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Religion and Society

The Difficult and Possible Democracy

Universal Aspirations /4. Just as the Western experience of democratisation was accompanied by civil wars and religious conflicts, so in the contemporary Islamic world the various societies will encounter a delicate pathway of attempts and errors.

The stunning victory of Hamas in Palestinian elections, constitutional debates in Iraq and Afghanistan involving the role of Shariah or Islamic law, and the Muslim Brotherhood's emergence as the leading parliamentary opposition in Egypt continue to raise questions about the compatibility of Islam with democracy.


The realities of the Muslim world would seem to preclude democracy. The modern Muslim political experience has been one of kings, military, and ex-military rulers and regimes, possessing tenuous legitimacy and propped up by military and security forces. Indeed, the states of the Arab world are commonly referred to as security (mukhabarat) states. Self-styled Islamic governments in Pakistan, the Sudan, the Talibans' Afghanistan, and Iran and militant Islamic movements have often projected a religious authoritarianism which parallels that of secular authoritarianism. The emergence of global terrorist groups such as Al-Qaeda with their political agendas, totalitarian visions of an Islamic world order and rejection of democracy reinforce the image of the incompatibility of Islam and democracy. However, the reality is far more complex.


The process of nation building proved fragile and bore the seeds for later crises of identity, legitimacy, power and authority. Understanding the Middle East today with its problems of authoritarianism, instability and security requires that we not forget that most nation states (like many other states in the developing and colonized world) are only decades old and were artificially created or carved out of colonial territories by departing European powers post-World War II. In the Middle East, the French creation of the modern Lebanon included portions of Syria; Britain determined the borders and rulers of Iraq, Kuwait and Jordan. The British divided the Indian sub-continent into India and Pakistan with East (later Bangladesh) and West Pakistan separated by 1,000 miles of Indian territory. The difficulties of establishing a strong sense of nationalism in countries with such enormous ethnic, linguistic and cultural diversity were reflected in the fact that the vast majority of citizens could not speak the national language in India (Hindi) or Pakistan (Urdu).


Today, when we see problems of unity, stability, authoritarianism and a lack of democracy, we need to recall this legacy of centuries of European imperialism in which colonial powers were concerned with the perpetuation of their rule and influence rather than building strong democratic societies. This legacy has been compounded by the emer gence of authoritarian Muslim governments whose rulers and governing elites are concerned with the perpetuation of their power and privilege and not with power-sharing, freedom of assembly, speech, and press. Moreover, many Middle East autocrats (Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, and Tunisia) have been supported since the Cold War by the West for economic (access to oil) or political reasons (support for U.S. or European policy in the Palestinian-Israeli conflict or in a war against global terrorism).



Reinterpreting Tradition


The pressures for liberalization and the potential for incipient democratization movements in the Middle East raise the questions: are Islam and democracy compatible and, in particular, what have Muslims and Islamic movements had to say about democracy and political participation? Islamic movements, like governments in the Muslim world, reflect diverse and at times conflicting positions.


History demonstrates that nations and religious traditions are capable of possessing multiple and major ideological interpretations or reorientations. The transformation of European principalities, whose rule was often justified in terms of divine right, into modern Western democratic states was accompanied by a process of reinterpretation or reform. The Judeo-Christian tradition, whilst once supportive of political absolutism, was reinterpreted to accommodate the democratic ideal. "Islam" also lends itself to variable interpretations; it has been used to support democracy and dictatorship, republicanism and monarchy. The twentieth century has witnessed both tendencies.


Throughout the twentieth century, Muslim opinion of democracy has ranged from rejection to acceptance, albeit often a qualified acceptance.


Some Muslims reject any form of parliamentary democracy as Westernizing and incompatible with Islam. Many, if not most, Islamic intellectuals and activists have come to terms with the idea and the process though often in different ways and with diverse understandings. In attempting to implement their political programs, Islamic movements in Algeria, Turkey, Egypt, the Sudan, Jordan, Kuwait, Pakistan, Malaysia and Indonesia have increasingly turned to electoral politics, seeing the utility of working within the political system.


