Domestic Dynamics of Political Islam in the Greater Middle East: Case Studies of Jordan, Egypt, Kuwait and Turkey

By Amanda Rudman Et. Al.
Cornell International Affairs Review
2007, Vol. 1 No. 1 | pg. 1/3 |


These four nations showcase the state of Islamism as a political force in the Middle East. Because of differing political circumstances in each state, the impact and viability of following Muslim law varies. In order to best explain why this is so, we will explore the political background of each nation, as well as discuss the current political climates of the countries in question. Finally, we will postulate as to what type of impact the ascension of an Islamic government will have on relations with the Western world, whether it be European nations, as is the case with Turkey, or the United States, as with Kuwait, Jordan and Egypt. The implications of this possibility are enormous; therefore, we feel that the importance of understanding the region cannot be overstated.


Throughout the Arab World, Islamist parties are gaining support and winning elections. Jordan is no exception to this trend. Activity amongst Islamist supporters has peaked in the past few years in concert with Islamist political gains across the region. Support for Islamist political parties is based in discontent with current government and levels of democratization in Jordan.

Political Background

Jordan is a constitutional monarchy and its current constitution was first ratified in 1951. During King Hussein’s reign, from 1953 until his death in 1999, he often restricted civil liberties to stabilize his rule against challengers. The government instituted an agenda of political liberalization in the early 1990s culminating in the legalization of political parties in 1992. Despite these positive efforts, King Abdullah II dissolved Parliament in 2001 to prevent challenges to his rule. Parliamentary and municipal elections were last held in 2003 and the current Prime Minister was appointed in 2005. Though the current cabinet has set ambitious goals of reforms, they have not been very successful and opposition is constantly growing.1

Current Politics

The Islamic Action Front (IAF), the main opposition to the King’s government in Jordan, is the political arm of the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood. The IAF has a crucial, yet dual role in Jordanian politics. It has encouraged political liberalization, democratization, and anticorruption policies. But it has also inspired Jordan’s elite to fear a loss of control, and therefore to reverse democratic reforms. Additionally, any outcome requires the assistance of the United States (US). It is essential that Jordan reconciles the popular support for the IAF, the fears of the elite, and the need for democratization so that it can become a stable, sustainable country which allows the freedom of its people.

Though somewhat reserved for the past few years, after Hamas’ January 2006 electoral victory and the successes of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, the IAF has become exceptionally active in Jordanian politics. It has focused on themes of anticorruption and good-government (like Hamas) and social-welfare networks (like the Muslim Brotherhood). Most importantly, the IAF is calling for democracy, deliberately echoing President Bush and Secretary Rice.2

Even without this new push, the IAF is still the largest political force in Jordan. Jordan currently has about thirty political parties; however these parties do not play a large role in parliament. Out of 110 members in the lower house, only 25 represent a political party. In early 2007 17 of these 25 members were representatives of the IAF, meaning they were the largest elected group in Jordanian politics.3

This intense popular support is very troubling to King Abdullah II. These fears could negatively affect Jordan’s relationship with the US. Indeed, for the US to make the political system work, it must be more open.4 The Jordanian government opposes this political liberalization, as it believes the IAF and Islamists would take over.

In April 2007, Abdullah II encouraged the passage of a law that is supposed to “modernize Jordan’s political system”5 by creating large national political parties. But the law has very strict requirements for each group that wishes to be an official party.6 Though the stated goal of large national parties will certainly be reached, the unstated goals of destroying the power of the IAF and enforcing the standing of the elite will also be realized.

Both the IAF and the King are doing as much as possible to protect themselves from each other. The IAF has attempted to dilute the power of Abdullah II by campaigning on anti-corruption. At the same time, Abdullah II has attempted to reduce the power of the IAF by creating new reforms which weaken the influence of political parties. Neither of these programs will lead to a sustainable, democratic society. The popular support and power of the IAF must be reconciled with the power of the elite within a democratic framework. Only when both sides have compromised in a power-sharing arrangement can the stability of the government be ensured. Neither the government, nor the opposition, has shown that they have all of the answers and are ready to lead a free society.

