These days, the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt is under a systematic (some would say justified) assault by authorities seeking to dissolve the entire organization. Yet, it’s not just in Egypt that Islamists find themselves under attack, rhetorically or by force. Across countries in the Arab world that had revolutions in the past two years, there is a growing wave of public opposition to the participation of Islamists in the political system, whether in Tunisia, Libya or elsewhere.
Against this backdrop, countless Western analysts have clashed with their liberal Arab counterparts on the issue of Islamism, arguing that the exclusion of religious parties is incompatible with modern democratic principles. Yet is the exclusion of parties like the Muslim Brotherhood undemocratic on its face? The truth is somewhere in the middle and in fact, there is a legitimate democratic case to be made against the inclusion of some Islamists.
Since 2011, there have been two primary grievances levied against Islamist parties. The most salient argument in recent weeks has been that these groups are linked to a wider “terrorist” agenda, and are, as such, enemies of the state. Of concern is not necessarily their religious nature but the fact that they represent a subversive political movement. Granted, the closed nature of the Brotherhood, given its precarious legality in past decades, only feeds this view. In addition, offshoots from the Brotherhood like Gamaa Islamiya have been responsible for terrorist attacks in Egypt, and other affiliated groups such as Hamas do have militant wings as well.
Nevertheless, this argument is not one against "Islamism" or in favor of "secularism." When Gen. Abdel Fattah al-Sisi held court with his beautifully choreographed choir of support on the night of the coup on Egyptian state TV, at his side were two religious figures, the grand sheikh of Al-Azhar and the Coptic pope. Furthermore, the recently announced constitutional committee includes a representative from the Salafist Nour Party, a group also present at that previous gathering. Thus, the argument in Egypt appears to be that the right type of Islamists (and in limited number) can be tolerated, as can a role for religion in the state.
Of course, the second case against Islamism is that it is inherently incompatible with modern democracy. At its core, the ideology is an absolutist form of thought that rejects all other intellectual currents in a society. While that may be true, couldn’t the same argument be made for any political ideology, whether it be libertarianism, or communism, or socialism, and the list goes on? Each political movement sees its ideas and philosophies as essential and paramount. A corollary to Islamist thought, however, is that it constitutes a religious supremacist movement that seeks to achieve the supremacy of its religion — Islam — at the official level of the state. It is here where Islamism and democracy start to have legitimate friction.
While a democracy — a modern liberal one at that — is certainly about respecting the will of the people, in a majoritarian sense, it is also about protecting the rights of the individual. The rights of individuals and groups of individuals, i.e., minorities, are not negated in a modern democracy by virtue of the will of the majority. If the state begins to enforce a certain religious law upon all citizens regardless of their choice, then it would be seemingly undemocratic (in the liberal sense). Yet, there are countries with democratic models like India, which allow for different faith communities to have influence over civil court cases pertaining to practitioners of respective faiths; echoes of this approach could be seen in several of the clauses regarding Sharia in the constitution passed in December, in Egypt.
In one sense, the uniform law of the state has to be paramount but if through democratic consensus the state agrees to allow for designated religious bodies to advise on civil cases, it is not inherently undemocratic, even if it may not be entirely secular — two different things entirely. Where it would get "tricky" would be if one is not able to "opt-out" of one’s faith community, which currently is either a legal or social crime in many Muslim countries, punishable at times by death (i.e., apostasy or ridda). Even in some of the most secular countries, like France, the state still appoints religious leaders and in fact owns religious properties in the country, something anathema to the American system where the state would never be allowed to interfere in a religious process.
This brings us back again to the limitations placed on the state as well as the restrictions placed on parties within the state in a democracy. The constitution and political system should guarantee that no religious group should be considered paramount or superior in form, nor should there be an imposition of specialized rules (i.e., designated Sharia) without consent. If Islamist groups say that “Islam is the solution,” their project would then be doomed in a democratic system. In effect, as soon as they came to power, they would have to shelve much of their agenda. And this is the inherent contradiction in the encouragement by observers for Islamist parties to participate in the political system: Allow them to participate but do not allow them to achieve their vision.
Thus, any legitimate democratic system must allow for the participation of Islamist parties but at the same time have legal checks on their agenda. It is akin to the Ku Klux Klan running for office in the United States. It might be legal but would the group ever be allowed or able to implement their policies? While Islamists may contest this association it is not so far-fetched given that the less mature Islamist parties often advocate for the inferiority, if not debasement of non-Muslim systems and values, and the total imposition of religious edicts on all individuals in a society.
However, an outright ban on Islamic or Islamically leaning parties would be wholly undemocratic as it would prejudge the outcome and their role once in power.
As the Arab world continues to wrestle with the relationship between religion, politics and the state, it is important to keep in mind that many Western countries are still trying to find the right balance. And, ultimately, true change will only come through the transformation of the society rather than through that of the system.
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