Democracy and the Muslim world: the “post-Islamist” turn

Asef Bayat
6 March 2009

The debate about the fragility of democracy in Islamic societies - with a particular focus on the middle east - has grown in intensity throughout the 2000s. It has been propelled by a combination of global and regional factors, and has focused largely on the real or imagined obstacles to democratic development: among them authoritarian family structures, clan-based social organisation, a social order antithetical to freedom, "oriental despotism", colonial domination, repressive legal structures, and the rentier character of many Muslim states.Asef Bayat is professor of sociology and middle-east studies at Leiden University, the Netherlands. His books include Making Islam Democratic: Social Movements and the Post-Islamist Turn  (Stanford University Press, 2007)

But there is a persistent and broad view that it is Islam itself which is responsible for the "democratic deficit" in much of the Muslim world. The experience of Turkey, Indonesia and Malaysia (to name only these) is enough to illustrate that the condition being diagnosed is more specifically identified with the middle east; but even here, the argument is far from well-grounded.

It is important to examine this view at a time of transition, when both advocates and critics of Islam (admittedly a rather crude characterisation - though the arguments on each side can often be such) are repositioning themselves in face of wider changes in the geopolitical and intellectual arena (see Olivier Roy, Whatever Happened to the Islamists? [C Hurst, 2009]). These changes include a reassessment of the principles underlying the support or promotion of democracy in the Muslim world, which has had a high profile in western policy and rhetoric in the 2000s; a theme explored in a number of earlier articles in this openDemocracy/International IDEA debate.    

A public faith

The notion has increasingly been heard that Islam is essentially incompatible with democracy because it emphasises God's sovereignty rather than that of human beings; because it values men over women; and because it discourages dialogue and pluralism. Many Muslims contest such views by arguing that God has granted sovereignty to humans to govern themselves; and that Islamic justice disallows discrimination based on class, race or gender (because the noblest humans are the most pious). The shared frame of these opposing views tends to draw them into an often sterile philosophical-theological terrain. In general, little effort has been made to understand the politics of religious affiliation, and how in practice Muslims perceive their religion in relation to democratic ideals.

This perspective makes the persistently raised question of whether Islam is or is not compatible with democracy appear misconceived - and the key issue become how and under what conditions Muslims can make their religion embrace a democratic ethos. There is nothing intrinsic to Islam (nor indeed any other religion) that means it is inherently either democratic or undemocratic (see Fred Halliday, "The Left and the Jihad", 7 September 2006). In this approach, the important factor is how the living faithful perceive and live through their faiths; and whether (in broad terms) they "deploy" their religions in exclusive and authoritarian terms or read in them justice, representation and pluralism.

This article is a contribution to an international debate on democracy support co-hosted by International IDEA and openDemocracy

Also published:

Vidar Helgesen, "Democracy support: where now?" (17 November 2008)

Rein Müllerson, "Democracy: history, not destiny" (25 November 2008)

Monika Ericson & Mélida Jiménez, "Taking stock of democracy" (17 December 2008)

Ingrid Wetterqvist, Raul Cordenillo, Halfdan L Ottosen, Susanne Lindahl & Therese Arnewing, "The European Union and democracy-building" (10 February 2009)

Daniele Archibugi, "Democracy for export: principles, practices, lessons" (5 March 2009) 

Many individuals and groups continue to perceive and present the same scriptures differently - itself an intriguing phenomenon, given their different biographies, interests and social positions. In fact many theocratic Islamists (like their Christian counterparts) self-consciously declare that Islam and democracy are incompatible on the grounds that any Islamic polity worth the name - by basing itself on "divine sovereignty" - is opposed to man-made democratic governance. These include the older generation of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt; factions within the conservative Islamist camp in Iran; and groups such as Hizb-ut-Tahrir which aim at establishing a global Islamic khalafat. In privileging the rule of sharia, the political schemas of these currents emphasise Muslims' religious obligations rather than civic rights.

In contrast, a growing trend within Muslim societies - what I have called "post-Islamism" - has opened up a productive space where pious sensibilities are able to incorporate a democratic ethos. The growth of such "post-Islamism" out of the anomalies of Islamist politics represents an attempted fusion of elements hitherto often seen as mutually exclusive: religiosity and rights, faith and freedom, Islam and liberty. The daring logic is to turn the underlying principles of Islamism on their head by emphasising rights instead of duties, plurality in place of a singular authoritative voice, ambiguity instead of certainty, historicity rather than fixed scripture, and the future instead of the past.