With parliamentary elections approaching this fall, there has been a scramble of last minute political activity. The IAF boycotted the municipal elections this past summer and when this article went to press had still not decided whether or not they would participate in the parliamentary elections.7 If the IAF does not participate in the upcoming elections, supporters of the monarchy will retain control of the government. This consolidation of power will strongly influence the government’s next steps towards reform.

Implications for Western Relations

Though reforms by the elite are claimed as responses to the United States advocating democratization, the party platform of the IAF has been based on the same call. Because the IAF is acting according to the interests and advocacy of the United States, Abdullah II cannot hope to improve U.S.-Jordanian relations through his reforms. At the same time, the IAF will not be able to gain control of government with the support of the United States until it proves it is truly separate from its hard-line, terrorist neighbors. Both sides must attempt true democratic reform to avoid upsetting relations with the United States and to ensure a freer society for their own people.


Rarely has an empire been as as durable as that of the Ottomans. Established in 1299, the Ottoman Empire’s influence spanned more than seven centuries; at the pinnacle of its power, it controlled territory in three continents and served as the only balance to Western European power in the Muslim world. However, by the turn of the 20th century it had been greatly diminished; after its defeat at the hands of the Entente powers during the First World War, the Empire collapsed, eventually being replaced by the Republic of Turkey. Established by the government of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk. in October of 1923, the new Turkish nation put an overwhelming emphasis on the merits of secular democracy. The leaders of the new republic were wary of a possible return to Turkey’s Islamic roots, and therefore tried to reform practices, which they felt undermined the secular nature of their country. The most notable attempts included trying to get women to forsake traditional Muslim garb in favor of European garments, giving full rights and equality under the law to women, making secular education compulsory, and abolishing all religious courts8. It is clear that Atatürk’s vision of a modern Turkey was predicated upon Western ideals.

Political Background

However, in the eight decades since Atatürk established the Republic, the religious influence he worked so diligently to suppress has experienced a resurgence as a viable school of political thought. Thanks in large part to the multi-party system, the Democratic Party replaced the People’s Party (now the Republican People’s Party) by appealing to many of the fundamentalist Muslims who had never embraced the liberal ideas espoused by Atatürk. The Democrats allowed certain religious practices to resume in public life, such as the broadcasting of the Koran over the state radio.

Yet the reign of the Democratic Party was short-lived, and the events that surrounded its downfall are indicative of what has happened every time a Turkish government begins to stray too far from its secular roots. In 1960, the Turkish military intervened, claiming that the Democratic Party was betraying the secularism. This interference was repeated most notably in 1971, 1980 and 1997. Yet Muslim political activity was far from quelled; in a country that is 99.8 percent Muslim, this should not come as a surprise. The Party for National Order was established in 1970 as the main political avenue for Islamists; it has undergone numerous changes in name, but its core ideology has remained intact. Under the guise of the National Salvation Party (NSP), the group was able to gain forty-eight seats in Turkey’s parliament, making it the third-largest political party in the government. However, the NSP continued to lose influence, eventually succumbing to the Prosperity Party in 1980. In 1995, the Prosperity Party won 30.4 percent of the Turkish vote and established a cabinet headed by nineteen Prosperity members and eighteen True Path Party members, a right-of-center Islamist group.9

Current Politics

While the True Path and Prosperity parties are no longer as powerful as they once were (True Path received only 9.55% of the vote in 2002, Turkey’s last election), they have been replaced by the Justice and Development Party (AKP), which has been enormously successful. In 2001, the AKP leader Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, was elected to the post of Prime Minister, resulting mostly from the AKP’s ability to end the inflation which plagued the nation in the early years of the decade. Known as a moderate Islamist party, the AKP embodies many of the values held by Muslims throughout the nation and serves as the most viable alternative to the otherwise secular governing parties.

