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5 Barriers That Must Be Overcome for Islam to Move toward Democracy

Westerners who live in democratic countries usually have trouble imagining other forms of political systems. It’s sort of like most Americans who think that other people in the world would be American if they only had the chance. Extending such reasoning implies that most people believe that Muslims would be democratic if they only had a chance. And while such reasoning might be seductive, the road to democracy will be long and difficult. Here are some basic forces preventing the adoption of serious democratic conditions anytime soon: A good source for additional information is a book titled Islamic Democratic Discourse by M.A.  Muqtedar Khan.

1. Democracy is relatively unrealistic for serious Muslim polities because of its emphasis on individualism and secularism and the almost idealization of these things. The basic Enlightenment principles of progress and a continuous movement toward a more free and truthful future is quite alien to Islam. Moreover, many Muslims are skeptical about the gap between the truth and the ideal of democracy. They believe the United States sells an appealing sounding tonic but its actual consumption is bitter.

2. Muslim societies are not oriented toward individualism and they are more attached to collectivist ideals and an authoritative text. Pushing a democracy agenda continues to impose models and values on Muslim societies that do not serve the needs of that society and are inconsistent with it. And pushing democracy results in a distraction for Muslims directing their attention away from the achievement of a genuine Islamic society. Some of the radical thinkers thought that it took time to achieve a genuine Muslim society and democracy interfered with that. These radical thinkers (such as Sayyid Qutb) were also more interested in returning to earlier idealized political organizations and clearly democracy is inconsistent with these historical periods.

3. Many Muslims, especially the traveling intellectual class, are “put off” by what they see in capitalist systems. They easily believe democracy is for the rich and is based in corruption, colonialism, and is a general anathema to Islam. And it is not difficult to find examples of all of these things even though it is an exaggeration and not particularly correct to assume that they are the definitional base of democracy. The sort of personal freedom that democrats value and cherish is seen by many Islamic intellectuals as resulting in corruption and social degradation, whereby moral standards slip away and prohibitions about sexual conduct and other behaviors are abandoned. Again, it is easy enough to find examples of these things and make the case. Some even take it a step further and conclude that the goal of democracy is to destroy Islam.

4. The West has tried to make the case that there is no serious contradictions between Islam and Western civilization namely democracy. But Muslims increasingly respond with statements of clear contradiction. For example, they explain that Muslim civilization is dependent on divine revelation and that life is directed toward religious fulfillment. By contrast, Western democratic societies are more rooted in materialism, secularism, and individuality. These things are quite distinct from Islamic spiritual and moral values. For Islam, science and reason are subject to the conditions of revelation and there is no separation of mosque and state.

5. Finally, some theorists compare the Muslim system of consultation in decision-making with democracy. But these two systems remain distinct enough such that democracy cannot be compared. Muslim decision-making is top-down and a sort of elitist consultation. It lacks the nitty-gritty interaction of the population. And the consultation system is typically more concerned with the proper interpretation of Islam than it is with civic jurisprudence. Shia sects have always been more preoccupied with the existence of a divine ruler than with democratic processes and this forms a barrier to change. In fact, these principles have become alternatives to democracy and interfered with many democratic influences. Democracy will have a tough time as long as the primary objective of the Islamic state is to implement divine law even if this law is interpreted by erudite men.

Muslims see themselves as essentially an ethical enterprise and not as an enlightened polity on its way to democracy. In fact, the intrusion of human discretion makes the implementation of divine commands more difficult. For the serious Muslim human development and law are unambiguously derived from Islamic sources. This makes democracy quite untenable.

Back to the Future for Egypt: They Have Returned to the 1950s

I’ve been skeptical about emerging democracies in the Middle East in general but Egypt in particular. There have been a few positive signs here and there and that is encouraging. Last week’s post was devoted to REAL democracies and, if I do say so myself, was a pretty convincing comparison of what even rudimentary democracies should look like and how places like Egypt do not measure up.

