Democracy and Islamism

In the last days of 2005, leading thinkers and scholars from around the world share their fears, hopes and expectations of 2006. Forty-nine of openDemocracy’s distinguished contributors, from Mariano Aguirre to Slavoj Zizek, Neal Ascherson to Jonathan Zittrain – offer their predictions for the coming year. Since this is openDemocracy, we did not expect them to agree. We were not disappointed. (Part Two)
Olivier Roy
22 December 2005


2006 will see the unravelling of the contradiction between the “war on terrorism” and the “greater middle east” policy. The first is devoted to fighting violent radical Islam while the second means promoting democracy in the middle east. The war on terrorism enlists regimes which are confronted with the threat of terrorism. The greater middle east policy challenges the existing regimes, either hostile (Iran, Syria) or supposedly friendly (Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Uzbekistan), in favour of an immediate process of democratisation.

The problem is that elections, from Egypt to Palestine, are bringing Islamist parties either to power or close to power, enabling them to impose a part of their agenda, namely the sharia, which runs against what is seen as a prerequisite for democracy: secularisation and women’s rights. Drawing a clear line between radical groups and legitimate political actors becomes more and more difficult: Hamas has been put on the list of terrorist movements, but at the same time any process of democratisation in Palestine requires the recognition of Hamas as a legitimate political actor.

This contradiction is also reflected in the ambivalence of Arab public opinion, which massively opposes the US intervention in Iraq, but also resents the long lasting western support for authoritarian regimes. Clearly things have changed: regimes nervously react to the US pressure but are more or less reluctantly opening the political sphere and allowing some sort of freedom in elections. Democratisation is on the move, but has to be rooted in nationalism and Islam, rather than being imposed through pressure. Elections are not just a technical tool: they allow the emergence of repressed actors and feelings.

There are therefore growing voices in America, Europe and Israel calling for more restraint in democratisation. But there will be no democracy if Islamist parties are not engaged. The European approach of advocating a slow process of reform within authoritarian secular regimes before allowing elections has been a failure. The regimes will reform only under pressure.

2006 is therefore a turning point: either democratisation remains the priority, in which case the military interventions in Afghanistan and Iraq will make some sense, or the west will step back towards a short-sighted Realpolitik, which will neither suppress radicalism nor stabilise the middle east.

The problem here is not that religious parties are opposed to democracy. The mainstream Islamist parties in Egypt, Syria and Iraq clearly indicated that they are on the democratic trail, while Hamas and Hizbollah stick to armed struggle less for doctrinal reasons than because of their nationalist orientations.

But the process of democratisation requires time. Western support for authoritarian and corrupt regimes will boost the nationalist credentials of the Islamist parties and lend legitimacy to the accusation of double-speak. There is no other choice than to endorse democracy and pressure authoritarian regimes. This is the challenge of 2006.


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