Radical Political Islam and the Empowerment of the Poor and Pious

I have a paper coming out in Econometrica this month (ungated version here) on how local Islamist mayors increased female participation in education in Turkey during the 1990s. The main contribution of the article is that it uses a method called the Regression Discontinuity Design (RDD) which allows identifying an estimate of the causal effect of having Islamist political control.

A focus on causality is important as the reason why Islamist-controlled constituencies have poor women’s rights may come from voter-specific characteristics, like preferences for political Islam, as much as the effect of the Islamist politician itself. If politicians have little power to influence policy other than adopting the policy position of a representative (often the median) voter, then (Islamic) party identity doesn’t matter for policy, only voter preferences do. Resulting policies may be detrimental to development, but is then the result of voter preferences, not politicians. If for some reason, elected politicians can influence policy away from the representative voter to their own preferred position, then politician identity will matter for policy. In this case, unwanted policies may be as much the fault of the politician (see this paper for more through discussion).

Interest in causal effects of political parties in economics is nothing new (see this paper for a non-exhaustive list), but the focus on political Islam is. The application to this political ideology adds an additional degree of policy relevance, as Islamist parties have regularly been banned for the perceived negative consequences they incur. Based on this assumption, commentators in the West have often given their blessing to secular elites in the state apparatus excluding Islamist political participation. Examples can be found in Algeria, Egypt, Tunisia, and Turkey.

Of central concern is how political Islamists affect women, as Islamists are more likely to get elected in constituencies with already poor women’s rights. If Islamic politicians in democratic settings reduce women’s rights, this could mean that democratization in previously authoritarian countries may end up having adverse development consequences for large numbers of the population. The analysis of Islamic political control in a democratic setting is thus highly relevant to the spread of democratization in the Muslim world.

Turkey is a highly relevant case because, despite imperfect democratic institutions, at the local level political participation has for the most part been comparatively open. As a consequence, in the 1994 local elections for municipal mayors the radically-Islamist Refah party won 20 percent of the national vote. It also won 12 percent of the mayor seats, an understatement of its electoral victory as these included both the Ankara and Istanbul municipalities. A year later, it became the largest receiver of votes in the national elections, and subsequently became the head of a coalition government together with a secular rival. But within two years, it was ousted from the government by a military-led coalition, and within four years it was banned by Turkey’s Constitutional Court. The Court’s stated reason was that the party had become a “center of activities contrary to the principle of secularism.”

Banning political parties, Islamist or not, was nothing new in Turkey, but what was noteworthy was that a subsequent case by the European Court of Human Rights (here) ruled in favor, arguing that the ban was “necessary in a democratic society”. What was peculiar was that the judgement was largely based on quotes of the members of the party (not its implemented policies).

Certainly, Refah included its share of wackos. And by most accounts, it did constitute what can be described as an “Islamist” party. For example, at a rally, a Refah member of parliament addressed the debate on whether religious schools should be shut down in the following fashion:

“If you attempt to close down the Imam-Hatip theological colleges while the Welfare Party is in government, blood will flow. It would be worse than in Algeria. I too would like blood to flow…. If they piss into the wind they’ll get their faces wet. If anyone attacks me I will strike back. I will fight to the end to introduce sharia [law].”

The ECHR judgement verdict (linked above) includes several such hair-raising statements. Given the difficulties – both in principle as well as in practice – of implementing sharia law, this raises the question why people, especially women, would ever vote for a party where members say they will “fight to the end to introduce sharia”? Turkey furthermore tends to have very low levels of support for Sharia law (see here).

That is, unless they are voting for the party for a completely different reason. For an undeniable fact, as shown by scholars like Yesim Arat, Gareth Jenkins, and Jenny White,  is that Refah received a widespread support among women. And just by reading the fascinating research of these scholars, you quickly get the sense that the “Islamists” were facilitating participation to women in ways secular parties either weren’t willing or able to do.

As I describe in the article for the particular case of access to education, the Islamists were more effective in lowering barriers to entry for women. An example is the ban on the headscarf (or equivalently, co-ed education) in public high school which creates a gender-biased barrier to entry for women coming from poorer and more pious backgrounds. Opinion polls regularly show an overwhelming majority of women wearing a headscarf, and a TESEV poll by Binnaz Toprak and Ali Carkoğlu have shown that socially conservative parents tend to be unwilling to allow daughters to attend educational institutions without wearing a headscarf. As a consequence, the ban effectively creates higher barriers to entry for those women who need access to education the most.