But I thought Walter Russell Mead’s article in the Wall Street Journal on the failure of our grand plans in the Middle East was particularly insightful. You can find the article here. In fact, I thought his main point about what actually happened with the takedown of Mubarak was so convincing that my dose of depression about Egypt’s supposed emerging democracy is on the increase. And although I’m not convinced of each point made by Mead, his analysis of the relationship between the military and the government is spot on. The military is a privileged organization in Egyptian society. The military leadership is an elitist segment of the society that garners significant benefits and perks, which they are not about to give up easily. Some of the strongest and most accomplished leaders in Egypt are military, and they move easily between the military and the civilian government. The military is highly integrated into Egyptian politics and considers itself the dominant and most important state institution.

It turns out, according to Mead, that Mubarak was trying to arrange for his son to be his successor and avoid altogether the military’s role in choosing a future leader. This would have turned Egypt into a family dynasty rather than a military republic. The military leadership was having none of this and was involved in fighting back partially by creating unrest. The military touted their democratic credentials by standing back and letting protest movements challenge Mubarak until he fell. They then stepped in and restored peace and quite skillfully played the father-protector role. Even though the military is more powerful than the Muslim Brotherhood, they accepted the appointment of Morsi initially believing they could manage him. When Morsi turned out to be less than competent and failed to understand his role the military removed him. Again, Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood credentials worked to his disadvantage since both the military and the general population is suspicious of the Brotherhood.

So, what do we have now! We have the Egypt in the 1950s. Egypt is a military republic that has come full circle and made no progress toward democracy. Mead continues to explain that the population assumes that only the military can protect them from the Islamists and hence maintain a sympathetic attitude toward the military. The other two forces in society – liberals and the Muslim Brotherhood – are fluttering in the background incapable of doing much.

Both Mubarak and the leaders of the Muslim Brotherhood are on trial which I presume will justify military political goals. Mubarak, who is from the military, was sentenced to life imprisonment but a retrial was ordered. This will allow the military to remove Mubarak but pay their debts to one of their own. The military has skillfully deposed Mubarak and appeased the population who would have revolted had they watched him walk away free, but the military will ensure that Mubarak’s final days are quiet and in the background.

Egypt is an important culture and strategic ally of the United States. A couple of years ago there was great hope and optimism for enlightened progress in Egypt. But such hope and optimism are waning. We have to sit back for a while and let Egypt stabilize before altering our foreign-policy stance. But we can’t sit back for too long because issues related to Iran, the peace treaty with Israel, Islamism, terrorism, and various strategic interests await us.

I Told You So! You Don’t Want Islam Running the Department of Waste Management

In February of 2011, over two years ago, I posted a blog with the title “Do You Really Want Islam Running the Department of Waste Management?” With the rise and now fall of Morsi in Egypt we had a chance to watch what happens when the Muslim Brotherhood or Islam is governing. It wasn’t pretty. Morsi was dumped by the Egyptian military for his autocratic and incompetent governance. Local Egyptians have been “put off” by the shortfall in fuel, electricity, and a crumbling economy. Human Rights Watch said that Morsi continued the abusive practices of Mubarak, and any number of journalists and political activists have been prosecuted unfairly.

The Foundation for the Defense of Democracies reported on July 9, 2013 that apparently a document proving six-figure payments to top Muslim Brotherhood officials has surfaced. This document is important because as Islamists the Brotherhood claimed that they were more religious and had higher morals and were less subject to corruption. Morsi had apparently replaced hundreds of judges and officials with Muslim Brotherhood figures and was assumed to have adopted the political corruption of his predecessors.

It’s just possible that Morsi failures signal the end of religious politics in Egypt. Much of the population is unhappy with the Muslim Brotherhood’s politicization of religion and unfair treatment of the opposition. The Egyptian Constitution is wise with respect to its principles of separation of religion and politics. Religious parties are illegal because they could not maintain the respect for the differences between religion and politics. The Muslim Brotherhood has failed to respect this principle which is crucial for democracy.

Democracy through its persistent debate and contest maintains a check and balances system that is constantly responding to needs and threats posed by different groups in society. Different religious, ethical, and political groups need to have their rights met but also achieve a degree of unity. Such unity will not be found in a comprehensive political or religious system; that is, a system of fixed ideas about the universe and preference for only those who hold such ideas. In that case the political entity would be governed by a single group with the regular maximization of differences and inequality. The most successful form of unity tying pluralistic groups together is broad but not necessarily very deep. It represents a political conception of justice that is capable of including multiple groups.

