North Africa, West Asia

Arab Spring: political islam or democracy?

One-year on, the Arab revolutions continue to circle around the issue of whether Islam is compatible with democracy. This article asks the long-feared question: Is the Arab Spring, articulated in the democratic idiom of freedom, liberty and justice, doomed to a takeover by the Islamists?

Wajahat Qazi
19 December 2011

The trajectory and denouement of the Arab Spring may determine an issue that good minds have grappled with with no real success: the compatibility of Islam with democracy. It has long been believed that Islam and democracy share different philosophical and historical assumptions and are thus incompatible. The former, an Abrahamic faith that claims to be the last of the revealed religions, is premised on the sovereignty of the ultimate reality, God and the prophet hood of the last messenger, Prophet Muhammad (SAW). And the latter, premised on a divorce between God or divine will and temporal affairs, attributes sovereignty to the people. The corpus of laws that flow from these rather opposing premises are naturally and inevitably different and even mutually exclusive. This admittedly brief delineation of the two philosophies - albeit reductive - may suffice for the purpose of drawing this contrast.
Is the Arab Spring, articulated in the democratic idiom of freedom, liberty and justice - doomed to a takeover by the Islamists? Are the Islamists merely using these ideas as slogans to cloak their real agenda? If power is the real agenda of the Islamists, what consequence would this have on Islam and the world of Islam? Would a synthesis that integrates reason, democracy and Islam emerge out of this? And what would be the impact on the international relations of Arab Muslim states run by Islamists? What should the western response be?
Answers to these questions necessarily fall in the domain of speculation and are fraught with uncertainty. However, given the contours and the trajectory of the Arab Spring that began its onward march from Tunisia and is still going strong, some inferences and extrapolations may at this point be drawn. It can now be safely concluded that Islamists are likely to be the beneficiaries of the Arab Spring. That is to say, in different permutations and combinations, they are likely to come to power in most Arab Muslim countries.

This may not be a bad outcome. Long excluded from power and having borne the brunt of the repression carried out against them by the Arab authoritarian regimes, Islamists were marginalized and driven underground. Out of this repression and other factors emerged the Al-Qaida phenomenon whose preferred idiom of engagement with the world was that of terrorism.
Coming to power through the ballot box may mainstream political Islam and the nitty-gritty and tedious dynamic of governing may moderate the tenor of political Islam. This would be to rendering the vote and the ballot box - important aspects of democracy - normal in the Arab Middle East, legitimizing these as the modus vivendi for coming to power. This in turn would inevitably affect the tenour of politics in a region long used to praetorianism and authoritarianism. While voting and the ballot box - as events in much of the Third World and sub Saharan Africa remind us on a daily basis - are no guarantee of democracy and democratization, they play however a critical role in socializing peoples not used to democracy into the process.
Perhaps more importantly, coming to power will also make the Islamists confront the question of reason, faith and governance in the modern world.  The conspicuous absence of the ulema or traditional Islamic scholars that have historically blocked reform in the world of Islam and latched onto ossified aspects of the Muslim tradition gives grounds for hope.  A new corpus of leaders may make Ijtehad or reform mainstream and come up with a synthesis that integrates reason with faith, leading to the creation of a democratic template that suits the temper of the Arab Muslim Middle East. This may not be wishful thinking. The demands of governance will inevitably warrant a rethink of some of the assumptions of the Islamists and pressure them into making peace with the salient aspects of modernity.
These twin pressures and consequences of coming to power may not only lead to a moderation of the Islamist impulse, but also moderate the tenour of their relations with the outside world, especially the west. The Arab Muslim states approach to the Westphalian system of states has hitherto been warped and jaundiced. Premised on stability and the politics of oil and overlain by mutual cynicism, these sour relations have validated the authoritarianism of the Arab regimes. Now this is set to change. The nature of the engagement will be with elected regimes and articulated in an idiom where state/society relations are more likely to be aligned. The silver lining is that socialization into international relations and international politics may further consolidate democracy in the Arab Muslim world.
Cumulatively, all of this may be good news for both democracy and the world of Islam. Good for democracy in the sense that it may constitute the fourth wave of democracy and validate democracy as the best of governing ideologies. And its salubrious impact on the world of Islam would be that it would be shaken out of the torpor and decrepitude that it has sunk into. The world of Islam will then engage with the world in an idiom that redounds positively to a peaceful world order. The doomsday laden scenario of clashing civilizations will then axiomatically be given short shrift and the denizens of the Arab Muslim world will be free to aspire for the ‘good life’. Last but not the least, the question of the compatibility of Islam with democracy will be answered, not in the minds of men, but through the very unfolding of the historical process. It may therefore be about time that together we pray for and hope for the Syrian people’s success.

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