Count the numbers and see: Islam and democracy do mix

Let no one deny that George Bush is an optimist. Even as Iraq descends further into the quagmire of civil war, the United States President is celebrating small victories. The Iraqi people voted in three elections in 2005, he enthused in his State of the Union address in January. Yes, there have been setbacks, but “it is still within our power to shape the outcome of this battle”. Let democracy triumph. Let freedom prevail. Et cetera.

Clearly, the democratisation of the Middle East has long been part of Bush’s plan. For Bush, that meant trying to turn Iraq into Sweden overnight by pounding it militarily. It was a profoundly revolutionary approach, quintessentially unconservative, and ultimately doomed to the failure we now observe.

The sadly inevitable consequence has been the emergence of the thought that democratisation is simply beyond the Muslim world. It seems that when it comes to Muslim democratisation, there are those who oppose it and those who would bomb it into existence. Neither position reflects the desires of the Muslim world itself. We have long known of the deep unpopularity of the invasion of Iraq. But we are less familiar with the attitudes revealed a January Gallup poll of 10 Muslim majority countries: that public sentiment across the Muslim world is firmly in favour of democracy.

The twist is that strong majorities express their democratic aspirations within an Islamic framework. The key Gallup finding is that most believe in the happy coexistence of democracy and Islamic law. They maintain that Islam should, at the very least, be a source of legislation.

This will unnerve many Western commentators whose immediate response to public religion is, for obvious reasons, often allergic. But observers of the Muslim world will be far from surprised. Election results in recent years in Egypt, Bahrain, Morocco, Pakistan, Algeria and, most infamously, the Palestinian territories, have demonstrated the willingness of Muslim-majority populations to vote for religiously based parties.

Given decades of corruption and despotism under secularists such as Saddam Hussein, and given the strong social services and anti-corruption agenda of religious parties in the Muslim world, this is perfectly understandable.

Still, one glance in the direction of Afghanistan or Iran will be enough to have many questioning the wisdom of giving democratic expression to these popular aspirations. The long-obvious, inescapable fact is that democracy in the Muslim world is unlikely to produce results entirely pleasing to Western political sensibilities. Implicit in many Western observers’ objections will be the suggestion that religious parties will do considerable damage to democracy.

This is short-sighted. It would be more meaningful to consider the exact reverse: the effect democracy will have on religious polities. It is one thing to shout pious mantras of dissent from opposition; it is quite another to govern a people and then face elections. Political reality and public accountability can have a moderating effect, and governments that do not adjust risk public resentment.

It is noteworthy that support for Islamic government is highest in Egypt and Pakistan, where it does not exist, while there is increasing public dissatisfaction with self-declared Islamic governments in places such as Iran and Nigeria, which have failed to deliver freedom.

In the interim, the challenge for Western governments is a considerable one. To follow the Bush aspiration of democratisation is to invite an uncertain short term. Yet suppressing popular sentiment throughout the Muslim world to preserve the authoritarian status quo will only foster hardline political attitudes that must eventually find expression.

Ultimately it becomes a matter of principle. Do we believe enough in democracy to support it even when it is inopportune?

We can be sure any double standards will be keenly monitored. The Gallup poll revealed significant Muslim scepticism that the US, in particular, takes its own values seriously when it comes to the Middle East. Respondents often noted Western alliances with autocratic governments and resistance to troublesome democratic outcomes, most recently in the Palestinian territories.

Bush speaks of the war on terror as “a decisive ideological struggle” rather than a purely military campaign. How often we have heard it said that this is a war of ideas. If so, the real test will be whether or not we have the courage to apply ours consistently, not merely conveniently.

The predictable disaster of military intervention in Iraq should not cause us to renounce the hope of democracy burgeoning in the Muslim world by political means. That, after all, is the popular will.

About Waleed Aly

Waleed Aly is a commercial lawyer and board member of the Islamic Council of Victoria, the peak representative body for Victorian Muslims.

Waleed is frequently sought for comment from media outlets across Australia on a broad range of issues relating to Islam and Australian Muslims. He has written regularly for mainstream newspapers including The Australian, The Australian Financial Review, The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age. He has been commended at both the Walkley Awards and the Quill Awards for his commentary and shortlisted for the Alfred Deakin Essay Prize in the Victorian Premier’s Literary Awards.

Waleed is also a co-host of The Conversation Hour with Jon Faine on 774 ABC Melbourne, and a panellist on Salam Cafe, an award-winning community television show screened nationally. Last year, he was a White Ribbon Day Ambassador for the United Nations’ International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women.

In 2005, Waleed was one of 90 young Australians chosen to attend the Australian Future Directions Forum to generate ideas for the next 20 years of Australia’s future. He was also a youth leadership awardee and delegate to the Australian Davos Connection’s Future Summit in 2005.

Other articles by Waleed Aly