Trust Tunisia

October 24, 2011

As the first elections of the post-Arab spring unfold over the next several weeks, you will be hearing the term “moderate Islamist” over and over again. Early results from elections in Tunisia suggest that the moderate Islamist Ennahda party is going to win the largest number of seats in a new assembly that will rewrite the constitution, choose a new interim government and set dates for parliamentary and presidential elections. Members of Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood who have also been described as moderate Islamists are expected to fare well in similar elections there in November. And Islamists play a growing role in Libya’s transitional council as well.

The Islamist parties insist that they have renounced violence, fully embrace democracy and will abide by the electoral process. Secular Tunisians, Egyptians and Libyans, as well as some western pundits, warn that the Islamist parties are a Trojan Horse. Once Islamists take power, they will refuse to relinquish it and forcibly implement conservative Islam in all three countries.

What is striking is the silence emanating from Washington and other western capitals.

“One of the shifts that hasn’t been talked about is how much more the West is willing to accept the reality of a political landscape in places like Tunisia and Egypt that will include the existence of Islamist groups,” said Dalia Mogahed, the director of the Abu Dhabi Gallup Center, which polls public opinion across the Middle East. “The West has realized that it isn’t up to us to decide whether they can run.”

The term Islamist usually sets off alarm bells in Washington. Islamists have long been jailed by pro-American dictators, brutally silenced and believed to inexorably promote militancy. In the wake of the Arab Spring, though, they are delving into electoral politics to an extent never seen before in the modern Middle East.

The stakes are enormous. If hardline Islamic states emerge, this fall’s elections will be lambasted as a staggering error by the Obama administration. If Islamists are moderated by actually governing, one of the largest national security threats the United States faces may gradually ebb.

High expectations about democracy, of  course, have proven wrong in the past. Iran’s 1979 popular revolution-turned-repressive theocratic state is one example. Hamas’ general failure to moderate since having to govern is another. Given the United States’ waning influence in the region, though, barring Islamists from the elections is both hugely hypocritical and unrealistic.

To many Americans, talk of Islamists embracing democracy is new, puzzling and hard to believe.  Since the rise of Islamic militancy in the 1970s, the hardline Salafist Islam practiced by terrorist groups has dominated American media coverage. For most Salafists, the concept of democracy itself is, in fact, blasphemous. The belief that humans might rule themselves flouts the Salafist conviction that God’s law should define all human affairs. Most Salafists see democracy as an attempt to usurp God’s sovereignty and a form of government wholly incompatible with Islam.

The Arab Spring, though, has given new prominence to a debate among Middle Eastern political leaders and religious scholars regarding Islam’s relationship with democracy, according to Halil Ibrahim Yenigun, a researcher at Istanbul Commerce University, whose work focuses on  Muslim views of democracy over time. He says the debate is not new.

In the second half of the 19th century, Muslim thinkers in the major intellectual centers of the Ottoman Empire — Istanbul and Cairo, as well as India and Indonesia — began to argue that self-government was compatible with Islam. The  debate was partly in response to the colonization of predominantly Muslim nations by burgeoning European powers. Intellectuals defended Islamic reform – or Islah – as a way to enact political changes that would revitalize Islamic civilization and increase Muslims’ ability to thwart Western encroachment.

In Turkey, Tunisia and Egypt today, non-Salafists interpret Islam as emphasizing justice, accountability and tolerance for other faiths, according to researchers. Their interpretation of Islam emphasizes that rulers must be accountable to their people, non-corrupt and just, a concept also endorsed by democracy.

Mogahed, the head of the Abu Dhabi Gallup Center, says a Gallup poll conducted in Egypt in September showed that the vast majority of the population viewed Islam and democracy as compatible. While the concept may seem new to Westerners, it is widely accepted in Egypt, the Arab world’s most populous nation and cultural capital.

“When you actually look at Muslim public opinion ordinary people just don’t have those questions,” she said. “They see Islam and democracy as concepts that ensure justice and accountability and give people a role and a voice in who rules them. They see both as teaching those values.”

Many moderate Islamists and liberal Muslims are more hesitant to reconcile Islam and Western-style, free market economies, according to Yenigun, the Turkish researcher. Islam’s emphasis on social justice creates opposition to extreme inequality.

“There are still deep-seated reservations about capitalism,” he said

During campaigning in Tunisia, the leader of Ennahda, Rachid Ghannouchi, who spent 22 years in exile in Britain, likened his economic vision to that of Scandinavian social democracies and said he hoped to emulate the performance of Turkey’s Islamist Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

Since taking power in Turkey a decade ago, Erdogan has aggressively embraced free market capitalism and nearly tripled per capita income in the country. His Justice and Development party has combined privatization with massive social welfare programs that offer affordable housing, near-universal health care and the free distribution of sugar, flour, coal and even schoolbooks. The programs address Islam’s call for social justice. They are also smart politics.

Turkey’s overall progress is undeniable, but Erdogan is not perfect. As I wrote last week, he is cementing his hold on power but still has time to change course.

The election results in Tunisia should not be feared. I have argued — and will continue to argue — that the danger is not Islam. It is authoritarianism. Secular regimes, such as Syria’s, have proven just as repressive as authoritarian Islamist regimes, like Iran. Islam is not inherently backward nor incompatible with modernity. Salafism is.

Constitutions that mandate elections, individual rights and protections for women and minorities are the best defense against authoritarianism in any form. Democratic principles and institutions, not individual leaders, thwart the concentration of power. The West must now trust the democratic process it has long said it supports.

PHOTO: Voter display stained fingers to the photographer after they cast ballots at a polling station in Tunis October 23, 2011. REUTERS/Anis Mili


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I agree. It’s just like Deng Xiaoping said, “I dont care whether it’s a black or a white cat, as long as it can catch the mouse.”

The secular government in Tunisia has failed their people. So the people turn to Islamic party.

While Islamic identity of course has political appeal to the masses, it’s not about Sharia law, but more about justice and prosperity.

Maybe in a few years Indonesia will have its own ‘Arabic Spring’ too, since the nationalist ruling party (SBY) has poor records in clean government and anti-corruptions policy that Islamic Party steadily gain grounds here. In the end it’s about which cat can catch the mouse.

Posted by oldme | Report as abusive

Democracy, in my view, is not a buffet, where one can pick-and-chose. It is based on a number of concepts, some more vague, others more defined. Separation of state and church is one of those. I sincerely believe that good religion can be beneficial to any system but “giving to the Caesar what belongs to the Caesar” is another principle that a true democracy cannot abdicate. Erdogan government, used an example, has started showing it’s Islamic face for quite some time. It is doing it slowly because Turkey has deep rooted secularism.
Besides, living my first 20 years in a dictatorship, I know that after years and years of a authoritarian role-model, the average citizen becomes as intolerant as the dictator and that is something that doesn’t change soon. Combine governance, religion and the twisted view of the world that people get after living in a totalitarian regime, and you will NOT get democracy and freedom.

Posted by AndiV | Report as abusive

“Iran’s 1979 popular revolution-turned-repressive theocratic state is one example.”

Trouble is – a lot of folks in the Middle East also remember Iran’s popularly-elected democratic government – overthrown in a CIA coup in 1953. Why should anyone expect thoughtful concerns about democracy from the US or UK?

Posted by Eideard | Report as abusive

Thank you for writing this article. It should be enlightening to others who don’t have good grasp of our culture. Your article is very accurate and reflects my thinking; In particular thank you for the last sentences:

“The election results in Tunisia should not be feared. I have argued — and will continue to argue — that the danger is not Islam. It is authoritarianism. Secular regimes, such as Syria’s, have proven just as repressive as authoritarian Islamist regimes, like Iran. Islam is not inherently backward nor incompatible with modernity. Salafism is.”

I spent more thank half of my age in North America… Regardless I voted to Ennahdha because it’s the only party that I can trust! all others are potential crooks (if they get the chance to be crooks!) Tunisia passess by critical stage and it should be in good trustful hands!

I just want to clarify one point: When half of the people voted to the Islamist party, this does not mean that half of Tunisians are islamists! This simply means that 50% of the people trust the islamist party who has longer history than all other “crooks”! This also means that the negative campaign against Ennhdha backfired big time and the people want to punish those parties!

