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Islamist Democracies: The West's Worst Nightmare?

Can democracy be made to flourish in the lands where Islam prevails?

November 23, 2003

Can democracy be made to flourish in the lands where Islam prevails?

Can democracy be made to flourish in the lands where Islam prevails? Today, this might be the single most pressing question for American foreign policy.

But more than a decade ago, before jihad became a household word, before the most senior voices in the U.S. government began to speculate about a democratic Iraq, democracy had a trial run in an Arab state outside the international spotlight.

What happened there set the course for the U.S. policies that are now being reforged in the crucible of the war on terror. It is there that the story of the encounter between America and Islamic democracy begins.

In 1989, that year of revolutions, unglamorous Algeria was an unlikely candidate for democratic change. Perched on the rim of North Africa, far from the upheavals of Eastern Europe, Algeria had been home to a romantic liberation movement that had evicted the French after a hard-fought guerrilla war.

Yet the liberation movement had morphed — by way of a 1965 coup — into an autocratic, quasi-military, socialist regime. The sole political party, the Front de Libération National, had not permitted real elections since shortly after independence.

Starting in late 1988, young Algerians began a series of protests that led to a new constitution promising fundamental rights and political parties other than the FLN.

In June 1989, Algeria held the first local elections under the new constitution. A newly formed Islamic party, the Front Islamique du Salut (FIS), came more or less from nowhere to win 62% of the votes cast. The FLN, which could boast that it had liberated Algeria from the French, came in at 28%.

One could almost hear the whispered soul-searching starting in Western foreign ministries. If elections were going to replace dictators in the Arab and Muslim worlds, as they seemed to be doing in the Eastern bloc and beyond, would Islamic parties do this well everywhere?

Would democratically elected Islamic governments be good or bad for Western interests? Although democracy seemed like the desirable result of victory in the Cold War, the Algerian election suggested otherwise: Could democracy be an unalloyed
good if Muslim states chose fundamentalist leaders?

Of course, these were still just local elections. Perhaps the Islamists of the FIS had succeeded because no one else had had time to organize effective political parties in the short period between the ratification of the new constitution and the local elections.

Unlike political parties, Islam itself had never been illegal, so Islamist politicians could use mosques as centers for organization, recruitment and advertising — a built-in infrastructure that other parties lacked.

Or perhaps Algerians who were not deeply sympathetic to fundamentalist Islam had voted against the old-guard FLN as a protest against dictatorship. In national elections, with more at stake, people might vote more moderately.

The leadership of the FIS was almost as surprised as everyone else at the party's success in the local elections. The FIS was suddenly a major political force, and needed to explain to the newly minted electorate what its policies would actually be.

No one had ever run a democratic Islamic government before, and the FIS leaders were not of one mind about the relationship between Islam and democracy. In the event, the ruling FLN effectively decided election strategy for them.

In the run-up to the December 1991 national elections, it put the two most prominent FIS leaders in jail. This deterrent failed — and the FIS went on to win more seats than any other party: 188 out of a total of 429. The FLN got just 15 seats. The constitution called for a second round of elections, if the votes remained steady, the FIS was headed for a national victory.

Now the success of the Islamists became the stuff of high-level policy-making. In Washington, the experts were divided on how to react. Some sincerely worried that if the Islamists took office, they might abolish elections.

Others focused on the strategic interests of the United States. As the example of Iran showed, states run by Islamist parties could be terribly anti-American and might export terror.

Still others, either optimistic or pragmatic, pointed out that the United States could form a friendship with an Islamic state. After all, America's close ally Saudi Arabia was a traditional monarchy in which Islamic law prevailed.

Then a remarkable thing happened. At the insistence of the Algerian generals, the FLN canceled the second round of elections. It retroactively called off the first round — and, in effect, the municipal elections, too.

It banned the FIS and jailed the rest of its leaders. Its party banned, its leaders jailed and many of its activists arrested, the FIS split in two — and turned to armed resistance.

The French, worried about the influence that Islamic fundamentalism might have on the millions of Algerians who lived in France, acquiesced in what was essentially a preemptive coup d'état against the almost-elected FIS. The United States
decided to go along with French policy.

In a speech that has cast long shadows over subsequent U.S. policy, then-Assistant Secretary of State Edward Djerejian explained that while the United States favored democracy, it opposed elections that would provide for "one person, one vote, one time." By implication, elections won by Islamists were elections that would lead not to more democracy but to less.

Algeria was plunged into a bloody civil war that has since killed at least 100,000 people. The experiment with Islamic democracy was over before it could get started. American policy was now firmly on the side of the autocrats — against the Islamic democrats.
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There, in a nutshell, is the current problem of government in the Muslim world. Almost certainly, democratizing the Muslim world would produce real gains for Islamists in the short and medium term.

Untainted by scandal and steadfast in challenging autocracy, the Islamists speak the language of the people. They are not perceived as elitists — and they draw on powerful ideals of justice and authenticity. In a truly democratic system, they would have to be given a chance to govern if the people wanted them.

Secular-minded Muslims and most Western governments are justifiably worried that Islamist governments might be undemocratic, oppressive and anti-Western.

Islamist elected governments might call off democratic elections, or leave elections in place but pass laws that oppress women or non-Muslims or political opponents.

Like Hezbollah in Lebanon, Islamist groups might partially transform themselves into domestic political parties without renouncing violence against Israel. Care must be taken to guard against these real and dangerous possibilities.

On the other hand, the alternative to democracy in the Muslim world seems to be more autocracy. If there is to be any way out of the impasse, it will have to come from imagining some kind of Islamic democracy.

A democracy of Muslims with Islamic content need not be an Islamist democracy, governed exclusively by Isalmic law. It is far more likely to draw on Islam's values and ideals, while simultaneously incorporating democratic principles, legal protections and institutions.

But even an Islamist democracy — if it can be imagined — might have some advantages over autocracy.
Even in an Islamist democracy, where the people have chosen to be governed solely by Islamic law, leaders would be responsible to an electorate. And the rule of law might conceivably be enforced more consistently than it is by the unelected autocrats who prevail in the Muslim world today.

Adapted from "After Jihad: America and the Struggle For Islamic Democracy" by Noah Feldman. Copyright