Islamism and democracy

Marc Lynch writes that many “moderate Islamist” parties in the Arab world have been willing to participate in free elections.  Using Jordan and Egpyt as examples, he explains that the authorities have not been content to let the elections play out.  (I posted a description of Arab regimes’ election hijinks here).  This has begun to alienate the moderate Islamists from the political systems:

As the door to democracy is slammed in their faces, how have the Islamist groups that embraced participation responded? In some ways, they have passed the test with flying colours. They have remained committed to democratic participation even in the face of massive electoral fraud and harsh campaigns of repression. Their leaders have affirmed their democratic ideals, and have often spoken out to reiterate their ideological and strategic commitment to democracy. Indeed, they have often emerged as the leading advocates for public freedoms and democratic reform. And there is as yet little sign of any such organisation turning to violence as an alternative.

But in other ways, the toll of repression is beginning to show. Doubts about the value of democratic participation inside these movements are growing. Splits in the top ranks have roiled movements in Jordan and Egypt, among others. In many of the cases, a Brotherhood leadership which prefers a moderate, accommodationist approach to the regime has struggled to find a way to respond to the escalating pressures of repression and the closing down of the paths towards democratic participation. In Egypt, frustration over extended detentions of the most moderate leaders have tarnished the coin of those calling for political participation, with a rising trend calling for a retreat from politics and a renewed focus upon social activism and religious work. In Jordan, the influence of those seeking to abandon worthless domestic politics and to focus instead on supporting Hamas has grown. Critics of the Brotherhood have pointed to these recent struggles as evidence that Islamists cannot be trusted with democracy. But this profoundly misreads the current trends. These crises in fact reflect a delayed response to the blocked promise of democratic participation. The Islamist debate today is not about the legitimacy of democracy – it is about how to respond to frustrated efforts to play the democratic game.

The upshot of all this, Lynch says, is this:

Earlier this month the conflicts inside the Egyptian Brotherhood leapt into the pages of local newspapers, which reported that the movement’s leader, Mohammed Mahdi Akef, had abruptly resigned his post in protest after conservatives refused to appoint the leading reformist Essam el Erian to an open leadership seat. Akef has denied the reports – but the portrait of a movement in turmoil is clear.

The Jordanian, Egyptian and American governments may see all this as something of a success story: the influence of the Islamists has been curbed, both in formal politics and in the social sector, and the restraint exercised by the Brotherhood leadership has meant the states have not faced a backlash. But this is dangerously short-sighted. The campaigns against Islamists weaken the foundations of democracy as a whole, not just the appeal of one movement, and have had a corrosive effect on public freedoms, transparency and accountability. Regardless of the fortunes of the movements themselves, the crackdown on the Islamists contributes to the wider corruption of public life. The growing frustration within moderate Islamist groups with democratic participation cannot help but affect their future ideological trajectory.

Sowing disenchantment with democratic politics in the ranks of the Brotherhood could forfeit one of the signal developments in Islamist political thinking of the last few decades. The failure of the movement’s democratic experiment could empower more radical Islamists, including not only terrorist groups but also doctrinaire salafists less inclined to pragmatic politics. The degradation of its organisational strengths could open up space for al Qa’eda and other radical competitors to move in. The alternative to Ismail Haniya might be Osama bin Laden rather than Abu Mazen, and the exclusion of Essam el-Erian may not produce an Ayman Nour.

If Lynch is right, then these efforts may backfire by channeling Islamism into more radical and violent channels, rather than incorporating these ideas into the system.

One question, of course, is the nature of “moderate Islamism.”  From Lynch’s article and my limited background knowledge, moderate Islamists would seem to be those who want their societies to reflect Muslim teachings more than they do.  Islamism seems to have been a reaction to the secular nationalism that promised great things to Muslim societies in the 20th century, but did not deliver.  Islamism seems to go on a continuum from the most reactionary (Bin Laden, the Taliban, and other Wahhabists) to the “moderate.”  So what kind of society do the moderates want?  To what extent do they want to bring Islamic teachings to society?

Lynch describes the political culture of these Islamic groups in the following way:

Moderate Islamist movements across the Arab world have made a decisive turn towards participation in democratic politics over the last 20 years. They have developed an elaborate ideological justification for contesting elections, which they have defended against intense criticism from more radical Islamist competitors. At the same time, they have demonstrated a commitment to internal democracy remarkable by the standards of the region, and have repeatedly proved their willingness to respect the results of elections even when they lose.

I’d like to try to find out about their social vision as well.  Also, after winning, would that empower the more radical Islamists to carry out their programs?

I’m not convinced that these internal political disputes are America’s business.  It’s not surprising that in Muslim societies there are those who want to move from secular nationalism to Islam as a guiding principle.  My interest is more to understand the dynamics of these societies as I teach Middle Eastern history again next semester.


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