What Does a Vote for an Islamic Party Mean?

Policymakers often wonder if democracy in Muslim-majority countries is empowering Islamists, and look to electoral support for Islamic parties for clues. Scholars of religion and politics frequently respond that “it’s more complicated than that.” In a new paper (PDF), I offer an explanation of why it is hard to learn anything about why voters support Islamic parties from the fact that some do—using the cases of Indonesia and Malaysia to build the argument. A quote from the introduction summarizes the main conclusion:

Voters face choices among religious and non-religious parties that bundle together various appeals, only some of which are directly tied to religion, and voters may vote for parties either out of policy concerns or as an expression of their identity. The central implication of this argument is that voting for an Islamic party is not always a vote for Islam, and voting for a non-Islamic party sometimes is. This warrants caution in interpreting popular support for religious parties as evidence of popular support for religious agendas. It also warrants caution in interpreting the success of non-Islamic parties as a defense against religious agendas.

The argument in this paper is consistent with the conclusion that Bill Liddle, Saiful Mujani, and I reach in our recent book.

To conceptualize the role of Islam in Indonesian politics is to appreciate the autonomy of politicians and the broader social forces shaping party competition rather than the mundane politics of vote-getting and political behavior, taking seriously Islam as an identity claim rather than a set of individual beliefs and policy preferences.

These conclusions, drawn from the cases of Indonesia and Malaysia, probably travel.