The Challenge of Democracy

The Challenge of Democracy

A process of change and experimentation is unfolding in the political and social landscape of the Middle East

The modern Muslim political experience has been one of kings, military, and ex-military rulers and regimes, possessing tenuous legitimacy and propped up by military and security forces. Indeed, the states of Arab world are commonly referred to as security (mukhabarat) states. At the same time, some self-styled Islamic governments and Islamic movements have often projected a religious authoritarianism which parallels that of secular authoritarianism.

However, since the late 20th century, calls for greater liberalization and democratization from North Africa to Southeast Asia have increased. In many countries, diverse sectors of society, secular and religious, leftist and rightist, educated and uneducated increasingly use broader political participation and democratization as the litmus test by which to judge the legitimacy of governments and political movements alike.

Democratization and Islam in the Late 20th Century

The voices of many in the West, who, after the fall of the Soviet Union, called for democratic initiatives in Eastern Europe, and Africa, often seemed muted when addressing the Middle East and the broader Muslim world. If democracy in the Muslim world was under siege, it was as much from governments and the media as from radical and extremist Islamists. Muslim governments such as Tunisia, Egypt and Saudi Arabia used fear of the spread of fundamentalism as an excuse for discouraging the promotion of democracy. U.S governments both under Presidents Bush H. Bush and William J. Clinton were ambivalent at best. Many, though certainly not all, policymakers and analysts spoke not only of the danger that fundamentalists would “hijack democracy” but also argued that Islam and Arab or Muslim culture are antithetical to democracy and human rights.

The economic failures of many Muslim societies in the late 1980s and 1990s such as Tunisia, Algeria, Jordan, and Turkey led to calls for greater power sharing or democratization, transparency, freedoms and human rights. It also enabled many Islamic activists to assert their influence and power in mainstream society through ballots not bullets, emerging as the political alternative and opposition in elections.

Despite the tendency to project a monolithic “Islamic fundamentalism,” militant and extremist, the reality proved far more complex. Diversity and variety, dynamism and flexibility, mainstream and extremist account for a force that continues to be present from Africa to Asia. Islamists emerged as the leading opposition in Tunisia, Morocco, Egypt, Jordan, and Kuwait. In Algeria and Turkey, Islamists emerged as winners. As a result, Islamists served as prime minister, speaker of the assembly, parliamentarians, cabinet ministers, and mayors. While countries like Tunisia and Algeria moved quickly to shut down and suppress their Islamist opposition, mainstream as well as extremist, others sought to limit and contain Islamists participation. At the same time, Islamists increasingly dominated professional association (lawyers, doctors, engineers, journalists) elections and civil society.

Democratization Post 9/11

The shock and impact of 9/11 and continued threat of global terrorism from Morocco to Mindanao enabled Muslim rulers in Tunisia, Algeria, Egypt, Turkey, Pakistan, Indonesia, and the Central Asian Republics as well as the governments of Israel, India, China and the Philippines to exploit the danger of Islamic radicalism and global terrorism. This tactic enabled them to deflect from their suppression of opposition movements, mainstream as well as extremists, and/or to attract American and European aid. At the same time, elections Bahrain, Morocco, Pakistan, Turkey, Afghanistan, Iraq, Malaysia, Indonesia and Saudi Arabia and electoral politics in Kuwait, Qatar and Bangladesh have reinforced both the continued saliency of democracy and, in particular, the role of religion in electoral politics.

The victory of Turkey”s Justice and Development Party (commonly called the AK Party) with a parliamentary majority in a Muslim country that has long been seen as a symbol of secularism in the Middle East Islam, was a stunning achievement with potential lessons for other countries. Turkey, a key ally in NATO and in the confrontation with Iraq, elected AK, a party with Islamist roots (originating from the former Welfare and Virtue parties). AK’s success was due to the continued failures of Turkey’s established parties and AK’s ability not only to develop a broad based party but also to offer an alternative political and economic vision. The AK-led Turkish government not only has responded successfully to domestic issues such as economic development but also proved successful internationally, working with Europe, the U.S. and the international community while retaining Turkey’s independence.

The Bush administration, having turned in 2002 to democratization as a justification for the invasion of Iraq, has in its second term spoken in far more ambitious terms than and of its predecessors about its commitment to promote the spread of democracy in the Middle East and broader Muslim world. Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice, during her June 20, 2005 visit to Cairo, stated: “For 60 years, my country, the United States, pursued stability at the expense of democracy in this region here in the Middle East — and we achieved neither. Now, we are taking a different course.” And yet, America’s record like that of some of its Muslim allies (Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, and Jordan) has been checkered and inconsistent. In Central Asia, United States perceived security needs have been given higher priority in Uzbekistan than the promotion of basic human rights as witnessed most glaringly in the U.S. slow equivocating response to the Andijan massacre of May 13, 2005.

The U.S. approach to promoting democracy in Iraq was deeply flawed, from dealing with the emergence of the Shii religious leaders, parties and institutions, the contrasting roles of clergy like Grand Ayatullah Sayyid Ali Al-Hussaini Al-Sistani and the militant Muqtedar al-Sadr, role of religion in Iraq’s democratization process, and the place of Islam in the new government and constitution.

