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>A specter is haunting the Muslim world. This particular specter is notthe malign and much-discussed spirit of fundamentalist extremism, noryet the phantom hope known as liberal Islam. Instead, the specter that Ihave in mind is a third force, a hopeful if still somewhat ambiguoustrend that I call—in a conscious evocation of the political tradition associated with the Christian Democratic parties of Europe—“Muslim Democracy.”
Tuesday, November 22,2005 00:00
by Vali Nasr,


Vali Nasr
A specter is haunting the Muslim world. This particular specter is not
the malign and much-discussed spirit of fundamentalist extremism, nor
yet the phantom hope known as liberal Islam. Instead, the specter that I
have in mind is a third force, a hopeful if still somewhat ambiguous
trend that I call—in a conscious evocation of the political tradition
associated with the Christian Democratic parties of Europe—“Muslim
The emergence and unfolding of Muslim Democracy as a “fact on the
ground” over the last fifteen years has been impressive. This is so even
though all its exponents have thusfar eschewed that label1 and even
though the lion’s share of scholarly and political attention has gone to
the question of how to promote religious reform within Islam as a prelude
to democratization.2 Since the early 1990s, political openings in a
number of Muslim-majority countries—all, admittedly, outside the Arab
world—have seen Islamic-oriented (but non-Islamist) parties vying successfully
for votes in Bangladesh, Indonesia, Malaysia, Pakistan (before
its 1999 military coup), and Turkey.
Unlike Islamists, with their visions of rule by shari‘a (Islamic law) or
even a restored caliphate, Muslim Democrats view political life with a
pragmatic eye. They reject or at least discount the classic Islamist claim
that Islam commands the pursuit of a shari‘a state, and their main goal
tends to be the more mundane one of crafting viable electoral platforms
and stable governing coalitions to serve individual and collective interests—
Islamic as well as secular—within a democratic arena whose
bounds they respect, win or lose. Islamists view democracy not as something
deeply legitimate, but at best as a tool or tactic that may be useful
in gaining the power to build an Islamic state. Muslim Democrats, by
Vali Nasr is professor of Middle East and South Asian politics at the
U.S. Naval Postgraduate School. He is author of The Islamic Leviathan:
Islam and the Making of the State (2001).
Journal of Democracy Volume 16, Number 2 April 2005
14 Journal of Democracy
contrast, do not seek to enshrine Islam in politics, though they do wish
to harness its potential to help them win votes.
The rise of the Muslim Democrats has begun the integration of Muslim
religious values—drawn from Islam’s teachings on ethics, morality,
the family, rights, social relations, and commerce, for example—into
political platforms designed to win regular democratic elections. Challenges
and setbacks will almost surely complicate the process, and the
outcome is far from certain. Yet the ongoing dynamics of democratic
consolidation, more than the promise of religious reform and ideological
change, are likely to define the terms under which Islam and democracy
interact in at least several Muslim-majority lands.
The past decade and a half has witnessed open electoral competition
for legislative seats in Bangladesh (1991, 1996, and 2001); Indonesia
(1999 and 2004); Malaysia (1995, 1999, and 2004); Pakistan (1990,
1993, and 1997); and Turkey (1995, 1999, and 2002). The length of this
electoral era and the changes that it has set in train allow us to go beyond
a “snapshot” of Muslim political preferences in order to track broader
trends. Such trends suggest the shape of things to come among the political
parties and platforms that will most likely dominate the strategic
middle ground of politics in these Muslim-majority countries (or that, in
the case of Pakistan, would dominate absent military intervention).
A brief rundown of results is suggestive. In Pakistan in 1997, the
right-of-center but non-Islamist Pakistan Muslim League (PML) won
63 percent of the seats in parliament, marginalizing the Islamist party,
Jamaat-e-Islami (JI). Similarly, in 2001 the Bangladesh Nationalist Party
(BNP) captured 64 percent of the seats in parliament to sideline
Bangladesh’s own JI. In Turkey in 2002, the Justice and Development
Party (AKP)—a group with roots in the world of Islamism but which has
always abjured such Islamist hallmarks as the demand for state enactment
of shari‘a—won 66 percent of the seats in parliament; voters had
a clear Islamist alternative before them in the form of the Felicity Party,
and turned it away with no seats. In Indonesia in 2004, a cluster of
center-right Muslim parties, the National Mandate Party (PAN), National
Awakening Party (PKB), United Development Party (PPP), plus
Golkar (the old ruling party), won 53 percent of the seats, as compared
to 8 percent for the Islamist Prosperous Justice Party (PKS). In Malaysia
in 2004, the United Malays National Organization (UMNO) won 49.7
percent of the seats while the Islamic Party (PAS) managed to pick up
only 3.2 percent.