Muslim interpretations of democracy build on the well-established Quranic concept of shura (consultation), but place varying emphases on the extent to which "the people" are able to exercise this duty. Many argue that Islam is inherently democratic not only because of the principle of consultation, but also because of the concepts of ijtihad (independent reasoning) and ijma (consensus). It is argued that just as Islamic law is rescued from the charge of inflexibility by the right of jurists, in certain circumstances, to employ independent judgment, Islamic political thought is rescued from the charge of autocracy by the need of rulers to consult widely and to govern on the basis of consensus. Yet, a significant and broad diversity of opinion and practice exists.


Since the late-twentieth century, calls for greater liberalization and democratization from North Africa to Southeast Asia have increased. In many countries, diverse sectors of society, secular and religious, leftist and rightist, educated and uneducated, increasingly use broader political participation and democratization as the litmus test by which to judge the legitimacy of governments and political movements alike. The road to democratization has witnessed a struggle between secular nationalist and Islamic ideologies and forces.


The economic failures in the late 1980s and 1990s such as Tunisia, Algeria, Jordan, and Turkey led to calls for greater power sharing or democratization, transparency, freedoms and human rights. It also enabled many Islamic activists to assert their influence and power in mainstream society through ballots not bullets, emerging as the political alternative and opposition in elections.


Despite the tendency to project a monolithic "Islamic fundamentalism," which is militant and extremist, the reality proved far more complex. Diversity and variety, dynamism and flexibility, mainstream and extremist, account for a force that continues to be present from Africa to Asia. Islamists emerged as the leading opposition in Tunisia, Morocco, Egypt, Jordan, and Kuwait. In Algeria and Turkey, Islamists emerged as win ners. As a result, Islamists have served as prime minister, speaker of the assembly, parliamentarians, cabinet ministers, and mayors. While countries like Tunisia and Algeria moved quickly to shut down and suppress their Islamist opposition, mainstream as well as extremist, others sought to limit and contain Islamists participation.



The Case of Turkey


The shock and impact of 9/11 and the continued threat of global terrorism from Morocco to Mindanao enabled some Muslim rulers in Tunisia, Algeria, Egypt, Pakistan and the Central Asian Republics to exploit the danger of Islamic radicalism and global terrorism. This tactic enabled them to deflect from their suppression of opposition movements, mainstream as well as extremists, and/or to attract American and European aid. At the same time, elections in Bahrain, Morocco, Pakistan, Turkey, Afghanistan, Iraq, Malaysia, Indonesia and Saudi Arabia and electoral politics in Kuwait, Qatar and Bangladesh have reinforced both the continued saliency of democracy and, in particular, the role of Islam in electoral politics.


The victory of Turkey's Justice and Development Party (commonly called the AK Party) with a parliamentary majority in a Muslim country that has long been seen as a symbol of secularism in the Islamic Middle East was a stunning achievement with potential lessons for other countries. Turkey, a key ally in NATO and in the confrontation with Iraq, elected AK, a party with Islamist roots (originating from the former Welfare and Virtue parties). AK's success was due to the continued failures of Turkey's established parties and AK's ability not only to develop a broad based party but also to offer an alternative political and economic vision.


Muslim rulers and autocratic governments, self-styled "Islamic" as well as more secular, however different, often fail to transcend the culture and values of authoritarianism. Many have taken advantage of the post 9/11 climate to curtail democratic forces while continuing to attract American support despite the administration's reputed commitment to democracy. Tunisia's Zeine Abedin Ben Ali's has continued his tight control and dominance of electoral politics and suppression of opposition. While Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Pakistan have ostensibly moved to increase political participation, the process has been tightly managed and controlled by the government and often accompanied by crackdowns against the emergence of any significant political party or opposition.


Democratization is occurring on the ground in an increasing number of Muslim countries and the desire for broader power sharing remains a popular demand in many Muslim societies. However, the issue of Islam and democracy remains a challenge for all parties. Broader participation in elections or the greater role of political parties does not in itself guarantee the development and internalization of a culture and values of democratization or power-sharing. Muslim democrats will continue to be challenged to demonstrate that when in power they, too, will value political pluralism and that their democratic aspiration is not to come to power in order to impose their new "enlightened" democratic government. The litmus test for their internalization of the principles and values of democracy will be the extent to which their policies and actions reflect an acceptance of basic democratic freedoms, a diversity of opinion, of political parties and civil society organizations, and an appreciation of the concept of a "loyal opposition" rather than viewing alternative voices and political visions as a threat to the political system.


