Why Aren't There Any Progressive Muslim Parties and Why That's a Problem

A supporter of Turkish Prime Minister and leader of the Justice and Development Party (AKP), Ahmet Davutoglu, waves her natio
A supporter of Turkish Prime Minister and leader of the Justice and Development Party (AKP), Ahmet Davutoglu, waves her national and AKP flags during a rally to welcome Davutoglu at Ataturk airport, in Istanbul, Tuesday, Nov. 3, 2015. The ruling Justice and Development Party, or AKP, secured a stunning victory in Sunday's snap parliamentary election, sweeping back into single-party rule only five months after losing it. (AP Photo/Hussein Malla)

Why is Muslim political discourse stuck within the framework of Islamist ideologies? In a world dominated by the conservative discourse and actions of Muslim Brotherhoods, AKPs, ISISes, and Talibans, we'd be hard-pressed to find progressive Muslim political parties. Even the moderate parties of the Islamist ilk are on the conservative end of the political spectrum.

The conspicuous absence of such progressive religious parties in the Muslim world becomes even more striking when we consider the existence and success of such parties in the rest of the world. Parties that build on Latin American liberation theology such as Citizen Left Party of Chile and Christian Democratic Party of Uruguay, representatives of the Christian left such as Italy's Christian Democracy and Margherita (which later joined to form the Democratic Party), Christian Social Party of Switzerland; Buddhist socialism; and Meimad in Israel are some of the examples of such combination between religion and leftist discourse.

As these examples elucidate, the problem is not necessarily a fundamental incompatibility between progressive values and religion. With the exception of two instances, however, this is a pervasive problem throughout the Muslim world. The two exceptions are Ali Shariati's "Islamic left" ideology coined in the 1970s (which failed to achieve much success) and the voting patterns of Muslims who live in the West. Western Muslims overwhelmingly choose to support more liberal and progressive parties as a reflection of their minority status. For example, Muslim voters in France, Britain, and the United States vote for center-left, leftist, and socialist parties anywhere between 60% and 90%.

What is a progressive Muslim party?

The notion of a progressive Muslim political ideology may sound oxymoronic; that need not be the case. What I refer to when I say "progressive Muslim political movements" are those political movements in the Muslim world that are strong proponents of social justice, workers' rights, women's rights, and environmental protection in a pluralistic framework while remaining committed to a Muslim frame of reference. Their commitment to democracy is not an instrument of obtaining power as many Islamist parties do but an extension of their commitment to human rights and pluralism.

Progressive Muslim parties differ from Islamist parties in that the latter conceives a worldview in which religion is utilized dogmatically to justify restrictions on rights and liberties while the former takes the individual to its center and underscores equality, rights, and pluralism in the Islamic tradition.

Islamist parties' anti-labor stance is a case in point even when the emphasis on worker rights and equality in Islam call for a much more progressive position on this issue. The calls of prominent contemporary Muslim intellectuals like Khaled Abou El Fadl and Tariq Ramadan for a progressive transformation in the Muslim world on issues such as pluralism, gender issues, and the environment whilst relying on Islamic sources point to the feasibility of this stance and distinguish it from Islamist discourse.

Progressive Muslim parties also differ from secular leftist parties in regards to the role religion plays in their discourse, despite their common interest in social justice, women's and workers' issues, and the environment.

Think about a two-dimensional political space. The X-axis represents the traditional left-right political spectrum. The Y-axis corresponds to the religion-secularism divide (with religion at the top of the axis and secularism at the bottom).

Conventionally, political parties in the Muslim world locate themselves along the secular-leftist and religious-right nexus. The religious-leftist quadrant is left virtually uninhabited in the Muslim political space; Progressive Muslim political parties and movements are, theoretically, located in this isolated corner.

I choose to refer to such parties as progressive Muslim parties in order to adhere to the widespread use of the term in the academic literature. We could also call them liberal Muslim parties or even the Muslim left but the main point remains the same; such parties and political movements combine a progressive stance on key issues that deal with equality, gender, and the environment while drawing inspiration from Muslim values.

Why are there no progressive Muslim parties?

On a global scale, Muslim societies stand out from the rest by the fact that religion still occupies a central role in the lives of its citizens. According to a Pew Research Center survey of the Muslim world, in an overwhelming majority of Muslim-majority countries, the percentage of respondents who indicate that religion is "very important" in their lives hovers around 80-90%. Progressive Muslim parties offer two possible benefits in this context. On one hand, they present an alternative to the conservative and regressive outlook of Islamist parties; in so doing, progressive Muslim parties can converse in the familiar Muslim terminology with which an overwhelming majority of the population identifies.