Muslim rulers and autocratic governments, self styled “Islamic” as well as more secular, however different, often fail to transcend the culture and values of authoritarianism. Many have taken advantage of the post 9/11 climate to foster American support despite the administrations commitment to democracy. Islam Abdughanievich Karimov has become more despotic in Uzbekistan, Tunisia’s Zeine Abedin Ben Ali’s has continued his tight control and dominance of electoral politics and suppression of opposition. While Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Pakistan have ostensibly moved to increase political participation, the process has been tightly managed and controlled by the government and often accompanied by crackdowns against the emergence of any significant political party or opposition.

At the same time, it is important to remember that broader participation in elections or the greater role of political parties does not in itself guarantee the development and internalization of a culture and values of democratization or power-sharing. Muslim democrats will continue to be challenged to demonstrate that when in power they too will value political pluralism that their democratic aspiration is not to come to power in order to impose their new “enlightened” democratic government. The litmus test for their internalization of the principles and values of democracy will be the extent to which their policies and actions reflect an acceptance of basic democratic freedoms, diversity of opinion, of political parties and civil society organizations, and appreciation of the concept of a “loyal opposition” rather than viewing alternative voices and political visions as a threat to the political system.

Democratization is occurring on the ground in an increasing number of Muslim countries and the desire for broader power sharing remains a popular demand in many Muslim societies. However, the issue of Islam and democracy remains a challenge for all parties. Islamic movements, in light of examples from Iran, Sudan, and the Taliban’s Afghanistan as the examples of extremist groups, are challenged to prove by their actions as well as their promises that when elected they will honor the very rights of minorities and opposition groups that they now demand for themselves. They are challenged to be as vociferous in their denunciation of extremism and terrorism done in the name of Islam as they are of government repression and western imperialism. Like governments, they must acknowledge that religious authoritarianism is as objectionable and dangerous as secular forms of authoritarianism.

Governments in the Muslim world are challenged to demonstrate their commitment to political liberalization and human rights by fostering the development of those institutions and values that support democratization and by implementing policies that discriminate between organizations, secular or Islamic, that directly threaten the freedom and stability of society and those that are willing to participate in a process of gradual change from within the system. The credibility of Egypt’s electoral reforms has been greatly undermined by the continued propensity of the Mubarak government to arrest its critics from opposition parties and the Muslim Brotherhood. The government tolerated violence in May by pro-government mobs that attacked and beat demonstrators from the Kifaya (Enough) movement while police looked on in the streets of Cairo detracted from the nationwide referendum on multi-party elections. As Human Rights watch reported: “plainclothes security agents beat demonstrators, and riot police allowed—and sometimes encouraged—mobs of Mubarak supporters to beat and sexually assault protestors and journalists.” The positive potential and impact of Saudi Arabia’s municipal elections have been lessened by its forceful suppression and imprisonment of reformers and continued reports of religious harassment and arrest of Indian and Pakistani Christian workers.

Western governments that advocate the promotion of self determination and democracy must demonstrate by their policies and public statements that they respect the right of any and all movements, religious as well as secular, to participate within the political process. The policy failures and hypocrisy evident in European and American responses towards the subversion of the electoral process in Algeria, the indiscriminate repression of the Renaissance Party in Tunisia, and the attempt “to manage” and determine the process of democratization in Iraq must be avoided in the future if the West is to avoid the charge that it operates on double standard, one for the West itself and selected allies and another for Islamic movements and candidates. Respect and support of the democratic process and human rights must be seen as truly universal. If the Bush administration and its European allies equivocate in the promotion of democratization in the Muslim world, conditions that breed terrorism and anti westernism will continue as will the threat of global terrorism to national and global security.


The issues of democratization and of Islam remain central to the development of the Middle East and the Muslim world in the 21st century. Observers of the Middle East and broader Muslim world will need to remember that we are watching a process unfold, a process of experimentation and change. The Western experience of democratization was a process of trial and error, accompanied by civil wars and intellectual and religious conflicts. So too in the Middle East today, societies that attempt to reevaluate and redefine the nature of government and of political participation as well as the role of religious identity and values in society will in many cases undergo a fragile process of trial and error in which short term risks will be the price for potential long term gains. Autocratic governments may be able to derail or stifle the process of change; however they will merely delay the inevitable. The realities of most Muslim societies and the aspirations of many citizens as well as the example of the struggle for democratization in other parts of the world will require greater political liberalization or continue to contribute to the conditions that contribute to the growth of radicalization, political instability and global terrorism.

1. For a more extended discussion of these issues, see John L. Esposito, Unholy War: Terror in the Name of Islam (New York: Oxford University Press,2002), The Islamic Threat: Myth or Reality? (New York: Oxford University Press,1999) and John L. Esposito and John O. Voll, Islam and Democracy (New York: Oxford University Press, 1997), Graham E. Fuller, The Future of Political Islam (New York: Palgrave, 2003) and his “Islamists in the Arab World,” (Washington, D.C.: The Carnegie Endowment, 2004).

John L. Esposito is University Professor, Professor of Religion & International Affairs and Founding Director of the center for Muslim-Christian Understanding at Georgetown University. His publications include Unholy War: Terror in the Name of Islam and Islam and Democracy.