Thoughts RE: S. Hamid “Underestimating religious parties”

On 5 April, Shadi Hamid wrote:

Yes, many Islamist groups, including the Muslim Brotherhood and Jordan’s Islamic Action Front, are dealing with internal divisions and struggling to devise a coherent response to regime repression. But, if that’s the case, then Islamist weakness reflects not their declining popularity but rather that Arab regimes are very good at repressing their strongest opponents.

And even when Islamist parties suffer relative defeats in the electoral arena, it does not necessarily follow that they’ve suffered such defeats because they are Islamist. In other words, voters can decide not to vote for Islamist parties for a whole host of reasons that have nothing to do with their Islamist character. Similarly, just because people vote for Islamist parties does not necessarily mean that they have any particular affinity for Islamism as such. There is a reason, after all, that some Christians vote for Hezbollah, and many secularists for Hamas.

In short, it would be a mistake to assume that when Islamist parties lose, that this reflects a broader shift away from religious politics or from religion, and towards “secularism” – the kind of thing we like to believe is happening in the Middle East but, for both better and worse, rarely does and most likely won’t.

This an important point. It is very frequently the case that when Islamist parties suffer in elections they lose votes not because of their ideology per se but because of their inability to meet their followers’ expectations. There is a distinct difference between the electoral problems that the Algerian MSP has seen in recent parliamentary cycles (especially when one separates genuine dissatisfaction among the few Algerians who do vote from electoral manipulation) and the struggle that Mauritania’s Tawassoul faces when it comes to elections. Both offer interesting and different examples as to Islamist political performance and behavior.

This blogger thinks Hamid’s points are important, especially when one considers the way North American political science deals with elections in the Arab world. Hamid is right that western analysis sometimes underestimates the importance or relevance of Islamist actors until after they issue “surprising” electoral results. Smart people (and not so smart people) have warned against this since at least the Iranian Revolution; but the response is sometimes to overemphasize the role of religious actors at the expense of secular ones, producing myopic analysis that gives all opposition activity a green tinge that tells us less than it could if the analysis were broader and more qualitatively substantive.

In the Algerian case, the MSP has largely been discredited by its relationship with the regime. The “participatory” strategy is generally seen as a failure, even among party faithful — both in policy and in morality. Algerians dismiss the Brotherhood types as khubzistes (corrupt career politicians) whose participation is symbolic. Those who continue to follow them tend to believe in their cause, obviously, but they lost the Islamist hardcore in basically two phases: first when Mahfoud Nahnah continued to support dialogue with the regime after the 1990/1991 fiasco and secondly after the party joined the ruling coalition with the FLN and RND (about) ten years ago. The Islamist parties less well represented in parliament have suffered mostly because of electoral manipulation by the regime. At street level the MSP has little broad-based support outside of an increasingly narrow set and dissensions in the party are growing, out of frustration with the coalition, the regime’s infiltration of the party leadership, the leadership’s style and by the stagnation that marks Algerian politics in general. But distaste for the MSP is not distaste for Islamist or Islamists; hardly anyone can dispute that beards and skullcaps and ankle pants are not widespread among young men in Algeria or that many people who eschew politics find an outlet in the apolitical religious movement.  The party’s official platform is well known for its aggressive support of the Palestinian cause, which has practically unanimous support in Algeria. But the party failed to fully capitalize on this during the last Gaza crisis and even that does not change the public perception of the national legislature and the MSP as basically irrelevant under the president’s and the military’s feet. Yet Islamism is not unpopular in Algeria as such — it is unpopular in the form of specific parties and personalities. The same is true of the “nationalist” or Berberist tendencies in their right habitats.

