Monday, May 23, 2005

Civilizing the Islamist wolf 

A fascinating piece by Saad Eddin Ibrahim, an Egyptian pro-democracy and peace activist, Professor of Political Sociology at the American University in Cairo and head of the Ibn Khaldun Centre, who asks whether we should be worried about the electoral appeal of Islamist political parties throughout the Middle East:
As a sociologist, I have been studying these issues for 30 years. As an inmate of an Egyptian prison, I discussed them with my fellow prisoners, many of whom were imprisoned as supporters of Egypt's Islamic movement. My conclusion? Islamist parties are changing.

These parties understand the social transformations under way in the Middle East that are leading towards democracy, and they want to take part. In my view, we may be witnessing the emergence of Muslim democratic parties, much like the rise of Christian Democratic parties in Europe in the years after World War II.
Ibrahim notes that "since autocratic regimes in the Middle East left little room for free expression, the mosque emerged as the only place where people could freely congregate. Religious groups responded to this opportunity, emerging first as social welfare agencies, and then becoming the equivalent of local politicians. In the process, they gained credibility as trustworthy advocates of the people - a real distinction from repressive and corrupt governments."

This, in fact, closely parallels the situation in the former Soviet empire. The bad news for the religious, but the good news in this specific political context is that the "opposition Churches" have lost much of their influence and authority very early into the democratic transition, after their political role was no longer necessary in a more pluralist society. Granted, the religious faith is much stronger throughout the Middle East than it was throughout the Eastern Europe, but we could still expect some change in a more fluid, less "us versus the government" political environment.

Ibrahim continues: "When Islamist groups are denied access to electoral politics, their cause takes on a mythic aura. Their principles remain untested ideals, never forced to confront the practical realities of governance."

This really is a crucial point - nothing demystifies as much as cold, hard political reality. But there is one prerequisite: the political system has to stay open and democratic, with a fixed constitutional framework. Otherwise, the Islamists once in power can stay in power in perpetuity by following the "one person, one vote, one time" tactic or some variant thereof like "one person, one vote, our choice of candidates" (Iran). But if political system remains open, it will easily survive occasional Islamist governments.

As Ibrahim counsels,
it is a mistake to believe that force can eliminate Islamist movements. Instead, political reform ought to include them under the following conditions:

- Respect for the national constitution, the rule of law, and the independence of the judiciary.

- Acceptance of the rotation of power, based on free, fair and internationally monitored elections.

- Guaranteed equal rights and full political participation for non-Muslim minorities.

- Full and equal participation by women in public life.
Which is the sort of a compact that works in many Islamic democracies or quasi-democracies, from Turkey and Jordan to Indonesia, and we can only hope will spread to other Islamic states that have not so far experienced democracy. Optimistic? Perhaps. Ideal? Hardly. But it's a realistic expectation in our quite imperfect world.


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