What does "democracy" mean to Islamists?

Opinions about events beyond our borders.
March 10 2004 4:02 PM

One Imam, One Vote

What do Islamists mean when they talk about democracy?

Iraq's interim constitution, signed just this Monday, begins with the words "The people of Iraq." If it's not as immediately bracing as "We the people," it's still a good start for a country whose citizens, over the last several decades, have been the collective victim of terror and violence. Moreover, according to a number of observers, it's a very good constitution, guaranteeing freedom of speech and religion; equal rights for all citizens, including women; and outlawing torture. Indeed, it's a model constitution for the Arab world, much like the one that Iraq's constituent assembly drafted, under British supervision, back in 1924. 

Of course that constitution, while never on very firm ground, was officially laid to rest with the 1958 coup that brought Brig. Gen. Abdel-Karim Qasim to power.

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It is a sad, unfortunate fact that liberal constitutionalism has a bad track record in the Arab world. Egypt's own experiment with it ended in 1952 under circumstances similar to Iraq's, when Col. Gamal Abdel Nasser led the coup that deposed the king and gutted the 1923 constitution. Given the state of the current-day Iraqi army, the military is not the most serious threat to the new constitution. Then again, neither is the military in a position to defend the secular nature of the state. Indeed, protecting Algeria from Islamic fundamentalists was the reason that country's military used to cancel the results of the 1992 elections that would have given Islamists the reins, an intervention that resulted in 10 years of civil war and the death of 100,000 people.

As virtually everyone now knows, and apparently few people had considered before the war against Saddam, free elections in Iraq will almost certainly bring Islamists to power. Of course, it's up to the Iraqis to decide who will lead Iraq. On the other hand, like all nations, the United States has national interests, and it is fanciful to imagine that those interests would be well-served by an Islamist government in Iraq. Moreover, even critics of the U.S. occupation should consider whether democratically elected Islamists would best serve the interests of the Iraqi people.

There is an ongoing debate in the Muslim world, American academia, and now also U.S. policy circles concerning the nature of Islamist democracy. Undoubtedly, Islam is as compatible with democracy as any other religion. But whether democracy comports well with a movement that has in the past advocated jihad and is responsible for thousands of deaths, 1,200 in Egypt alone, is another question entirely. Indeed, some of the Islamist movement's most influential ideologues have very specifically opposed democracy because it invests political sovereignty in the people—"We, the people"—rather than in God.

Nevertheless, recent books like Noah Feldman's After Jihad and Graham Fuller's The Future of Political Islam suggest that the Islamist movement may indeed be compatible with democracy. They find that while there are holdouts like Osama Bin Laden dead set against anything like democracy, there are many, perhaps even a majority of Islamists who favor free elections. Unfortunately, that's about as far as the Islamists go when it comes to democracy. Free elections are OK, since they see that they would do very well in polling places across the region. However, it's not at all clear that the Islamists have any interest in the broad array of liberties—like freedom of speech and equal rights—that most people, certainly most citizens of liberal democracies, associate with democracy.

To be sure, there are a number of strange ideas about democracy in Islamist circles. For instance, Dr. Azzam al-Tamimi, a Palestinian-born, London-based academic who has written and spoken frequently about Islamism and democracy, explains here how non-Muslims would be "protected" in an Islamic Palestine. This is in line with Islam's traditional tolerance toward "people of the book," Jews and Christians. The problem, however, is that being a protected person is not the same as being equal to all other persons, and it's not clear how Tamimi understands that distinction. Tamimi, who like virtually every Islamist calls for the destruction of Israel, describes himself as a friend and supporter of the Palestinian Islamist organization Hamas, which he describes as democratic, because "[t]he executive bodies are all chosen democratically." Hamas is many things to many people, but it's no more democratic than the Catholic Church is when the college of cardinals elects a new pope, or the Cosa Nostra was when the families formed a commission to adjudicate disputes. In other words, when Islamists talk about democracy, they most likely do not mean what the citizens of liberal democracies mean.

Then again, when some Islamists talk about Islam, they do not mean what other Islamists mean. In Dubai recently, I met an Iranian businessman who told me he is a close friend of a very prominent Iranian Islamist thinker whom I cannot name. "X," the businessman told me, "doesn't care about Islam at all. But he has to use it in order to get his point about democracy across."

Indeed, dissimulation is a well-established technique in the history of the 100-plus-year-old Muslim reform movement, even among two of its leading figures, Jamal al-din al-Afghani and his greatest disciple, Muhammad Abdu. Abdu once relayed to a correspondent that he followed his master in the belief that "the head of religion can only be cut with the sword of religion." The fact is, as another Muslim reformer, wrote, "We found that ideas which were by no means accepted when coming from your agents in Europe were accepted at once with the greatest delight when it was proved that they were latent in Islam."

This is an extremely useful observation. It explains why Iraq's 1924 constitution succumbed, and why the current very fine provisional document is also a fragile thing. It also explains why so many Muslims would willingly elect Islamists whom they might later come to fear and despise as much as any authoritarian ruler. Islam is a familiar language, liberalism is not.

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