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John L. Esposito

John L. Esposito

Posted: August 22, 2009 06:12 PM

Islamists and the Future of Democracy in the Arab World


The continued detention in Egypt of Dr. Abdel Moneim Abou Fatouh, prominent professional, Muslim Brotherhood leader, and moderate voice for reform is a harsh reminder that despite widespread popular desire for broader political participation, basic freedoms and the rule of law, in Egypt and many parts of the Arab and Muslim worlds democracy and human rights are subordinated to the interests and whims of authoritarian regimes. Thus, for example, the credibility of Egypt's electoral reforms was greatly undermined by government harassment, arrest and imprisonment of its critics, secular and religious, in national elections. Similarly, the potential and impact of Saudi Arabia's reforms and limited elections have been vitiated by episodes of suppression and imprisonment of reformers and harassment of Shii as well as Christian workers.

The threat of global terrorism has provided a convenient excuse for Muslim autocrats and some Western policymakers to backslide or retreat from the promotion of democratization, to limit or control civil society and the rights of non-government organizations. Autocrats warn that the promotion of a democratic process runs the risk of furthering Islamist inroads into centers of power and threatens stability and security as well as Western interests. Western governments, driven by self interest (access to oil and strategically important locations) worsen the problem by continuing to support and thus perpetuate "friendly" authoritarian regimes. However, policymakers must learn to think more strategically, to distinguish clearly between moderate (non-violent) Islamists and terrorists. They must pursue a diplomatic path of engagement and dialogue with moderate Islamists and with Arab and Muslim partners, a military strategy to capture and contain Muslim terrorists.

Islamist parties are an integral part of Muslim politics and societies and they are not going away. Since the late 20th century Islamically-oriented candidates and political parties in Algeria, Tunisia, Morocco, Egypt, Lebanon, Turkey, Jordan, Kuwait, Bahrain, Pakistan, Malaysia, and Indonesia have opted for reform through ballots, not bullets. They have successfully contested and won municipal and parliamentary seats, held cabinet positions, and served in senior positions such as prime minister of Turkey and Iraq and president of Indonesia. Elections since late 2001 in Pakistan, Turkey, Bahrain, and Morocco as well as in Palestine, Iraq, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, and Egypt have reinforced the continued saliency of Islam in Muslim politics in the 21st century.

A critical challenge today is to distinguish between mainstream and extremists groups, secular and religious, and to work with democratically-elected Islamists. US administrations and many European governments have often said that they distinguish between mainstream and extremist groups. However, more often that not, they have looked the other way when autocratic rulers in Algeria, Tunisia, Egypt, and elsewhere have intimidated and suppressed mainstream Islamist groups or attempted to reverse their electoral successes. The challenge has been particularly complex in connection to resistance movements like Hamas and Hizbollah. Both are elected political parties with a popular base. At the same time, they are resistance movements whose militias have fought Israeli occupation and whom Israel, the United States, and Europe have labeled as terrorist organizations. There are established precedents for dealing with such groups, such as the ANC in South Africa and Sinn Fein, the political wing of the IRA in Ireland, groups with which we've had to come to terms. The United States and Europe need to deal with the democratically elected officials, while also strongly condemning any acts of terrorism by their militias and clearly distinguishing terrorist attacks upon civilians from legitimate resistance. At the same time, the US must condemn Israeli attacks upon civilians like the recent Operation Cast Lead in Gaza and the 2006 assault upon Lebanon.

The Bush legacy in the Muslim world leaves America with a significant credibility gap to overcome. While the spread of democracy has been the stated goal of the United States, majorities in some 35 Muslim nations surveyed by the Gallup World Poll did not believe that the U.S. was serious about the establishment of democratic systems in the region. For example, only 24 percent in Egypt and Jordan and only 16 percent in Turkey agreed that the United States was serious about establishing democratic systems.

America and European governments that advocate self determination and democracy need to demonstrate by their statements and policies that they respect the right of any and all movements and political parties, religious as well as secular, to participate in the political process. Failure to respond to the subversion of the electoral process in Algeria, Tunisia, Egypt, Musharraf's Pakistan, the attempt "to manage" and determine the process of democratization in post-Saddam Iraq, and the refusal to recognize the democratically elected Hamas government in Gaza must be avoided if the West, and America in particular, is to avoid the charge that it operates on a clear double standard. Respect and support for the democratic process and human rights have to be seen as truly universal.

Governments in the Muslim world are challenged to demonstrate their commitment to political liberalization, civil society and human rights by fostering the development of those civil institutions and values that support democratization. Policies must distinguish between organizations, secular or Islamic, that 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 litmus test for both governments and reform/opposition will be their internalization of the principles and values of democracy plus the extent to which their policies and actions reflect an acceptance of basic democratic freedoms, diversity of opinion, of multiple political parties and civil society organizations, as well as an appreciation for the concept of a "loyal opposition" rather than viewing alternative voices and political visions as a threat to the political system.

John L. Esposito is University Professor of Religion & International Affairs and Founding Director of the Prince Alwaleed Bin Talal Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding at Georgetown University. Among his recent publications are Who Speaks for Islam: What a Billion Muslims Really Think, co-authored with Dalia Mogahed.