Extremist Pathways to Power: The Rise of Extremist Ideologies to State Dogma

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Project Details


In order to provide insights into the future political development trajectories in South Asia, this project explored mechanisms by which violent and nonviolent groups and organizations accept and propagate extremist ideologies, build popular legitimacy and gain significant political power. START will produce historical and comparative analyses grounded in theories of political legitimacy and constituency support. This research will primarily focus on the relationship between elite discourse and actions and popular preferences and support. 

Primary Findings:

Based on the literature review, researchers found that the legitimacy contest between Islamist movements and the states in which they operate is strongly marked by the “legitimacy crisis” of existing governments and state ideologies in the Muslim world. Islamist groups attempt to build legitimacy with constituents through appeals to a common identity, framing of an “indigenous” ideology, and the provision of public goods. Using qualitative comparative analysis (QCA), the research team identified 14 pathways by which extreme Islamists gained significant levels of political power. The most common pathway involved Islamist organizations providing social services in contexts of above-average linguistic fractionalization and economic contraction. Across the different pathways, the combination of Islamist group age and size contributed to success, as did the provision of social services. However, the presence of Western support for groups and their use of violence against their own constituents consistently inhibit electoral success. Across the case studies, several factors emerged as important in explaining electoral success. First, all successful groups used social service provision to build constituency support, consistent with the QCA findings. Secondly, successful parties were able to build alliances with other social and political groups, including but not limited to other Islamists. Third, most of the groups adopted some level of nationalist rhetoric that opposed intervention by foreign powers, specifically Western powers and the United States. Finally, a deciding factor in several cases, the disposition of the national military proved critical in electoral success being realized. 


The research team took a multimethod, cross-national and comparative approach to the project. The research team completed a literature review, framing the issue as a legitimacy contest between the state and traditional elites on the one side and extremist Islamist groups on the other. In order to assess the findings of the literature review and identify indicators of extremist Islamist success, the research team identified and collected data on 39 groups and 106 electoral attempts at the national level. The research team then analyzed the data using statistical methods and qualitative comparative analysis (QCA). Finally, the research team  carried out case study analysis for Islamist parties in Iran (Islamic Republic Party), Algeria (Islamic Salvation Front), Iraq (Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq, Sadrist Trend), and Pakistan (Jamaat-e-Islami, Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam-Fazlur Rehman).


Project Period: