Political Islam and The Future of Democracy in the Middle East

Since 2003, the Bush administration, and President Bush in particular, has talked constantly about promoting democracy in the Middle East but has actually done very little to achieve this objective. The Iraq war notwithstanding – democracy promotion was actually an afterthought in Iraq – U.S. foreign policies continue to support oppressive regimes in the region and reward authoritarian rulers who falsify elections and oppress their people, with more economic and security assistance. While the ‘hyper-talk’ about democracy promotion initially raised the hopes and expectations of many in the region, it later only served to discredit the intellectuals, leaders, and activists who have been struggling for freedom and democracy for decades. If we hope to achieve long-term peace, stability, and development in the Middle East, and in the world, we must end our double standards and stop supporting oppressive and illegitimate governments in the Middle East.


Deep Crisis in the Muslim World

There is a serious crisis in the Muslim world, one that has manifested in many ways: from rising levels of poverty and unemployment, to lack of education, to growing corruption, violence, and wars. Terrorism is, of course, the most violent form of this rage and anger, which finds its roots in the terrible conditions that millions of people, especially young people, find themselves in today. Western and American media pundits increasingly blame Islam for the rising violence in the Middle East, but the reality is that the roots of violence and extremism lie in the despair, anger, frustrations, and humiliation that most Arabs and Muslims feel and which they believe is caused by their corrupt and inefficient governments, and the West which continues to support them. Yes, some extremists use Islam to justify their crimes against humanity, but the governments also “use” this violence to suffocate any genuine efforts or calls for reforms and accountability. Most of all, this crisis in the Muslim world is the result of bad governance, poor strategic thinking and planning, and lack of freedoms, dignity, and respect for inalienable human rights. First and foremost, it is the twin curse of corruption and oppression that is at the core of all these problems. As global citizens, Muslims and non-Muslims who are concerned about the future of the Muslim world in this increasingly interconnected “global village,” it is imperative that we develop and implement a strategy for resolving this crisis. Of course, there is no short-term magical fix to all these problems, but the most important and urgent component of this strategy must be good and participatory governance.


Why Democracy, and Why Now?

Change in the Middle East is inevitable, and the only question is what kind of change: will it be slow, peaceful, and progressively move us toward real democracy, or will it be violent and revolutionary, and lead us toward another form of dictatorship. To guard against anarchy and the possibility of a theocratic state, we need a strong coalition of moderate reformers and democrats (both moderate Islamists and secularists) who trust one another and work together for the public interest. Arab democrats need to develop a consensus on what democracy means, how it can work in their societies, and how to encourage progressive, modern, and moderate interpretations of Islam.

Real democratization requires pressure from inside and out. Pressure from within at this time is coming mostly from Islamic movements that have the popular support needed to push for reforms in their respective countries, but pressure from the outside is also important to prevent violence and radicalization, and to give hope to millions of people who want an elected, representative and accountable government. This means that the US must accept and support democracy even if moderate Islamic movements, and not secularists, receive the majority of votes. Supporting dictators is not only morally wrong, it also undermines peace and stability, and promotes violence and extremism in the region for decades to come.


Secularity or Secularism?

With few exceptions, most Arab countries are ruled by a corrupt and secular elite that is benefiting from the status quo. This elite is afraid of what democracy might bring, so they do everything they can to scare the US and the West of what democracy may bring. The secular elite is increasingly marginalized, isolated, authoritarian, and corrupt. They are neither genuine secularists nor democrats, but they raise these flags to seek support from the West. Being elitist, they have no grassroots or popular support, and they discourage popular participation in the political system because they do not trust the people to keep them in power. External pressure is absolutely necessary to convince them that democracy is the only way to bring about economic development, stability, and rule of law.

Secularity was developed in Europe as a reaction to the Church’s control of governments during the Middle Ages. The Muslim world was never ruled by a religious clergy, with the exception of modern-day Iran where the clerics took control after the Iranian people overthrew the Shah’s oppressive government. Complete separation between religious values and politics is impossible in the Muslim world, while separation between religious and political institutions is necessary.

In the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, when democracy was being developed and implemented in Europe, there was fear that the Catholic Church would be an obstacle to democracy, but the “Christian Democratic” movement grew and defended the idea that democracy was compatible with Christianity. In the Muslim world, we are seeing the birth of “Muslim democrats” who are advancing and advocating similar ideas.

We must come to accept and understand that it will indeed take time for people to discern the proper relationship between religion and politics, and between religious scholars and elected political leaders. Ultimately, people are smart and do not want to live under any form of tyranny, whether secular or religious.


How to engage and support Moderate Islamists:

What does “Islamist” mean and what do Islamic movements stand for? While extremist and radical fringe groups exist, the overwhelming majority of those who call themselves “Islamists” reject violence and theocracy, and simply want to reform their societies based on Islamic values of justice, equality, and accountability. In short, they want a democratic form of government that respects Islamic values without imposing them on citizens or on society. Moderate Islamic movements today range from the Justice and Development Parties in Turkey and Morocco, to the reform Islah or Wasat parties in Kuwait, Yemen, Egypt and Jordan, and al-Nahda Party in Tunisia. Prominent moderate Islamist leaders include Anwar Ibrahim in Malaysia, Saadeddine al-Othmani in Morocco, and Abdulwaheed in Indonesia. A Gallup Poll conducted in 2006 in ten Muslim-majority countries showed that the overwhelming majority (between than 70-90% in Egypt and Pakistan) want a democratic government, but also want Shari’ah (Islamic law) to be either the main or the only source of legislation in their countries. This means that they want a democracy governed by Islamic principles, and they reject both theocracy and secular democracy. The majority wants “religious leaders” to be advisors to the lawmakers, and not become lawmakers or politicians themselves.

One of the main challenges for democracy in the Arab and Muslim world is the growing popularity of Islamic movements and/or political Islam, and the relative weakness of secular groups and movements. The concern that many people have is that Islamist movements will not respect democracy and abide by its rules, if and when they come to power. It is important to remember that the support Islamist parties enjoy today did not exist 20 or 30 years ago and is clearly the result of the despair and hopelessness to which these failed states have led their populations. Out of despair, people, and especially young people, are turning to Islam, and sometimes to a distorted and extremist interpretation of Islam, as their last hope to unite, mobilize, and cure the ills of their societies.

There are many positive and encouraging signs that Islamic parties and movements are now convinced of the necessity of political participation, democratization, and reforms as the only way to resolve the myriad of problems and challenges that their societies face (such as 30% unemployment rate, 50-60% illiteracy rate, while more than 50% of the population is under the age of 20). There are also indications that when Islamic parties come to power or parliament through the ballot box, they become more pragmatic, and much less ideological or intransigent. Politics, after all, is the art of compromise, and Islamists learn this art when they get involved in politics. Certainly the experience of the Justice and Development party in Turkey is a good model for other Islamist parties to follow. This is why what Daniel Pipes, and others like him, recommend (to consider all Islamists as enemies) is not only wrong but will lead to disastrous results. It will swell the ranks of the Islamists and even of the extremists, and it will turn the entire Muslim world against us. Talk about “self-fulfilling prophecies!”

Three facts can prevent and guard against the danger of monopolization of Islam by Islamic movements. First, since there is no organized clergy (at least in Sunni Islam), no one individual or group can claim to represent God on Earth. Second, we actually need multiple Islamic parties in each country so that none of them can claim to speak on behalf of Islam. Islamic movements represent various interpretations (conservative or otherwise) of Islam and competition among them would provide for healthy debate and interaction. Finally, secular forces and groups need to develop a better understanding for the importance of religion in their countries, and must understand that being portrayed as anti-Islamic or anti-religious will severely hurt their prospects of gaining sufficient political representation. They must develop a new paradigm that makes it clear that it is possible to be secular and religious at the same time.

Islamist parties have evolved tremendously within the past 10 to 15 years and we can no longer continue to judge their intentions. There are ambiguities in the platform of every group, Islamist or otherwise, and there is no guarantee that secular parties will be democratic either. In fact, some of the worst oppressors in history and in the Arab world were secular. In democracy, the only safeguard is to build strong institutions and educate the public about their rights and duties as active citizens; constitutional guarantees are worthless without an educated and mobilized citizenry. We need to establish clear mechanisms to guard against abuses. Normative consensus on issues such as definitions of democracy, rules of the game, and the idea of pacts also need to be articulated.

The participation of Islamist parties in the political process is essential for strengthening political reforms and democratization — it is impossible for democracy to prosper while 30 to 40 percent of the population is excluded from the political process. The agendas of Islamic parties now focus on economic development, fighting corruption, reducing illiteracy, building an independent judiciary, and not the implementation of Shari’ah punishments (hudud). Most Islamist parties no longer call for the implementation of Shari’ah punishments as they did 15 or 20 years ago. Their main priority is good governance, transparency, and fighting corruption, poverty, and illiteracy.

