Academic journal article The Middle East Journal

Education, Political Participation, and Islamist Parties: The Case of Jordan's Islamic Action Front

Academic journal article The Middle East Journal

Education, Political Participation, and Islamist Parties: The Case of Jordan's Islamic Action Front

Article excerpt

It has been argued that the charitable activities and religiosity of Islamist political parties may attract less-educated citizens and reverse the standard positive correlation between education and political participation. We surveyed active members of Jordan's Islamic Action Front (IAF), and found them to be far more educated than other Jordanians. They elected yet more educated leaders, which combined with their low unemployment suggests that an IAF government would value technical competence and avoid a "populist" economic program.

Political Islam is a reality in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) today. Since the beginning of the Arab Spring, Islamist parties have not only been winning elections, but have also formed governments. In Tunisia, the Islamist party Ennahda (in full Harakat al-Nahda, or the Renaissance Movement), while not completely dominating the Constituent Assembly elected in October 2011, emerged as the largest party by far with 89 out of the total 217 seats. In order to govern, Ennahda formed a coalition with the secular and centrist Congress for the Republic, and the secular and left-of-center Ettakatol (in full al-Takattul al-Dimuqrati min ajl al- Amal wa-l-Hurriyat, or the Democratic Forum for Labor and Liberties). In the November 2011 parliamentary elections in Morocco, the Islamist Justice and Development Party (PJD) also achieved a resounding victory, more than doubling its number of seats since the 2007 elections, from 46 to 107. Although the PJD also formed a coalition government with other main secular parties, its leader, AMelilah Benkirane, was appointed by King Muhammad VI as prime minister of the new government.1 Contrary to some expectations, both the Ennahda and PDJ-led coalitions have provided almost three years of uninterrupted and relatively stable systems of governance and politics in North Africa. Even in Egypt, the parliamentary elections of early 2012 led to an Islamist-dominated parliament, and the presidential elections were won by an Islamist candidate, Mohamed Morsi, for the first time in Egypt's history.1 2 Since then, political Islam, for the time being, has been intermpted by the removal of President Morsi from power by the Egyptian army on July 4, 2013.3

In Jordan, the Islamic Action Front (IAF) decided "to boycott early elections" held in late 2012, believing that the regime had no intention of providing fair and free elections.4 They did this despite the fact that they were "expected" to do very well in the elections.5

The Arab Spring, which led to the above cited developments, has been viewed as setting in motion a new "democracy wave in the region."6 For most Western observers and statesmen, the Arab Spring "came as a surprise."7 In fact, Richards and Waterbury stated as recently as 1996 that "we are doubtful that Islamist parties could win majorities anywhere in the region."8 Oliver Roy expressed a similar opinion in 1994 when he stated that Islamists have "failed" and that they are "far from leading to the establishment of states or of Islamic societies."9 Contrary to these expectations, Islamists have established themselves as major players in MENA's political landscape. Negotiations between Islamist groups and their governments, as well as with international organizations and even Western states, will determine political outcomes in the region in the foreseeable future.

Scholars of the Middle East have produced a vast literature on broad and significant issues related to political Islam. This includes questions such as whether democracy and Islam are compatible,10 whether "inclusion or exclusion is a better strategy for deflating [Islamic] . . . challenges,"11 the role of Islamic charity in Islamic societies,12 the challenges Islamist movements pose to secular regimes,13 whether Islamists treat democracy as a strategic or tactical option,14 and the role of women in Islamist movements.15

In this article we would like to turn the concern with Arab Islamist parties around and ask not whether they will maintain or dismpt democratization, but whether they might make democracy work better. …

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