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.

Studying Political Islamism

Posted October 20th, 2011 by Thanassis Cambanis and filed in Writing

Next spring I’ll be leading a group of graduate students at Columbia in a comparative analysis of how Islamist parties fare in provincial governance. The study will build on a project conducted by a team of SIPA students last year. Their full report is available here. I’m including the abstract below. The question continues to be of relevance as concerns — founded or not — about how Islamists will rule continue to drive American policy. For the second stage of the project we’re looking for suggestions to make the methodology as rigorous as possible.

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How do Islamists rule?

An analysis of Islamist provincial governance

April 2011

Executive Summary

In recent years, increasing numbers of Islamist parties have risen to power through democratic elections. Though much has been written about Islamists, very little work has looked broadly at the question of how governing – in particular at the local or municipal level – affects these movements and their ideology.

Very little work has taken an empirical approach to measuring the performance of these movements as policymakers, providers of public services and enforcers of law and security. Most writing has focused on Hamas, to the exclusion of the other Islamist movements that have acquired a growing share of local (and sometimes national) power, especially in Iraq, Turkey, Pakistan, Jordan, Lebanon, the Gulf, and the Palestinian territories.

This report evaluates the success of two sub-national Islamist governments: the Muttahida Majilis-e-Amal (MMA) in the North Western Frontier Province (NWFP), Pakistan, which held power from 2002-2007, and the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq (ISCI, formerly SCIRI) and Al-Fadhila in Basra province, Iraq, which held power from 2005-2009. By examining data on indicators of social, economic and cultural development, the research team compared the performance of Islamists to that of their counterparts in each country.

While confirming some commonly held beliefs about Islamist parties in political power, such as their negative effect on gender equality, the report calls others into question. Our case studies challenge the oft-stated rubric that Islamists are stealth dictators who rule by coercion and disrespect democratic transitions of power. In many ways, we found that Islamist parties behave similarly to non-Islamist parties in positions of political power: they are opportunists who will stray from their campaign platforms if they find it in their institutional self-interest.

The MMA, which came to power as an anti-American, pro-sharia coalition, remained faithful to its revivalist rhetoric throughout its rule. The rights of women deteriorated in the NWFP, and education was increasingly Islamicized. In terms of security, the MMA was able to keep the peace, but mainly because it refused to aid the government’s pursuit of militants. The MMA was able to deliver public goods at a level comparable to its counterpart in Punjab, but in the end the coalition was racked with accusations of corruption, the various parties that constituted its core fractured along ideological and policy lines, and it overplayed its hand with a controversial bill which would have established sharia in the NWFP.

In Basra, many of the areas in which the Shia Islamist parties appeared to fare well were beyond their control. Literacy levels in Basra were some of the highest in the country under their rule, but education policy is run out of Baghdad through a national ministry. Similarly, the improvement in public health cannot be linked to any local policy because Basra was flooded with medical aid from various NGOs. An increase in gender-based violence can be attributed to Islamist policies, however, as can the deterioration of minority rights, as Sunni Muslims were targeted by Shia militias.

Focusing on the provincial level allowed for a greater degree of specificity in measurements and the ability to discern more competing views than can be witnessed on the national level in most quasi-democratic states. The experience of each party was unique, and the report does not make cross-national comparisons. However, both cases were located in conflict zones, which made it equally difficult to draw conclusions independent of exogenous factors.

Some of the report’s other conclusions and hypotheses include:

  • Islamist rule in immediate post-conflict situations quickly yields to less divisive political factions (if subject to electoral politics).
  • Islamist parties are not less corrupt than their secular counterparts.
  • We witnessed moderation in both cases, but on different levels. While the MMA moderated their policies, the Iraqi parties merely moderated their rhetoric.
  • Islamist parties at the local level can be constrained within federal frameworks.

The wave of protest and revolution currently rippling throughout the Middle East is likely to bring more of these groups into governing roles. Now that Islamists have proved their staying power, policymakers are looking for policy tools to moderate change. This report can help provide an understanding of what the transition to Islamist governance might mean.