Hence, the logic of the European liberal experience has demonstrated that tolerance cannot be separated from liberalism. And, continuing the logic, tolerance cannot be separated from a loss of certainty. Tolerance results in a loss of faith and in the experience of at least unfreezing one’s attitudes. This is why religious groups – whether they are Muslim, Christian, or Jewish – who are highly Orthodox in their beliefs and unwavering often isolate themselves from others. They fear contamination in the form of exposure to unwanted influences. Tolerance is firmly rooted in a communication process, governed by conditions of civility and debate, which sets into motion political activity that questions one’s own certainty. One of the difficulties for the liberal state is for its members to subscribe to a shared point of view about justice and recede from religious justifications, but subscribe to this shared morality on the basis of their own religion and point of view. The key point here is that the result of discovering this common point of view or common morality is justified on moral grounds acceptable to both competing parties. As Rawls (1993) maintains, this sort of overlapping morality can only emerge from the public sphere on the basis of public reasoning.

Such conditions are very alien to the religious Muslim. Not that this is required because there are ways to think about and interpret Islam in a somewhat more accommodating manner. But such is not the case for the Brotherhood.

Israel, Islam, and the Muscular Left

Hezbollah rockets often have sayings written on them such as “Remember the Khaybar, the armies of Mohammed will return.” Or it is not uncommon in a moment of victorious joy to hear a Muslim call out “Remember the Khaybar.” Khaybar was a battle in 629 where the prophet Mohammed defeated Jewish tribes. This victory is typically recalled in the chants and sayings expressing military victory and the defeat of the Jews.

The old European left, forged in the fires of Nazism and Fascism, identified with Jews and the struggling State of Israel. The left understood Jewish suffering and supported the State of Israel as a justifiable political collective deserving of national and political identity. Israel was understood to be emerging in the tradition of freedom and the struggle against oppression of all types. This was a time in the history of the left when they made distinctions and substantive decisions. It was a time when oppression and terrorism were clearly unacceptable and could not be justified by any argument. Historically, leftist and progressive political ideology was responsible for the defeat of Nazism, Fascism, and the development of human rights.

But in the last couple of decades the intellectual left has lost its moral compass and has now never met a minority group that did not consider oppressed. The European and American left are getting weaker and less able to defend themselves as a voice of moral legitimacy and progress. Israel is a very good case in point. Once, Israel was the darling child of the left because they had suffered so much discrimination, betrayal, and extermination. 50 years ago the State of Israel was bathed in the celestial glow of growing political strength and national identity. A longtime oppressed people were reconstituting themselves in their ancient homeland.

I grant you the changing conditions on the ground – settlements, checkpoints, and Israel’s military strength. But this is part of what I mean when referring to the left’s inability to make distinctions and decisions. They seem to be unable to distinguish between the peaceful and democratic trends in Israel and a discriminatory religious state. The left’s ideology has circled around and flanked itself. They now see everything filtered through a colonialism lens and robotically take the side of the smaller minority group. This is true in Vietnam, Rhodesia, Israel, and other causes such as Hugo Chavez in Venezuela. The rigid blindness caused by this colonialism lens is evidenced by the number of political regimes that are thoroughly authoritarian and repressive but still receive the sympathy of the left, especially the European left. And they have occasionally made the distinction between vulnerable European Jews and Israel as a modern-day Sparta, but this distinction between Israel and Jews is indefensible. The left’s ideological criticism of Israel coupled with Islam’s blatant anti-Semitism makes for a combustible situation. Even Christopher Hitchens, who later in life gravitated toward the muscular left in his support of the Iraq war, maintained his criticism of Israel right up until his end.

A Muscular Left

I would encourage you to read a statement on muscular liberalism called the Euston Manifesto. It is a document that tries to reinvigorate progressive politics by focusing on egalitarian liberalism and democratic commitments that are true to authentic liberal values in the actual tradition of the term and not so flexible so as to include defending all sorts of anti-liberal causes such as extremist Islam. Muscular liberalism makes no apology for tyranny; there are no excuses to “understand” violence and repressive regimes that harm their own people and stifle political progress. The muscular left does not countenance apologies and drawn out explanations designed to justify violence and repression.