Between Tehran and Cairo

In this light, the issue of Islam's relationship to democratic ideas can be explored through the efforts of public advocates of Islamism and post-Islamism to increase their influence in society and the state. The history of socio-religious movements in two Muslim-majority countries - Iran and Egypt - since the 1970s offer interesting case-studies here (see Making Islam Democratic: Social Movements and the Post-Islamist Turn [Stanford University Press, 2007]).

In Iran, the 1979 revolution and the establishment of an Islamic state also established conditions for the rise of post-Islamist ideas and movements that aimed to transcend Islamism in society and governance. In their daily struggles, many forces - Muslim women, youth, students, religious intellectuals, and other social groups - incorporated into their faith notions of individual rights, tolerance, gender equality, and the separation of religion from the state. By their persistent presence in society, they compelled religious and political leaders to undertake a paradigmatic "post-Islamist" shift.

Among these groups, women have been at the centre (see Nikki R Keddie, "Iranian women and the Islamic Republic", 24 February 2009). Many Iranian women participated massively in the Islamic revolution, and continued to insist on asserting their public role under the new regime - even in the face of much opposition from the puritanical ruling elite. The post-revolution years saw an efflorescence of activity in public life as women pursued education and employment opportunities, entered the professions and created voluntary groups, practiced sports and cultural activities, and ran for public office.

The making of such public roles took place in a context of negotiation with Iran's new social and legal imperatives. In many cases, restrictive laws and customs had to be altered to accommodate the requisites of "public women" within the patriarchal religious system. Women's public activity in itself raised a host of issues: their hijab (and its compatibility with the nature of women's work), their relationships with men, their rights and the limits of their ambitions (if they could be high officials, would they still need to obtain their husbands' permission to attend a foreign conference?; why could they not be elected president or supreme leader?).

It was precisely such questions, now debated widely in public, that compelled political and religious leaders to undertake new interpretations of the scriptures so that the powerful quest for gender equality could be rendered compatible with the Islamic polity. Muslim feminists were only too prepared to contribute to the process by embarking on "women-centred" interpretations that emphasised gender equality. Instead of pointing to individual verses of the Qur'an, they referred to the "general spirit" of Islam, which, they argued, was in favour of equality between men and women.

Alongside women activists, other groups - of students and young people, of democracy advocates, of intellectuals - became active in post-revolutionary Iran. Many focused on citizenship rights, the rule of law, and the circulation of power, deploying similar strategies to establish the idea that democratic demands and human rights were not foreign to the spirit of Islam but integral to it. They argued that freedom rather than compulsion, is intrinsic to faith. It was partially these social and discursive mobilisations in society that set the ground for the victory of the reformist president, Mohammad Khatami, in 1997. Indeed, the "reform government" of 1997-2005 in Iran represented only one (that is, the political) aspect of this influential post-Islamist trend.

In Egypt, by contrast, there was no "regime change" as in Iran. But the search for an Islamic revolution was since the 1970s fired by a pervasive Islamist movement possessed of a conservative moral vision, a patriarchal disposition, and a strict adherence to scripture - though also using a strikingly populist language. The major actors in Egyptian society - the intelligentsia, the new rich, Muslim women activists, the al-Azhar university and religious institutions, the ruling elites, and the state - were engulfed by the "Islamist mode"; all converged around the language of nativism and a conservative moral ethos to configure a religious "passive revolution" in the country.

This "passive revolution" (a concept drawn from Antonio Gramsci) can be understood as a managed Islamic restoration whereby the state - the original target of change - succeeded in remaining fully in charge by co-opting, repressing, but also marginalising critical voices, innovative religious thought, and democratic demands. The bitterness and polarisation that ensued, and the relative lack of social mobilisation, helped ensure that religious thought in Egypt remained rigid; there was not the social pressure which would otherwise have compelled both religious thinkers and political leaders to rethink their orthodoxies in favor of an inclusive interpretation of religion and governance.

It was only in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks and the new period in global politics that they inaugurated that stagnant Egyptian politics acquired a new life. The militant Gama'a al-Islamiyya had already abandoned its violent insurrectionary strategy in favour of a peaceful and legalist turn, though it retained its Islamist ideology. The "young generation" of Muslim Brothers spoke the language of citizenship, pluralism, women's and minority rights, even as it upheld the supremacy of sharia and the dictum "Islam is the solution".

A nascent "democracy movement" centred around the Kifaya movement sought to transcend what many saw as the old-fashioned pan-Arab nationalist and Islamist politics. The efforts to place democracy on the nation's political agenda remained fragile and confined to a narrow section of society. Only the Hizb-ul-Wasat, a small splinter group from the Muslim Brothers that accommodated both Muslim and Christian activists, heralded a new "post-Islamist" trajectory.