Such results suggest that in these Muslim societies, the “vital center”
of politics is likely to belong neither to secularist and leftist parties
nor to Islamists. More likely to rule the strategic middle will be political
forces that integrate Muslim values and moderate Islamic politics
into broader right-of-center platforms that go beyond exclusively religious
concerns. Such forces can appeal to a broad cross-section of votVali
Nasr 15
ers and create a stable nexus between religious and secular drivers of
electoral politics.
Muslim Democrats can begin from an Islamist point of departure, as
is the case with Turkey’s AKP, but may spring as well from nonreligious
parties: Consider Pakistan’s PML or Malaysia’s UMNO. Not all those
who have sought to stake a claim to the middle in Muslim politics have
succeeded: In Pakistan, the military toppled the PML government of
Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif. But the trend is clear, and so far seems to
be a case of practice outrunning theory. Muslim Democracy rests not on
an abstract, carefully thought-out theological and ideological accommodation
between Islam and democracy, but rather on a practical synthesis
that is emerging in much of the Muslim world in response to the
opportunities and demands created by the ballot box. Parties must make
compromises and pragmatic decisions to maximize their own and their
constituents’ interests under democratic rules of the game.
In working more on the level of campaign-trail practice than of high
theory, Muslim Democracy somewhat resembles Christian Democracy.
The first Christian Democratic party was founded in southern Italy in
1919, decades before the theological rapprochement that the Catholic
Church made with democracy around the time of the Second Vatican
Council in the 1960s.
Liberalism and Consolidation
Muslim Democracy does not always flow from ideas of Islamic moderation,
and it may not always act as a liberalizing force. In some cases,
Muslim Democratic parties have backed Islamist demands for stricter
moral and religious laws (Pakistan in the 1990s, Bangladesh since 2001)
or sought to remove limits on Islamic schools (Turkey since 2002). Yet
even such overtures to Islamism should be seen as strategic moves aimed
at dominating the middle. The extent to which Muslim Democrats have
backed the enforcement of Islamic law or restrictions on women and
minorities has seemed to be less a matter of deep ideological conviction
than of deals made to win votes in societies where conservative Islamic
mores run strong.
The depth of commitment to liberal and secular values that democratic
consolidation requires is a condition for Muslim Democracy’s
final success, not for its first emergence. As was the case with Christian
Democracy in Europe, it is the imperative of competition inherent in
democracy that will transform the unsecular tendencies of Muslim Democracy
into long-term commitment to democratic values.3
Rather than arguing for changes in or fresh glosses on Islamic teaching
as the path to democracy, Muslim Democrats are in the streets looking
for votes and in the process are changing Islam’s relation to politics.
The shifts that Muslim Democracy will spark in Muslims’ attitudes to16
Journal of Democracy
ward society and politics will come not from theoretical suppositions,
but from political imperatives. The rise of Muslim Democracy suggests
that political change will precede religious change.
Evidence now in from the Muslim world can help to identify the contours
of Muslim Democracy, what it stands for, who supports it, and what
factors have governed its evolution, its successes, and its failures. Muslim
Democracy is a nascent force about which much remains to be learned.
Islamist ideology, which has dominated political debates from Malaysia
to Morocco for a quarter-century, calls for the creation of a utopian
Islamic state that notionally vests all sovereignty in God. This call
is based on a narrow interpretation of Islamic law, and promotes an
illiberal, authoritarian politics that leaves little room for civil liberties,
cultural pluralism, the rights of women and minorities, and democracy.
The Islamist surge since the Iranian Revolution of 1979 has led many to
argue that well-organized and determined Islamists will use democratic
reforms in Muslim-majority societies to seize power (probably through
one-time elections) and impose theocracy. Democracy, the argument
goes, should therefore wait until liberalization via ideological and religious
reform can blunt the Islamist threat.
The assumption here has been that the key historical process which
will lead to democracy in the Muslim world is an intellectual one, a
moderation of the Islamist perspective, or more broadly, perhaps even
an Islamic Reformation. While some reformists and moderates have been
influential, more often than not their efforts have lagged behind the
ground-level political realities that have been the growth medium of
Muslim Democracy. It has not been intellectuals who have given shape
to Muslim Democracy, but rather politicians such as Turkey’s Recep
Tayyip Erdo¢gan, Pakistan’s Nawaz Sharif, and Malaysia’s Anwar Ibrahim
and Mahatir bin Mohamad. They are the ones grappling with key questions
surrounding the interaction of Muslim values with democratic
institutions, the nature of Muslims’ voting behavior, the shape and location
of an “Islamic” voter base, and the like.
One should also note that the rise of Muslim Democracy has occurred
at the same time as a steady increase of religious consciousness within
Muslim-majority societies.4 The recent “greening” of Muslim societies,
in other words, has led not to votes for Islamists but rather to something
that looks at least somewhat like the early stages of Christian Democratic
politicking in twentieth-century Western Europe. There are substantial
differences, of course. Muslim Democracy, unlike Christian
Democracy, cannot measure itself against an authoritatively expressed
core of political and religious ideas that transcend national boundaries
under the aegis of a centralized religious hierarchy such as the Vatican’s.
