Is democracy a viable alternative for Muslim-majority countries?
- Democracy, warts and all, is a relatively strong bulwark against more authoritarian and
- Like in all political and religious movements, many Islamists have nurtured and
advocated distorted interpretations of Islam
- So, are they consequently trapped in a self-sustaining nightmare that shows no
prospect of ending?
According to many political scientists and sociologists, it’s becoming brutally clear that
building a democratic culture is one of the necessary and critical ingredients to
improve and sustain a life worth living.
Although it might not be a sufficient ingredient, episodic economic crises and
challenging sociological and psychological issues plaguing democratic societies are a
glaring testimony, democracy, warts and all, is a relatively strong bulwark against
more authoritarian and restrictive systems.
Many Tunisian leaders assert that democratization should not be a question of
secularism versus religion. They suggest that the country’s governance system should
be democratic and inclusive. They also believe that Islam is compatible with
democracy and can play a vital and constructive role in the development of democratic
The 2010-11 Tunisian revolution brought an end to authoritarian rule and facilitated
political liberalization in Tunisian society. Furthermore, the country’s constitution
protects political and religious freedoms without adulterating the Arab Muslim
identity. Moreover, the constitution would not cite sharia as one of the sources of
Like in all political and religious movements, many Islamists have nurtured and
advocated distorted interpretations of Islam. From imposing the strict legal
enforcement of morals widely associated with sharia law to resorting to senseless
violence, jihadists have failed to separate the mosque from the state, which constitutes
one of the critical pre-conditions of democratization and liberalization of societies.
Reformists, on the other hand, have promoted the separation of mosque and state.
They consider Muslim democracy as a barrier to the Islamic State. From protecting
women’s rights to political pluralism, Muslim democrats try to make a serious
argument for building liberal democracies in Muslim-majority countries.
Some Muslim scholars contend that a Muslim reformation, the like that occurred in
16th century Europe, is needed to start the democratization of Muslim-majority
countries. However, many also question the feasibility and timing of such a
religious/cultural reformation, an enlightenment of sorts that would lead to freedom
of speech and religious choice.
The main objective of Muslim democrats/reformists is to gradually turn Muslim-
majority states into liberal democracies. It is a tall order considering the popularity
and organizational strength of jihadists in those countries.
When former Egyptian President Morsi was elected to the country’s top office through
democratic means, he tried to Islamize Egyptian society and endowed the presidency
with unlimited powers. This kind of “democracy,” in which a civil society is in its
embryonic stage and somewhat deformed, might lead to political extremism and
Morsi’s brand of Muslim “democracy” is an alternative blueprint to liberal, Western-
style democracy. This obviously poses a challenge as severe as fascism and Nazism,
according to some pundits.
In Tunisia, the Party of Muslim Democrats formed a coalition with two secular parties.
All the parties compromised on many important issues. They separated the political
and religious fields, at least so far. One of the Muslim leaders even said that religion
should be nonpartisan, and faith should not be used for factional political purposes.
How to preserve the Arab identity without disrupting/altering/compromising
democratic values and practices? It is probably one of the critical issues that a Muslim
and Arab society should overcome on its path to democratization.
If Islam is compatible with democracy, then would it be compatible in all Muslim-
majority countries? Would the process of democratization in a Muslim-majority
country in Africa be replicable in a Muslim-majority society in the Middle East? All
these are challenging questions that only the actual launching of the process would be
able to answer.
There is no doubt that a functioning democracy would erect a barrier against violent
Muslim extremism, the like of ISIS, Al-Qaeda, and Boko Haram. However, it does not
mean that there would be no terrorist acts committed in those countries.
Another obstacle is the attitude of the Muslim population toward political Islam in
those countries. Just a few years ago, according to a poll of public opinion, 65 percent
of Muslims have supported the goal of unifying all Islamic countries into a single
caliphate, probably not governed by democratic institutions.
So, are they consequently trapped in a self-sustaining nightmare that shows no
prospect of ending?
China and other countries have shown that economic growth and social development
do not require a society based on democratic principles and values. However, for how
long the Chinese society, especially the ever-expanding middle class, will patiently
wait before forcefully demanding for more political and social freedom?
This is a key point.
If China is able, so far, to maintain some sort of political stability
and fuel economic growth (with significant fluctuations), then is it a sine qua non that
Muslim-majority nations launch the democratization process so that Islamic
radicalism and violent jihadism gradually dissipate?
Many, including some Westerners, blame the United States and Europe for the serious
ills plaguing many Muslim-majority societies. Colonialism, imperialism, Eurocentrism,
etc. have been indiscriminately employed by those critics, and I believe that it a
fallacious argument that overlooks and condones the contentious decisions and
harmful actions of the rulers and citizens of those countries.
Moreover, emerging democratic forces in those countries have a difficult time
convincing the world, especially Western governments, that the democratization
process would not be hijacked by violent jihadists. Is the risk worth taking? A dilemma
bedeviling human societies for the last few centuries…