Political Islam

So.  Some more on why I’m here.  One of the things that political scientists do not really know is why people vote for Islamic political parties.  Part of the problem is that there’s just not a lot to study: very few countries in the Muslim world have anything like free and fair elections.  But clearly the question is a big one, given that one of the big reasons why successive American administrations support awful dictatorships in the Middle East is that they believe that Islamic political parties would prevail in free and fair elections (and more importantly, that this would be a bad thing).  Indonesia is neat because it’s one of the only Muslim countries that actually has free and fair elections.  The other ones right now would include Turkey, Bosnia, some West African countries, by some accounts Bangladesh and Albania, hopefully Iraq someday, and that’s pretty much it.

I think that there’s a more fundamental question here.  What is an Islamic party?  There are a number of possible answers, but I think that this question is a lot more difficult than some of us recognize.

1.    Clearly, it’s not sufficient to just call any radical party with Muslims in it an Islamic party.  Because that would include groups like the Kurdish Worker’s Party, which is a socialist party.  At a more fundamental level, though, it’s inaccurate to just identify radicalism with Islam.  That’s a stereotype, not a definition.

2.   Another view is that a party is Islamic if it wants to impose sharia.  It’s a seductive idea, but when there are all sorts of problems.  How does a "party" want something?  Maybe this is a gloss for its leaders wanting something.  OK, then how do you know if the leaders want something?  We can err in a couple of directions.  The paranoiacs at Little Green Footballs, and Virgil Goode, think that everyone who’s a Muslim wants to impose sharia.  This is clearly false, BUT the opposite is also silly, only asking people if they want to impose sharia.  There are good reasons to think that maybe some groups that don’t openly espouse sharia actually do want to impose it.  This is a suspicion often leveled at some parties in Indonesia, which "everybody knows" would impose sharia if they were elected.  So even if this is a good definition in theory, it’s difficult to operationalize it.

3.    Another possibility is that a party is Islamic if it calls itself Islamic.  I actually like this definition, but then it raises problems of comparability.  "Islamic" in Indonesia is likely to mean something very different than "Islamic" in Senegal or Tunisia or Turkey.  So then we’re left with the problem of distinguishing what Islamic means in these contexts, which just recreates the problem again.  So you might be including parties that call themselves Islamic but are different than the others.  Then again, you might also be leaving some out.  I’m not actually sure if the Justice and Development Party in Turkey, which is commonly considered a conservative modernist Islamic party, actually identifies itself as Islamic.  This might be one of those "everybody knows" sorts of situations.

So we’re left with a conundrum.  For our research, we are fortunate in studying Indonesia only, where parties openly state what their "basis" (asas) is.  The choices are basically Islam, Pancasila (the pluralist and nationalist ideology of Sukarno and Soeharto), Marhaenisme (a precursor of sorts of Pancasila, espoused by Sukarno, less religious in content and more socialist), and other forms of social democracy. In essence, it’s either Islam or Pancasila, as Marhaenisme is only espoused by two parties that are led by two daughters of Sukarno, and I believe only one small party calls itself social democratic.  And parties will say "our basis is X."  So that’s one definition, easy.  Since we’re doing a survey, though, we can also look at what ordinary people think are Islamic parties, and that’s nice because it’s sort of what we’re after anyway.  It’s not really relevant for our purposes that the Justice and Development Party in Turkey is likely different from the Prosperous Justice Party here, although drawing lessons from Indonesia will require doing some sort of adjustment to take this into account.

And to answer your questions, yes, this is what social scientists do all day.

Comments 8

  1. JeffW January 3, 2008

    I saw this article awhile ago and thought it was interesting. You may have read it or otherwise be familiar with its author or the book it was adapted from (Mark Lilla, professor of the humanities at Columbia University, adapted from his book “The Stillborn God: Religion, Politics and the Modern West,” published in September).

    If you can get to the link, let me know and I’ll email the article to you.

  2. Josh January 3, 2008

    >>Another view is that a party is Islamic if it wants to impose sharia. It’s a seductive idea, but when there are all sorts of problems. How does a “party” want something?
    Don’t parties have platforms?

  3. Tom January 4, 2008

    The problem with just going by platform is that they don’t always say what they really want. In the case of Islamic parties especially, people allege that they hide their true intentions behind benign programmatic statements.

  4. Josh January 4, 2008

    Ok but why is that more problematic for a political party than for a specific politician or for a whole nation?

  5. Tom January 5, 2008

    I agree it’s a problem with nations too. As a basic matter, though, people have preferences whereas organizations do not.

Comments are closed.