Posted by Ezz | Report as abusive

The real tragedy is that even an apparently broad-minded analyst like David Rohde does not get the picture of the transformations that have been shaking the Muslim world since 1979 correct. Rohde writes ” High expectations about democracy, of course, have proven wrong in the past. Iran’s 1979 popular revolution-turned-repressive theocratic state is one example. Hamas’ general failure to moderate since having to govern is another.”. The truth is that, in its obsession to dominate the world and purportedly to shape the world in its own image, America supports the worst ruling dictators at the same time as it professes to promote democracy Take the most obvious example : Hamas. In January 2006, Hamas won free elections that were held in the occupied Palestine territories. But, America had branded Hamas “terrorist’, so America and its perfidious Western allies shoved Hamas aside and leveraged Mahmoud Abbas against Khaled Meshal and Ismael Hiniyeh. I can’t imagine a more criminal act of perfidy. America and the West went on to veto any resolution presented to the UN Security Council condemning Israeli atrocities in Gaza, encouraging the blockade by Israel of that part of the Territories that was controlled by Hamas. And, of course, the propaganda war against Hamas got ever more vicious, so much so that even David Rohde fully endorses that monstrosity. Next, Iran : the Iranain Revolution of 1979 was a glorious uprising of that proud and highly-cultured Persian people against an insanely megalomaniac Shah who had had himself crowned Emperor in a rebuilt Persepolis a few years earlier, when foreign ‘dignitaries’ had been invited and treated to lavish luxuries, while the Iranain people were starving outside, treated with utter contempt by their own leader. Of course, the good people of Iran supplanted the Shah with a much-more-humane Islamic Clergy. A non-Iranain, non-Arab, non-Pakistani, I lived the Iranain Revolution, having been resident in Tehran from August 1978 to August 1979. Ayatollah Khomeini insited, some weeks after his return to Iran from exile in France, that: no, his agenda is not to export the Revolution to the Muslim world, but, yes to establish a model Sharia-inspired governance sytem that could serve as an example for the neighbouring Muslim countries to emulate in the necessary dynamic for them to transition to a post-monarchical dispensation.. But, America and the West could not digest the loss of a jewel in their imperial crown. A counter-revolutionary movement was bungled, which led to the American embassy hostage-taking and the inflammatory rhetoric of extremist Ayatollah Khalkani which, in turn, fed a spiral of ever-deadly mutual animosity and incredibly vicious subversion (covert operations stoking inevitable local dissent, especialy using members of the Mujahideen-e-Khalq as cannon fodder in the war against the “theocrats’, which bloody attacks in turn triggered repression and counter-covert actions by successive new Iranain regimes. If David Rohde wants to be honest, he should never, NEVER forget to remind his readers that France offered to arrange for Ayatollah Khomeini to be assassinated in Neuphle Le Chateau near Paris, only weeks before he was eventually to fly to Tehran. Bani Sadr has repeatedly confirmed that, having been Prime Minister jst before the fall of the Shah. When the Shah was told about the offer, he was shocked and let the French ambassador to Tehran and other French authorities know that that suggestion was the worst thing that could happen to his regime, since it would et the whole of Iran aflame and explode in revolutionary fervour. Turning to Tunisian, Egyptian and Libyan ongoing seismic changes in regimes, the Muslim Brotherhood and varios supporters, in synergy with more sceptical secularist, will be mindful of the lessons learnt by the Iranians and by Hamas activists, and will be inspired by Turkey’s smooth transition froma military-secularist regime to an Islamic-democratic dispensation. But there will be success only if the West also learns its lessons from previous catastrophic adventures in imperialist domination. The Project for the New American Century (PNAC) has been a disaster for America’s and the West’s foreign policy as well as for their economies. A PNAC Mark II, for which some are still pining, would be the coup de grace for Western leadership of the globalisation agenda. Hegemony is finished – let the West embrace global multipolarity. If America and the West persist in their folly to dominate the world, apocalypse will follow. Only days before he passed away, Paul Samuelson warned that America should not even try to resist its inevitable relative decline –relative; it likely can still be leader, but not hegemon. To those who
Would be tempted to dismiss his advice, Paul Samuelson said “BOOHOO!”. That was about the last memorable word he uttered before he left this world.

Posted by MohamedMalleck | Report as abusive

You should note that their definition of democracy, pluralism, human rights etc. is different than what is known in the west. Furthermore, in their eyes, all these values are preceded by the Sharia which is the law of God, and cannot be changed by humans. The right to self government is acceptable only as long as it obeys the Sharia laws.
In this light, they also consider Iran as a democracy. Sure they hold elections in Iran, but only candidates that are approved by the Islamic Mulahs can run for office (and then they forge the results, just to be on the safe side(.
So it is not a surprise that Mustafa Abdel Jalil said on Sunday, during his speech to the nation in Benghazi to formally declare the country’s liberation from the ousted regime of Moammer Kadhafi, that sharia would be Libya’s principal law. Democracy in all these countries will be secondary.

Posted by sabidabi | Report as abusive

Indonesia part of the Ottoman Empire?

Posted by Komment | Report as abusive