Islamic movements, in light of examples from Iran, the Sudan, and the Talibans' Afghanistan as examples of extremist groups, are challenged to prove by their actions as well as their promises that when elected they will honor the very rights of minorities and opposition groups that they now demand for themselves. They are challenged to be as vociferous in their denunciation of extremism and terrorism done in the name of Islam as they are of government repression and western imperialism. They must acknowledge that religious authoritarianism is as objectionable and dangerous as secular forms of authoritarianism.


Governments in the Muslim world are challenged to demonstrate their commitment to political liberalization and human rights by fostering the development of institutions and values of civil society that support democra tization and by implementing policies that discriminate between organizations, secular or Islamic, that directly threaten the freedom and stability of society and those that are willing to participate in a process of gradual change from within the system. The credibility of Egypt's electoral reforms has been greatly undermined by the continued propensity of the Mubarak government to arrest its critics from opposition parties, in particular the Muslim Brotherhood. The government tolerated violence in May 2005 by pro-government mobs that attacked and beat demonstrators from the Kifaya (Enough) movement while police looked on in the streets of a Cairo detracted from the nationwide referendum on multi-party elections. As Human Rights Watch reported: "plainclothes security agents beat demonstrators, and riot police allowed and sometimes encouraged mobs of Mubarak supporters to beat and sexually assault protestors and journalists." The positive potential and impact of Saudi Arabia's municipal elections have been lessened by its suppression and imprisonment of reformers.



Islam at the Polls


Western governments that advocate the promotion of self-determination and democracy must demonstrate by their policies and public statements that they respect the right of any and all movements, religious as well as secular, to participate in the political process. The policy failures and hypocrisy evident in European and American responses towards the subversion of the electoral process in Algeria and the indiscriminate repression of the Renaissance Party in Tunisia in the 1990s, and the more recent attempt "to manage" and determine the process of democratization in Iraq and refusal to honor the victory of Hamas in democratic elections, must be avoided in the future if the West is to avoid the charge that it operates on double standard, one (self-determination) for the West itself and selected allies and another for Islamic movements and candidates.


The record of more than two decades demonstrates that Islamic candidates and parties have in fact been elected and served in government in many countries and held major leadership roles in others. Like all politicians and parties some have failed, others have succeeded. Some have remained intransigent; others have adapted their beliefs and platforms in light of their experiences. It is not Islam but domestic and international politics that are the primary issue. As the Economist noted:


"Alas, the Islamic world is not burdened with examples of good government, let alone democracy. But religion is seldom the culprit: look, rather, for cruel autocrats, corrupt feudal systems, overbearing armies or any combination of the above ..The scene darkens as one moves west, with the Arabs inhabiting the least democratic patch on God's earth. Most Arab rulers, be they kings or presidents, take all the decisions that matter; their minions then carry them out. If they cannot claim a crown, they are re-elected through soft-flowing referendums. Arab ruling parties, with cash and patronage in their gift, can usually win without cheating, though to be safe they usually cheat too. Religion is largely irrelevant to this common misbehaviour." ["Iran, Islam and democracy," The Economist, 19 February 2000, p. 2.]


The issues of democratization and of Islam remain central to the development of the Middle East and the Muslim world in the twenty-first century. Observers will need to remember that we are watching a process unfold, a process of experimentation and change. The Western experience of democratization was a process of trial and error, accompanied by civil wars and intellectual and religious conflicts. So too in the Middle East today, societies that attempt to reevaluate and redefine the nature of government and of political participation, as well as the role of religious identity and values in society, will in many cases undergo a fragile process of trial and error in which short-term risks will be the price for potential long term gains. Autocratic governments may be able to derail or stifle the process of change; however they will merely delay the inevitable. The realities of most Muslim societies and the aspirations of many citizens, as well as the example of the struggle for democratization in other parts of the world, will require greater political liberalization or continue to contribute to the conditions that contribute to the growth of radicalization, political instability and global terrorism.






For a more extended discussion of these issues, see John L. Esposito, Unholy War: Terror in the Name of Islam (New York: Oxford University Press, 2002), The Islamic Threat: Myth or Reality?, (New York: Oxford University Press, 1999), J. L. Esposito, John O. Voll, Islam and Democracy, (New York: Oxford University Press, 1997), Graham E. Fuller, The Future of Political Islam (New York: Palgrave, 2003) and his "Islamists in the Arab World", (Washington, D.C.: The Carnegie Endowment, 2004).