Muslim Democrats, not surprisingly, lack a clear, unified message. They
seem instead like the inchoate offspring of various ad hoc alliances and
pragmatic decisions made in particular political circumstances. Their
Vali Nasr 17
provisional and experimental character, however, may be one of the
reasons for their success: Free of heavy intellectual baggage, they can
move nimbly with the changing tides of electoral circumstance. At the
same time, the degree of commonality seen across Muslim Democratic
movements in countries as far apart as Malaysia and Turkey underlines
the likelihood that Muslim Democracy really is a major trend and not
just a cluster of unrelated political accidents.
Still, the differences are important too. In each land, the Muslim Democratic
experiment has proceeded more or less independently. In Turkey
and Malaysia (as in precoup Pakistan), Muslim Democracy is a winning
electoral formula that has yet to fully articulate a vision for governing
(and it was failures of governance—especially rampant corruption—
that helped set the stage for the Pakistani coup). In Indonesia, Muslim
Democracy is less a platform and more a space wherein a number of
parties are struggling to strike the right balance between secular politics
and Muslim values. In Bangladesh, it is still only an ad hoc political
alliance between right-of-center and Islamist parties that has captured
the middle but has yet to resolve its own internal political and
ideological differences.
Experiments with Muslim Democracy could eventually produce a
more coherent political platform and Muslim political practice. What is
notable at this stage is less what Muslim Democracy has said about
Islam and more what has been achieved at the polls. The Muslim Democratic
movements could become more like one another, or they could
begin to take diverging paths. Muslim Democracy could prove an independent
force for moderation within Islam, or it could come to seem a
reflection rather than a shaper of society’s religious values. For all these
reasons, it will bear close scrutiny in the years ahead.
Key Factors
The rise of Muslim Democracy has depended on the interplay of
several factors. First, Muslim Democracy has surfaced in countries where
democracy emerged after the military formally withdrew from politics,
but remained a powerful player de facto. (In Malaysia the military is not
a political actor, but the ruling UMNO has played a similar role through
its use of extensive authoritarian powers.) The gradual democratic openings
in Turkey since 1983 and in Pakistan during the decade between
the reigns of General Zia ul-Haq (d. 1988) and General Musharraf (r.
1999– ) were episodes in which the military shaped the opportunity
structure in the democratic arena.
Military involvement in politics had three notable effects. First, it
limited the Islamists’ room to maneuver. Second, it gave all parties an
incentive to avoid confronting the military while angling for advantage
within the democratic process. Finally, the military’s meddling in poli18
Journal of Democracy
tics led to more elections, political realignments, and shifts in coalitions,
accelerating and intensifying experimentation with new political
formulas. Interestingly, the net effect of all this—a boost for Muslim
Democracy—was the same in both Turkey, where the military strongly
defended secularism, and Pakistan, where the military worked with Islamists.
Turkey’s Islamists learned to adopt pragmatic policies to avoid
the generals’ wrath, while Pakistan’s right-of-center PML saw Muslim
Democracy as the means to strengthen a frail system of elected civilian
rule and the party’s own standing within it.
Both the AKP and the PML sought to reduce military pressure on
politics through a readiness to compromise with the generals as well as
through efforts to build broader coalitions that the generals would hesitate
to confront. The PML’s success was one of the things that led the
Pakistani military to stage its 1999 coup aimed at, among other things,
stopping Muslim Democracy. The upshot, tellingly, has been that the
seat share of Islamist parties in parliament has risen sharply from its
negligible 1997 level of less than 1 percent to 20 percent in 2002. By
removing the Nawaz Sharif government—and with it Muslim Democracy—
General Musharraf has strengthened the Islamists, whether he
meant to or not.5
While the Indonesian and Bangladeshi militaries have been more
circumspect, each has also helped to nudge Islamists and right-of-center
parties to explore Muslim Democracy. Malaysia is unique in that
change there came not at military prompting, but from within the ruling
party. In the 1980s, UMNO’s control over national politics allowed it to
restrain Islamists with one hand while using the other to reach out systematically
to Muslim voters. The Malaysian case aside, it seems clear
that Muslim Democracy is more likely to emerge when Islamist and
democratic forces sense a common interest in protecting the democratic
process from the military.
Second, Muslim Democracy has emerged in societies where the private
sector matters. The less state-dependent and more integrated into
the world economy a country’s private sector is, the more likely is that
country to see Muslim Democracy gain traction as a political force.
Muslim Democracy, in short, needs the bourgeoisie, and the bourgeoisie
needs Muslim Democracy. Muslim Democracy combines the religious
values of the middle and lower-middle classes with policies that
serve their economic interests.
