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By Olivier Roy

The long-standing debate about Islam and democracy has reached a stunning turning point. Since the Arab uprisings began in late 2010, political Islam and democracy have become increasingly interdependent. The debate over whether they are compatible is now virtually obsolete. Neither can now survive without the other.

In countries undergoing transitions, the only way for Islamists to maintain their legitimacy now is through elections. Their own political culture may still not be democratic. But they are now defined by the new political landscape and have been forced, in turn, to redefine themselves, much as the Roman Catholic Church ended up accepting democratic institutions even as its own practices remained oligarchic.

At the same time, there will be no institutionalization of democracy for Arab countries in transition without including mainstream Islamist groups, such as the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, Ennahda in Tunisia, or Islah in Yemen. The so-called Arab Spring cleared the way for the Islamists. And even if many Islamists do not share the democratic culture of the demonstrators, the Islamists have to take into account the new playing field the demonstrations created.

The debate over Islam and democracy used to be a chicken-and-egg issue: which came first? Democracy has certainly not been at the core of Islamist ideology. Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood has historically been strictly centralized and obedient to a supreme leader who rules for life. And Islam has certainly not been factored into promotion of secular democracy. Indeed, skeptics have long argued that the two forces were allegoric or even anathema to each other.

But the outside world wrongly assumed that Islam would first have to experience a religious reformation before its followers could embark on political democratization—replicating the Christian experience when the Reformation gave birth to the Enlightenment and then to modern democracy. In fact, however, liberal Muslim intellectuals had little influence in either inspiring or directing the Arab uprisings. The original protesters in Cairo’s Tahrir Square referred to democracy as a universal concept—and not to any sort of Islamic democracy.

The development of both political Islam and democracy now appear to go hand in hand, albeit not at the same pace. The new political scene is transforming the Islamists as much as the Islamists are transforming the political scene.

Today the compatibility between Islam and democracy does not center on theological issues, but rather on the concrete way in which believers recast their faith in a rapidly changing political environment. Whether liberal or fundamentalist, the new forms of religiosity are individualistic and more in tune with the democratic ethos.

The Beginning

Democratization was first raised as an issue in the Middle East in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The initial debate centered mainly on modernization of the state—meaning secularization of the state, specifically as the basis for law and selection of leaders. The collapse of the Ottoman Empire’s caliphate after World War I, which created many of the modern Arab states, gave urgency to the issue of modern governance. Additional pressures to modernize and secularize came from outside the Arab world. They played out during European colonial rule in the Arab world.

As Arab countries gained independence, mostly between the 1940s and 1960s, the outside world assumed that the transition to democracy would rely on an enlightened authoritarian leader who could facilitate democratization but also serve as a bulwark against Islamic fundamentalism. The role was embodied by Kemal Atatürk, who created modern Turkey out of the ashes of the Ottoman Empire.

Islamists responded by arguing that their religion was an all-encompassing system that could solve any political, economic, or social problem raised by modernization. Early Islamists did not totally dismiss democracy as irrelevant. They often pointed to a central tenet of the faith—the shura or advisory council, where ideas were debated before submitting proposals to the amir, or leader. The shura was also empowered to elect the amir, although the amir’s position was held for life and was basically without any checks or balances.

The Evolution

When Islamism gained ground during the 1970s and 1980s, it was initially dominated by revolutionary movements and radical tactics. Over the next thirty years, however, the religious revival in Arab societies diversified. Movements took on individual identities and goals. Social shifts also reined in radicalism. The toll of death and destruction also diverted interest away from militancy.

Even the proliferation of media outside state control played a role. In the mid-1990s, al Jazeera became the first independent satellite television station. Within a generation, there were more than 500 stations. Many offered a wide range of religious programming—with hosts ranging from traditional sheikhs to liberal Muslims—which in turn introduced the idea of diversity. Suddenly, there was no single truth in a religion that had preached one path to God for fourteen centuries. Islam literally means submission, as in submission to God.

Islamists also changed through both victory and defeat—or a combination of the two. Shiite Islamists won a political victory in Iran’s 1979 revolution. But three decades later, the world’s only modern theocracy was increasingly ostracized by the world, leading many Islamists to ask, “What went wrong?”

In Algeria, Sunni Islamists were pushed aside in a military coup on the eve of an election victory in 1992. The party was banned, and its leaders imprisoned. A more militant faction then took on the military, and more than 100,000 people were killed in a decade-long civil war. The bloody aftermath of the Arab world’s first democratic election had a rippling effect on the calculations of Islamist groups across the region.

As a result of their experience, Islamists increasingly compromised to get into or stay in the political game. In Egypt, the Muslim Brothers ran for parliament whenever allowed, often by making tactical alliances with secular parties. In Kuwait and Morocco, Islamists abided by the political rules whenever they ran for parliament, even when it meant embracing monarchies that contradicted their own ideologies. Morocco’s Justice and Development Party recognized the sacred dimension of the king so that it could participate in elections, and Jordan’s Muslim Brotherhood publicly supported the king despite growing discontent among the Arab Bedouin tribes.

