In Syria's horrific civil war, Islamists, ranging from the Muslim Brotherhood to radical Salafi groups, are leading the fight against Bashar al-Assad. Once the war is over, Sunni Islamic political groups are bound to become the most important political force in the country. But Islamic politics is on the rise throughout the region, not just in Syria. In Egypt, the Brotherhood's candidate, Mohammed Morsi, was elected the country's fifth-ever president in June of 2012. In Tunisia, the Islamic Ennahda ("Renaissance") movement won 41 percent of all votes and 89 seats in the 217-seat legislature in the 2011 elections. In Morocco, the has become the ruling party following the November 2011 elections. What is driving the ascent of Islamic politics in Arab countries? Islam certainly plays an important role in the life of Arabs, and religion is also present in their political life. However, contrary to what common sense might be telling us, that is not the whole story.
Available data from Muslim-majority democracies suggest that the statistical link between personal religiosity, and actual voting for religious candidates, is quite weak. In other words, religiosity is a poor predictor of whom people vote for, and why. The existing data from Arab countries is limited, but it suggests that Islam has only a small impact on political attitudes. A study by political scientist Mark Tessler seeks to identify the determinants of attitudes towards democracy; he finds that religion has only very little explanatory power in accounting for support for democracy in Arab countries. Similarly, in Indonesia -- the most populous Muslim-majority country in the world -- religiosity seems related to voting behavior. (For corresponding studies, see here and here.)
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Rather, the key to the success of Islamic parties lies in their organizational structure. Many Islamic political groups in the Arab world are part of the Muslim Brotherhood, an organization founded in 1928 in Egypt. Involved in politics, proselytizing, and the provision of social services, Egypt's Brotherhood has become a model of Islamic political organization and the basis for a loose network of religious political organizations throughout the region.
Of all the legally registered NGOs and associations in Egypt, an estimated 20 percent are run by the Brotherhood. In 2006, the Brotherhood was running 22 hospitals and schools in every governorate of the country. In Jordan, the Brotherhood operates the huge Islamic Hospital in Amman and the al-Afaf Charitable Society, providing collective weddings and matchmaking services. (The image above shows an al-Afaf-organized wedding in Amman in 2008.) When an earthquake struck Algiers in 1989, Islamic groups were among the first and most effective organizations to help the victims by providing them with shelter, medical care, and food. In other places, Islamists run sports clubs, help people find accommodation, host collective weddings, and help set up businesses through Islamic investment vehicles.
More strikingly, it is difficult to link Islamic politics to a clear policy platform, so the support for Islamic candidates cannot be reliably identified with any consistent pattern of policy preferences. The economic policy platforms of Islamists are generally vague, encompassing a broad support for free markets, but also stressing the importance of social justice and the need to combat corruption. The Ennahda movement in Tunisia, which has by far the most detailed economic program of all Islamic parties in the region, calls for a fight against inequalities driven by "exploitation, hoarding, [and] monopoly." In other countries, the economic agendas of the parties are so poor on specifics that the appeal of Islamic politics cannot plausibly lie in the substance of their economic policies.