In Turkey, the success of AKP’s Muslim Democratic platform is less
a triumph of religious piety over Kemalist secularism than of an independent
bourgeoisie over a centralizing state. To understand the rise of
Muslim Democracy in Turkey, one must consider the economic-liberalization
policies of Prime Minister (later President) Turgut Özal (d. 1993)
in the 1980s and the vibrant, independent private sector that they made
possible. Similarly, Indonesia’s Suharto regime in its later years mixed
Vali Nasr 19
state support for moderate Islam with engagement in global trade. The
same trend was evident in Malaysia, where the UMNO government combined
economic globalization with promotion of a nationalist and moderate
Muslim political platform that would support those economic
policies. While Bangladesh and Pakistan lag behind Turkey, Indonesia,
and Malaysia in terms of participation in global trade, they too boast
robust private sectors that exert growing political influence. Yet the
deeper involvement in the global economy and the greater independence
of the Turkish, Indonesian, and Malaysian private sectors seem to
correlate with the more Islamically moderate character of Muslim Democracy
in those countries as compared to Pakistan or Bangladesh.
In addition to the military dynamic and the economic dynamic, a
third motor of Muslim Democracy seems to be the existence of strong
competition over votes. With no one party able easily to dominate the
process, all parties feel pressed to act pragmatically. The presence of
multiple parties with strong organizational structures and political legacies
(some dating back earlier than the democratic opening) in turn
fosters competition. Despite sustained bouts of military rule or oneparty
dominance in all these countries, multiparty politics has retained
its vitality in each, and parties have bounced back as political processes
have opened.
Regular competitive elections have both pushed religious parties
toward pragmatism and pulled other parties into more diligent efforts to
represent Muslim values. The net effect is to reward moderation. The
game is to win the middle. This is the politics of what electoral experts
call “the median voter,” around whose position on the issue spectrum
majorities cluster. Competition over the Muslim electorate means that
non-Islamist groups can integrate those who vote based on Muslim values
into broader platforms and wider coalitions than Islamists are capable
of marshaling. In 1990s Malaysia, for instance, the UMNO successfully
competed for the urban and middle-class Muslim vote and
thwarted challenges by the Islamist PAS. At about the same time, the
PML was doing much the same thing to the JI in Pakistan.
In Muslim-majority countries where the factors listed above do not
exist or are weak, the prospects that Muslim Democracy will emerge are
much lower. Yet even in such societies, the activities of Muslim Democrats
elsewhere may prove relevant to local political discussions. In
particular, if and when Muslim Democracy gains coherence, it will become
readier for export to countries unable to produce it from scratch.
Muslim Democracy can travel. In the 1990s, Pakistan’s PML consciously
sought to imitate Malaysia’s UMNO. More recently, the rise of the Turkish
AKP has been noted in Arab circles, secular, official, and Islamist
alike. In Egypt, the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood has been keenly watching
developments in Turkey, and some within Brotherhood ranks have
begun taking measured steps toward the middle. In Algeria, it is the
20 Journal of Democracy
government that has been encouraging the Turkish model by trying to
push the Islamic Salvation Front (FIS) to start acting more like the AKP.
The rise of Muslim Democracy suggests that the values of Muslims—
which are not to be confused with the demands of Islamists—can interact
with practical election strategies to play the main role in shaping
political ideas and driving voter behavior.6 In the end, Muslim Democracy
represents the triumph of practice over theory, and perhaps of the
political over the Islamic. The future of Muslim politics is likely to
belong to those who can speak to Muslim values and ethics, but within
the framework of political platforms fit to thrive in democratic settings.
After 1945, Christian Democracy sought to change Catholic attitudes
toward democracy in order to channel religious values into mass politics.
7 Christian Democracy drew on Catholic identity, but also related it
to social programs and welfare concerns. Christian Democrats provided
the means for conservative religious values to find expression in secular
politics. The rise of Christian Democracy reflected the desire of Church
leaders to provide a voice for Catholic views in democracies, but it was
also the result of strategic choices by political actors who saw opportunity
in mobilizing religious values to further their political interests.8
Similar forces are now at work in some Muslim-majority countries,
with ripple effects that will likely be felt throughout the Muslim world.
Like the Catholic Church in the last century, Islamic-oriented parties
are grasping the need to relate religious values to secular politics. As
was also the case in Europe, secular parties and politicians are sensing
the benefits of including appeals to religious values in their platforms.
Thus Muslim Democracy, like Christian Democracy before it, is emerging
as a political tendency that is strongly tied to both the democratic
process and the use of direct appeals to the concerns of religious voters.
Limits and Potential
Considered together, the cases of Pakistan and Turkey point to the
limits as well as the potential of Muslim Democracy. They help us to
discern what is driving the rise of Muslim Democracy, what it stands for,
whom it represents, and what challenges it faces. Ironically, Turkey has
moved in a more liberal direction even though its Muslim Democratic
party springs from Islamist roots, whereas in Pakistan the push toward
Muslim Democracy that the non-Islamist PML began has been cut short
by a military takeover. Economic factors figure prominently in both
cases, and in both the military has played a large role, albeit with vast
differences between one case and the other.