Egalitarian politics has always been a staple of the liberal tradition especially between ethnic communities because even after peace treaties are signed it is interpersonal and cultural equality and respect that makes for lasting peace. A muscular liberal tradition accepts differences of opinion and perspective as normal and requires contentious issues to be solved through the communication process. The only legitimate battles are rhetorical and argumentative designed to manage conflict.

The left must remember that it once apologized for Stalinism and Maoism. The modern version of these apologetics is making excuses for suicide terrorism and religious extremism. Muscular liberalism challenges anti-democratic forces wherever it sees them – even if they emerge from historically oppressed groups.

How to Respond to Radical Islam

The post below was originally published in HartfordFAVS. You can access it here.

There are two ways to begin to approach the problem of radical Islam. The first is political and sees radical Islam as a problem of political will and development. The first question to ask here is, “what are the goals of an Islamist group?” Is the goal one of military takeover of the geographic area, or the spread of ideological and religious Islam? Take the case of the Gaza Strip and Hamas. Much of Hamas is militaristic and seeks political control of the Gaza Strip. Other elements, mostly smaller elements, want to impose religious law and work with offshoot groups that are Salafi-Jihad groups.

Hamas in Gaza receives international attention for its conflict with Israel but they also compete with other groups that are more radically Islamist in nature – even though the numbers are small and they are poorly organized. The competition is between principles of political Islam and not so much about military strength. There are more than a few members of the Hamas leadership who have little interest in debating political Islam and find these Salafi-Jihad groups to be annoying at the moment. Most Hamas leadership prefers to spend their time threatening Israel and organizing the Gaza Strip rather than finding new ways to express political Islam. In fact, there are times when Hamas has quite an oppositional and antagonistic relationship with these religiously-based groups. One leader of a radical Islamist group a couple of years ago challenged Hamas and declared in Islamic emirate in Palestine and demanded that Sharia law be imposed. At present, Hamas resists these groups and prefers to keep them at a distance while they maintain their more contentious relationship with the PLA and Israel.

So what is the best way to challenge and perhaps overcome radical Islam? These groups are very extreme, wishing to reestablish the Caliphate and bring all Muslims under a single rule, and removing anyone (especially Israelis) from what they considered to be Islamic holy land. And they usually classify declared Islamic states such as Saudi Arabia and Iran as illegitimate because they are not Islamic enough. This leads to infighting among Islamist groups and is troubling and destabilizing for governments. Governments in Central Asia and other places have contributed to the problem by engaging in strong repression. This radicalizes the group and forces them to respond even more aggressively. Worse yet, these groups can give governments a license to carry out violent retaliation that usually exacerbates the problem. Below are some suggestions for dealing with groups with a dangerous agenda and a threatening form of political Islam. All of these suggestions are based on the assumption that authoritarian political systems, which are economically undeveloped and lack legitimate democratic outlets for conflict resolution, contribute to the popularity of these groups and encourage citizens to turn toward them.

  1.  Governments confronting extremist Islamic groups must establish conditions for these groups to operate within legal confines of democracy. In other words, the government should allow Islamist groups to organize and express themselves on the basis of free symbolic behavior. This allows citizens to begin the habits of listening to alternatives. Imposing repressive sanctions on these grou I ps drives them underground and radicalizes them.
  2. Begin a program to work with young people explaining the consequences of political Islam. People in a community in general should develop more knowledge about religious issues and various leaders. What will it mean for the state to adopt or Islamic principle and its governance? Include in these discussions secular political groups as well.
  3. Allow democratically defended opportunities for criticism and complaints. This must be done within the confines of the law and proper modes of political expression. The press of course can be a good platform for the presentation of issues and ideas.
  4. Use the language of Islam to understand the language of extremist Islam. That is, the best way to challenge the political ideology of extremist Islam is within the discourse of Islam itself. This will require using imams and scholars to engage in such debate.
  5. Maintain proper control of police and security forces. They should be used mainly to control and manage criminal behavior and not to stifle political activity.

Steps in this direction will prevent Salafi-jihad groups from radicalizing and going underground which makes them only more secretive and difficult to manage. By eliminating the conditions under which these groups thrive, it becomes possible to control them. The process is difficult and slow but more open political systems, economic development, and freedom of expression will keep these groups exposed and under more control.

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