Recent experiences in Iran, Sudan, and Afghanistan have been disappointing, and Muslims find themselves searching for different and more positive democratic models in the Arab and Muslim world. Turkey, Indonesia, and Malaysia are now becoming the models for both Islamists and secularists. Modern Islamists today look at Turkey as a model, much more than they look at Iran, which has unfortunately become a theocracy and restricted the freedoms and choices of its citizens. Turkey, on the other hand, is a model of a very progressive and democratic Muslim state, where the state itself is secular but the society is deeply religious. The state is not and should not be in the business of imposing religion or forcing people to practice any particular religion; imposing religion is, in Islam, strongly discouraged as it generally turns people away from religion instead of bringing them closer.

Political parties become popular when they reflect the values and principles of the people — and religion is a big part of those values. Islamic parties should not be excluded from the political system, but should be allowed to participate actively and peacefully in the democratization process of their societies and countries. This process will take time — years and perhaps decades — but it is the only way to bring real tangible peace, stability, and development to the Muslim world.


What can the US do?

For the past 40 to 50 years, different US administrations have supported secular dictators in the Arab and Muslim world, and this has produced dysfunctional political systems, in which both corruption and oppression are prevalent. As a result, the idea of secularism has been discredited in popular eyes as it is now associated with corruption and tyranny. Hence the current choice is almost between a “secular tyranny” (i.e., the status quo in the Arab world) or an “Islamic democracy.”

One of the most disappointing developments occurred after the 2005 elections in Egypt and the 2006 elections in Palestine when the US seems to have suddenly lost its appetite for democracy in the Middle East for fear that the Islamists were going to win. For more than 20 years, Arab governments have been using the “Islamist threat” as justification for the lack of accountability, freedoms, and democracy. It is shameful for the West, and truly catastrophic for the region, to continue to support discredited regimes under the belief that they provide stability or the promise of reforms and development. The real lesson of the last 40 to 50 years in the Arab world — and much of the Islamic world — is that neither long-term development nor stability is possible without real democracy, transparency, and accountability. It is time for the US and Europe to support voices for genuine reforms, freedoms, and democracy in the region. Democracy in the Arab world and in the foreseeable future will have a more or less “Islamic flavor”. This is normal, natural, and in the long run, a healthy development which will ultimately lead to the modernization and reinterpretation of Islamic principles for the twenty-first century.


Ijithad and the Reinterpretation of Islamic Texts:

The effort to re-open the door of Ijtihad (rational thinking), to reinterpret Islamic texts and modernize Islamic thought is not new. It started at the end of the nineteenth century with famous reformers, such as Al-Afghani, Abduh, al-Kawakibi, and many other prominent scholars. It was delayed or slowed down by the struggle for independence for about 50 years, and then by oppressive and corrupt regimes for another 50 years. However, it is now back on track and is moving at a much quicker pace, and it is on the agenda everywhere — in the United States, in Europe, and in every Muslim country. I believe that American and European Muslims are called upon to lead in this effort as we enjoy the freedom, the means, and the opportunity to create the atmosphere necessary to foster democratization.

The relationship between religion and the state needs further investigation and clarification. Religious beliefs and practices should not be controlled by the state as this damages both the state and religion. In CSID conferences, we make it a point always to bring both secularists and Islamists together and encourage them to develop joint objectives and strategies. They all agree, for example, that they want a democracy governed by Islamic values, but one in which individual rights are protected and equal rights and duties are accorded to all citizens, irrespective of their ethnic, religious background, or gender. “Equal rights for all citizens” is an essential component of real democracy, and of justice, which is a basic tenet in Islam. The Qur’an clearly states: “ And say: “The truth is from your Lord.” Then whosoever wills, let him believe, and whosoever wills, let him disbelieve.” And Prophet Muhammad told his governor/emissaries: “Don’t speak by the name of God. Don’t speak as a representative of God. Speak as a human not as a God. You don’ know exactly what the will of God is”

There are many political and religious questions that need to be studied and clarified today, and they require Muslim leaders and scholars to come up with new answers and interpretations of Islamic texts. However, Ijtihad cannot happen under dictatorships that stifle dissent and forbid free debates and discussions. This is another reason democracy is and should be a priority for the Muslim world because without it, there can be no real or meaningful Ijtihad, and consequently Muslims will continue to live in ignorant and backward socities.

What can we all do?

It goes without saying that democracy and good governance cannot and should not be imposed or imported, but they certainly can and must be supported. Reformers in the Arab and Muslim world have been working and pushing for democracy and good governance for decades, but they have received little support or encouragement from the outside world. It is time for this to change, and it is our duty and obligation to provide Arab and Muslim democrats with as much support and encouragement as needed. Our support begins by providing the intellectual and philosophical support for the simple and basic truth that Islam and democracy are indeed compatible. Without doing so, democracy will not become accepted by the masses and democratic cultures and ideals will not become imbedded in local cultures and traditions. The Center for the Study of Islam and Democracy (CSID) is in the best position to demonstrate this.

