Is There an Islamist Political Advantage?
Melani Cammett and Pauline Jones Luong. “Is There an Islamist Political Advantage?” In Annual Review of Political Science, vol. 17(May/June 2014).
23 Pages Posted: 6 Nov 2013
Date Written: 2013
Political opponents and scholars alike have interpreted Islamists’ victories in a handful of other competitive elections in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) since the late 1990s as evidence that Islamist parties are in fact both more popular and more credible alternatives to incumbent governments than their opponents. The question remains, however, as to whether these advantages — or, what we refer to collectively as an “Islamist political advantage” — actually exist. rather than taking the Islamist political advantage for granted, we seek to identify when, where, and how we should expect Islamists to enjoy widespread support — in the streets and at the ballot box. We explore a range of possible explanations for why Islamists uniquely possess such advantages, focusing on clarifying how each of these is linked to Islamists’ ability to excel in generating mass appeal and winning elections. Existing accounts emphasize the direct effect that welfare provision, organizational capacity, and ideology have on Islamists’ ability to garner popular support. In contrast, we argue that — to the extent Islamists have a political advantage — each of these factors has an indirect effect on what is the primary source of this advantage — a reputation for good governance. Mainly (albeit not exclusively) because they provide essential social services, have strong ties to the community, and possess a strong spiritual foundation, Islamists as both individuals and organizations are able to foster a reputation for being uniquely competent, trustworthy, and pure vis-à-vis the alternatives. It is this reputation for good governance that enables Islamists to amass popular support and make electoral gains beyond those segments of the population with which they have come into direct contact or enjoy ideological affinity. And yet, reputation is a tenuous basis for popular support. Cultivated under authoritarian rule, Islamists’ reputation for being uniquely competent, trustworthy, and pure does not automatically transfer to the democratic context and can easily be dispelled once Islamists compete for and hold the reins of power.
Keywords: Political Islam, Islamism, Islamic world, religion and politics
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