In Pakistan, 1988 saw a period of military rule come to a close with the
mysterious midair death of General Zia, whose regime had mixed
authoritarianism with Islamization. The main prodemocracy force at the
time was the secular-leftist Pakistan People’s Party (PPP). To limit PPP
Vali Nasr 21
gains in the 1988 elections and guard their own interests, the departing
generals cobbled together a PML-Islamist coalition called the Islamic
Democratic Alliance (IJI).
Between 1988 and 1993, the power struggle between the PPP and the
IJI plus the military’s continued meddling transformed right-of-center
politics into more than a tool for keeping civilian institutions weak. In
1990, the IJI won the elections after the military dismissed the PPP
government. As the IJI’s several parts, now secure in government, began
to pursue their own respective agendas, the coalition frayed. The PML
and the Islamists both began to sense a chance to dominate Pakistani
politics as never before—under conditions of elected civilian rule. The
PML moved first, distancing itself from both the generals and the Islamists
(who remained close to each other) to wage the 1993 election campaign
on its own with a platform that promised economic growth while
placating nationalist and Muslim sensibilities. The latter strategy involved
stealing such staples of Islamist rhetoric as the call for the enforcement
of shari‘a—although to please its more secular supporters
the PML never did more than gesture at this goal.
Although the PPP wound up winning the October 1993 parliamentary
elections, the PML’s gambit succeeded at least in part. The party
carried the Muslim vote and pushed JI to the margins with a dismal
showing. This was the first time in the Muslim world that political maneuvering
within a competitive electoral process had put a brake on
Islamism. The next election, in 1997, only made the trend more evident
as the PML returned to power with almost two-thirds of the seats in the
National Assembly while the Islamists found themselves reduced to
their smallest parliamentary contingent ever. To achieve this, the PML
had cast itself simultaneously as a modern democratic party that was
committed to the development of Pakistan and as the standard-bearer of
Islamic identity—the latter a claim bolstered by the PML’s success in
taking over seats once held by avowed Islamists.9 As is shaping up to be
the case in Turkey today, it was the promise of Islamic legislation rather
than its fulfillment that proved a sufficiently popular formula.
Between 1993 and 1999, the PML continued to push a mixture of
business-friendly economic policies and nationalist-cum-Islamic appeals.
Infrastructure development and globalization went hand-in-hand
with a nuclear-weapons program, confrontations with India, and rhetorical
support for Islamic legislation. Balancing the demands of the
various constituencies at which these postures were severally aimed
was the PML’s challenge. Business interests supported peace with India,
for instance, while nationalists and Islamists wanted a tougher stance.
As the 1990s wore on, such tensions began to undermine the PML’s
appeal to its Muslim-minded voter base and gave the military angles to
play against the party in advance of the 1999 coup.
It was the PML’s very success, however, that set the stage for its fall.
22 Journal of Democracy
The generals began to worry that the party’s strategy—which we can
now see was a rough-and-ready version of Muslim Democracy—would
actually succeed. There followed Musharraf’s 1999 coup against Sharif
and the systematic dismantling, under military tutelage, of the PML.
When Musharraf allowed controlled elections to be held in 2002, Islamists
did spectacularly well, rebounding all the way up to a best-ever 20
percent vote share. While Musharraf, especially since 9/11, has postured
as Pakistan’s sole bulwark against radical Islamist rule, a more
accurate statement of the facts would say that the military did full-bore
Islamism a huge favor by yanking the PML from power and stopping
the country’s uncertain yet real progress toward Muslim Democracy.
Turkish Trailblazers
In Turkey, the 1990s were a decade of struggle between Islamists and
the military. Turkey’s powerful military, unlike Pakistan’s, did not support
Islamist activism, and was restrained in its actions by its own commitment
to democracy, economic reform, and European Union (EU)
dictates regarding the rule of law.
The end of a bout of direct military rule in the early 1980s had opened
the door for Islamists to enter politics. In 1987, Necmettin Erbakan
organized the Welfare Party (RP) to marshal Islamist support among the
lower and lower-middle classes as well as the booming independent
private sector. By 1994, the RP was winning municipal races in Istanbul
and Ankara. A year later, it took 22 percent of the vote in national
parliamentary elections. In 1996, the RP formed a governing coalition
with the secular True Path Party. Erbakan became prime minister of
Atatürk’s militantly secular Kemalist republic.
The Turkish military, long the fierce keeper of Kemalism’s secularnationalist
flame, was not reconciled to an Islamist ascendancy. Beginning
in early 1997, the generals launched what Cengiz Çandar has
dubbed a “postmodern coup,” manipulating the courts and the parliamentary
process to upend Erbakan’s government.10 The RP found itself
under a formal ban for transgressing the constitution’s secularist red
lines. Some of the party’s activists tried to organize a new formation
called the Virtue Party, but in 2001 that too was banned. Right-wing
and especially nationalist parties stepped into the resulting gap by including
appeals to traditional Muslim values in secular platforms. The
lesson was not lost on Islamist politicians.
