Islam, Islamism, and democracy

One of the big questions about the Egyptian demonstrations is, of course, who will succeed Hosni Mubarak. The specter haunting the discussion is the Muslim Brotherhood, the Egyptian group whose founding in 1928 marks the beginning of modern Islamism. With its refrain “Islam is the answer,” it criticized both Western influence under the British-allied monarchy and secular Arab nationalism under Gamal Abd al-Nasser. Now the questions are whether the Brotherhood is still a violent organization (it seems that some segments are, and others aren’t) and whether the Brotherhood would win an election. A lot of people who seem well-informed about the situation disagree on the answers to these questions. A small sampling of the discussion:

I want to turn to Gerecht’s piece that argues that there is a rising appetite for democracy in the Middle East. Gerecht offers a short history of how democracy has been more accepted in the Muslim world in recent years:

One of the great under-reported stories of the end of the 20th century was the enormous penetration of the West’s better political ideas — democracy and individual liberty — into the Muslim consciousness. For those of us who speak and read Persian, the startling evolution was easier to see. Theocracy-versus-democracy has been a defining theme of the Islamic Republic of Iran since the revolution, which harnessed both Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini’s religious charisma and the secular intelligentsia’s democratic aspirations. Over the last three decades, clerical Iran has nurtured an intense intellectual discourse about the duties that man owes to God.

When the legitimacy of theocracy started to unravel amid the regime’s corruption and brutality in the late 1980s, democratic ideas, including powerful democratic interpretations of the Islamic faith, roared forth. The explosion on the streets after the fraudulent presidential elections of June 2009 was just the most visible eruption of the enormous democratic pressures that had built up underneath the republic’s autocracy. More regime-threatening moments are surely coming.

While Iran’s society had a more vigorous public debate, liberalism also surfaced in Arab countries. Gerecht distinguishes between three types of Arab liberals: the “fearless” who braved prison, the emigrants who left their countries, and the “court liberals” who supported rather than challenged authoritarian regimes. The emigrants and those who saw Islamism and democracy as compatible were a different story:

The secular intellectuals in exile, however, more forcefully embraced the democratic cause — their newspapers, books, magazines, Web sites and, increasingly, appearances on Al Jazeera — delivered their views back home. Intellectuals of such diverse viewpoints as Kanan Makiya, Edward Said, Saad Eddin Ibrahim and Burhan Ghalioun opened up an ever-increasing liberal, democratic space in foreign and Arabic publications. Yes, some mixed their message of liberty with other “Arab” priorities: anti-Zionism, anti-Americanism and anti-imperialism. But their support of democracy was clear, and became more acute after the 9/11 attacks.

Understandably, the Western foreign ministries and press paid a lot more attention to the court liberals. A revulsion against the Iraq war and a distaste for President Bush helped to blind people to the spread of democratic sentiments in the region. It blinded them to the fact that among Middle Easterners, democracy, not dictatorship, was now seen as a better vehicle for economic growth and social justice.

Most important, Mr. Bush’s distastefulness helped to blind Westerners to the momentous marriage of Islamism and democratic ideas. Men and women of devout faith, who cherish (if not always rigorously follow) Shariah law increasingly embraced the convulsive idea that only elected political leadership was legitimate. Islam puts extraordinary emphasis upon the idea of justice — the earthbound quid pro quo that a man can expect in a righteous life.

Gerecht notes that the Arabic word hurriya (freedom) has had shifting meanings: from the freedom of worship to the the Arab nationalist struggle against imperialism. Now, he believes, it is connected with voting. I’d suggest reading Gerecht’s entire piece if you are interested in this history.

Gerecht concedes that the Muslim Brotherhood is hardly what most Westerners want in a government, but he believes that it would bend itself to the Egyptian people’s will for democracy.

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