Those who warn against efforts to promote free elections in Muslim-majority countries often point to the threat posed by Islamic parties that stand ready to use democracy against itself. Writing for the Journal of Democracy, Charles Kurzman and Ijlal Naqvi examine the historical record of Islamic parties and Muslim voters.
If Muslim-majority countries hold free and fair (or at least competitive) elections, should we expect Islamic parties to dominate such contests? The authoritarian regimes that rule many of these societies have used the prospect of landslide victories by Islamic parties as a justification for repression, and these regimes' allies in the United States and Europe seem to have accepted the premise. Knowledgeable observers point to the electoral success of the Islamic Salvation Front in Algeria (1991), the Justice and Development Party in Turkey (2002 and 2007), and the Islamic Resistance Movement (Hamas) in Palestine (2006), implying that democratization in more Muslim societies will bring more Islamist movements to power.
We make no predictions about the outcome of any future election. Yet if this handful of past elections is going to be used as an argument against future efforts toward democratization, it is worth looking at the entire range of elections in which Islamic parties have taken part—not just the ones in which such parties emerged victorious or otherwise did notably well. It turns out that Islamic movements have entered the electoral fray quite often—more than 160 times over the past generation, in fact—and most have attracted less than 8 percent of the vote. From this record, we draw four conclusions.