Sunday, May 22, 2005

Islamists and Democracy

Writing in the New York Times, Sa'ad Eddin Ibrahim makes the case for including Islamist parties in the democratic process:
"Seen as efficient and uncorrupt, these Islamists began to gain in popularity even among secularists and won parliamentary pluralities in Algeria in 1991 and in Turkey 11 years later. (In Algeria the Islamists were not allowed to enjoy the fruits of their victory thanks to a Western-condoned military coup.) Today, some two-thirds of the estimated 1.4 billion Muslims in the world live under democratically elected governments in which Islamists are major players - with Indonesia, Bangladesh and Morocco joining Turkey as bright spots.

"Clearly, on grounds of principle and pragmatism, Westerners should not be dismayed at the thought of allowing religious parties a role in the emerging political structures of the Arab world. For one thing, as citizens, Islamists are entitled to the same basic rights as others. It would therefore be hypocritical to call for democracy in these countries and at the same time to deny any groups wanting to peacefully contend for office.

"Second, Islamists tend to be fairly well organized and popular. Yes, some have created armed wings to their movements, ostensibly to resist foreign occupation (Hezbollah in Lebanon, Islamic Jihad in Palestine) or in response to authoritarian regimes. But in all cases, a moderate, less-violent Islamist core exists. Excluding the religious parties from the political mainstream risks giving the upper hand to the armed factions at the expense of their more moderate centers.

"Repression has had high costs. Where Islamist groups are denied access to political space, their cause takes on an aura of mythical martyrdom, and their abstract calls for a return to Islamic principles of governance are not put to the test. A phrase like 'the meek are the inheritors of the earth' resonates with the masses, though it is empty of any practical content. As long as these groups don't have to deal with the complicated business of forging actual political policies, their popularity remains untested. The challenge, therefore, is to find a formula that includes them in the system, but that prevents a 'one man, one vote, one time' situation."

I would actually disagree that Morocco counts as a democracy, but Ibrahim's point in that paragraph stands. The most interesting current test of Ibrahim's overall view is probably Palestine, where Hamas recently won an important role in municipal government. Jonathan Edelstein notes some reasons for optimism, and they are actually negotiating with Israel over local issues. Militant opposition to Israel is Hamas's signature issue. If they can deal practically with that, constructive participation in the democratic process is nothing. The best way to reduce the influence of these groups is not to ban them, but prove other agendas are better.


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