The Rise of Political Islam

The Palestinian Election and Democracy in the Middle East

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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.

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.

There is no evidence to suggest that, under Saddam Hussein, Iraqis were overwhelmingly secular to begin with. There were then no public opinion polls to discover the actual views of the Iraqi people. The Arab Baath Socialist Party was itself secular in the sense that one of its three founders, Michel Aflaq, the ideological guru of Saddam, was a Christian who moved from Beirut to Baghdad and died there in 1989.

Far more reliable, when it comes to the state of public opinion, is the confidential poll conducted in late July 2004 for the International Republican Institute, an offshoot of the U.S. Republican Party, and leaked to the press that September: Seven out of ten respondents said that the Sharia, or Islamic law, should be the “sole basis” of Iraqi laws, and the same proportion — 70% — preferred to live in a “religious state”; only 23% opted for a secular one. The two elections since then have only underlined the accuracy of this poll.

Egypt is the country where the Muslim Brotherhood was first established in 1928. By inflicting a swift and humiliating defeat on an Egypt ruled by President Gamal Abdul Nasser, a man wedded to “Arab socialism,” in June 1967, Israel delivered a near-fatal blow to the hopes for the development of secular Arab nationalism in the region. In that hour of their downfall most Egyptians attributed the Israeli victory to Jewish devotion to their religion and, in a similar spirit, turned to Islam for their own spiritual succor. It was at that point that the Muslim Brotherhood, though still an outlawed organization, began gaining popularity.

With Anwar Sadat (known to have been sympathetic to the Brotherhood earlier in his life) succeeding Nasser as president in 1970, pressure on the Brotherhood eased for a while. In more recent years, the failure of Hosni Mubarak’s rule to narrow the gap between a tiny, wealthy elite and the country’s impoverished masses has provided the Brotherhood with an ever richer soil in which to plant its utopian and increasingly appealing slogan, “Islam is the solution.”

Today, it is fair to say that the failure of both Arab socialism and American-style capitalism to deliver the goods to the bulk of the population, leaves a probable majority of Egyptians ready to try the Third Way of Islam.

The Palestinian case is altogether different. Israel’s 38-year-long military occupation, with its devastating impact on the everyday lives of the occupied, has spawned a politics that has no parallel elsewhere in the Arab world. Its salient features include: powerful tensions between local and long-exiled leaders; high political consciousness; a lack of distance between followers and leaders of a sort not found in long established states and regimes; and a turning to religion for solace.

The ruling Fatah movement suffers from tensions between local leaders and those who spent many years abroad before returning after the 1993 Oslo Accords. The leadership of Hamas, on the other hand, is almost wholly local.

Because the Palestinian state is not fully formed, followers in the ranks of such parties are able to exercise direct pressure on the leadership. As the governing party which has proved corrupt and inept in administering the Palestinian entity, Fatah has seen its standing wane. By contrast, Hamas has a history of providing free social services to the needy and is not tainted with a history of corruption and cronyism.

In short, while political Islam is ascendant in the emerging electoral politics of the Middle East, the reasons for its successes are varied and specific to each country. This is not a case of “one size fits all.” That is the least that those who mold public opinion in the United States ought to grasp.

As for the policy makers in the Bush administration, they will, sooner or later, have to face reality and deal with organizations such as Hamas and the Muslim Brotherhood, as they have found themselves forced to play ball with the religious parties in an Iraq occupied by their troops.

Dilip Hiro is the author of Secrets and Lies: Operation “Iraqi Freedom” and After and The Iranian Labyrinth: Journeys Through Theocratic Iran and Its Furies, both published by Nation Books.

Copyright 2005 Dilip Hiro

This piece first appeared, with an introduction by Tom Engelhardt, at


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