How Do Islamists Rule?

Posted April 26th, 2012 by Thanassis Cambanis and filed in Writing

For the second year in a row, I’ve supervised a team of graduate students at Columbia’s School of International and Public Affairs in a comparative study of Islamist political movements and provincial governance. They’ll be presenting their findings this week at The Century Foundation. You can download a full copy of their report here (PDF).


Religious political movements have been rising in popularity and power across the Islamic world for decades, amassing an ample record in local government. The Arab uprisings are only the most recent manifestation of this long-term trend. Yet there is little empirical study of the behavior of Islamist political parties, with prevailing assumptions never subjected to scrutiny. Conventional wisdom holds that ideology matters more to Islamist parties than to secular ones, and that once in power religious hardliners will moderate. Our study aims to clinically assess the performance of Islamist groups based on socio-economic data. It is difficult to compare Islamist parties across different time periods and national contexts, but we have looked for patterns and causal connections rather than hard-and-fast rules. We compared the ideologies and stated governing platform of the parties we studied to their political behavior and other outcomes measurable by data. Some general trends emerged:

Islamists invoke religion selectively. The level of Islamist rhetoric varied widely among the parties we studied. Those with an overtly religious discourse used it to gain political support and distinguish themselves from their secular counterparts, but applied religion only to some spheres of governance – usually gender equality and education, rather than issues like the economy or health.

Politics trumps ideology. Islamists respond to pressure from their constituents, displaying flexibility even on central points of doctrine if their political viability is at stake.

Context is controlling. Local structural concerns like economic crises or regime change trump ideology, pragmatically shaping the governing party’s agenda regardless of its stated ideology. The transitional narrative is particularly important in studying the rise of Islamists; many of these groups rose to power after decades of state suppression and underground activism.

Even when an Islamist party rises to power on a wave of religious rhetoric, we found across a variety of national narratives that ideology can be molded or subsumed by public opinion, local conditions, and pragmatic political constraints. We also found that Islamism is most useful as a predictor of political behavior on matters of social policy.

Leave a Reply