Published by Seth Oldmixon on July 13, 2018

Critical Mass: Extremists don’t need a majority to fundamentally alter society

With national elections approaching in Pakistan and Bangladesh, there is a lot of talk about whether Islamist candidates stand a viable chance of winning. Typically, Islamist parties do not perform well in either country. In Pakistan, the Muttahida Majlis–e–Amal, a political alliance of Islamist groups, managed to win 53 National Assembly seats in 2002 during a period of massive electoral manipulation by then-military dictator Gen. Pervez Musharraf, but collapsed a few years later. And in Bangladesh, Jamaat-e-Islami has only managed to maintain political relevance by aligning itself with the Bangladesh Nationalist Party. Given this historical context, many analysts dismiss Islamist political parties as something of a sideshow, lacking the voter base to win enough seats to dictate policy. This is a mistake.

A new study by researchers from the University of Pennsylvania and the University of London found that it only takes 25 percent of a population to affect social change. This finding provides further evidence that religious extremists do not have to win elections to change societies. Whether or not their candidates are elected, participation provides a platform for dissemination of their ideas and a normalization of their ideology. In a country like Pakistan, where 54 percent of the country’s Muslims say religious leaders should have some influence on political matters, Islamists only need to compete to define the boundaries of religion.

This phenomenon is already playing out in both Bangladesh and Pakistan, and as elections draw near, religion is likely to play an even larger role in the political discourse. Whether or not they win a single seat in parliament, religious extremists are poised to significantly expand their influence in the halls of power.