The dramatic success of the Muslim Brotherhood and Salafist parties in Egypt’s recent elections, following similarly strong gains by Islamist parties in Tunisia and Morocco, has given rise to fears that the democratic promise of the Arab revolts will be denied by a resurgence of Islamic fundamentalism. But the experience of Indonesia, Malaysia and Turkey suggests that political Islam can be accommodated and radical tendencies curbed by robust rule of law and effective social safety nets, writes Julie Chernov Hwang, the author of Peaceful Islamist Mobilization in the Muslim World: What Went Right.
Scholars have long assumed that states in Muslim-majority countries tend to be either dictatorial and repressive or weak and overwhelmed. The positive role of the state has been largely absent from discussions that have centered on what went wrong rather than what went right. But understanding how the state can encourage peaceful Islamist mobilization and discourage radical or violent tendencies is of critical importance in the light of the Islamist resurgence following the ‘Arab Spring’ revolutions.
Peaceful Islamist Mobilization in the Muslim World: What Went Right highlights the varied ways that Islamist movements – i.e., groups that seek a political role for Islam – mobilize through peaceful formal and informal political channels. Based on extensive fieldwork in Indonesia, Malaysia and Turkey, the book examines how state actions influence Islamist movements’ mobilization strategies, either by encouraging peaceful approaches or, sometimes inadvertently, by creating permissive conditions for political violence.
So what are these mechanisms through which states may influence Islamist mobilization strategies? When states provide opportunities for political participation, most Islamist groups will react strategically and utilize formal and informal political channels to work toward their goals. The state can provide a powerful incentive for Islamist groups to work within the political system by permitting political parties to form and contest reasonably free and fair elections, and by allowing space for Islamist social movements to mobilize as pressure groups. If Islamist parties contest elections, they can make gains at the national and provincial/state levels.
Several Islamist parties contested the 1999, 2004 and 2009 elections in Indonesia, widely deemed to be free and fair, together netting between 14 and 20 percent of the vote. As the victory of the Justice and Development Party (AKP) in Turkey in the 2002 and 2007 elections indicated, Islamist parties can win nationally as well, if they highlight universal issues and appeal to a wide audience. Once in the legislature, Islamist parties may make alliances with other conservatively-minded parties in order to enact sharia-inspired legislation on religious education, personal modesty, Koran literacy, Islamic banking, clean government, etc. Similarly, Islamist social movements can act as effective pressure groups in national or provincial/state level coalitions to push for the passage of such legislation. Taken together, these channels and opportunities enable Islamist parties and social movements to work incrementally for their goals through the political system, to shape the political agenda, and to better understand the priorities of their fellow citizens.
But while necessary, political participation is not a sufficient condition for encouraging peaceful mobilization. States must also take steps to discourage radical Islamist groups from resorting to violence and intimidation. To that end, a state must possess the “effective capacity” to ensure law and order and to provide a measure of education and social welfare for its citizens. States with a high degree of effective capacity gain legitimacy from their ability to provide for the needs of the people and ensure their security. When a state effectively provides security, education and poverty relief, this deprives radical Islamist groups of their ability to make political capital at the state’s expense and exploit state weaknesses for their own ends.
The need for the rule of law may seem self-evident. However, that makes it no less vital. When the state is unable to enforce the rule of law in an area plagued by communal conflict between Muslims and Christians, for example, radical groups may move into to fill the void left by the state and gain legitimacy for themselves and their cause in the process. Moreover, there are iterated cases in Indonesia, Turkey, Yemen, and Pakistan when elements of the state security apparatus armed specific radical Islamist groups either due to common sympathies or to take action against common enemies. In Indonesia, these links were most explicit when elements of the military provided funding and training to the Laskar Jihad militia during the communal conflict in Ambon. In Turkey, the behavior was more subtle with the security services turning a blind eye to the early actions of Turkish Hizballah so long as the Kurdish Workers’ Party (PKK) was its target. In both of these instances, the activities of security factions (or inactivity as the case may be) had the consequence of not only empowering radical groups but conferring the sense that they could operate with impunity. Finally, when the state is unable or unwilling to enforce the rule of law, this may embolden radical Islamist groups to take the law into their own hands to attack those individuals and groups they deem to be in violation of Islamic norms as they narrowly construe them.
States that are effective and participatory gain legitimacy in the eyes of the mass public. The existence of formal political channels empower Islamist social movements and parties to work through the political system and make gains, while enforcement of the rule of law discourages radical groups from taking the law into their own hands. We see the success of the participation-capacity model in Malaysia, Kuwait and increasingly in Turkey.
Even when states provide opportunities for political participation but cannot sufficiently enforce the rule of law or offer a basic safety net, most Islamist movements will tend to adopt peaceful strategies. However, radical Islamist groups are emboldened by state lapses, and will attempt to supplant state authority in these areas and gain legitimacy and popularity in the process, as the cases of Indonesia, Turkey and, briefly, Yemen and Bangladesh demonstrate.
Finally, to apologists for dictatorships who believe longstanding strongmen provide a bulwark against radical Islamist forces, the authoritarian model is also lacking. When states curtail opportunities for participation while enforcing the rule of law and providing education and social welfare, this constrains all mobilization. While violent mobilization may decline, my research demonstrates that it is never fully extinguished. Islamist groups, both mainstream and radical, go underground until a more auspicious time arises – through state lapses or political openings – to emerge and push for their goals. As in the cases of Indonesia, during the New Order regime between 1967 and 1998, and briefly Bahrain, during the 1990s show, when this occurs, violence will increase significantly.
In short, the central argument of Peaceful Islamist Mobilization in the Muslim World: What Went Right is that the state can have a positive influence on Islamist mobilization strategies. However, not all states perform equally well. Those which are participatory and effective empower Islamist movements to work for their goals through peaceful channels, and discourage radical groups from utilizing violent strategies. To comprehend these positive powers of the state– we need only look to the so-called “Islamic periphery” to the cases of Malaysia, Indonesia and Turkey. For those who might be in positions to advise new governments in Egypt, Tunisia, Libya and perhaps someday Yemen and Syria, it would be beneficial for them to examine the experiences of Indonesia, Malaysia and Turkey in order to see, not “what went wrong” but to understand “what went right.”
Dr. Julie Chernov Hwang is the author of Peaceful Islamist Mobilization in the Muslim World: What Went, which came out in paperback in December 2011. She is an assistant professor in the department of political science and international relations at Goucher College. Her current research focuses on the disengagement process among Indonesian jihadis.