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Islamic Parties Aren’t All That Popular

A recent study asks the question:

    Do Muslims automatically vote Islamic? … When we examined results from parliamentary elections in all Muslim societies, we found [that]…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…. 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. …
    These are still culturally conservative parties, by any standard, but their decision to run for office places them at odds with Islamic revolutionaries. … 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…. Now, disillusioned with revolution, they are working within the secular system.

I’m a secular progressive, so I doubt I would ever vote for an Islamic party like Morocco’s Justice and Development Party (PJD), even if I could. However, I certainly support their right to be part of the political process, for precisely the reasons outlined above. Islamic parties are rarely the most popular alternative in free and open elections—and whether they win or not, their efforts to appeal to a majority cause them to moderate their views. Meanwhile, they channel the views of the conservative part of society into the political process, which is certainly better than keeping those views on the angry fringe.

Morocco’s 2007 parliamentary elections were a demonstration of this. Many observers expected the PJD to win a decisive victory, but in fact they ended up in distant second place, behind the center-right Istiqlal Party. While this seemed surprising at the time—one survey by an American organization had predicted the PJD might win 47% of the vote—it is in keeping with the long-term trends shown in this study.

Once again, let me say that it distresses me to see Muslims portrayed in the American media as extremist by nature. Taking a few highly visible exceptions and projecting them onto society as a whole makes no more sense than imagining that everyone in America is as rich as Warren Buffett. In Morocco at least, Muslims are no more extremist in their views than most Americans, and I’m convinced that the majority favor a secular approach to public policy. What Moroccans want is good governance and economic opportunity, and these are secular, not religious concerns.

Fortunately we now have a study to show what common sense should have told us already—that democracy in the Muslim world, far from being a path to religious extremism, is in fact a useful tool in helping to ensure its decline.


Comment from Imad
Time: January 12, 2010, 01:39

Excellent observation. I have three other points to help reinforce the fact that most Muslims, like myself, are not so inclined to vote for Islamic parties:

-In Indonesia’s 2009 elections, out of the 40-odd political parties, ALL the parties standing staking an Islamist stance won a total of 25% of the parliamentary seats!

– Reza Aslan himself stated that Islamism is pretty much the antidote to jihadism. This might be seen as very ironic, if not paradoxical to some, but that does seem to be the case.

– This might not be that relevant, but the elections in Lebanon went relatively smoothly and Hizbullah did get only 2nd place and respected the results. I say that it might not be that relevant because Lebanon’s government and society (as i understand it) still runs on sectarian lines, so Maronites vote for Maronites, Shiis will vote for Shiis and Sunnis will vote for Sunnis. At least the fighting has been quiet.

Comment from eatbees
Time: January 12, 2010, 08:27

I love Reza Azlan. His book “No god but God” put a lot of things in context for me. He shows that groups like the Muslim Brotherhood began as movements to reinvigorate Islam in a modern, democratizing, and anti-colonial context. Tariq Ramadan inherits this tradition and takes it further into showing how Muslims can remain true to their roots and identity in a pluralistic society.

I think Lebanon is relevant, because Hizbullah is evolving from a resistance movement into a political party that participates in the government, and has moderated its Islamism to fit the new occasion.

Comment from Morocco Blogs
Time: January 18, 2010, 05:41

Congratulations! You’ve been nominated for The Best Morocco Blog of 2010 in the categories of news blogs and best overall blog.

We encourage you to have your readers and friends vote for your blog at and if you want to display the following graphic, you can do so proudly:

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Comment from eatbees
Time: January 18, 2010, 13:02

Oh! Well. Thank you! It looks like fun.

Good luck to everyone, I have some friends there :)

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