So how much influence does religion have in the Turkish state? It is clear that Islamism has long been a force in a traditionally secular state, but that religious parties have been held in check by various institutions, such as the military and the courts. Yet it is apparent that the nation is now at a crossroad. In the midst of presidential elections that occurred earlier this year, the same forces that have always preserved the secular roots of the nation engaged in a struggle against the largely Islamist government. The parliament put forth both Erdoğan and Foreign Minister Abdullah Gul as their choices for the position of President, but the elections designed to confirm them were repeatedly blocked. In Turkey’s parliamentary system the people are not allowed to directly elect a candidate, which has left opponents of an Islamist government with few options for blocking their appointment. The secularists had, however, proven to be quite successful thus far: Gul’s nomination was met with one of the largest protests in Turkey, in which over a million Turks took to the streets of Istanbul and Ankara in order to voice their opposition to the perceived undermining of Atatürk’s principles. Similarly, the Turkish constitutional court attempted to stop the election of Gül on May 1, citing concerns over his Islamist policies as their primary rationale.10 The Turkish military issued a stern warning that it would not allow the government to stray from its secular roots, saying, “It should not be forgotten that the Turkish armed forces is one of the sides in this debate and the absolute defender of secularism…When necessary, they will display its stance and attitudes very clearly.”11

But on August 28, the Turkish political sphere was rocked when Gül was confirmed as the 11th President of the Republic of Turkey. The importance of the appointment of a traditional Islamist cannot be overstated; never since the Ottomans have the lines between the secular government and religious establishment been so blurred. However, Gül was quick to assuage the fears of opponents who feel his election signals the downfall of the secular state, saying in his inaugural address, “Secularism - one of the main principles of our republic - is a precondition for social peace as much as it is a liberating model for different lifestyles.”12 Furthermore, he is expected to support his claim by leaving the AKP and focusing on Turkey’s membership in the European Union (EU). In all, it is hard to view Gül as the mortal threat to Atatürk’s secular legacy that his opponents make him out to be.

Implications for Western Relations

What does all of this mean? It is easy enough to look at the events that have unfolded in Turkey over the years solely in the context of their impact on a democratic nation, in which case there is nothing particularly notable about the situation. Parties and people evolve, and branches of government are often in conflict. However, when you attempt to interpret how this history will impact the future of the state, you realize that Turkey is not merely undergoing a political evolution; in fact, we are witnessing a monumental clash between politics and religion. Turkey has long been recognized as the link between East and West. The nation sits on a fault line between civilizations, and the decision to elect a prominent Islamist to the post of President signals that the significance of the historical presence of religion will not soon be forgotten.

The desire to associate with European culture caused Turkey to seek admission into the EU; however, the fact that the population is overwhelmingly Muslim has been a source of consternation for many in Europe who worry that inundating the EU with 70 million Muslims would cause it to lose its institutional and cultural identity.13 While it is essential to note that there still remain significant political barriers to the accession of Turkey into the EU (such as issues in Cyprus and a refusal to admit crimes against Armenians), the biggest issue remains apprehension over whether Muslim Turks and Christian Europeans can overcome the lack of a common identity. The Islamist ideology of Turkey’s current government has caused anxiety amongst those who feel that the AKP has undermined the secular nature of the democracy. What makes the situation even more ironic is that a military coup on the side of the secularists would seem to belie political instability, which is even more of a concern than the ideological differences. Regardless, it would seem as though Turkey’s confirmation as an EU member is not imminent.

Islamism has always been a force in Turkish politics. With an almost entirely Muslim population, this is not very surprising. So what does this mean for Turkey’s future, particularly as it relates to relations with the West? Some, such as President George Bush and former Prime Minister Tony Blair, feel that even an Islamist Turkey will provide hope for democracy in the Middle East, demonstrating that seemingly incompatible ideologies can, in fact, be reconciled.14 Others feel as though Turkey is isolating itself both from Europe, because it is too Asian, and from Asia, because it is too European. The reality may be closer to the center: while Turkey has long held European ideals, its culture is still fundamentally Middle Eastern. The nation will never adopt the completely secular policies of most European nations, but neither is it in any danger of becoming an Islamist theocracy in the mold of Iran or Saudi Arabia. Whether Turks can ultimately unite their desire to emphasize Muslim values with their aspiration to take advantage of the economic and political advantages associated with EU membership is a question that will not be definitively answered for some time, but it seems as though the prospects of such an occurrence are growing dimmer as the secular and religious institutions grow farther apart.

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