Actions that lower these barriers may do much to improve female access to education. These include, amongst others, not enforcing the ban or indirectly lowering barriers by coupling secular high school with access to extracurricular educational institutions more amenable to religious conservatives. As I argue in the article, the vakif-sponsored dormitories and Qur’an study centers mushrooming in Islamist-controlled areas may have worked more to increase access to secular schooling than to facilitate a Islamification of the populace, as secular critics argued at the time. As evidence, I show that, over a period of more than fifteen years, constituencies that received Islamist mayors exhibited lower levels of Islamic preferences, lower adolescent marriage rates, and higher female participation in local politics. These effects are largely driven by what happens in poorer and more pious municipalities, and so either this is an astonishing case of “reverse taqqiya,” or local Islamic ruled served to empower women among the poor and pious. (As I show in another paper, together with my coauthor Selim Gulesci, this may very well be driven by the direct secularizing and empowering effects of education itself).

The study speaks to events that happened in Turkish municipalities in the 1990s during relatively fair and open democratic elections and its effects in subsequent years. As such, the results do not necessarily generalize to other institutional settings where Islamists compete in democratic elections. But despite limits in external validity, it nonetheless provides the first estimate of the causal effect of local Islamic rule in a democratic setting documented using state-of-the-art econometric techniques. It is also crucial to recognize that the documented positive effect of having an Islamic mayor may just as well be interpreted as the cost of gender-biased barriers to entry. Nonetheless, one may wonder why it was the Islamists that proved more effective in lowering such barriers to entry, and why this group of politicians were willing to alienate the secular elite in the process.

Some of the most vocal critics of political Islam may likely, even after reading the paper, still uphold that Islamists are invariably undemocratic and bad for development. The purpose of this study has been to show that the inclusion of the word “invariably” in the former sentence is incorrect. Instead, there are cases where Islamist politicians participating in an open and democratic process may improve development outcomes for its constituencies, without simultaneously increasing Islamic preferences.

Banning a political party for implementing  policies detrimental to women that are not in line with representative voter preferences could potentially serve to improve women’s rights. But banning a political party that empowers women more than its opponents may very well have the opposite effect. The challenge for institutions like the ECHR but also, more broadly, for commentators in the West is being able to make informed judgments on when this is the case or not, using both what politicians say as well as what they do. Otherwise, to quote a radical Islamist, we’re just “pissing into the wind.”

6 thoughts on “Radical Political Islam and the Empowerment of the Poor and Pious

  1. mehkutluay


    First of all, congratulations on your publication in Econometrica! That is fantastic!

    I have one issue though, women’s education participation has been increasing in Turkey for the past 20-30 years. However, what we see is that the women’s labor force participation rate has been going down at the same time. TESEV also concluded that 60-70 percent of all women in Turkey cover their head somewhat, but do you think that lifting the headscarf ban in public office will increase labor force participation rate?

    There are, in fact, many educated women in Turkey. However they have a tendency to not work and stay at home. This is true, even after controlling for off-the-books agricultural employment. I would very much like to hear your opinion on this because this question has been bugging me for a couple of years now.

    Again, congratulations! This seems to be a very fine piece of academic work, on the surface. I look forward to reading your paper soon!


    1. Erik Post author

      Thanks for your comment, M. In general, I tend to view the headscarf ban as more unhelpful than helpful, mostly because I find it difficult to think of dress code as a relevant instrument for empowerment. Still, whether lifting the ban on public employment would increase labor participation or not, I don’t know. (I don’t think it would hurt participation though.) So obviously it would be very interesting to see a study on this with a proper identification strategy.

  2. Yavuz Kalkan

    Islamic parties/politicians may improve overall female access to education but not to female participation in employment.

    For the great majority of the pious population women’s place in the society is limited to motherhood , as time and time again proved by the words of the current Turkish prime minister.

    If the ban was lifted before it became a huge political issue in 1980’s, we would have seen improvements to women’s access to education before the rise of Islamic parties.

  3. Alper Duman

    Nice work. Is there a way to extend the analysis to university completion among women? For, there is a real “discontinuity” in terms of female labor force participation rates between high school and university graduates in Turkey.

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