Muslim Democratic Parties in Turkey, Egypt, and Morocco: An Economic Explanation

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Muslim democratic parties (MDPs) have recently emerged in the Middle East and North Africa as distinct political entities. Among such parties are the Wasat Party in Egypt (1995), the Party for Justice and Development in Morocco (1998), and the Justice and Development Party (AKP) in Turkey (2001). Despite the fact that most members of MDPs have a past in political Islam, MDPs are categorically different from Islamist parties. Resembling European Christian democratic parties, MDPs differ from Islamist parties on several grounds. First and foremost, MDPs have a methodical attachment to democracy. Unlike Islamist parties, democracy has an intrinsic value for the Muslim democratic political platform. (1) Islam is also an important element of the MDP platform, yet in a dramatically different way than in Islamist parties. While Islamist parties have Islam at the center of their political discourse to the extent that they claim to represent and speak on behalf of Islam, MDPs have no claim to represent Islam. Instead, members of MDPs speak as individuals and try to promote Muslim values prevalent in their respective societies. (2) The emphasis on Muslimness rather than on Islam fits squarely with the role democracy assumes in the MDP platform, i.e. the notion of pluralism and tolerance on other views and perspectives. In this regard, the end-goal is not the creation of an Islamic institutional structure a la political Islam, but rather the promotion of values and ideas commensurate with a Muslim identity.

The economy constitutes another key component of the MDP platform. In sharp contrast to the highly nationalist and protectionist economic perspectives of political Islamists, Muslim democrats opt for a liberal economic system with no more than a regulatory role for the state in the economy. Such a liberal outlook on the economy, however, does not prevent MDPs from offering extensive networks of social services similar to those proposed by socialist parties. The unique combination of pro-liberal economic stance and emphasis on social services provision puts MDPs alongside the Third Way in Europe. (3)

Although it would be easy to argue that yesterday's Islamists are simply flowing with the wind today in order to reap the benefits, it becomes important to note that not all of these parties become successful in their moderation ventures. Hence the issue is not simply one of going with the wind, but rather knowing the conditions that make the way for a successful transformation. Overall, the shift in discourse seems to be a substantial transformation for the former Islamists, which raises the question of what might account for such a radical change.

The literature largely treats this transformation as a top-down process. For many scholars of the Middle East, politics is an elite business, and change happens at the top and is then followed by society. Hence, society is on the receiving end of this moderation. Three theories in the literature are promoting this perspective by stressing the importance of a) inclusion-moderation, (4) b) social learning, (5) and c) strategic interaction. (6) I suggest, in contrast, that society is the engine of change and moderation, which in turn leads to the change in the discourse of Islamists. Then, the critical question is how does the change in society come about?

Economic Liberalization and Center-Periphery Relations

I argue that economic liberalization leads to social moderation, which eventually results in the rise of MDPs. Economic liberalization has often been seen to have the potential to reshape the political landscape towards a more liberal and democratic system. (7) Policy recommendations in the last decade or so have focused on how the economy has priority over politics in order to shape the latter. According to Fareed Zakaria, economic liberalization should take priority in reform efforts due to its potential to create a middle class business group with "a stake in openness, in rules, and in stability. …