Second, we need to convince the US and European governments and policy-makers that they must stop their support for oppressive and authoritarian rulers in the Arab and Muslim world. Even though these dictators claim that they are providing stability for the region, the reality is that they are creating the perfect conditions for despair and hopelessness that will only lead to further violence, extremism, and turmoil.

Third, we need to engage and support moderate Islamists who are trying to be both true to their religion while adopting and accepting democracy, modernity, and development. Building strong coalitions between moderate Islamists (i.e., those who reject violence and accept democracy) with secularists is the only way to challenge the status quo and provide a real democratic alternative to the untenable and discredited rulers and regimes. Most of the Islamists in the Arab and Muslim world are in fact moderate, and it would be a wrong and dangerous to lump all Islamists together, and to call them extremists or terrorists.

Since 1999, CSID has developed and implemented a strategy for achieving these objectives, by

1. Organizing conferences and seminars to bring democrats together (both moderate Islamists, secularists, and others),

2. Educating the masses about democracy, how it works, and its compatibility with Islam,

3. Establishing a Network of Democrats in the Arab World (NDAW) and providing them with training and support,

4. Lobbying the US government and policy-makers to stop supporting dictators and to engage and support democrats.

CSID has organized conferences on Islam and democracy in Saudi Arabia, Iran, Sudan, Nigeria, and Tunisia, and more than 20 other countries. The reason we have been able to organize such activities has to do with the huge credibility and connections that CSID has established throughout the Arab and Muslim world during the past eight years. Our credibility and strong network of friends and colleagues (among Arab and Muslim reformers) is unmatched. This growing network — which again includes both secularists and moderate Islamists — is capable of pushing for significant dialogue and reforms in their respective countries.

As a result, we ARE making a difference. More than 1,500 political and religious leaders and scholars have attended our workshops and conferences, and more than 2,000 people in Morocco, Algeria, Egypt, and Jordan have been trained through our “Islam & Democracy — Toward Effective Citizenship” textbooks and workshops. The demand for both, however, is much greater, and our dream is to train 5,000 people per country, per year, for the next ten years.

For the first time in history, secular leaders and moderate Islamist leaders are starting to work together in many countries, learning to build trust and strong coalitions for positive and meaningful reforms. The Network of Democrats in the Arab World is growing and has provided training on leadership skills, communication skills, consensus building, and conflict-resolution skills to hundreds of members and NGO leaders. US and European governments are beginning to realize that it is against their interests (not to mention their values) to promote oppressive regimes in the Arab/Muslim world and are starting to put real pressure on these regimes to reform and democratize.

Our long-term goal is that both the US and European governments, with the help of the international community as a whole, will work with and support governments that are serious about democracy and are achieving real progress toward it, while isolating governments that reject democracy and continue to oppress their people.


Violence and terrorism cannot prosper or exist in democratic societies or countries. The calls for freedom and democracy are not new in the Arab and Muslim world. Arab and Muslims have struggled for freedom and democracy for decades (there were close to 200,000 political prisoners in the Arab world in 2000, according to Amnesty International). For decades, the US and the West have turned their back to democrats and reformers in the Arab and Muslim world and have supported authoritarian and oppressive regimes, believing that short term stability is better than long term development and progress. It is hypocritical for the US, the “great supporter of democracy” to be so supportive of dictatorships that are harmful to their people.

Democracy is coming to the Arab and Muslim world, whether we know it or not, and with or without our support. These regimes and governments are too weak, too discredited, and too corrupt to last much longer. The only question, then, is whether we as Americans and as free people of the world will support the aspirations for freedom, democracy, and dignity in the Arab and Muslim world, or whether we will go back to supporting Arab dictators and “doing business as usual” with corrupt and unpopular regimes. It is in the long-term interest and benefit of the US to support the Arab and Muslim people’s aspirations to freedom and democracy so that we can build future relations based on respect, dignity, and mutual understanding.

We have made significant progress in the democratization of the Arab and Muslim world, with some disappointing and significant setbacks in 2006 and 2007. Nonetheless, it is likely that we will see real and successful democracies in the Arab world within the next ten years if we pull our resources together as an international community. In any case, we have no choice but to do our best to make sure democratization does come about because the alternative is more violence, more extremism, and less stability.