Islam and Democracy

John L. Esposito

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 examples of the Taliban’s Afghanistan and the self-proclaimed Islamic governments of the Sudan, Iran and Pakistan reinforce the fears of many in the international community. Some warn that the promotion of a democratic process runs the risk of furthering Islamic inroads into centers of power and is counterproductive to Western interests, even encouraging a more virulent anti-Westernism and increased instability. The apostasy case in Afghanistan, the persecution of religious minorities, and oppression of women in some Muslim countries reinforce the belief that Islamic values and democratic values are inherently antithetical.

For Muslims, both the principles of democracy and the process of democratization have been the subject of vigorous debate. Some Muslims reject any form of parliamentary democracy as Westernizing and incompatible with Islamic or with local traditions. Many, if not most, Islamic intellectuals and activists have tried to come to terms with the idea and the process. Thus, for example, since the late 20th century Islamically- oriented candidates and political parties in Algeria, Tunisia, Morocco, Egypt, Turkey, Jordan, Kuwait, Bahrain, Pakistan, Malaysia and Indonesia have successfully contested and won municipal and parliamentary seats, held cabinet positions and served as prime minister of Turkey and Iraq and president of Indonesia.

In the 21st century, democracy has become accepted as a marker, a kind of signpost, of public life in many countries. However, questions as to the specific nature and degree of participation remain unanswered. In many places, it has become a litmus test by which both the openness of governments and the relevance of Islamic groups are certified. While democracy is still not entrenched in modern Islamic political thought and practice, it has become a powerful symbol of legitimacy, legitimizing and delegitimizing precisely because it is seen to be a universal good.

A major question or hurdle facing Islamic candidates and movements is their willingness when in power to tolerate diversity. Some in the Muslim world and the West believe that their participation in electoral politics is merely tactical and that, once successful, they would impose an intolerant, monolithic order on society. As noted, Islamic experiments in Pakistan, Iran, Afghanistan, and the Sudan raise serious questions about the willingness of Islamically-oriented governments to tolerate political and religious diversity and dissent and to respect the rights of women and minorities. However, the record of secular authoritarian regimes has long demonstrated an unwillingness to foster power-sharing, a vibrant civil society, tolerate diversity or leave power. In contrast, the recent example of Turkey, the most secular of Muslim countries, under the governments of the Welfare and now the AK (Justice and Development Party) as well as countries like Indonesia and Malaysia, demonstrate the extent to which Muslim rulers’ experience and political reality often shape a constructive, pragmatic engagement and response domestically and internationally.

In the 21st century, the tendency of policymakers and experts to assume the monolithic nature of political Islam or of "Islamic Fundamentalism" obscures the diversity of ideological interpretations and the even greater diversity of actual practice in Muslim societies. In the new Muslim world order, Muslim political traditions and institutions are evolving, just as social conditions and class structures will continue to evolve. Both are important for the future of democracy.

For more than a decade the moderate or pragmatic majority of Islamic organizations have pursued a policy of gradualism, calling for political liberalization and democratization, seeking to bring about change within the political system. Government suppression, directly or indirectly supported by Western powers, can radicalize moderates, transforming reformers into violent revolutionaries as occurred in Algeria. To the extent that governments prevent participation in elections, limit self-determination or crackdown and imprison political activists, violence and instability become likely. Alternatively, fostering a process and experience of democratization: the institutions of civil society – NGOs, political parties, trade unions, and a free press – are critical to replacing cultures of authoritarianism with broader a culture that emphasizes broader political participation, government accountability and the rule of law.

The challenge today is to distinguish between Islamic movements that are an imminent threat and a majority that represent legitimate indigenous attempts to reform and redirect their societies. Most Islamic movements have resisted pressures to turn to violence but remain a challenge to Muslim governments and Western powers to honor their commitments to political ideals of self-determination and popular political participation. Some, as the record of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, the Welfare Party in Turkey, the Justice and Spirituality Party in Morocco show have put up with repression, imprisonment and in some cases torture and chosen not to turn to violence. However, the failure to differentiate between Islamic movements, that is, between those that are moderate and those that are radical (violent) and extremist is simplistic and counterproductive. Islamically oriented political actors and groups should be evaluated by the same criteria as any other potential leaders or opposition parties. Recent history has demonstrated that the risk of religious authoritarianism is real, as real as the widespread more secular authoritarianism that has prevailed in many parts of the Muslim world. At the same time, most Islamically-oriented leaders or parties have participated and worked within the political system, seeking change from below. In power, though more independent and critical in their relations with the West, they have generally operated on the basis of common and national interests and demonstrate a flexibility that reflects acceptance of the realities of a globally interdependent world.

We are watching a long-term process unfold and experimentation unfold. The Western experience of democratization was a process of trial and error, accompanied by progress and regression, successes and failures, civil wars and intellectual and religious conflicts. So too in the Muslim world, 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 are engaged in a 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 require greater political liberalization. Failure to do so will continue to contribute to the conditions that foster militant opposition, radicalization, political instability and global terrorism.

John L. Esposito is University Professor, Professor of Religion & International Affairs, and Founding Director of the Prince Alwaleed Bin Talal Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding, Georgetown University and author of Unholy War: Terror in the Name of Islam and co-author of Islam and Democracy.