North Africa, West Asia

'Too moral' to run for a democratic government? We might think again

Respect for the rule of law, human rights and freedom of expression – how to implement these practices should be the focus of researchers and policy makers, rather than being trapped into the banality of accusing Islam of tyranny.

Dila Gurses
1 October 2013

As the disastrous events of summer 2013 for the Muslim world unfold – from instability in Tunisia/Libya, a crackdown in Egypt, Turkey and the Syrian war – I found myself researching Muslim electoral politics and the support for democracy through the lens of Islamic parties.

The big debate that became even more intense after the revolutions of 2011, of whether Muslim-majority countries have “democracy-friendly” citizens, has inspired many studies. Among these, one of the most crucial findings are of Tessler and Jamal (2008) who conclude that even though there are variations in the ways democracy is understood by citizens, there is an overwhelming support for democracy in the Arab world – considering that none of these countries, except Tunisia to certain extent, have yet consolidated a liberal democratic system.

Secondly, Islam or being Muslim per se is found to have almost no significant effect on the support for democracy. These two important conclusions set aside; political Islam and Islamic parties have often been labeled ‘inherently undemocratic’, in their demands for stricter religious or moral laws. Though political Islam is nowhere near as fundamentalist, isolationist nor as radical as it was in the 1990s - entering an era of what is called “post Islamism” by Asef Bayat - there appears to be the ‘Muslim Brother effect’ of political Islam; a 'Gramscian effect of establishing a political and moral hegemony' in civil society. Certainly many Muslim-majority countries have seen the electoral successes of Islamic parties; from Morocco to Indonesia, very few openly having a Sharia-based Islamic state in their party agendas. This description is surely aimed at Vali Nasr’s Muslim Democrats, the new form of right-wing politics that fuses middle-class religious values with policies that serve mass economic interests. In addition, we can observe a globalist outlook like AKP’s Erdogan or Indonesia’s Suharto. Nonetheless from a political/moral hegemony perspective, Islamist parties indeed play the ‘state card' when it comes to moral laws: as Asef Bayat says, “in the ideal Muslim state, the moral and political authority converges”.

When all else is controlled, it is interesting to examine how political authority is exerted over morality and ethics (and tradition) and whether this is to be found only in religious parties? When two of the world’s strongest and most resilient democracies, Switzerland and Germany’s ‘Grundgesetz/Verfassung’ are examined through their laws about ‘morality’ and ‘moral law’, we may take the opportunity to see how this works. Thus, the German Grundgesetz says that every person has the right to the free development of his/her personality insofar that he/she does not violate the rights of others or offend the constitutional order or moral laws. The Swiss Code of Obligations states that a contract is void if its terms are impossible, unlawful or immoral; and Article 41 says that a person who wilfully causes loss or damage to another in an immoral manner is obliged to provide compensation. In contemplating the "state card", as it determines what is moral or not in our lives, I have come to the realization that it was only in 2003 that the US Supreme Court annulled the ‘immoral’ sodomy law, which prohibited any sexual intercourse that involved two same-sex unmarried couples; for instance the Lawrence v. Texas case. Not to mention the immense debate on how ‘moral’ or ‘immoral’ abortion is by that state's authorities.

As George Lakoff in his work “Moral Politics: How Liberals and Conservatives Think” (1996) puts it, the centrality of morality and especially the close relationship with the concept of family values (stereotyping a strong family patriarch) continues to dominate conservative political language, in his case in the United States. Why else would support for AIDS research, needle exchange programs or condom use be labeled as ‘immoral’ liberal policies? Consequently, the presence of ‘morality’ clauses, family, tradition (‘Abenländischer’ is a legal term) and the state dictate what is right, favorable or wrong and who ought to be punished, and this is not unique to Islamic or religious parties.

To avoid any confusion, it would be terribly wrong to suggest that leading democracies of the world, like Switzerland, the US or Germany are flawed in their constitution/legal systems, or that their secular aspect per se might subject them to criticism. Rather, my aim is to show how playing the 'state card' and controlling our morality, inclduing the constant referencing and appraisal of how we live as moral subjects, would not be unique to religious conservatism. This recognition in itself, in turn, might pave the way for a more intelligent analysis of the democratic potential of populist Islamic parties. In the end, the logical effort would be to focus on institutional and legal flaws and how they might be improved by today’s democrats in the Muslim world, and scholars globally. It would be plausible to argue, as Dani Rodrik did about contemporary Turkey after the Gezi protests; that it is old-fashioned to blame Islam or the conservative/Islamic moralism of the AKP for the dysfunction of democratic governance in Turkey. He argues:

"Given this backdrop of repression and punctuated democracy, the failure of Islamists in Egypt and Turkey tells us less about Islam’s compatibility with democracy than we might think. Did Morsi and Erdoğan behave as they did because of their religious ideologies, or would most political leaders seeking to retain power have acted in similar ways in their position? Latin America, where Islam plays no political role, has no shortage of populist strongmen who routinely violate civil liberties and political rights."

The institutional and legal flaws certainly manifest themselves; as leaders like Erdogan are capable of manipulating and reversing processes that do not fit their agendas. This includes toppling military power or pragmatic compliance to the European Union’s Copenhagen Criteria. If we compare again Muslim-majority countries with Switzerland or Germany, we definitely should be focusing on institutional-ideological balance or on the checks-and-balances structure of Swiss and German legal systems; not to mention a fully functioning executive. Respect for the rule of law, human rights and freedom of expression – how to implement these practices should be the focus of researchers and policy makers, rather than being trapped into the banality of accusing Islam of tyranny.  

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