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Democracy and the Islamists

Following his recent post on the need for a democratic transition in Egypt, I asked doga the question, “What happens if democratic elections in the Arab world bring the Islamists to power? How do you answer those who might think that dictatorship is better?” Here is his response.

Must we choose between democracy and the Islamists? Before trying to answer this question, we need to remind ourselves that the state of democracy in the Arab world was a problem even before the Islamists appeared on the scene as undeniable political movements. The real challenge to democracy came from governments in the Arab world that monopolized power for decades, basing their monopoly on a mastery of all the foundations of the state. At that time, any effort to advance democracy found itself confronted with the repression of the security apparatus. Not even electoral competition was permitted, and the result was a social and political exclusion that eliminated any counterweight to these systems. Certainly there are those who point out that this exclusion, along with poverty, was precisely what noursished the growth of Islamism; but Islamism also represented a new inspiration, since the Arab people saw that there were movements that shared their concerns, until in the end it was impossible to speak of the majority of the population without speaking of Islamist movements, which had quite simply become popular movements.

As a result of this, the question of future relations between the West and the Arab world is problematic today when we imagine Islamist movements in charge of Arab states; especially since these movements, whether they be in Morocco, Egypt or Kuwait, demonstrate their support each time there is an election. This makes it impossible to consider democratizing the Arab world without these movements, since the more democracy is practiced, the stronger the Islamists get. Some will have a hard time understanding this process, but that’s the way it is. We need to keep in mind that in many cases, there is perhaps no better choice before the people than the Islamists. Not all such movements have the same concept of Islamism, and I don’t want to spell out the differences here, but allow me to simply note that there are Islamist movements that respect the system in which they have agreed to participate through electoral competition, such as the PJD in Morocco, while others seek a more fundamental change, such as the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt which remains in perpetual conflict with the Mubarak regime. We also need to distinguish between those movements that take religion as the driving force of their agenda, and those that use religion as a reference point while pursuing a pragmatic political program.

To those who are afraid of the Islamists, I would ask them to suspend their prejudices for the time being, and recognize that there are Islamists with modern viewpoints. For their part, the Islamists should take steps to encourage and reassure the West. I would propose for example that they collaborate with Western organizations that support democracy and human rights, in order to give a practical demonstration that Islamism isn’t a closed system, but rather an open and modern one that admits the interests of the other side. We will never be able to agree on all aspects of life, but compatibility between the two worldviews should be the objective, especially now that Islamist movements are capable of arriving in power by democratic means, and without these movements we won’t see the emergence of democracy in the Arab world.

We can always ask ourselves questions like this: Is the future of democracy under Islamist movements a positive one? Without prejudging or getting ahead of ourselves, I think we should first of all give these movements a chance, while insisting on reforms essential to the practice of democracy such as freedom of expression, independent media, and the rule of law; as well as the development of networks of civil and human rights organizations that are able to protect the citizens against all abuses of power. These reforms need to be strong enough to prevent monopolies of any kind in the future, thus keeping open the possibility of alternance between Islamists and non-Islamists.


Comment from Jalal
Time: May 3, 2009, 02:14

The rule of law is definitely the most challenging.

Great post for a very tough subject.

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