The military’s politico-juridical strike against the Islamists split the
Muslim-values bloc. In 2002, a group of younger Islamist politicians
under Erdo¢gan—the onetime mayor of Istanbul who had just served a
jail term on charges of inflaming religious passions—broke with
Erbakan to form the AKP, leaving the Virtue Party’s traditional-Islamist
rump to rename itself the Felicity Party. The November 2002 elections
Vali Nasr 23
were an AKP romp, as the party won a clear plurality of the popular vote
and a huge majority of the seats in parliament.11 Felicity won a scant 2.5
percent of the vote nationwide, well short of the 10 percent needed for
parliamentary representation.
Many AKP members once belonged to the Welfare and Virtue parties.
Yet there are also middle-class and lower-middle–class elements
with no history of Islamist ties. In many ways, the AKP is less an extension
of Welfare and Virtue than a reconstruction of the center-right,
economically liberal Motherland Party (ANAP) of Turgut Özal, the architect
of Turkey’s bold plunge into democracy and the global economy
in the 1980s.
More than two years into its rule, the AKP is still an electoral strategy
in search of a governing agenda. It lacks a clear platform, much less a
fully thought-out approach to the role of Islam in politics. And yet its
experience so far is important in several respects. First, it is a case in
which Islamist activists embraced a process of moderation and pragmatic
change. Second, it highlights the factors that govern the rise of
Muslim Democracy. Third, it gives us the best picture we have so far of
what Muslim Democracy might become and what it might stand for.
Then too, the AKP’s case tells much about the tensions that inhere in
the development of Muslim Democracy, the consolidation of its political
position, and how it can contribute to the institutionalization of
liberal democracy.
The AKP is the brainchild of Virtue Party moderates, led by Erdo¢gan,
who concluded that Turkey’s military would never allow an overtly
Islamist party back into power, and—still more importantly—that the
ban on Islamic parties was helping other right-of-center parties such as
the Nationalist Action Party, which had come to hold nearly a quarter of
the seats in parliament by 1999. Erdo¢gan and his colleagues realized
that there was a robust base of Muslim-minded voters, and that the
military would never allow an Islamist party to tap that base. Consequently,
the AKP presented itself as a center-right party that appealed
to Muslim values only indirectly, through the medium of more generically
traditional values. By sublimating Muslim-minded politics into a
broader appeal to traditional and conservative values in a society where
the political center of gravity is on the center-right, the AKP was able to
put together the wide support base that became the launching pad for its
rocket ride to power in 2002.
Part of this skillfully executed effort involved crafting appeals that
traveled across class lines. The AKP is popular in Istanbul and Ankara
slums where Islamists have become known for their efficient management
of social services such as law enforcement, sewage disposal, and
trash pickup. The AKP watchword of “conservative democracy” (the
phrase that Erdo¢gan prefers to “Muslim democracy,” in part to allay
military and EU fears that he might be a theocrat in a necktie12) also
24 Journal of Democracy
appeals to the “Anatolian tigers”—the pious and prosperous Muslims of
the new private sector, whose “green capitalism” forms the basis of the
independent bourgeoisie.13 To keep those with more traditional Islamist
leanings on board, the AKP is often more vociferous on secular matters
(such as criticism of Israel) than on their purely religious concerns.
The Burdens and Limits of Power
The AKP must now master the challenge, common to all democratic
parties, of balancing a set of divergent constituent demands within a
single winning platform. Power and its responsibilities arguably make
this harder. The urban poor like populist economics. The business community
wants tightly managed fiscal and monetary policy that meets
EU admissions standards.
Many AKP voters expect the party to tackle contentious symbolic issues
such as the current ban on women’s headscarves. With an eye on their
conservative and nationalist supporters who do not necessarily favor
overtly religious politics, AKP leaders shied away from the headscarf issue,
and instead endorsed a bill that would criminalize adultery, for the
former seems more like a purely “Islamic” issue while the latter can be
called a matter of upholding “traditional values.” Yet even here the AKP
has faced problems: When the EU strongly objected to the adultery bill,
the AKP quickly dropped it. The emphasis on “conservative” as distinguished
from “Muslim” democracy in AKP parlance is also meant to help
position the party as a potential partner for the Christian Democratic parties
of the EU nations. What the AKP actually stands for, in short, is being
worked out gradually as the limits of the possible become clearer. This
degree of pragmatism sits uneasily with the AKP’s highminded Islamic
idealists (the party’s very name in Turkish forms an acronym for “pure,”
“unsullied,” or “honest”), but Erdo¢gan’s personal popularity and the Islamic
credentials of the party’s founders have helped to bridge the gap.
