Are Muslim Democracies a New Kind of Political System?

By: Jocelyne Cesari

January 27, 2013

Washington Post, January 27, 2013

The 2012 victory of Islamic parties after the revolutions in Egypt and Tunisia has brought back the “endless” doubt regarding the role of Islam in possible transitions to democracy. This doubt has been shaped for decades by the circumstances of the Islamic Revolution in Iran that resulted into an authoritarian regime ruled by clerics, not to mention by the fear of elections leading to civil chaos such as in Algeria in 1992. This doubt operates on the assumption that Islamists are not working to establish democracy but are using elections to create theocracy. This “all or nothing” interpretation actually does not reflect the steady march of Islamic movements toward democracy over the last three decades. However, it is important to note that it does not mean that the unfolding transitions will necessarily lead to western-like liberal democracies. Most probably, we are witnessing the rise of “illiberal” democracies where respect of election outcomes does not automatically mean the end of discrimination based on gender or religion among citizens.
The collapse of authoritarian regimes has revealed that democracy is now the most legitimate type of regime, or in other words, “the only game in town.” This does not come as a surprise for the longtime observers of Middle East or Muslim politics. After all, Indonesia and Senegal, two Muslim majority countries, qualify as democracies according to the criteria established by the Freedom House. Similarly, the political evolution of the AKP in Turkey since the 1980s demonstrates the adoption of not only free elections but also of the secular Kemalist State institutions. The Ennahda and FJP parties in Tunisia and Egypt, respectively, show the same pragmatism when it comes to the acceptation of pre-existing state institutions. The real test of the strength of their democracies will be the persistence of the election system—should the predominant political parties be ousted by free election. There is, however, sufficient indication that the majority of their constituencies are strongly in favor of democracy, and the political leaders will have to take this fact into account.

For example, recurrent polling in the region has highlighted the recognition and praise of democracy by citizens across Muslim countries long before the Arab Spring. At the same time, there is a significant body of evidence suggesting that, although Muslims worldwide are more likely than their western counterparts to see a place for religion in governance, their support for democratic institutions and principles is comparable. In other words, the same people who support democracy also agree with the importance of Sharia, not only in their personal life but also as principles of political life.

Interestingly, in contrast to the European and (to some extent) American experiences, we are witnessing a combination between on one hand, the acceptation of free and fair elections, institutional stability, social and political equality of citizens and on the other hand, the acknowledgment of religion in politics. The latter translates into multiple initiatives to preserve the status of Islam as the religion of the nation through a discriminatory use of law, detrimental not only to religious minorities but also to Muslim citizens who exert freedom of speech. Concretely, it means that the places of worship, clerics, as well as institutions of the dominant religion are part of the state institutions and in addition, that certain laws grant security to the central status of religion in the public space via blasphemy laws and limitations on conversion. Contrary to the common perception, these restrictions were established under the so called “secular” authoritarian regimes and are not outcomes of the recent Islamic victories. For example, in Egypt, evidence of such laws appears in Article 98(f) of the Egyptian Penal Code, EPF, wherein it explicitly prohibits and indeed criminalizes individuals who insult the religion of Islam. This restriction on freedom of speech hinders journalists and activists, such as the case of Adel Fawzy Faltas and Peter Ezzat, two Coptic Christians who were detained for defending Coptic Christian rights in 2007.

This type of democracy is not specific to Islam: the nationalization of Buddhism in Sri Lanka, or of the Orthodox Church in Greece, to name just a few, attest to the spread of such non-secular regimes. Some could argue that the fact that religion still plays an important role in Muslim emerging democracies can be seen as a sign of a “necessary” step towards greater secularization, considering, for example, that the United States defined itself as a Christian democracy where blasphemy cases were current until the second wave of secularization in the 19th century granted freedom of speech to all individuals. Others would say that this combination of religion and national institutions is not a phase but actually a new kind of democracy, which is a result of the inclusion of Muslim and other non-Western nations within the international system. Only the future will tell.

This article was originally published in the Washington Post's "Guest Voices" blog, which features views on faith and its impact on the news.

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