Events

From Islamism to Muslim Democracy: The Challenges of Political Inclusion in Muslim Countries

September 06, 2005 // 10:00am12:15pm

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Anwar Ibrahim, Former Deputy Prime Minister, Malaysia; Saad Eddin Ibrahim, Professor of Political Sociology, American University in Cairo, and Chairman of the Board, Ibn Khaldun Center for Development Studies, Cairo, Egypt; Larry Diamond(Commentator), Senior Fellow, The Hoover Institution on War, Revolution and Peace, Stanford University; Vali Nasr (Commentator), Professor, Department of National Security Affairs, Naval Postgraduate School, Monterey, California; Carl Gershman (Chair), President, National Endowment for Democracy.

This event was cosponsored with the National Endowment for Democracy.

Carl Gershman described the initial impetus for the discussion, an article by Vali Nasr entitled "The Rise of 'Muslim Democracy'," published in the Journal of Democracy in April 2005. He introduced the two featured speakers, Saad Eddin Ibrahim and Anwar Ibrahim, as men who had worked with Muslim Democrats in Egypt and Malaysia, respectively, and who had both served time in jail.

Saad Eddin Ibrahim described two types of "Muslim activists"—the Islamists and the Muslim Democrats. Both groups are active in politics and use Islam to promote their respective agendas. However, whereas Islamists seek the imposition of religious law and even, sometimes, a restored caliphate, Muslim Democrats are pragmatists who blend religious motivations with popular policies.

Dr. Ibrahim spoke of his own experience in Egypt's prisons, communicating with jailed members of Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood and other activist groups. He described an evolution in the Muslim Brotherhood, some of which he saw emerge in the prison dialogue he had with imprisoned Muslim activists. 9/11 shook the imprisoned activists, he said: they felt partly responsible, believing that young people viewed them as role models who had used violence before they went to prison.

The successes of the Justice and Development Party (AKP) in Turkey and its namesake in Morocco (PJD) enabled Dr. Ibrahim to interest the activists with whom he spoke in Muslim Democracy, he said. These examples of political parties showed other activists that Muslim Democrats could succeed.

In Egypt, the Muslim Brotherhood is by far the largest of the Muslim activist groups. Dr. Ibrahim talked about its evolution, and he suggested that this evolution—in part because of its gradual nature—was probably sincere. The Brotherhood renounced violence in 1971, and has stuck to that pledge for 34 years. Recently, members have been silent regarding the rule of shari'a, and in 2004, they endorsed the idea of "civil democracy" and full rights for women, Christians, and Jews. Dr. Ibrahim advocated challenging the Brotherhood to moderate further: he suggested that the endorsement of civil democracy marked a turning point, and that members were on the cusp of becoming Muslim Democrats, but needed to be challenged to keep going. He advocated a "Helsinki-style" program by the West to encourage democratization.

Anwar Ibrahim talked about the trend towards Muslim Democracy that is occurring beyond the Arab world. He suggested that in Southeast Asia, there is less distinction between Islamism and Muslim Democracy—it is not perceived as a contradiction to be pro-Islam and pro-democracy or in favor of women's rights in Southeast Asia. Islamists in Malaysia and Indonesia are not Taliban-style fundamentalists, but moderates, he noted.

Crucially, however, Mr. Ibrahim insisted that the key to democracy in Muslim countries is not elections, but institutions and the rule of law. He spoke of the importance of core values of democracy—specifically, a free and independent media, an independent judiciary, free and fair elections, and a healthy civil society. In Malaysia and Indonesia, these components were enshrined in the constitution, although ruling parties violated them. The West often supported such excesses by ruling parties, believing their acceptance necessary in order to fight the Cold War; Western scholars even provided intellectual support for authoritarianism.

Mr. Ibrahim insisted, however, that such core democratic values are fundamental to building Muslim Democracy. As an example, he gave the Muslim Jamaat-e-Islami (JI) party: in Pakistan, where democratic traditions are weak, the JI became a militant Islamist party, while in India, with a functioning and strong democracy, the same JI party is committed to the core principles and working within a civil, democratic political system. In particular, Mr. Ibrahim suggested that repression begets extremism, citing the Muslim rebels in Thailand and the resurgence of Pakistan's JI after General Musharraf's coup.

Vali Nasr cited two critical questions that supporters of democracy need to answer. How does one bring about democracy in Muslim countries? How does one stop the Islamist from winning the elections? In Turkey, Malaysia, and other countries Dr. Nasr has studied, Islamists failed in elections. Yet, it is not clear whether these cases are exceptions, or if the Arab world is different.

Dr. Nasr suggested that the security environment created by the Global War on Terrorism is legitimizing autocracy again. Friendly autocrats, like General Musharraf, have been allowed to consolidate power—and, indeed, have become more popular—due to security fears. Oil revenues provide autocrats with funds and give them the freedom to refuse foreign investment.

However, Dr. Nasr suggested that pragmatism is a critical limiting factor on Islamism. In the countries he studied, repeated elections have had a moderating effect. As long as certain "red lines" kept Islamist parties and nationalist autocrats from breaking the rules (by controlling the judiciary or cheating on elections, for example), competition for votes lead all parties to the center. When parties entered the democratic process where these red lines were enforced, they moved towards the center: Islamist parties became Muslim Democrats, and secular parties picked up Islamic overtones.

Furthermore, Dr. Nasr argued that Westerners should not expect a "grand bargain" with the Islamists, in which the Islamists agree to become moderates overnight. Such an expectation is highly unreasonable. The shift toward embracing democratic principles will be gradual, encouraged by the political process.

Larry Diamond outlined a number of overarching points he saw emerge in the discussion. He noted that the first step in any democratization process should be inclusion. Such inclusion need not begin at the national level, but bringing all parties into the process offers an incentive for moderation. Furthermore, democracy should not be expected to progress at the same pace in every region or country. Regional factors play a significant role—the rise of Muslim Democrats in Morocco, for example, will not bring them to power in Saudi Arabia overnight. Still, real movements toward democracy should be welcomed and encouraged, be they incremental or monumental.

Stability and democracy are linked, Dr. Diamond noted. All parties must accept the core principles of democracy—groups that promote violence should be denied inclusion. Extremist groups might moderate, but they should not be counted upon to do so: they should be evaluated by what they say to their supporters, as well as by what they tell the West. That said, Dr. Diamond suggested that even insincere "tactical" shifts toward democracy might be internalized over time and become sincere, and thus should be also welcomed.

Combating fraud and abuse of power is also critical, Dr. Diamond said. In Turkey, the military has enforced democratic "red lines." Instead, such enforcement should be undertaken by civil institutions. He suggested that Morocco is well-positioned to make a transition to Muslim Democracy—the PJD seems to be a restrained, responsible Muslim party and the monarchy is in a position to strengthen the rule of law and enforce the "red lines" that would maintain democracy.

Finally, Dr. Diamond chided the United States and the European Union for being too afraid of Islamization to push hard for democratization. He called for a transatlantic initiative to further democratization.

Drafted by Evan Hensleigh


 

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