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What Happens When Islamist Parties Gain Power?

May 25, 2012

What kind of government will democratically elected Islamic parties create? Nobody knows yet–including those parties. Photo used by permission of Abdelrahman Mostafa

For decades, Islamic parties have been heavily repressed in most north African states, both by their own governments–Algeria fought a civil war rather than let a legally elected Islamic party come to power–and by the North American and Western European nations who dominate the global economies and world lending institutions.

Now the wave of Arab uprisings–although not initially organized or led by Islamists–has swept these parties into power. The question: What will these new governments look like? is being argued and debated everywhere, including in International Studies classes here at Miami University.

Most Americans I know take for granted that any state governed by Islamic leaders will eventually come to resemble Iran. I’ve always been skeptical of this notion, for reasons I’ve discussed elsewhere.

Now the Carnegie Foundation has released a report based on a series of meetings held with representatives of the newly elected Islamist parties in Egypt, Morocco and Tunisia.

The main finding in “Islamist Parties in Power: A Work in Progress” by Marina Ottaway and Marwan Muasher is that the Islamist parties aren’t certain of how things will turn out either. After decades of isolation, they are trying to figure out how to best lead their countries forward.

Highlights of the report include:

Islamist parties appear to be truly national. There does not seem to be an overarching “Islamist International” to which they all belong, and they do not even seem to be in limited contact with each other. At the conference in particular, we felt that we knew more about them than they know about each other.

Islamist parties, with the partial exception of the Moroccan PJD, still show signs of their previous isolation, both within their own countries and internationally. Government repression and the policies of the United States and European countries forced them to stay in their own bubbles. Not all Islamist leaders at this point are familiar and comfortable with the world outside the bubble.

Islamist parties are different from each other, but doctrinal differences are not the most important factors setting them apart from each other. Rather, what shapes these parties are the conditions in which they operate: the support they have, the reaction of secular political parties to them, and whether they have government responsibilities.

Islamist parties face mobilized populations in their own countries and need to take the views of the public into consideration. The possibility that Islamist parties will simply cancel elections in the future to perpetuate their position appears unfounded, the result of fear rather than a realistic possibility.

In general, the report says, these groups can be labeled moderate in that:

  1. They do not advocate violence
  2. They recognize the legitimacy of organizations championing different points of view
  3. They have all accepted the rights of women, and as a matter of fact, they have done much more to promote women in political posts than the secular parties of the regimes they are displacing.
  4. Neither Ennahda nor the PJD has insisted that sharia be declared the basis of legislation, while the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood demands that sharia be declared the source of legislation, as do all Egyptian secular parties
  5. None of them advocates the implementation of huddud, the fixed punishments prescribed by Islamic law that include the amputation of thieves’ limbs and the stoning of adulteresses
  6. None of them has advocated the imposition of Islamic dress on women, although they certainly look favorably upon it


Aside from the specific content of the report, I would draw the attention of my anthropology students and more reflexive international studies student (and any other readers who want to go there) to what this list says about our cultural values, and how Western publics–and professional intellectuals like those at the Carnegie foundation addressing those publics–construct both the concepts of “Islam” and “moderate” and particularly the role gender plays in this, just as it has since the colonial era.

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