The Arab Spring has come and gone and despite the sharp erosion of stability in the region, several states hope to emerge victorious from the rubble. They continue to strive on towards that ultimate goal that first ignited the roaring wave of revolutions and conflict: democracy and equality. Initially, people in western democracies felt excitement. They lived vicariously through the Tunisian protestors, the courageous Egyptians who stood unflinching before the police, and the Yemenis who went out in protest day after day until their ruler abdicated his seat. Today, however, those same westerners have traded in their excitement for apprehension.
Westerners felt delight at hearing that countries such as Tunisia and Egypt were holding fair and open elections. Yet their tune changed dramatically when news began to spread of religiously-based political parties that took the lead in pre-election polls. Instead of delight, westerners began to feel trepidation.
In the days before last year’s elections in Tunisia, for instance, Al Jazeera reported that Ennahdah (The Rennaisance) was leading opinion polls. Despite stressing their support for full democracy and pluralism, westerners are wary of this party. In Egypt, the Muslim Brotherhood has stolen the spotlight. Just a few days ago, Time published an article that exemplifies western sentiment towards the Muslim Brotherhood and non-secular Middle Eastern politics in general. Regardless of what these parties stand for, it seems as though the biggest problem westerners have with these parties is that they are openly Islamist.
Now i should clarify two points here. First of all, i’m not addressing the aforementioned parties’ platforms. The issue here isn’t whether or not i agree with any of their policies; rather, my focus is on why the west seems to distrust them and, more importantly, whether or not westerners are right to be suspicious.
Second, when i say that these parties are Islamist, i am saying that they freely admit to being based at least in part- if not wholly- on Islamic ideals. This is not to be confused with the idea of political Islam, which carries the connotation of radicalism and the establishment of Sharia law.
It is, of course, interesting to note that the most vocal westerners- especially in the U.S.- who oppose these Islamist parties are often vehement supporters of parties based on Christian beliefs and values. But that’s not the important thing here. What’s important is that when discussing the issue of politics in the Middle East, religion takes center stage.
Westerners are all too aware of the presence of religion in Middle Eastern politics and this awareness leads many to roll their eyes and ask, “Is democracy even possible in the Middle East?” And i have an answer for those individuals.
As simple as my answer is, the question is actually a difficult one to address. And it all comes down to culture.
In the west, democracy is seen as inherently secular. This is because the first modern democracy in the west was founded in the U.S. at a time when cultural and religious pluralism was perhaps the greatest and most mind-blowing characteristic of the young nation. Secularism became a necessity. Although a majority of Americans were Christian, they came from a number of different sects, which means that establishing a fundamentalist Christian government was simply out of the question.
Additionally, there is the issue of Christianity and politics. Christianity is rather distinct from the other Abrahamic traditions because unlike Judaism and Islam, Christianity does not lay down the framework for social and state structure. It has long been used as a political tool (and vice-versa), but at its roots, Christianity does not define political roles or other power structures.
The result of all of this is a definition that makes democracy as we know it incompatible with Middle Eastern culture. However, this definition does not need to be so solid. Democracy is an adaptive concept and there’s no reason its plasticity should fail in the Middle East.
In Islamic culture, faith and legislature go hand-in-hand. This is not necessarily a bad thing. Fundamentalist Sharia law is indicative of extremism, but that’s not what many prominent Islamist parties (such as the aforementioned Ennahdah) are proposing. Rather, they simply use basic Islamic ideals and values to guide their platforms. And believe it or not, that may actually be a good thing in the long run. Allowing true Islamist parties may very well be the one thing in Middle Eastern culture that could ensure progress and equality in the region.
For instance, one common concern regarding Islamist parties is fear that religious minorities might get the short end of the stick. But that fear would be unfounded (or at least minimized) should a truly Islamist party be elected to office. Why? Because Islam is actually compatible with religious pluralism. The Qur’an states:
“Surely the believers and the Jews, Christians, and Sabians whoever believes in God and the Last Day, and whoever does right, shall have his reward with his Lord and will neither have fear nor regret.” (Q. 2:63)
With regards to cultural diversity, the Qur’an states:
“O humankind, We have created you, male and female and made you nations and tribes, so that you might come to know one another.” (Q. 49:13)
Worried about women’s rights? The Qur’an states:
“O you who believe! You are forbidden to inherit women against their will. Nor should you treat them with harshness. On the contrary live with them on a footing of kindness and equity. If you take a dislike to them it may be that you dislike a thing through which God brings about a great deal of good.” (Q. 4:19)
Concerned that they might choose to launch a jihad?
“And fight in the way of God with those who fight you, but aggress not: God loves not the aggressors.” (Q. 2:190)
“If your enemy inclines towards peace, then you too should seek peace and put your trust in God.” (Q. 8:61)
“Had Allah wished, He would have made them dominate you, and so if they leave you alone and do not fight you and offer you peace, then Allah allows you no way against them.” (Q. 4:90)
Long story short, Islamic democracy might sound like an oxymoron to western ears, but it may very well be the best tool for turning dreams of equality into a reality. Will Islamic democracy last? I can’t say. But at the very least, it can lay the foundations upon which states may build societies of tolerance and equality.
True equality isn’t something that can happen overnight. It’s something that takes generations to accomplish. Just look at how long it’s taken the U.S. to get where it is today. Roaring into another country and demanding that they establish a secular democracy isn’t going to work and it may actually lead to just the opposite. So perhaps the best thing for us to do is simply back off and see whether or not Islamic democracy can work.