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A Dialogue on Islamists and Democracy

Is democracy a viable system of government for the Middle East?

February 13, 2006

Is democracy a viable system of government for the Middle East?


Professor, couldn’t promoting parliamentary elections in Islamic countries be a terrible mistake? How do you respond to the oft-made claim that if Islamists win, it will be a case of “one man, one vote, one time?” Moreover, wouldn’t they curtail the freedom of Algerian women?


It’s obvious that in any country that is holding free elections, particularly if it is for the first time, there is no way of knowing whether the winners of the election will relinquish power when their term in office ends. Indeed, there are many cases of presidents and parties not leaving office. “One man, one vote, one time” has been the sad story in a number of African and Latin American countries.

In the Middle East, elections in Syria, Iraq, Tunisia, Egypt and, for a long time, Turkey, have simply served to perpetuate the rule of single-party regimes. This is not solely a non-European problem. Think of Louis Napoleon, Adolf Hitler and various post-World War II communist regimes in Eastern Europe.

Indeed, in U.S. history there were people who feared that George Washington — like Mustafa Kemal Atatürk or Gamal Abdel Nasser — would never give up the presidency once he was elected. Yet, no one ever bans the most egregious offenders, generals and heads of nationalist parties, from running for office. Why?

Because it is assumed that the risk of an elected government subsequently subverting the electoral process is a risk worth taking in the interest of establishing democracy. So why are Islamist parties singled out for suspicion? There is no historical precedent for ascribing such malign motives to them.


But don’t they say that they want to create an Islamic republic and monopolize power?


Sometimes they do, but various communist parties have similarly aspired to create fully communist regimes. In some countries, this aspiration has led to communists being barred from running for office. But in some countries where communist parties have won elections, such as India, they have neither created totalitarian regimes nor refused to relinquish office when defeated in subsequent elections.

In the United States, we do not bar communists from running for office, but we make a sworn commitment to uphold the constitution a condition for serving.


But take the case of Iran. Parties that do not support an Islamic republic are excluded from elections and candidates for office have to be approved by a committee of mullahs.


What you say is certainly true, but the Islamic Republic of Iran did not come into being through the election of an Islamist party running against non-Islamist opponents. It came into being through a revolution, followed by a constitutional referendum. We have to distinguish between ordinary elections and constitutional referenda.

And let’s remember that an Islamic republic can take different constitutional forms. In Iran, the constitution guarantees parliamentary representation for certain religious minorities, but permits oppression of Baha’ism, which is not recognized as an independent religion.

Women vote and run for office, but they suffer restrictions on their public behavior. These are serious imperfections and ones that call to mind the age-old fear of an electoral majority suppressing minority rights. But this is not solely a problem with Islam.

The authors of the U.S. Constitution, for example, unlike the major Islamist parties through the Muslim world today, made no provision for women voting — and did not prohibit African slavery. Their democracy was not for everyone. Moreover, one has to wonder whether in 1790 a royalist would have been able to run for election in the United States on a platform of retuning the country to British rule.


But what about the separation of church and state? Aren’t Islamists seen as imposing religion on everyone whether they want it or not?


Separation of church and state has assuredly become an important principle of democracy in Europe and the United States. But it was not originally a cornerstone of the U.S. Constitution.

The bar on legislation establishing an official religion appears in the First Amendment — adopted two years after the Constitution — and it applied only to the federal government until the Fourteenth Amendment in 1868 extended the principles of the Bill of Rights to the states.

As the federally recognized territorial governor of Utah between 1850 and 1857, Brigham Young, the former president of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, certainly did not change his views on the dominant role of religion in public affairs. As for how Americans have understood the “established religion” clause, interpretation has changed over the past two centuries as the United States has become more secular.

Yet, the federal court’s removal of the words “under God” from the Pledge of Allegiance brought forth a storm of protest. The incident attests to the continuing objections of many people of faith to the most rigorous efforts to enforce separation.


