Politically Incorrect Questions about Arab Politics

Politically Incorrect Questions about Arab Politics

Can some form of democracy prosper in the Arab world? Can Islamists be democrats?

Can Islamists be Democrats?

In Indonesia, the world’s largest Muslim country, the answer is yes. In Turkey, too. (Though I worry when the Erdogan government imprisons journalists and mistreats minorities such as the Kurds).

But what about Islamists in the Arab world? The fact that at present there are no democracies there doesn’t mean there can’t be or that Islam as played out in Arab politics is incompatible with democratic governance.

There are aspects of Iraq’s political life that are genuinely democratic. But a fair and free election isn’t the only—or perhaps even the most important—characteristic of democratic life. You need to govern and behave according to a set of principles that are deemed legitimate; be held accountable; not abuse power and of course be prepared to surrender it.

Democratic practices are evident in the Palestinian Authority and Lebanon as well. But these two are unique: Palestine is divided and partly occupied by another state, Israel; Lebanon is dominated by a political movement, Hezbollah, which along with other sects and parties makes full democracy only a thought experiment.

As for the Islamists in the Arab world as prospective democrats, we don’t know that either. These movements have largely existed in opposition, have been repressed and much worse. As a consequence, they are suspicious, secretive and conspiratorially minded. It will take time to adjust to a free, fair, open and democratic politics.

Still, there is reason to worry. Like all religious ultras, they’re narrow-minded in this case, biased against women, Christians, Jews and have a tendency to see the world in exclusivist and even triumphalist terms: my religion (and God) really are better than yours. And if the Muslim Brotherhood could get away with it, the Koran would in fact be—as Morsi said in his campaign—Egypt’s Constitution. The responsibility for taking out the trash will force a certain amount of readjustment, and the very real prospects of failure will take care of some of the rest. Still, the Muslim Brotherhood’s “my way or the highway” approach is too close to that of the authoritarians they presume to replace.

But as a die-hard secularist, what concerns me the most is the role of religion in politics and whether religion (any religion) can and should play a prominent role in the governance of truly democratic state.

God really shouldn’t intervene in governance. Good government is tough enough without throwing in religious strictures that demand loyalties and impede free speech and thought. Imagine a world where the Ikhwan, the Salafis, Christian or Jewish ultras ran the show. The same of course is true for secular-authoritarian polities such as Nazi Germany, Stalinist Russia and Communist China that demanded obeisance and complete loyalty to the state.

Plenty of working democracies are traditionally religious countries (see the United States), have religious symbols, flags with crosses (and Jewish stars), national anthems with religious themes, Christian Kings, rabbis ruling on marriage and all kinds of religious and spiritual rhetoric mixed up together.

Clearly in Turkey and Indonesia, Islam has been compatible with democratic practice. In the Arab world that is not the trajectory, let alone the end result so far. Nor does there seem to be much hope for the kind of democratic process that allows freedom of conscience, where people are permitted to worship as they please; criticize their own religion and that of others; and pursue their own ideas, sexual orientation or whatever they choose without fear of intimidation or much worse.

The United States has a high bar on protected speech that allows anyone to go to Times Square and say just about whatever they want until it becomes a threat to the public order. The same kind of freedom does not exist in Tahrir Square and is unlikely to anytime soon. But then again, maybe that’s too unfair a standard by which to evaluate societies whose circumstances and history are fundamentally different than our own.

The so-called Arab Spring—really an Islamist spring—lifted hopes, dreams and expectations of freedom and better governance. It will take time to play out. In the meantime, let us hope that the words of the Roman historian Tacitus don’t prove truer than our collective hopes—that the best day after the death of a bad emperor is the first day.

Aaron David Miller is a distinguished scholar at the Woodrow Wilson Center. He served as an adviser to Republican and Democratic secretaries of state on Arab-Israeli negotiations.

Image: FreedomHouse2