In the Mauritanian case, Tawassoul (the Brotherhood) enjoys political support from the religious tendency in general and is increasingly prominent publically but has never fared well in elections when compared to other Islamists in the Arab world. This is the case with the Islamist tendency in Mauritania at large, though. Its weight in parliament is practically nothing, and its following owes as much to tribalism as it does to ideology. Because the party is new it has energy that is lacking in some of the older Islamist parties in North Africa. Yet it has the same defect that many other Islamist factions in Mauritania have had in the past: it lacks support from the black African community. This has to do with perceptions of the Islamist movement in general as being a Middle Eastern import (among blacks and among traditionalist Moors/Arabs) that is insensitive the linguistic and social demands of black Mauritanians (by this one refers to the Halpular, Wolof, Soninke-speaking communities, not the Haratine). The result is that the party has some relatively important tribal support among Moors but has trouble expanding beyond its “base”. And the support it has from the Salafi and broader Islamist tendency is not permanent and a relatively recent development. Another problem for the party is that Islamism is ideologically unpopular except among educated and urban people. That has to do with religious traditionalism as well as the relative strength of what are basically secular, leftist and Arabist political tendencies in Mauritania. Though a kind of Islamism has been increasingly popular since the late 1970s it has generally been forced to merge with already established conventions, especially among Arab nationalists. The whole situation is as complex as any other political field.

In the context of Hamid’s comment, this is to say that Islamist “defeats” in elections are more complex than ideology or secularism. As the MSP has become less popular secularist parties have not necessarily become more popular. In Mauritania non-Islamist parties have simply coopted elements of Islamist discourse or propaganda to quiet them or, like much of society, just ignored them all together except when they cannot afford not to. In both cases there are structural problems facing Islamists, but one finds Islamist discourse increasingly relevant outside electoral politics and in non-Islamist settings. So when Hamid says that regimes have gotten quite good at repressing their opponents he is correct; but there is something more. Islamist politicians are politicians and have to carry with and as other, non-Islamists in government too. They must compromise and cut deals. They must operate within institutions in government and politics that often quite rigid. And those constraints have consequences on actors’ freedom of action and, eventually, constituent relations.

Finally, the “western” reading that because Islamist parties lose seats or do not win as many seats in a parliament as analysts thought on first look obviously does not mean that “Islamism” in the abstract sense is declining in popularity. It does not point to “secularization” on its own and it does not mean that secular or religious tendencies are increasing or decreasing in popularity or relevance. The reasons that Islamists suffer or succeed frequently has to do with secular issues like resource delivery and social capital (the kind unrelated to religion, like family lineage) than ideological problems. The issue is not across the board or basically about secularism and religious politics — it is about the thing of politics itself. Good politicians know how to exploit social, economic and institutional capital: bad ones do not or do it poorly. One recalls a conversation with an elderly, rural Algerian in 2007, who, for the first time in his life, planned to vote for an “Islamist” in a local election. “My cousin’s son was our representative in the assembly before, for the RND, but he is not running again. I am voting for the MSP candidate now, I do not know the RND’s candidate, he comes from someplace else.” What would make this person vote for the MSP’s man? “He is the eldest son of another cousin. We will all vote for him, we know him and he is from our people.” That is, there is more at work than that a particular candidate is or is not an Islamist or an Arab nationalist or a monarchist or from the same tribe as one or another set of people. Politics is always complex, and so a narrative or secularization or Islamization (whatever that means) or the like is insufficient to explain Islamist performance or non-performance in elections. If western analysts underestimate Islamists it likely has something to do with the residual influence of modernization and secularization theory in political science and with flaws in the framework of analysis.

There are also, of course, political and ideological biases at work, too. After looking at articles or news “analysis” on this subject one often asks: Are parties and their performance in legislative votes in countries where most powers are reserved for the executive really that instructive? How is the Islamist tendency divided in a particular country, and how does that influence the way Islamist parties do in elections? Are they seen as being legitimate and credible political institutions? Is Islamism even the biggest opposition driver in the first place? Do so-called Islamist parties even represent “Islamism” or do they simply express other discontents using Islamist language or organizational structures? Is it all about religion? Have we assigned outside narratives to places where they do not fit?

[ See this episode of “The Opposite Direction” الإتجاه المعاكس from June of 2009 for a conversation on “the decline of Islamists in elections” with Mohamed Ghulam (the Deputy Chairman of Tawassoul). ]

3 thoughts on “Thoughts RE: S. Hamid “Underestimating religious parties”

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