On the other hand, they can spearhead efforts to make real progress on the issues in which the Muslim world records greatest deficits, such as pluralism, women's issues, labor rights, and environmental protection. Moreover, if we were to adopt Amartya Sen's perspective into development, we could also suggest that, in addition to being valuable in themselves, progress on these issues might lead to material development, as well.

But the real question is, especially if progressive Muslim parties may, in principle, offer tangible benefits, why are there no progressive religious political movements in the Muslim world? There are three primary reasons why that is the case.

First, the Muslim world, by and large, lacks a genuine leftist/socialist/workers' movement. The fact that a proletariat class never developed (due to the limited reach of industrialization) and that a class conflict did not materialize (thanks to a conscious effort on the part of political leadership to prevent class conflicts from arising, partly due to rentierism) accounts for the poverty of leftist politics in the Muslim world.

The extent of paternalism in the political arena (among both seculars and Islamists) hinders the organic development of a leftist political movement. The traditional representatives of the left in the Muslim world are merely poor imitations of their Western counterparts with the added heavy baggage of statism and authoritarian tendencies.

Secondly, the political left has a very strong association with an anti-religion (or, assertive secularist) attitude that owes to the post-independence ideological orientation of many new regimes in the Muslim world. As a legacy of early modernization ideas, post-independence regimes adhered to a religion-less modernization project, thereby creating an association with "godlessness" and severely undermining the potential success of leftist parties in the Muslim world with this stigma.

When we consider the fact that many Muslim-majority countries are underdeveloped, the weakness of leftist parties amid pervasive poverty becomes all the more clear. Hence, the association between a Muslim discourse and a leftist one appears to be a contradiction in terms for many largely due to this historical legacy.

Finally, the ideological dominance of Islamist discourse, which masquerades to represent the sole true understanding or interpretation of Islam, stifles the development of alternative Muslim political discourses. Such dominance partly emanates from how Islamists pitch their discourse as one that "defends" the honor of Islam against the "godless" politics of (leftist) seculars. On a different level, Islamist ideology also feeds from a heavy dose of anti-Westernism. An obtrusive ideological tool that Islamists utilize is blaming the West for the ills of Muslim societies, which conveniently relieves Muslims of responsibility. Progress for Islamists lies not in the future but in the past; it is about re-enacting the praxis of the past, consequently ignoring adjustment to the demands of the modern age as "westernization."

Indeed, many of these "liberal" ideas that Islamists oppose such as environmentalism, feminism, and the labor rights are typically conceived as "Western" ideas. The solution for Islamists, hence, is to energetically avoid these ideas and purge the society of non-Islamic and "Western" ideas as an extension of this dichotomous view of "us vs. them." Because this is an easy and simple "fix," Islamist discourse quickly captures the imagination of many Muslims; it conforms to what many in the Muslim world might already be thinking, particularly facilitated by the Islamic language employed in this process.

It is critical to note that, for the most part, Islam lends itself to fairly progressive interpretations to achieve progress on issues like women's rights, labor, and the environment. In fact, the positions of conservative Islamist parties today and their monopolistic claim on the "correct" understanding of Islam simply contradict the pluralistic history of the Muslim world.

Can such progressive Muslim political movements ever emerge and become popular? This is the question that strikes at the heart of the question of democracy and democratization in the Muslim world. The answer to this question rests on two key observations.

As many public opinion surveys indicate, religion is and will continue to occupy a very central role in the lives of a significant majority in the Muslim world. Unlike the secularization at the individual level that accompanied the movement toward democratization in the West, religion will remain a significant part of the conversation in the Muslim world's drive to democracy. Any genuine move toward democracy must accommodate religion as part of the process.

I must clarify, however, that such incorporation cannot be in the Islamist fashion; decades of experience have shown that Islamism's relation with democracy cannot go beyond polemical exchanges.

Rather, religion must be an ally of democratization efforts; recent research also indicates that religiosity does not prevent individual level support for democracy.

Likewise, progressive Muslim political movements are the only viable alternative to fill in the void of progressivism. This is particularly the case when we can only find inauspicious traces of progressivism outside the relatively small secular enclaves in the Muslim world due to the absence of organic labor movements and their political representatives in the political arena. At the end of the day, we should avoid the incorrect assumptions made in the past and accept that good things like democracy can come about in different ways.