Since taking office, the AKP has shown more interest in strengthening
democracy than in delivering on the demands of its most Muslimminded
supporters. This approach may signal a shift from a state-centered
to a society-centered perspective, from a strategy of struggling to
capture state power on behalf of Islam to one of seeking to foster a civil
society and a deeply rooted democratic order that together will embody
Muslim values and limit state power.
This has meant serving the interests of private business, pursuing
full EU membership, and deemphasizing the most Islamist aspects of
the party’s agenda—in other words, promising to create a space within
which Muslim values can express themselves, but not pushing an Islamist
legislative agenda. As it leads Turkey toward the EU, the AKP is now
able credibly to present itself as the country’s great champion of modernization—
and as such has entered into a de facto competition with
Vali Nasr 25
the military, which has long claimed that title for itself. In keeping with
this, the AKP is increasingly engaging in the de facto promotion of
what social theorists call “differentiation,” as the party’s actions, omissions,
“body language,” and actual language all seem to be recommending
a distinction between the private practice of Islam (encouraged)
and its public expression or imposition (approached shyly and
with caution, if not abjured outright).
A strongly felt need to keep the military at bay no doubt underlies
much of the AKP’s strategy. Sensing this, the party’s more pious supporters
are giving it latitude as it avoids and postpones dealing with
Islamic issues. The party also tells the faithful that a “soft” approach to
Islam will ensure closer ties between Turkey and Europe. Europe alone
has the capability to build institutional boundaries around the military
and to protect Turkish democracy. Since liberal democracy is far more
receptive to religious expression than is Kemalist secularism, Muslimminded
voters can see an interest in not pushing too hard for their favorite
policies now, in hopes of strengthening Turkey’s ties to Europe and
with them Turkish liberal democracy. Although it is quite likely that
Europe too will look unfavorably on drives for certain types of Islamic
legislation, the EU will also perhaps do so somewhat less strenuously
than will the Turkish military. And of course the Anatolian tigers and
the rest of the AKP’s private-sector base strongly favor closeness to
Europe as a key to Turkey’s hopes for prosperity.
As we have seen, the AKP currently has rather limited room for strategic
choice, stuck as it is between its various groups of supporters, the
Kemalist military and state establishment, and the Europeans. And yet
that choice is pushing the party to define the middle in Turkish politics
in terms of conservative values that embrace broader Islamic values and
concerns, but which are not limited to narrow interpretations of Islamic
law. Erdo¢gan’s refusal to let the AKP be called a “Muslim” party bespeaks
a large measure of sincerity as well as a dash of calculation.
Will the AKP’s gambit succeed? Will the party prove itself able to
establish a coherent definition of Muslim Democracy (with or without
the actual name) that can channel a politics of Islamic concerns and
aspirations into liberal-democratic channels? The answers will come
not from the realm of theory and ideology, but from that of pragmatism
and politics. Competitions for power—and the calculations to which
these competitions give rise—are promoting continual and far-reaching
change, regardless of whatever the AKP’s original intentions may
have been. In the ironic realm of history, even the winners often build
other than they know. The result will be “secularization” as Martin
Marty once defined it: “a complex set of radical religious changes, in
which people act and think religiously in ways which differ from those
of the past.”14 This is also the process that Stathis Kalyvas identifies in
the development of European Christian Democracy, wherein unsecular
26 Journal of Democracy
political positions, once subjected to the pressures of competition,
gradually adapted to the values and rules of democracy.
Turkey presents perhaps the most developed instance of Muslim
Democracy, but the process is in evidence elsewhere as well. Even at
this early stage it is clear that the sheer competitive logic inherent in
open politics is driving Muslim Democracy forward, especially in places
where gradual democratization has ensured the continuation of that
competition through repeated elections. Established parties, a robust
private sector, and an ongoing democratic process (even a rough and
troubled one) are the ingredients that need to be in the mix if Muslim
Democracy is to put down roots and blossom. Muslim Democracy offers
the Muslim world the promise of moderation. As Islamists find themselves
facing—or caught up in—the Muslim Democratic dynamic, they
will find themselves increasingly facing the hard choice of changing or
suffering marginalization.
For an example of what such change might look like, consider a recent
fatwa (religious decree) that the Shi’ite Muslim ayatollah Ali Sistani
issued ahead of the 30 January 2005 elections in Iraq. Sistani sought to
impress upon women their religious duty to vote even if their husbands
forbade them to do so. Sistani is well known as a major backer of a
unified Shi’ite-candidates’ list. Evidently the imperative of notching a
big win in the elections—more than any arguments about religious reform
or women’s rights—compelled the most senior Shi’ite religious
leader in Iraq to advocate not only the enfranchisement of women, but
even their right (or as Sistani would probably prefer to put it, their specific
duty in this case) to disobey their husbands.15
Finally, it is Muslim Democracy—and not the creaky and brittle
authoritarianisms by which the Muslim world is so beset—that offers
the whole world its best hope for an effective bulwark against radical
and violent Islamism.16 Muslim Democracy provides a model for pragmatic
change. That change will in turn be the harbinger, not the follower,
of more liberal Islamic thought and practice.
