The complex relationship between Islamism and democracy

Moderate Islamism should be seen as a means of institutionalising religious conservatism.

Last week’s murder of over twenty Shia Muslims and a brazen Taliban attack on a military base are just the latest cases in Pakistan’s litany of religious violence. Unsurprisingly, the country is often cited as a worst-case example of the role political Islam can play in fostering extremism. But it is notable that no Islamist party in Pakistan has even come close to winning the country’s national elections. In fact, the intensification of violent activity by the country’s Islamist groups does not represent the triumph of political Islam, but its failure.

Pakistan’s flawed democratic processes and fractured religious groupings have prevented the electoral success of dominant, moderate religious parties who are capable of channeling religion in legitimate and non-violent ways. Instead, the country has been wracked by a competitive, often violent, street sectarianism. Unable to succeed at the ballot box, fragmented groups have sought, in vain, to impose their own narrow vision of Islam on the state by attacking minorities, taking up arms or threatening rivals in street demonstrations - challenging the writ of the state rather than working within its political framework.

Islamism’s first major advocate was Abdul A’la Maududi, a journalist and religious propagandist born in 1903 in Aurangabad, in then undivided India. In the crucible of the independence movement, Maududi rejected the idea of Pakistan, because it was led by secular, Westernised politicians like Mohammed Ali Jinnah. Instead, he insisted that Muslims should live in a society governed by religious law, from which all non-Islamic elements were purged. Despite his early disapproval of the formation of the new nation, he moved to Pakistan in 1947, and spent the rest of his life fighting for a constitution based on a rigid interpretation of the shari’a and freedom from materialistic Western influences, including freedom from liberal democracy. He argued instead for “theo-democracy”, a rule of the religious. 

Largely due to its focus on the distinction between Islam and Western “godless” systems, Maududi’s brand of Islamism became a popular model for revolutionaries in post-colonial states, where predominantly Muslim populations were governed by autocratic, notionally secular rulers backed by the West. In countries as diverse as Iran, Turkey and Egypt, Muslims were told that their religion was not compatible with politics, whether autocratic or democratic. 

Yet, since the late 1970s, in many of these Muslim-majority states, elite groups arguing for secularism have been swept aside by people’s movements advocating the centrality of Islam as a political ideology. In none of these developments—revolutionary and democratic—did Islamism emerge as a top-down system.

In Turkey, the ruling Islamist Justice and Development Party (A.K.P.) emerged from a process of ‘Reformation’ in rural Anatolia, linked to the grass-roots influence of an authoritative Sufi order, the Naqshbandiyya-Khalidiyya. In Egypt, the Muslim Brotherhood learned early that to succeed it had to evolve from an anti-democratic, revolutionary group to become an institutionalised political actor. Although its earlier ideologues rejected multi-party pluralism, the Muslim Brotherhood now seems committed to it, both in theory and practice. The slogan that has caused much disquiet in the Western media—“al-Islam huwa al-Hall” (“Islam is the solution”)—was originally coined as an electoral slogan. Even in Iran, the revolutionary leadership managed to harness genuine popular support in the 1970s (and arguably continues to do so) based on its religious authority, spreading the message of Ayatollah Khomeini. In these countries, deep social changes found expression in Islamist political movements that overwhelmed non-democratic forces. 

In Pakistan however, Islamism did not take root. Muslims are more profoundly divided in Pakistan by sectarian, linguistic and ethnic affiliations. As a result, although Islamist parties have contested every national election in Pakistan’s history, they have never won a significant proportion of the votes. The entrenched power structures and material attractions of secular parties have consistently trumped calls to impose the shari’a. When, in 2002, a coalition of Islamist parties formed the provincial government of the North West Frontier Province, it collapsed within three years as Deobandi, Barelwi, and Shia factions argued about how to implement Islamic government. 

