In the Middle East, Islamists Are Not the Enemies of Democracy

06/22/2015 02:16 pm ET | Updated Jun 22, 2016

The death of former Turkish President Süleyman Demirel in the same month as Turkish parliamentary elections emphasizes the fact that there have been significant changes in Turkish politics in recent years. Demirel's political career followed a military coup that deposed the Turkish government in 1960 and resulted in the execution of a democratically elected prime minister, Adnan Menderes, on charges of undermining the constitution. In 2015, widespread opposition to President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan's plans to make considerable changes in the constitution resulted in his political party losing a notable number of seats in parliament, not his execution.

Many people, inside and outside of Turkey, see the results of the June 2015 elections as a confirmation of the strength of democracy in Turkey. President Erdoğan's political party, the Justice and Development Party, lost many parliamentary seats, although it remained the largest party in the assembly. The vote is interpreted as a rejection of Erdoğan's plan to amend the constitution to grant more powers to the president, which many viewed as a step toward a more authoritarian political system. However, Erdoğan and the AKP prime minister and party head, Ahmet Davutoğlu, quickly confirmed that they accepted the election results and would begin work on creating a new government. Ahmet Davutoğlu stated, "Our people's decision is final. It's above everything and we will act in line with it."

The Turkish election results counter a long-standing view of the relationship between Islam and democracy. In the 1990s, as Islamic movements began to participate actively in mainstream politics (when given the opportunity), more secular Muslims and many analysts in the West mistrusted the motives of the Islamists. People made, and continue to make, the accusation that Islamists are supporters of democracy only until they win elections and gain control of the government, so that they can control or eliminate elections. It is common to hear people claim that the democratic program of Islamically identified groups is "One man, one vote, one time."

Many identify the AKP as "Islamist" and critics argue that the long-term program of the party is to use democracy to subvert the Turkish secular state and ultimately to establish state enforcement of a traditional version of sharia. Party leaders reject that charge, viewing the AKP as a socially conservative democratic organization. They note that the AKP has been elected in democratic elections and held power in Turkey since it gained a parliamentary majority in the 2002 elections. After more than a decade of AKP government, the 2015 elections showed that the "Islamists" had not taken away the ability of the political opposition to make significant gains in elections. It is "one man, one vote, more than one time."

"One man, one vote, more than one time."

The refutation of the old "one man, one vote, one time" mantra is strengthened by recent elections in Tunisia as well. In Tunisia, following the overthrow of the secular dictatorial regime of Ben Ali, the "Islamist" party, Ennahda, won the first round of elections and established a new government. However, the Ennahda-led government faced major economic and politics problems and popular discontent grew. The party did not use extralegal means to remain in power but, instead, held elections in 2014, which brought to power a new government led by an old-line secularist named Beji Caid Essebsi. Although Ennahda lost the elections, the longtime leader of the party, Rachid Ghannouchi led a celebration in which he proclaimed: "What are we celebrating today? We are celebrating freedom! We are celebrating Tunisia! We are celebrating democracy!" Ghannouchi has been an advocate of democracy throughout his long career as a student activist, a political exile and as a political leader in post-Arab Spring Tunisia.

Islamic activists include both strong advocates of democracy and supporters of authoritarian rule. However, that spectrum is similar to the spectrum of advocates of secularism. Some of the most brutal authoritarian dictatorships in the Muslim world and elsewhere have been secularist in their political ideology. The major dictators who were overthrown in the Arab Spring -- Ben Ali in Tunisia and Mubarak in Egypt -- led basically secularist regimes, as did Saddam Hussein in Iraq. In the current world of Middle Eastern politics, the self-consciously anti-Islamist regime that came to power through a military coup in Egypt in 2013 guarantees itself victory in elections, with Abdel-Fattah el-Sisi winning 97 percent of the vote in 2014 presidential elections. In the reputedly authoritarian Islamist regime in Iran, on the other hand, the winner of the recent parliamentary elections, Hassan Rouhani, received almost 51 percent of the vote in an election that was actually contested. It is possible to see in this development a strengthening of the longstanding progressive Islamic democratic movement that is more than a century old in Iran.

The relationships between Islam and democracy after the Arab Spring are complex and changing in important ways. In the late 20th century, much attention was given to the question of whether or not Islam and democracy are compatible. This was an old debate that had been presented in many different ways. However, by the second decade of the 21st century, the terms of the debate have an anachronistic feeling, even though some people, both within and without the Muslim world, continue to repeat the old slogans.

"Some of the most brutal authoritarian dictatorships in the Muslim world and elsewhere have been secularist in their political ideology."

For the majority of Muslims in the world, the issue is settled. They see no real contradiction between Islam and democracy. The major debates are about what forms Muslim democracy can take, with a growing recognition that a democratic Muslim state may take many different forms. The real battles and civil conflicts are not between advocates of a "religious" state and advocates of a "secular" state. The profound struggles are between progressive democratic visions, whether secularist or religious, and authoritarianism, whether secularist or religious. The secularist dictatorship in Egypt suppresses all opposition, whether Islamist or secular, while the extremist Islamists leading the so-called Islamic State create a brutal authoritarian regime. At the same time, major Islamic movements and secularist political groups cooperate in successful democratic systems in many parts of the Muslim world, from Senegal to Indonesia.

Recent elections in Turkey and Tunisia should be effective reminders that Islam and democracy are not incompatible.

Historic Vote In Turkey