’Islamists edge towards democracy’

’Islamists edge towards democracy’

Islamic political movements in the Middle East and Asia are becoming increasingly democratic. That is the conclusion reached at a conference on “post-Islamism” in Leiden. But not everyone is prepared to simply trust the Islamists now that they are talking democracy.

It is a striking paradox. Countries such as the United States are becoming less keen on the notion of democratisation in the Islamic world, amid fears that elections would only bring the Islamists to power. Meanwhile, the Islamists themselves are viewing democracy with increasing enthusiasm.

Less radical
Throughout the Islamic world – from
Morocco to Indonesia – it is becoming more common for Islamic political movements to take part in the democratic process, becoming less radical in their views as a result. Asef Bayat, director of Leiden“s International Institute for the Study of Islam in the Modern World (ISIM), refers to this trend as “post-Islamism”. “Islam remains an important source of inspiration for these movements but religion is seen less and less as being in conflict with modern ideals of democracy and human rights.”

Two years ago, the Netherlands Scientific Council for Government Policy (WRR) published a report in which it pointed out this development and advised the Dutch government to initiate a dialogue with moderate Islamic political movements. The report did not have much in the way of impact: the Netherlands still refuses to have any contact with movements such as Hezbollah and Hamas.

A country at the forefront of this trend towards democratic Islamism is
Turkey, where the ruling AK Party seems to have developed into something like an Islamic counterpart to the Christian Democratic parties of Europe. “The AK Party has even begun to praise secularism”, explains researcher Ihsan Dagi of the Middle East Technical University in Ankara. “The Turkish state believes in a radical form of secularism, one that is used as an instrument to exclude the Islamists. The AK Party has responded to this by advocating an Anglo-Saxon form of secularism, which says that the state has to be neutral with regard to religion.”

Hamas in the Palestinian Territories, Hezbollah in Lebanon and Islamist movements in Morocco, Egypt, Indonesia and Pakistan are increasingly letting go of the idea that an Islamic state should be one which Islamises society with an iron hand. The notion that there is only one authoritative interpretation of Islam is making way for pluralism; the call for a literal implementation of Islamic law is being replaced by a historical vision of the sources of revelation, the origins of the religion.

In power
How genuine are the Islamists in flirting with democratic principles? Will they still honour such principles once they have come to power by democratic means? In the West and among secular groups in the Islamic world, mistrust of the Islamists continues to run deep. And there is some evidence to support such sentiments. In countries like
Iran, Sudan and Saudi Arabia, where Islamism is in power, repression is the order of the day.

Religious authority 
Yet post-Islamism is also developing in those countries where Islamism is in power. “As soon as the Islamists come to power”, argues Abdelwahab El-Affendi of the
University of Westminster in the UK, “the problem of religious authority arises. Other groups emerge to challenge the religious authority of the ruling powers and claim to represent true Islam.” According to El-Affendi, this should ultimately lead to the insight that Islam can be interpreted in different ways and that a form of democratic government is the best way to allow these various interpretations to compete with one another.

Asef Bayat believes this is exactly what happened in the 1990s in Iran. “Disappointment with the regime of the Ayatollahs led to a major public debate about the role of Islam in the state and society and to the emergence of a “post-Islamist” reform movement.” That reform movement has been suppressed since President Ahmadinejad came to power. But Bayat is convinced that in the end it will prove to have been the start of an irreversible shift in the direction of post-Islamism.