It is notable that Pakistani Islamists parties have only enjoyed widespread support when they have joined pro-democracy movements. In the 1980s, for example, Maududi’s party, the Jamaat-I Islami, joined Benazir Bhutto in her fight against dictatorship and, more recently, members of the Jamaat have joined Imran Khan’s Movement for Justice (PTI), which seeks to purge Pakistan of its habitually corrupt politicians. This blend of populism and Islamism shows that violence is not inbuilt in the DNA of Islamists – rather, successful Islamism relies on the ability to address popular grass-roots concerns, not to coerce populations.

Instead of fearing moderate Islamism, it should be seen as a means of institutionalising religious conservatism. It may not be the outcome that liberals want, but in democracies as disparate as Turkey, Bangladesh, Indonesia and Malaysia politics have come to be dominated by parties who blend religion with an economic right-of-centre platform. The popularity and electoral success of parties such as Turkey’s Justice and Development Party, the Bangladesh Nationalist Party, Indonesia’s Golkar-led coalition and Malaysia’s United Malays National Organisation are all evidence of this trend. The increasing popularity of Imran Khan’s religiously conservative PTI suggests that Pakistan is following a similar trajectory.

Daniel Jacobius Morgan is a Researcher at Gateway House: Indian Council on Global Relations. He is currently working on an M.Phil in South Asian Studies at Oxford University


Pakistani Shiite Muslims raise their hands during a religious procession in Lahore. Photograph: Getty Images
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This Ada Lovelace Day, let’s celebrate women in tech while confronting its sexist culture

In an industry where men hold most of the jobs and write most of the code, celebrating women's contributions on one day a year isn't enough. 

Ada Lovelace wrote the world’s first computer program. In the 1840s Charles Babbage, now known as the “father of the computer”, designed (though never built) the “Analytical Engine”, a machine which could accurately and reproducibly calculate the answers to maths problems. While translating an article by an Italian mathematician about the machine, Lovelace included a written algorithm for which would allow the engine to calculate a sequence of Bernoulli numbers.

Around 170 years later, Whitney Wolfe, one of the founders of dating app Tinder, was allegedly forced to resign from the company. According to a lawsuit she later filed against the app and its parent company, she had her co-founder title removed because, the male founders argued, it would look “slutty”, and because “Facebook and Snapchat don’t have girl founders. It just makes it look like Tinder was some accident". (They settled out of court.)

Today, 13 October, is Ada Lovelace day – an international celebration of inspirational women in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM). It’s lucky we have this day of remembrance, because, as Wolfe’s story demonstrates, we also spend a lot of time forgetting and sidelining women in tech. In the wash of pale male founders of the tech giants that rule the industry,we don't often think about the women that shaped its foundations: Judith Estrin, one of the designers of TCP/IP, for example, or Radia Perlman, inventor of the spanning-tree protocol. Both inventions sound complicated, and they are – they’re some of the vital building blocks that allow the internet to function. 

And yet David Streitfield, a Pulitzer-prize winning journalist, someow felt it accurate to write in 2012: “Men invented the internet. And not just any men. Men with pocket protectors. Men who idolised Mr Spock and cried when Steve Jobs died.”

Perhaps we forget about tech's founding women because the needle has swung so far into the other direction. A huge proportion – perhaps even 90 per cent - of the world’s code is written by men. At Google, women fill 17 per cent of technical roles. At Facebook, 15 per cent. Over 90 per cent of the code respositories on Github, an online service used throughout the industry, are owned by men. Yet it's also hard to believe that this erasure of women's role in tech is completely accidental. As Elissa Shevinsky writes in the introduction to a collection of essays on gender in tech, Lean Out: “This myth of the nerdy male founder has been perpetuated by men who found this story favourable."

Does it matter? It’s hard to believe that it doesn’t. Our society is increasingly defined and delineated by code and the things it builds. Small slip-ups, like the lack of a period tracker on the original Apple Watch, or fitness trackers too big for some women’s wrists, gesture to the fact that these technologies are built by male-dominated teams, for a male audience.

