The emergence, significance and electoral prospects of moderate Islamist political parties in the Middle East is the topic of a new book by A.Kadir Yildirim, research scholar in the Center for Middle East at Rice University's Baker Institute for Public Policy.
"Muslim Democratic Parties in the Middle East: Economy and Politics of Islamist Moderation," published by Indiana University Press, hit bookstores in September. The 294-page book draws on extensive field research in Turkey, Egypt and Morocco to examine this phenomenon and assess the interaction of economic and political factors in the development of Muslim democratic parties.
Yildirim and other scholars have used the term "Muslim Democrat" to describe moderate Islamist political parties, suggesting a parallel with Christian democratic parties in Europe. These parties are marked by their adherence to a secular political regime, normative commitment to the rules of a democratic political system and the democratic political representation of a religious identity, he said.
Distinguishing between "competitive (economic) liberalization" and "crony liberalization," Yildirim argues that Muslim democratic parties are more likely to emerge and succeed in the context of the former.
"Competitive liberalization is marked by its openness and encompassing nature," said Yildirim, whose main research interests include democratization, politics and religion, political economy, political Islam, the politics of the Middle East and Turkish politics. "Competitive liberalization allows previously marginalized groups in the society to secure new economic opportunities," he said. "Crony liberalization, by contrast, allows members of the economic and political elite to continue dominating the economic structure; they control which elements of economic liberalization policies will be picked to maintain the basic parameters of the existing political and economic structures."
Yildirim said Muslim democratic parties began emerging in the mid-1990s, first in Egypt, later in Morocco toward the end of the 1990s and then in Turkey in 2001.
Yildirim said Muslim democratic parties have been most successful in the Turkish case. "The reason for this success is the extent of the transformation in the social base of Islamic parties," he said. "The political and economic preferences of these groups change significantly in a more liberal direction to push these parties to adopt compatible ideological positions with their social base. The success of Morocco's Muslim democratic party has been to a more limited degree due to the somewhat restricted reach of economic liberalization policies."
The phenomenon has broader and timely implications in the wake of the Arab Spring, Yildirim said. "While most are focused on eliminating Islamist radicalism and countering violent extremism, the long-term solution to important problems of the region as it relates to the ideological extremism of Islamist parties lies in ushering a change in the societal base of these parties in the first place," he said. "As much as ideological commitments are important for these parties, they are, after all, political parties and respond to the demands of electoral politics. In order to win votes and office, they must respond to the demands of target audiences. In this regard, long-term democratization of Islamists depends on the ability to shift socio-economic dynamics of the regional countries in order to create vested interests in democratic politics. A combination of short-term strategies that focus on violent extremism and long-term strategies such as expanding economic opportunities via economic opening policies that aim to tackle the roots of extremism must be used to address major challenges at this time."