Islamism vs. Institutions: Not a Simple Equation

Often it goes without saying in the political science world that the best way to foster liberal democracy against the threats of extremism and illiberalism in a post-revolution society is through the presence of institutions and political parties.

However, the recent Arab-Spring-related elections may not bare this popular theory out.

Egypt—a country with a deep history of civic institutions, secularism, and political parties—elected a member of the Islamist party, the Muslim Brotherhood, as its first post-Mubarak regime president. Prior to that, Tunisia, a state often touted as an exemplar of secularism and progressivism in the Middle East, also passed the torch of parliamentary political representation to its organized Islamist parties. And we’ve seen similar trends in Morocco and Turkey, as moderate Islamists parties have taken office in the wake of a history of secularism and moderation.

Yet, with the most recent headline elections in Libya—a country dominated for over 40 years by Muammar Gaddafi’s version Islamic-Nasserist philosophy—the Islamists parties seem to have been passed over. Instead, the country elected mainly nationalist rebel leaders, who put more emphasis on regional rather than religious commitments.

But this raises an interesting question. How does a state with no real history of civic institutions, political parties or secularism seem to show no genuine interest in Islamism in politics while the latter named countries, with rich histories of secularism, civic institutions, and political parties, make the significant leap into Islamist politics? Doesn’t popular political theory state that a history of these aforementioned factors serves as a bulwark against not only Islamism but extremist political thinking in general?

The theory that a history of secularism, civic institutions, and political parties will always combat against illiberalism overlooks a great many factors in these aforementioned countries. With Egypt, Tunisia, Morocco, and Turkey, we must take into account the role imperialism’s history plays in all this, and how these three concepts have often been looked at as foreign impositions upon society by many. It must also be understood that extremism of one variety can often evoke an opposite extremist response. That is, in the case of Tunisia and Turkey, secularism was often enforced too strongly against precepts of religious freedom—for instance banning the hijab—and resulted in a religious backlash.

In Libya, a number of factors were present that has limited the appeal and influence of Islamism. Unlike the former leaders of these other nations, Gaddafi co-opted Islam more often into his politics and ideology. The absence of political parties and institutions greatly limited the means through which Islamist parties could organize or exert societal influence (like the Muslim Brotherhood did in Egypt for example). In addition, Gaddafi’s Green Book left a strong distrust of political parties throughout the country. In Libya, the idea that leaders will incorporate Islam into their ideology is generally taken as a given, and therefore other issues are given precedence, such as nationalism and regionalism. That is, it appears more important to the people of Libya that their politicians properly reflect the interest of both Libya in general as well as their specific region rather than that they support a specific version of Islam.

All and all, this should be a lesson to all that political science is far from an exact science, no matter how assuredly pundits may want to tell you their sure-fire policy prescriptions and wise axioms on the way the world works. There are often many variables that are overlooked in these things and to ignore them in favor of bland, universalist theories of how humans always will behave in certain circumstances runs the risk of policy disaster. It is this type of limited thinking that leads to dangerous beliefs that enlightened technocrats can “remake” the societies of Iraq and Afghanistan in a single stroke of policy prescriptions. And as we see from these recent elections, life is much more complicated than that.