The power to change

The diverse experiences of Iran and Egypt have their more recent counterparts elsewhere in the Muslim world. Indeed, a comparable field of changes or attempted changes has been visible since the 1990s in a number of Islamist movements in the middle east, central Asia and southeast Asia. Many of these attempt to accommodate aspects of democratic discourse, pluralism, women's rights and youth concerns within an overall Islamic project.

Hizbollah, for example, has transcended its exclusivist Islamist platform by adapting to the pluralistic political reality of Lebanon. Saudi Arabia has witnessed the emergence (whose fate is uncertain) of a "post-Wahhabi" trend that seeks some form of compromise between Islam and democracy. In Tajikistan, the Islamic Renaissance Party has been integrated into that country's secular political process, as has the Justice & Development Party in Morocco. The ruling Justice & Development Party (AKP) in Turkey too represents a developed post-Islamic trajectory where pious sensibilities are blended into the secular democratic polity. These instances represent some important conscious and reflective adjustments in Islamist politics in the past decade, even if there are significant variations in the depth, scope, and pace of change.

Yet none of these movements and trends (Turkey apart) have assumed full governmental power, and thus been obliged to consider how they would manage to realise an inclusive democratic polity. In Iran, the conservative Islamists fiercely subverted a democratic reform in the name of safeguarding Islam and the "Islamic system"; in Egypt, the ruling elite resisted reform in the name of preventing "religious extremism" from assuming governmental power. But the political impasse in these countries has been less a function of religion per se than of structural impediments and the longtime vested interests of ruling elites; the obstacle to democracy is politics not religion.

Such an impasse has tempted some opposition actors in the middle east to press for "regime change" via foreign intervention. The logic of the foregoing outline of the evolution of a "post-Islamist" trend (which has far from run its course) is to counsel caution here.

While international solidarity and support (whether from states or civil-society organisations) can be welcome - for instance, of the kind extended to the anti-apartheid movement by the majority in South Africa - the context in which it occurs and the nature of what it offers are crucial. In particular, democracy support and/or international assistance for human rights become truly meaningful and effective only when they are initiated and managed by credible movements centred in the relevant country or region, rather than unilaterally pushed from outside under whatever pretext.

It should be recalled that foreign intervention in the middle east has historically worked against, and not for democratic governance. Among the many examples are the creation of autocratic kingdoms in the Persian Gulf; the CIA's toppling of Iran's secular democratic prime minister Mohammad Mosaddeq and reinstatement of the Shah in Iran; and long-term western support for Saddam Hussein.

The voice within

More recently, the "democracy-promotion" strategy pursued by the United States has caused more harm to everyday citizens and their democratic dreams than benefit. The proclaimed intentions of this strategy, noble as they  are - human rights, civic freedoms, the liberation of women, as well as the core institutions of democracy itself - have too often been submerged by what is a military-imperial project with regime-change as an entry point and the rhetoric of democracy as its legitimation.

In any case, the regime-change version of democracy-promotion is rooted in the false assumption that installing democracy as the highest value justifies drastic violations. The occupation of Iraq, with all its disastrous consequences, is justified after the event on account of the incipient democratic system that on a benign view is evolving in the country. But an instrumental doctrine of this kind is flawed. Its coerciveness discredits the ideal of democracy; it provides a pretext for xenophobic and repressive rulers to play the "anti-imperialist" card; it is guaranteed to inflict widespread pain, death, and destruction; and it is unlikely to work even in its own narrow terms. Democracy cannot be "promoted" on top of a mountain of corpses.

Instead, a change in societies' sensibilities is a precondition for a sustainable democratic turn. This can only be triggered through information and education, but especially by people from all areas of social life who in their everyday lives fulfil their civic responsibilities, voice their aspirations, broadcast injustice, and excel in what they do.

This applies to citizens of Muslim countries as to those of any other. The primary responsibility for realising the promise of a large-scale democratic shift is theirs, not that of foreign governments or international agencies. The change will occur as and when they master the art of presence - the skill and spirit to assert a collective will against all odds by circumventing constraints, utilising what is possible, and discovering new spaces within which to make themselves heard, seen, and felt.

The "post-Islamist" turn can be seen in this respect as part of an unfolding historic process. The implication is that any initiatives for sustained democratic reform in Muslim societies world must have the agency of people in these societies at its very heart. Even the most painstaking reform efforts will yield little outcome if democracy is led - and seen to be led - from outside, even more so if through coercion and conquest.

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