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Muslim States and Democracy

The social basis for stable democracy may not yet exist in many parts of the Middle East today

by Khaled Ahmed

Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) Chairman Imran Khan often invokes religion in public speeches and has indicated that the U.S. is an anti-Islamic hegemon that used drones to indiscriminately kill civilians in its bid to tackle terrorism. In a speech on the floor of Parliament, he went so far as to declare Al Qaeda chief Osama bin Laden a “martyr.” He has also repeatedly cited the example of Islam’s Prophet, heralding the Riyasat-e-Madina. In essence, Khan’s championing of democracy leans heavily on religion rather than what is globally considered “modern democracy.”

Religion as basis of state

Khan’s reliance on religion, and defense of “misguided” fighters of the banned Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan, has raised eyebrows within and outside Pakistan. Amir Rana, in an article for daily Dawn in July 2022, warned that the peace talks between Islamabad and the TTP advocated by Khan were more than a security issue; they were rather a case for the “soul” of Pakistan. “Both state and society have developed a rare consensus in the protracted war against terrorism: the country needs a review of its ideological paradigm. However, this consensus has not yet yielded some miraculous outcome as the state, by design or inadvertently, continues to exploit religion and empower the radical groups. Some observers also question if the political parties and civil society organizations really believe in resisting radical religious and ideological forces. They also ask the Pakistan Peoples Party to bring the issue to Parliament, which is merely a trick to give legitimacy to an exclusive process led by the security institutions.”

Back in 2014, former ambassador Zamir Akram weighed on the role of religion in Pakistani politics at the Tony Blair Institute: “We should first understand that Pakistan is a country that was based on Islamic identity but was not created as a theocratic state, nor as a state that was meant to be exclusively for Muslims, to the exclusion of other religious groups. It was really a state that was established to protect the religious, cultural and historical identity of the Muslims of the subcontinent when the British withdrew from South Asia. Muhammad Ali Jinnah’s Pakistan movement aimed to establish a country that worked to protect the identity of Muslims but that would not exclude other minorities, who would go on to play a very important part in the country, whether they were Hindus, Christians or any other religious denomination. But Islam is still a very important aspect of Pakistan’s ethos, identity and even foreign policy.” Despite this, it is undeniable that Pakistan’s record on human rights for minorities continues to raise concern.

Hope for an Arab Spring

International relations scholar Francis Fukuyama, writing in Political Order and Political Decay, notes the dominance of religion in the democratic processes of states with Muslim-majority populations. On the Arab Spring, which began in Tunisia in January 2011 before spreading across much of the Arab world, he notes that it suggested nations that had largely escaped the third wave of democratization—from the mid-1970s through the mid-1990s—were now ready for it. It was believed, he opines, that simple arguments that Arabs would passively accept dictatorship ended with the events of early 2011.

However, he notes, predictions that Arab societies would be unable to sustain liberal democracy might prove correct in the longer run. Over a decade after the Arab Spring, most impacted countries have reverted to their traditional forms of governance, with the possible exception of the country in which it began, Tunisia. In Egypt, the formerly banned Muslim Brotherhood formed a new government for a year before the military pushed its president Mohamed Morsi out of power in the summer of 2013 and restored the military-led state. The Tahrir Square uprising, it appears, was not a revolution that displaced the military-led state; it only pushed it into practical retreat.

Libya also remains chaotic in the wake of the military struggle against Muammar Qaddafi, while peaceful protests against Syria’s Bashar al-Asad were ruthlessly crushed, triggering a prolonged civil war that continues to this day. In Bahrain and the other Arab Gulf states, protests were violently repressed and the traditional monarchies remain in power. Throughout the region, violence and instability have helped the fortunes of jihadist groups that are overtly antidemocratic.

