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