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The Rise of Political Islam

The Palestinian Election and Democracy in the Middle East

| Wed Jan. 25, 2006 4:00 AM EST

By now, the voting will have begun in today's Palestinian elections. It's not clear how well Hamas -- the Arabic acronym which stands for Movement of Islamic Resistance -- will do, but opinion polls in the Palestinian territories show the Islamic organization pulling neck and neck with the ruling Fatah party. This is so even though Fatah strategists have plastered the territories with posters of Marwan Barghouti, the popular younger leader who is serving five life sentences for murder in an Israeli jail.

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This is but the latest manifestation of the rise of political Islam in the electoral politics of the Middle East, a development that -- despite the Bush administration's endless promotion of democratic reform in the region -- is causing deep worry among top policy makers in Washington.

Last year began with Islamist candidates winning most of the seats in the first very limited municipal polls in Saudi Arabia and ended with the Iraqi religious parties -- both Shiite and Sunni -- performing handsomely in the December parliamentary elections. The official Iraqi results, announced on January 21, showed the Shiite United Iraqi Alliance winning almost 80% of the seats that should go to the majority Shiite community. Likewise the Islamic Iraq Party won 80% of the places to which the Sunni minority is entitled.

In between these polls, in a general election held last summer, Hizbollah emerged as the preeminent representative of Lebanese Shiites, the country's largest sectarian group (which is grossly underrepresented in parliament). And in the first election for the legislative assembly not flagrantly rigged by Hosni Mubarak's regime in Egypt, the Muslim Brotherhood registered a nearly 60% success rate by winning 88 out of the 150 seats it contested. The Brotherhood certainly could have won many more, but its leadership deliberately decided to contest only a minority of seats in order not to provoke the regime of Egypt's pro-American president and so create a situation in which he might be likely to strike out indiscriminately against the opposition.

Put all of this together and you have what looks like a single phenomenon sweeping the region. However, focus on these developments one by one and what you see is that the reasons for Islamist advances are not only different in each case but particular to each country.

Take Iraq. History shows that when an ethnic, racial, or social group is persecuted or overly oppressed, it tends to turn to religion to find solace. In the Americas, this was true, for instance, of the Africans brought in as slaves. It is not accidental that today African-Americans are still more religious than white Americans.

Once Iraq became part of the (Sunni) Ottoman Empire in 1638, Shiites were persecuted and discriminated against. Even after the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire, as King Faisal was installed by the British as Iraq's ruler, little changed. He was Sunni, as were the leaders of the Baath Party that followed him to power. Mosque and religion became the last resort of Iraqi Shiites. Once the Baath Party was pulverized in the wake of the Bush administration's invasion, the Shiite religious network emerged as the most cohesive and efficient organization in the country -- and remains so today. In the late 1970s, following the fall of the secular regime of the Shah, Iran witnessed a similar phenomenon. As for the Sunnis, that long dominant minority, twelve years of UN economic sanctions hurt them as badly as non-Sunni Iraqis. Increased misery and growing impoverishment led the Sunni masses, too, to turn to Islam for consolation and support. So it is not surprising that once Sunnis decided to participate in the electoral process, most of them favored the Iraqi Islamic Party.

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