The prospect for democracy in the Middle East will be determined by the choices of the Islamists.
It is impossible to argue that Islamism in the Middle East is passé or has failed. With the Arab Spring, they have surfaced in new circumstances that are more favorable to them than before when they were oppressed by authoritarian states. Being subjected to suppression by authoritarian regimes had made them more radically inclined to use violence and more ideologically orthodox. Then, to acquire the power they thought they needed revolutionary means, and once they got the power they would establish an ideologically grounded Islamic state.
Things are different now. As I explained last week, the Islamists have developed a practical-pragmatic response to the question of democracy. Instead of debating doctrinal issues of the Islam-democracy relationship, they have embraced the idea of majority rule knowing that they will benefit from this arrangement as they have a historically well functioning organizational network and effective discourse and rhetorical skills.
In fact, well before the Arab Spring, the Islamists had learned the “utility of democracy” in eliminating their secular opponents and bringing them to power. The National Salvation Front's successes in the 1990-1991 elections in Algeria were the first case in which Islamists scored pretty well in free and competitive elections. Then in 1994 came the success of the Welfare Party (RP) in Turkey where in local elections the biggest cities in the country, the Islamist party won İstanbul and Ankara. A year later the RP won the general elections forming a short-lived government. Later in 2006 in Palestine, Hamas won local and general elections against the secular Al-Fatah.
In Algeria the Islamists' electoral success was suppressed by a military coup. In Turkey they were forced to leave power by a “post-modern coup” known as the Feb. 28 process. In Palestine, an attempt was made to invalidate the Hamas victory by Western non-recognition.
Out of all these the Islamists have learned something simple: In a competitive political system, they are very likely to come to power. With the Arab Spring we see the Islamists from Tunisia to Egypt adopting electoral democracy as a new strategy for power. They are now less doctrinaire, more pragmatic, knowing their limits as well as strengths.
In the old days the strategic target was to set up an Islamic state by a vanguard elite and through revolutionary means. Then this “Islamic state” would fight against what Sayyid Qutb called the “Jahiliyya” (not being fully aware of the message of Islam) and erect a “new society” by means of the state's enlightening social and cultural policies. In short, the old strategy of Islamism envisaged taking over the state and using it to create a new society.
The Islamists now are at the stage of introducing a new strategy, using the people as the source of inspiration, power and legitimacy to construct a “new state,” not an Islamic state but a state that regulates in accordance with the religious-cultural preferences of the society. Since an ideological state is unattainable, the Islamists have settled for a state that has the capacity to legislate social, cultural and moral codes for a pious society.
Such a notion is likely to result in a post-modern authoritarian state, not an Islamic one. I call it post-modern because it carries ambiguities concerning its democratic and authoritarian credentials, containing both. They talk of democracy, freedom and choices. But they are all supposed to lead to “Islam.” In a meeting of Ru'yaTurkiya held in Tunisia in October Rashid Ghannuschi, the leader of the An Nahda movement reflected on this notion. Taking about the position of the An Nahda on the constitutional debate he said: “We do not want Shariah in the constitution but freedom. Because once people are free they will choose Islam.” What if they don't?
I would not call this tendency as “illiberal democracy.” It is more than this because Islamists tend to use their majority to legislate their own values and way of life as the normal and standard one. Russia under Putin qualifies as an illiberal democracy in the sense that basic rights and freedoms are not respected if not in law but in practice.
The Islamists taking part in democratic competition have a certain view of “good society,” “right morality” and “ideal society.” When they make them the basis of legislation, and thus use the coercion of the state to construct their vision of the “good society” this is more than an illiberal democracy. It is authoritarianism backed with the majority who “identify” themselves with those in power and will not get hurt by the value-imposing policies of the Islamists in power.
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