In Lean Out, one essay written by a Twitter-based “start-up dinosaur” (don’t ask) explains how dangerous it is to allow one small segment of society to built the future for the rest of us:

If you let someone else build tomorrow, tomorrow will belong to someone else. They will build a better tomorrow for everyone like them… For tomorrow to be for everyone, everyone needs to be the one [sic] that build it.

So where did all the women go? How did we get from a rash of female inventors to a situation where the major female presence at an Apple iPhone launch is a model’s face projected onto a screen and photoshopped into a smile by a male demonstrator? 

Photo: Apple.

The toxic culture of many tech workplaces could be a cause or an effect of the lack of women in the industry, but it certainly can’t make make it easy to stay. Behaviours range from the ignorant - Martha Lane-Fox, founder of, often asked “what happens if you get pregnant?” at investors' meetings - to the much more sinister. An essay in Lean Out by Katy Levinson details her experiences of sexual harassment while working in tech: 

I have had interviewers attempt to solicit sexual favors from me mid-interview and discuss in significant detail precisely what they would like to do. All of these things have happened either in Silicon Valley working in tech, in an educational institution to get me there, or in a technical internship.

Others featured in the book joined in with the low-level sexism and racism  of their male colleagues in order to "fit in" and deflect negative attention. Erica Joy writes that while working in IT at the University of Alaska as the only woman (and only black person) on her team, she laughed at colleagues' "terribly racist and sexist jokes" and "co-opted their negative attitudes”. 

The casual culture and allegedly meritocratic hierarchies of tech companies may actually be encouraging this discriminatory atmosphere. HR and the strict reporting procedures of large corporates at least give those suffering from discrimination a place to go. A casual office environment can discourage reporting or calling out prejudiced humour or remarks. Brook Shelley, a woman who transitioned while working in tech, notes: "No one wants to be the office mother". So instead, you join in and hope for the best. 

And, of course, there's no reason why people working in tech would have fewer issues with discrimination than those in other industries. A childhood spent as a "nerd" can also spawn its own brand of misogyny - Katherine Cross writes in Lean Out that “to many of these men [working in these fields] is all too easy to subconciously confound women who say ‘this is sexist’ with the young girls who said… ‘You’re gross and a creep and I’ll never date you'". During GamerGate, Anita Sarkeesian was often called a "prom queen" by trolls. 

When I spoke to Alexa Clay, entrepreneur and co-author of the Misfit Economy, she confirmed that there's a strange, low-lurking sexism in the start-up economy: “They have all very open and free, but underneath it there's still something really patriarchal.” Start-ups, after all, are a culture which celebrates risk-taking, something which women are societally discouraged from doing. As Clay says, 

“Men are allowed to fail in tech. You have these young guys who these old guys adopt and mentor. If his app doesn’t work, the mentor just shrugs it off. I would not be able ot get away with that, and I think women and minorities aren't allowed to take the same amount of risks, particularly in these communities. If you fail, no one's saying that's fine.

The conclusion of Lean Out, and of women in tech I have spoken to, isn’t that more women, over time, will enter these industries and seamlessly integrate – it’s that tech culture needs to change, or its lack of diversity will become even more severe. Shevinsky writes:

The reason why we don't have more women in tech is not because of a lack of STEM education. It's because too many high profile and influential individuals and subcultures within the tech industry have ignored or outright mistreated women applicants and employees. To be succinct—the problem isn't women, it's tech culture.

Software engineer Kate Heddleston has a wonderful and chilling metaphor about the way we treat women in STEM. Women are, she writes, the “canary in the coal mine”. If one dies, surely you should take that as a sign that the mine is uninhabitable – that there’s something toxic in the air. “Instead, the industry is looking at the canary, wondering why it can’t breathe, saying ‘Lean in, canary, lean in!’. When one canary dies they get a new one because getting more canaries is how you fix the lack of canaries, right? Except the problem is that there isn't enough oxygen in the coal mine, not that there are too few canaries.” We need more women in STEM, and, I’d argue, in tech in particular, but we need to make sure the air is breatheable first. 

Barbara Speed is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman and a staff writer at CityMetric.