollah) should not be treated as representative of political Islam, since it remains a violent group that hasn’t yet renounced terrorism. Nearly all other mainstream Islamist groups in the Middle East and South Asia are both 1) nonviolent, and have 2) formally committed themselves to respecting the rules of the democratic process.

So, Sullivan is right to say that “religious fanatics do not know how to run countries.” But most Islamists are not religious fanatics.