A generation of Islamic activists forced into exile also played a major role in redirecting their movements. Most leaders or members ended up spending more time in Western countries than in Islamic nations—and, notably, not in Saudi Arabia and Iran. In the West, the Islamists came into contact with other secular and liberal dissidents as well as nongovernment organizations, such as Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, and Freedom House, that facilitated the flow of ideas.

In the 1990s, exiled activists increasingly framed their agendas in terms of democracy and human rights. They acknowledged that simplistic slogans such as “Islam is the solution” were not enough to build programs or coalitions capable of removing dictators. Rachid al Ghannouchi, cofounder of Tunisia’s Ennahda Party, concluded almost twenty years before the Arab uprisings that democracy was a better tool to fight dictatorships than the call for either jihad or Sharia.

The Social Revolution

Islamists have changed because society has changed too. The rise of Islamists has reflected the social and cultural revolutions as much as a political revolution.

A new generation has entered the political space, especially in the major cities. It is the generation of Tahrir Square, the epicenter of Egypt’s uprising against Hosni Mubarak. When the uprisings began, two-thirds of the Arab world’s 300 million people were under the age of thirty. The young are better educated and more connected with the outside world than any previous generation. Many speak or understand a foreign language. The females are often as ambitious as their male counterparts. Both genders eagerly question and debate. Most of the young are able to identify and even shrug off propaganda.

The Arab baby boom generation also does not share the patriarchal culture of its elders, and the majority of baby boomers reject patronizing dictators. Many are attracted more to ideas of good governance and freedom than to charismatic leaders. The shift does not necessarily mean that baby boomers are more liberal or more secular than their parents. Many Arab baby boomers are attracted by new forms of religiosity that stress individual choice, direct relations with God, self-realization, and self-esteem. But even when they join Islamic movements, they bring along their critical approach and reluctance to blindly follow an aging leadership.

The transformation is visible even among young Salafis in Egypt. They may wear baggy trousers and long, white shirts, imitating the Prophet Mohammed and leading the outside world to question their willingness to modernize. But they also often wear shiny sunglasses and sport shoes. They are part of a global culture.

For decades, the Salafis opposed participation in politics. But after the uprisings, they completely reversed course. They jumped into politics, hastily registering as political parties. At universities, clubs of young Salafis—

including females—have joined public debate forums.

The influence of the current baby boom generation will be enduring. Their numbers are likely to dominate politics for much of their lives—potentially another thirty to forty years—because the fertility rate has plummeted almost everywhere in the Arab world since their birth.

Regional and Global Factors

Broader geostrategic changes, both global and regional, also affected the Islamist movements and ultimately prevented the religious revival from returning to rigid traditions. In the 1970s and 1980s, Islamism emerged at the height of the Cold War between the Soviet bloc and the West. The Soviet Union’s collapse in 1991 ended the Cold War and altered the bipolar balance of power worldwide. Elections and democracy came increasingly into vogue.

Islamist leaders—such as Iranian revolutionary leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini—claimed to offer a third way between communism and capitalism. But by the 1990s, no country—either Sunni or Shiite—served as a beacon for Islamists. The luster had clearly faded from Iran’s 1979 revolution. Sunnis resented Tehran’s efforts to export its Shiite ideology. But Sunni Islamists were also critical of the royal family in Saudi Arabia, the only country where Sharia is the sole law of the land. The distrust was reciprocated. The Muslim Brothers, many of whom did not oppose Iraqi President Saddam Hussein after his 1990 invasion of Kuwait, were not allowed in Saudi Arabia.

In the 1990s, progress in the peace process also changed the political landscape. The 1993 Oslo Accords did not end the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. But the peace agreement transformed the Palestine Liberation Organization and chairman Yasser Arafat from international terrorists into legitimate interlocutors. And the agreement proved that a political process might be more productive than armed violence. Even Hamas, the Palestinian Islamist movement that rejected the peace process, was eventually dragged into politics and, in 2006, into competing at the ballot box.

Ironically, Islamist groups also occasionally found themselves on the same side as the West. They both sided with the Mujahideen after the Soviet Union’s invasion of Afghanistan in the 1980s. They both backed Muslim rights in Bosnia and Chechnya in the 1990s.

After the 9/11 attacks, Islamists initially benefited from President

George W. Bush’s call for greater democracy in the Arab world, which briefly led to some openings. In 2005, Egypt amended its constitution to allow multiparty presidential elections. It also allowed the Muslim Brotherhood to field more candidates. The Islamists won eighty-eight seats, making it the country’s largest opposition movement. Paradoxically, the U.S. war on terrorism, launched in 2001, also forced Islamist movements to make clearer choices in rejecting terrorism and militant jihad.