1. After the November 2002 Turkish elections, some in the West began extolling
the Justice and Development Party of Recep Tayyip Erdo¢gan as a group of
“Muslim Democrats” not unlike the Christian Democrats. See, for example, Radwan
A. Masmoudi, “A Victory for the Cause of Islamic Democracy: An American
Muslim Analyzes the Surprise Election in Turkey,” www.beliefnet.com/story/116/
story_11673_1.html. While I plainly think that Masmoudi was on to something, I
should note that Erdo¢gan himself has taken pains publicly to disown the “Muslim
Democrat” label and to embrace the idea of “conservative democracy” instead. See
Erdo¢gan’s remarks in Vincent Boland, “Eastern Premise,” Financial Times (London),
3 December 2004.
2. See John L. Esposito and John O. Voll, Islam and Democracy (New York:
Oxford University Press, 1996); and Larry Diamond, Marc F. Plattner, and Daniel
Vali Nasr 27
Brumberg, eds., Islam and Democracy in the Middle East (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins
University Press, 2003).
3. Stathis Kalyvas, “Unsecular Politics and Religious Mobilization,” in Thomas
Kselman and Joseph Buttigieg, eds., European Christian Democracy (Notre Dame:
University of Notre Dame Press, 2003), 293–320.
4. Genevieve Abdo, No God But God: Egypt and the Triumph of Islam (New York:
Oxford University Press, 2000); Hakan Yavuz, Islamic Political Identity in Turkey
(New York: Oxford University Press, 2003); Bahtiar Effendy, Islam and the State in
Indonesia (Athens, Ohio: Ohio University Press, 2003); Seyyed Vali Reza Nasr, Islamic
Leviathan: Islam and the Making of State Power (New York: Oxford University
Press, 2001).
5. Vali Nasr, “Military Rule, Islamism, and Democracy in Pakistan,” Middle East
Journal 58 (Spring 2004): 195–209.
6. Saiful Mujani and R. William Liddle “Politics, Islam, and Public Opinion,”
Journal of Democracy 15 (January 2004): 109–23.
7. José Casanova, Public Religions in the Modern World (Chicago: University of
Chicago Press, 1994), 5–39.
8. Stathis Kalyvas, The Rise of Christian Democracy in Europe (Ithaca, N.Y.:
Cornell University Press, 1996), 2–4.
9. As Nawaz Sharif once put it, he wanted to be “both the [Turkish Islamist leader
Necmettin] Erbakan and the [economically modernizing Malaysian prime minister]
Mahatir of Pakistan.” Author’s interview, Lahore, Pakistan, October 1997.
10. Cengiz Çandar, “Postmodern Darbe” (Postmodern coup), Sabah (Istanbul), 28
June 1997. See also Cengiz Çandar, “Redefining Turkey’s Political Center,” Journal of
Democracy 10 (October 1999): 129–41.
11. Ziya Öniº and Fuat Keyman, “Turkey at the Polls: A New Path Emerges,”
Journal of Democracy 14 (April 2003): 95–107.
12. As Erdo¢gan put it to one interviewer, “[W]e are conservative democrats. . . .
our notion of conservative democracy is to attach ourselves to the customs, traditions,
and values of our society, which is based on the family. . . . This is a democratic
issue, not a religious issue.” Vincent Boland, “Eastern Premise,” Financial Times
(London), 3 December 2004.
13. Hakan Yavuz, “Opportunity Spaces, Identity, and Islamic Meaning in Turkey,”
in Quintan Wiktorowicz, ed., Islamic Activism: A Social Movement Theory Approach
(Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2004), 270–88.
14. Martin Marty, The Modern Schism: Three Paths to the Secular (New York:
Harper and Row, 1969), 108.
15. This fatwa—apparently spoken rather than written—was reported from Baghdad
by Newsweek correspondent Rod Nordland in a dispatch on the Iraqi elections dated 30
January 2005. Nordland wrote that “Sistani’s fatwa ordered Shia women to vote, even
if their husbands told them not to.” See www.msnbc.msn.com/id/6887461/site/newsweek.
Nordland and Babak Dehghanpisheh reported in a dispatch dated 14 February 2004
that every third candidate on the Shi’ite list that Sistani helped to create was a woman.
See www.msnbc.msn.com/id/6920460/site/newsweek.
16. Alfred Stepan and Aqil Shah, “Pakistan’s Real Bulwark,” Washington Post, 5
May 2004, A29.

tags: vali nasr / democracy&islam / islamists / political islam / middle east / politics /
Posted in MB in International press  
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