Secular authoritarian regimes and their Islamist rivals in the Middle East and North Africa: Emerging trends in Turkey's party system

Published date01 December 2023
AuthorMiaad Hassan
Date01 December 2023
Subject MatterOriginal Research Articles
Secular authoritarian regimes
and their Islamist rivals in the
Middle East and North Africa:
Emerging trends in Turkeys
party system
Miaad Hassan
The American University of Kurdistan, Iraq
Secular nationalism grew over 50 years to become a compelling force for political, social, and cul-
tural change in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA), but it was Islamism that rose to be its
chief rival and, in many Middle East countries, eventually replaced it. The question is: why? And
how did Islam gain political momentum? Since independence, the diktat of most single-party coun-
tries in MENA has been to implement modernization and secularization. Unlike the secular elites,
which sought to overthrow colonialism and the monarchies, the early Islamic reformers sought to
establish an Islamic state. MENAs secular regimes led to the massive institutionalization of national
identity by nationalizing economies and education, to create a unif‌ied ideology from which people
could draw a common identity. While eliminating competing ideologies, governments ignored the
conservative right in the form of Islamism, which was not expected to pose a serious challenge to
them. However, since MENA regimes were mostly authoritarian and forestalled a viable oppos-
ition, a social cleavage from below grew as an Islamic movement and eventually presented a ser-
ious challenge to them. This article provides an empirical analysis to support the argument that
social cleavages in MENA have cultural implications that relate to identity rather than to territory.
Hence, latent political cleavages, such as Islamism and ethnic nationalism, served as opportunities
to reinforce or reactivate cleavages.
political parties, party politics, Islamist parties, secular regimes, party system
Corresponding author:
Miaad Hassan, The American University of Kurdistan, VV66+FVM, Sumel, Duhok 99999, Iraq.
Original Research Article
Asian Journal of Comparative Politics
2023, Vol. 8(4) 923945
© The Author(s) 2023
Article reuse guidelines:
DOI: 10.1177/20578911231166709
Applying cleavage theory to the rise of electoral Islamism
To understand why Islamism
assumed the form of political movements and parties, it is necessary
to understand not only the structural cleavages in Muslim countries but also the progression of party
cleavages and their arrival in the party-political system. Several scholars say there is no explicit def-
inition of social cleavage (Maor, 1997; Zuckerman 1975)although it is def‌ined in the classical
works of Lipset and Rokkan as conf‌licts and controversies that can arise out of relationships
in social structure(Lipset and Rokkan 1967: 6). This def‌inition does not exclude the possibility
of political parties establishing themselves independently of the social cleavages that underpin
them (Lipset and Rokkan 1967: 3).
The term cleavagehas multiple connotations. Zuckerman (1975) argues that scholars writing
in both the sociological and non-sociological traditions use it to indicate different inputs. While the
sociological tradition uses it predominantly to signify long-term sociological structural divisions,
the non-sociological tradition uses it to generally indicate preferences, issues and dimensions.
Cleavage certainly has a role in party system design. For example, as argued by Huntington
(1970), a one-party system is probably the result of the saliency or retainment of a particular
sharp cleavage while a multiparty system is the product of cross-cutting cleavages that do not
tend to retain saliency to a particular issue. Huntington states that A one-party system is, in
effect, the product of the efforts of political elites to organize and to legitimate rule by one
social force over another in a bifurcated society(Huntington 1970: 11).
According to social cleavage theory, political mobilization and organized sectors of society, as
well as social conf‌licts, catalyzed into party systems which then stabilized after the conf‌licts sub-
sided. Principally, social cleavage theory posits religion and ethnicity as the foundation for political
parties, and from this the modern party system emerged via party support or opposition during crit-
ical junctures in history. Consequently, the party system, according to the social cleavage approach,
results from the evolution of political contestation and the structuralist attempts to explain the rela-
tionship between social cleavages and party systems.
Lipset and Rokkan (1967) identify four cleavage types that developed in Western Europe after
the Reformation: churchstate, centerperiphery, ruralurban, and ownerworker. These cleavages
yielded several types of allianceopposition structure, most notably the conservativeliberal divide
and the general tendencies of contemporary parties and voter attitudes.
It is critical, though, to adjust our understanding of social cleavage when it applies to
non-Western societies. For example, the Wests churchstate cleavage was the result of a conf‌lict
between the centralizing, modernizing, and secularizing state and religious interests, which f‌inds
only vague parallels elsewhere. Likewise, the Wests centerperiphery cleavage came about
because of conf‌licting interests between dominant elites and subordinate groups such as minorities
at the periphery. Other cleavages, however, such as the ruralurban (primary economy vs. second-
ary economy) partition between landed interests and the industrial barons or between owners and
workers did not fully equate with non-Western societies because most were neither capitalist nor
industrialized at the time. By considering other contexts, we may f‌ind that traditional ethnoreligious
cleavages in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) are more salient than class cleavages,
perhaps in non-Western countries as well.
The politicization of cleavage, on the other hand, is an identity category, which can be either
salient (van der Veen and Laitin, 2004) or activated (Chandra and Boulet 2003). For cleavages
to be politicized, groups should have some awareness of a common interest and the collective
means to organize (Bartolini and Mair, 1990). However, according to a different literature
924 Asian Journal of Comparative Politics 8(4)

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