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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Northern Ireland election results: a shift beneath the status quo

The power of the largest parties has been maintained, while newer parties running on nicher subjects with no connection to Northern Ireland’s traditional religious divide are rapidly rising.

After a long day of counting and tinkering with the region’s complex PR vote transfer sytem, Northern Irish election results are slowly starting to trickle in. Overall, the status quo of the largest parties has been maintained with Sinn Fein and the Democratic Unionist Party returning as the largest nationalist and unionist party respectively. However, beyond the immediate scope of the biggest parties, interesting changes are taking place. The two smaller nationalist and unionist parties appear to be losing support, while newer parties running on nicher subjects with no connection to Northern Ireland’s traditional religious divide are rapidly rising.

The most significant win of the night so far has been Gerry Carroll from People Before Profit who topped polls in the Republican heartland of West Belfast. Traditionally a Sinn Fein safe constituency and a former seat of party leader Gerry Adams, Carroll has won hearts at a local level after years of community work and anti-austerity activism. A second People Before Profit candidate Eamon McCann also holds a strong chance of winning a seat in Foyle. The hard-left party’s passionate defence of public services and anti-austerity politics have held sway with working class families in the Republican constituencies which both feature high unemployment levels and which are increasingly finding Republicanism’s focus on the constitutional question limiting in strained economic times.

The Green party is another smaller party which is slowly edging further into the mainstream. As one of the only pro-choice parties at Stormont which advocates for abortion to be legalised on a level with Great Britain’s 1967 Abortion Act, the party has found itself thrust into the spotlight in recent months following the prosecution of a number of women on abortion related offences.

The mixed-religion, cross-community Alliance party has experienced mixed results. Although it looks set to increase its result overall, one of the best known faces of the party, party leader David Ford, faces the real possibility of losing his seat in South Antrim following a poor performance as Justice Minister. Naomi Long, who sensationally beat First Minister Peter Robinson to take his East Belfast seat at the 2011 Westminster election before losing it again to a pan-unionist candidate, has been elected as Stormont MLA for the same constituency. Following her competent performance as MP and efforts to reach out to both Protestant and Catholic voters, she has been seen by many as a rising star in the party and could now represent a more appealing leader to Ford.

As these smaller parties slowly gain a foothold in Northern Ireland’s long-established and stagnant political landscape, it appears to be the smaller two nationalist and unionist parties which are losing out to them. The moderate nationalist party the SDLP risks losing previously safe seats such as well-known former minister Alex Attwood’s West Belfast seat. The party’s traditional, conservative values such as upholding the abortion ban and failing to embrace the campaign for same-sex marriage has alienated younger voters who instead may be drawn to Alliance, the Greens or People Before Profit. Local commentators have speculate that the party may fail to get enough support to qualify for a minister at the executive table.

The UUP are in a similar position on the unionist side of the spectrum. While popular with older voters, they lack the charismatic force of the DUP and progressive policies of the newer parties. Over the course of the last parliament, the party has aired the possibility of forming an official opposition rather than propping up the mandatory power-sharing coalition set out by the peace process. A few months ago, legislation will finally past to allow such an opposition to form. The UUP would not commit to saying whether they are planning on being the first party to take up that position. However, lacklustre election results may increase the appeal. As the SDLP suffers similar circumstances, they might well also see themselves attracted to the role and form a Stormont’s first official opposition together as a way of regaining relevance and esteem in a system where smaller parties are increasingly jostling for space.