The biggest stimulant in the early twenty-first century, however, was the rise of Turkey’s Islamists after decades of confrontation with secular parties and the military. Since 2002, Turkey’s Justice and Development Party has won three landslide victories. The new model has no explicit Islamic references—and even denies that it is Islamist. The party won by emphasizing economic development (including application for membership in the European Union) and conservative social values.

The Three Camps

During the debate about Islam and democracy, Muslim religious scholars and intellectuals have fallen into three broad camps.

The first camp rejects both democracy and secularism as Western concepts that are not even worth refuting. In this fundamentalist view, participating even in everyday politics, such as joining a political party or voting, is haram, or religiously forbidden. This view has been the position of the Wahhabi clerics in Saudi Arabia, the Taliban in Afghanistan, and—for decades—the various Salafi schools.

The second camp claims that returning to the “true tenets” of Islam will create the best kind of democracy. In this conservative view, the faithful may deliberate to understand the true path, but the idea that religion is the ultimate truth is not negotiable. These Islamists invoke the concept of towhid, or the oneness, uniqueness, and sovereignty of God, which can never be replaced by the will of the people.

But the second camp also invokes Muslim practices to claim that modern political ideology meets the basic requirements of democracy. For example, it says the shura, the forum or council for deliberations, is the equivalent of a parliament.

The third camp advocates ijtihad, or reinterpreting Islam to make it compatible with the universal concept of democracy. This position is more common among lay intellectuals than among clerics. But opening up the doors of ijtihad, which conservative scholars had believed were closed since the Middle Ages, has already produced its own spectrum of ideas, not all in agreement with each other.

The Islamist reformers often have a larger audience in the West than in their own countries, not just because of domestic censorship and harassment. Some reformers are deemed to be too intellectual, too abstract, or too tied to an artificial theology. Their philosophical approach is disconnected from popular religious practices, and the teachings at most madrassas, or religious schools.

The Future

The new Islamist brand will increasingly mix technocratic modernism and conservative values. The movements that have entered the political mainstream cannot now afford to turn their backs on multiparty politics for fear of alienating a significant portion of the electorate that wants stability and peace, not revolution.

But in countries undergoing transitions, the Islamists will face a tough balancing act. In Egypt, for example, the Muslim Brotherhood cannot cede its conviction that Islam is all encompassing. Yet the Brotherhood risks losing popular support unless it can also reconcile Islam with good governance and human rights in practice.

To do that, the Muslim Brothers may have to translate Islamic norms into more universal conservative values—such as limiting the sale of alcohol in a way that is closer to Utah’s rules than to Saudi laws and promoting “family values” instead of imposing Sharia norms on women. The political debate over the next few years may also concentrate on specific issues, such as censorship related to blasphemy and pornography, and religious freedom under the rubric of apostasy, or the right to leave Islam for another religion or no religion at all.

Within their own movements, many Islamists still do not share the democratic culture of the uprisings. But given their own demographics and the wider constituency they seek, Islamists will increasingly have to take into account the new political playing field created by the demonstrations—even among themselves.

The exercise of power can actually have a debilitating effect on ideological parties. And for all their recent political success, Islamists also face a set of constraints: They do not control the armed forces. Their societies are more educated and sophisticated in their worldviews—and more willing to actively express their opinions. Women are increasingly players, reflected by their numbers in universities.

Ironically, elected Islamists may face opposition from the clergy. Among Sunnis, Islamists usually do not control the religious institutions. Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood does not control Al Azhar University, the Islamic world’s oldest educational institution, dating back more than 1,000 years. The Brothers may have won a plurality in parliament, but none of them is authorized to say what is or is not Islamic without being challenged by a wide range of other religious actors, from clerics to university scholars.

The biggest constraint on Islamists, however, may be economic realities. Focusing simply on Sharia will not spawn economic development—and could actually deter foreign investment and tourism. The labor force is outspoken and does not want to be forgotten, but economic globalization requires sensitivity to international pressures too. The newly elected Islamists face political rejection if they do not deliver the economic goods.

After the Arab uprisings, the Islamists will find it harder to play on the Arab-Israeli conflict or tensions with the international community. Israel is still unpopular. And anti-Western xenophobia has visibly grown. But the battle lines in the Middle East are shifting.

As of 2012, the most dangerous divide has more to do with tensions between Sunnis and Shiites. The differences are symbolized by deepening political fault lines between the Sunni religious monarchy in Saudi Arabia and Iran’s Shiite theocracy. But the differences ripple across the region, from the tiny archipelago of Bahrain to strategic Syria. Just as Islamism is redefining the region’s politics, Islamic politics and sectarian differences are redefining the region’s conflicts.

Olivier Roy, a professor at the European University Institute in Florence, is the author of Globalized Islam (2004) and Holy Ignorance (2010). He heads the ReligioWest Research project at