Islam is not like Catholicism and Protestantism in the United States. Islam has dominated the outlook of people in the Middle East for so many centuries that permitting it to play a role in government will inevitably lead to the imposition of a religious state and the end of democracy.


The same might have been said of the hold 18th century Christianity had on popular sentiment at the dawn of democratic government in Europe and the United States. The democrats of the French Revolution tried to eliminate the influence of the church in all aspects of society. Their anticlerical approach became a model for the Europeanizing Middle Eastern governments of the 19th and 20th centuries.

By contrast, U.S. democrats erected a firewall between church and state, but retained the tradition of tax exemptions for religious bodies — and did nothing to curtail their social and educational activities.

Following a third path, English democrats — so long as they weren’t Catholic — saw nothing wrong with having the Church of England as the established faith of the land, this being the form of church-state relationship that the U.S. Bill of Rights explicitly prohibited. Historically, the American-style separation of church and state has not always gone hand and hand with democracy.

Secularists may reasonably hope that the institution of democratic regimes in Muslim countries will lead to time to a largely secular political culture. But it is naïve to think, as the Bolsheviks did, that one can quickly cut people off from their religious roots by government decree, particularly if the government issuing the decrees have to face elections.


What you are saying, then, is that people who call for democracy have to accept whatever comes along, even if it forces secular citizens into exile and compels women to wear veils. Religious tyranny is okay as long as it supported by a majority of the voters, many of whom are poorly educated and subject to the guidance of religious leaders and demagogues.


Things need not be quite as horrendous as you describe. Every democratic regime has a written or unwritten constitution, and constitutions set limits for government activity. Officials take oaths to uphold the constitution and there is usually a supreme judicial authority that decides what is or is not in accord with the constitution.

The crafting of a constitution is a key step in the transition from an authoritarian state to democratic state. Whether devising an Islamic republic, a secular republic, a pluralist republic or a constitutional monarchy, the framers of a constitution have to decide where to lodge the ultimate sanctions of legitimacy.

A monarchy may make the ruler the ultimate arbiter, but many constitutional monarchs wield no power. An Islamic republic may insert into the governing structure a committee or individual — in Iran’s case both — charged with ensuring that government actions do not violate religious strictures.

That is not the case in Pakistan, which calls itself an Islamic republic — but looks constitutionally to a strong presidency and a supreme court for ultimate legitimacy. In other models, notably Turkey and Algeria, the army guarantees the constitution, even if the structure of that guarantee is not explicitly spelled out.


I notice that you’ve skirted the question of the oppression of women. They are half the population. Don’t you think that is an absolute moral wrong to hobble them with civil disabilities?


Yes I do. I cannot imagine any constitution written in this day and age being deemed democratic if it denied women the vote or sanctioned slavery.

For that reason, my optimism with regard to the potential of Muslim political activism does not extend to movements calling for an Islamic autocracy unconstrained by electoral institutions — whether the ruler is called an emir, a king or a caliph. Most Muslim political movements endorse elections and call for women’s suffrage.

Some, like the Taliban and the zealots clustered around Osama bin Laden, do not. Giving women the vote, however, is not the same thing as freeing them from social disabilities. Social practices do not change overnight and adherence to European or U.S. customs is not the best way of assessing the status of women.

U.S. views on the gender matters in the Muslim world are less important than the views of Muslims. Given access to elections, Muslim women will fight their own battles.


That may well be, but all in all, I remain unconvinced by your many arguments. I wouldn’t say that I never want to live in an Islamist state or that Islamists should be prevented from coming to power.

But I do think there should be an overseeing authority — the military or maybe the judiciary — that will step in if the Islamists try to do away with elections, fundamentally change the constitution, or introduce measures opposed by much of the population.


Concluding thought:

I have been involved in variants of this conversation hundreds of times, but I don’t believe I have thoroughly convinced my interlocutor. Distrust of political Islam runs very deep. Still, since I believe quite firmly in the soundness of my position, its weaknesses as a platform for debate concern me.