Religion replaces nationalism

According to Fukuyama, 19th century Europe saw popular mobilization for democracy hijacked by nationalism. This phenomenon first manifested during the French Revolution, when calls for the Rights of Man quickly devolved into the militant assertion of the rights of the French nation. It was evident in Germany in the 1870s, when many of the liberals of the ‘40s and ‘50s became fervent supporters of Bismarck and his forceful unification of the German nation. It was also apparent in August 1914, when rank-and-file members of working-class parties that had been charter members of the Second Socialist International lined up behind their national governments and plunged into war.

There is an obvious cultural factor that has gravely complicated the possibility of democracy in the Middle East—Islam. A large number of Muslim-majority societies have had to contend with militant and anti-democratic Islamist groups that Third Wave democratic transitions in Eastern Europe or Latin America did not have to contend with. Several observers have even argued that Islam itself constitutes an insuperable obstacle to the emergence of democracy, since it has never accepted the principle of the separation of church and state.

Islamist organizations like Ennahda in Tunisia and the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt that have played by democratic rules are often accused of using democracy instrumentally to gain power; their real agenda remains creation of illiberal theocratic states. The rise of these groups has then provoked conservative authoritarian governments to crack down on them, leading to politics that is polarized between two nondemocratic alternatives. Whether political Islam will remain a permanent obstacle preventing the emergence of liberal democracy in Muslim majority countries is not obvious, any more than an assertion that nationalism makes democracy impossible in Europe. Political Islam has waxed and waned over the decades, and in the 20th century it often took a backseat to other movements based on secular nationalism or liberal authoritarianism.

All large, complex cultural systems can be, and have been, interpreted in a variety of ways over time. Although there is an egalitarian doctrine at the heart of Christianity (as there is in Islam), Christian churches aligned themselves with authoritarian rulers and justified illiberal orders over the centuries. Part of the story of the third wave of democratizations in Europe and Latin America has to do with the reinterpretation of Catholic doctrine in the 1960s to make it compatible with modern democracy.

Radical Islam and the modern state

So too with radical Islam. It seems likely that its current expansion is due more to the social conditions of contemporary Middle Eastern societies than to the intrinsic nature of the religion. Indeed, the spread of political Islam can be seen as a form of identity politics very comparable to its nationalist variant in Europe. This was an argument first made by Ernest Gellner, whose theory of the origins of nationalism has been noted. Gellner, it will be recalled, argued that nationalism is response to the identity dislocation that occurs as societies modernize and transition from Gesellschaft—the small village—to Gemeinschaft— the large city. It occurs primarily in modernizing countries, where narrow forms of identity based on kinship and locality disappear and are replaced by more universalist doctrines linking individuals to broader cultural movements. He argued that the rise of modern Islamism responded to very similar imperatives in the Middle East, where religion plays the role that nation played in Europe.

To the confused former peasant now living in Cairo or Karachi, or to a second-generation Muslim immigrant in Europe, a figure like Osama bin Laden can provide a convincing answer to the question “Who am I?” The rise of political Islam in the last part of the 20th century does not therefore reflect the return of an eternally unchanging Islam, as both the proponents of radical Islam and their critics maintain, but rather is a response precisely to the half-modernized state in which much of the Middle East finds itself. Just as the 19th century European impulse toward democracy got diverted into nationalism, so the Middle Eastern popular mobilization risks being hijacked by religion.

Misleading Western example

The third wave transitions in Eastern Europe and Latin America are thus misleading precedents for the Arab Spring. It is really Europe’s long and tortured journey from autocracy through nationalism to democracy that provides the better model. This line of analysis does not offer comfort to those hoping for the emergence of liberal democracy anytime soon in the Arab world. We can only hope that such a transition, if it eventually occurs, will not take anywhere as long as it did in Europe.

Europe in the 19th century had no prior experience of democracy and therefore no clear institutional models to follow. The same is not the case in the contemporary Middle East. Regimes that balance strong states with legal and democratic constraints on power have become a normative standard around the world. Getting there, however, depends on the creation of a complex set of interlocking institutions, which in turn are facilitated by changes in the nature of underlying economic and social conditions. The social basis for stable democracy did not exist in the Europe of 1848, and may not yet exist in many parts of the Middle East today.

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