Islamist democracy

If totally free and open elections were held in Arab countries, Islamic political parties would win almost everywhere. And most would be anti-American.

Those sentiments did not issue from the lips of a militant Islamic supporter, but rather were expressed to me the other day, in a matter-of-fact way, by a diplomat from a pro-Western country in the Middle East.

Such views obviously provide little comfort for those increasingly concerned about inroads being made by Islamic movements and political parties, particularly radical Muslim groups implicated in acts of terrorism. These concerns raise important questions regarding why Islamic political parties have been able to win greater support in recent times.

Equally importantly, what is it about Islamic extremism that attracts individuals to its doctrines, including those willing to become suicide bombers?

The most recent elections in Egypt saw a large number of so-called independent candidates enter parliament even though they were linked to the Muslim Brotherhood, which was banned from presenting candidates.

Last year, the militant Hamas party in the occupied Palestinian territories stunned everyone by winning power in parliamentary elections over the traditional Fatah party, now led by Mahmoud Abbas.

Although Hamas”s Ismail Haniya was appointed prime minister, western nations, including Canada, refused to deal with the new government and stopped all financial and development assistance, citing Hamas”s links with terrorism.

Notwithstanding the perceived threat posed by Islamic parties in the minds of many, Turkish voters these days clearly don”t share such fears.

Despite concerted efforts by Turkey”s secular-minded military and traditional power brokers – as well as ultra-nationalists – urging Turkish voters to turn their backs on the Islamic-rooted Justice and Development Party, AKP, of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan during crucially important July 22 elections, voters rewarded the AKP with 47 per cent of the total vote, up from 34 per cent won in 2002. The AKP”s sweeping electoral victory was such that it even won more than 50 per cent of the vote in the violence-ridden Kurdish region of the southeast.

And yesterday, Turkey”s parliament elected controversial foreign minister Abdullah Gul as president, after his bid was initially blocked by the military over fears about his Islamist political past.

Given the constant warnings about the Islamization of society if avowedly Islamic parties gain power, what explains their appeal?

One key factor is that many Islamic political parties have reputations for being honest and untainted by corruption scandals, the latter extremely pervasive among secular parties such as Fatah. Hamas”s electoral victory last year was at least partially based on Fatah”s blatant nepotism, corruption and failure to deal with widespread unemployment.

Islamic parties also have developed popular social-welfare programs in their societies. Hamas, and Hezbollah in Lebanon, were particularly effective in providing assistance to the people. The rapid aid provided by Pakistani Islamic movements won them considerable praise after that country”s devastating earthquake in 2005.

“s generally believed Islamic parties would do well in most Muslim countries, including the more authoritarian ones, such as Saudi Arabia, were they allowed to operate freely. And it”s precisely the attempt by authoritarian and monarchical-based systems in the Arab world to ban or manipulate elections that undoubtedly plays a significant role in generating support for Islamic movements, whether ostensibly legal or covert.

Although until recent times there was a belief that the appeal of radical Islamic groups, like Osama bin Laden”s al-Qaeda, appealed primarily to the poor and marginalized within society, that view has been questioned.

The migration of millions of rural poor to urban centres in the 20th century created considerable socio-economic discontent in many countries, including Egypt, Algeria, Morocco, Tunisia and elsewhere. However, as demonstrated on Sept. 11, 2001, a significant number of militants come from educated and professional backgrounds, including engineers and doctors.
While many Muslims may have regarded Islamic parties as offering opportunities to improve their economic lot in societies ruled by small groups of privileged elites, many also saw Islamic fundamentalism as offering a degree of certainty in a rapidly changing world. Modern concepts and practices – including the emancipation of women – were seen as undermining traditional ways of life, shunting many to the sidelines in their own countries.

Support for repressive and corruption-ridden governments in the Arab world by the United States and European countries only reinforced anti-western sentiment further.

Islamic radicals offered an antidote to widespread discontent and the sense of humiliation felt by many who were resentful of foreign influences flooding their conservative societies, leaving them alienated and seemingly powerless.

The siren call of Islamic fundamentalism with its demand for a return to the certainties offered by the Koran and universal Muslim brotherhood has fallen on receptive ears, especially among those indoctrinated by imams and mullahs in religious schools, as in Pakistan, where radicalized religious leaders and students – many of the latter women – participated in the recent bloody showdown with Pakistani commandos besieging the controversial Red Mosque in Islamabad.

Another contributing factor behind the current jihad (holy war) against the west, is the simple desire of younger Muslims to participate in a cause, the present intervention by the U.S. and other nations in Iraq and Afghanistan being regarded as a premeditated war against Islam. In some cases, as in Bosnia, many foreign Muslims joined the fighting as a proxy battle for their own homelands, such as Chechnya and Uzbekistan.

While U.S. President George W. Bush and others have convinced themselves the only way to reduce the appeal of radical Islamists is to promote free market economies and western concepts of democracy and human rights, others in the Muslim world insist their religion and its teachings from the Koran are integral to the daily life of the Muslim faithful, and foreign concepts of secularism and unfettered democracy are alien concepts, unsuited to Muslim society.
ut until such time as the inhabitants of predominantly Muslim societies benefit from universal education and health care, adequate living standards and employment – plus assured security – the question of what kind of society they truly prefer to live in, whether secular and fully democratic, or non-secular, will likely remain unanswered.

Harry Sterling, a former diplomat, is an Ottawa-based commentator.

He served in Turkey.