Islamism and democracy

Last update: 2022-04-22 09:21:56

Distingue frequenter” Scholastic and Neo-Scholastic masters once used to teach. And perhaps Riccardo Redaelli remembered this adage while planning his latest publication, which leans confidently on the chaotic Middle Eastern situation in order to discern some lines of developments. The methodological choice is clear from the title, Islamismo e democrazia (Islamism and democracy): therefore Islamism or political Islam, not Islam tout court. This thematic delimitation is as necessary as ever since tackling the relationship between Islam and Democracy - argues the author - would result in a twofold reification. On the one hand, Islam would risk being reduced to only its constant factors - which nonetheless exist - leaving behind the dialectic between stable and variable elements which have been at the foundation of many societies, though all very different from one another, throughout history. On the other hand, no less opaque is the term democracy, a trademark whose almost universal success is in no way a guarantee of clarity regarding the true nature of the concept that it is supposed to designate. Thus escaping to the dangers of genericism, which fatally degenerates into sermon, Redaelli poses a much more precise and stimulating question: what happens when a Western-born political model spreads throughout non-Western societies? A first and fundamental observation, is that the importation of formal representation mechanisms is not in itself a sufficient guarantee of successful acculturation, to the point that “today we are witnessing in almost all Islamic countries the adoption of government and representation criteria and mechanisms which are formally similar to ours, but which do not bring about any real liberty or democracy” (p. 30). A joke circulating on Twitter in recent days brilliantly sums up the point (“Algeria just modified its Constitution introducing limitations to the presidential term. Now a president can’t remain in office for more than two consecutive lifetimes”). Even in recent years - Redaelli observes lucidly - “in the Middle East the ‘democratization’ has all too often represented more the sign of a crisis in the political system than a veritable evolution towards a pluralistic system” (p. 50). Therefore, the link between regime change and democratization is not in any way automatic. Rather, the type of political culture is what makes the difference. And in this regard, Redaelli briefly summarizes the different periods that Islamic countries have gone through in the last century: the liberal age (1919-1948), with the introduction of the model of the nation State; the age of nationalism (1948-1979), which took the form of socialist inspired pan-Arabism. And after its failure, the return to the scene of political Islam as an alternative project, in the context of the “revenge of God.” Redaelli however, capitalizing on the lessons of the Arab revolutions of 2011, sees the running out of the ideals of even this third cycle: the search for an Islamic democracy essentially ended up being a failure. In the end, “the Islamist discourse has not proven more satisfactory than that of the autocrats that it wanted to take down” (96). However, uninterrupted contact with the realities on the ground, which surfaces throughout the entire work, shelters the author from the intellectualist confusion between the failure of a theoretical model and its practical waning. In the face of difficulties (and the discrimination or repression which they are subject to) the militants can opt for a utopian headlong rush with frankly apocalyptic features, as is today’s proclamation of the caliphate. Despite being incapable of providing a viable alternative in the long run, this political project is capable of devastating entire regions in the impossible attempt to self-realization, dealing “a wound to the ideals of justice, peace and human security in which the international community wishes to be recognized” (p. 91). Therefore, if the exhaustion of a historical cycle does not coincide with its end, the Arab world will really only turn the page when it knows how to give shape to an alternative model, which does not consist in the simple return to the brutal authoritarianism of nationalist regimes in perpetual crisis of legitimacy. In a context of globalization and hybridization (p. 18), the author identifies two pitfalls undermining navigation: on the one hand, the struggle of Islamic civilization in adapting to modernity, with the danger of getting caught in the “nation State” net; on the other are the fears of a continent, i.e. Europe, “by now afraid of everything, but mainly of the future” (p. 13). Redaelli does not renounce proposing his own recipe, which calls for at least three ingredients. The first is the abandonment of a “myopic and backward conception of security — intended as the military security of the State and never of the populations that inhabits said State” (p. 64). Then “human security” is accompanied by the necessary protection of pluralism and minority rights, in particular in segmented societies, overcoming the neo-patrimonial nature (the mulk of Ibn Khaldun) of power. And finally, the most difficult, but most necessary development: religious reform. “Faced with the madness of jihadist violence, an effort from within Islam aimed at eliminating the doctrinal justifications of religious violence would be necessary, removing any pretext of ‘religiosity’ from criminal gangs and murderers who claim to defend true Islam. Such an effort is never simple and is always hard-fought, as is well demonstrated by the history of many centuries of Christianity and the Church. Yet, let the guardians of the islamic doctrine, be convinced: this reform effort seems truly unavoidable” (p. 97). As one can sense even from only this last citation, the author does not avoid the problems: he loves these lands and the people who inhabit them too much to hide behind minced words. And above all, he has not lost faith that, even after the failures of the “long century of Islam,” something new can be born despite everything that has happened. This article was translated from the original Italian