The Islamic world, the United States, democracy: response to Shadi Hamid

Tarek Osman
15 May 2009

President Barack Obama is scheduled to deliver a speech in Cairo in June 2009 in which he is expected to reach out to the Islamic world, part of the continuing work of repairing the ties between the United States and Muslims that were so damaged under the administration of his predecessor. The US's president's address will most likely extend and reinforce the themes outlined in his "remarks" to the parliament in Ankara during his visit to Turkey on 6-7 April: 

"America's relationship with the Muslim community, the Muslim world, cannot, and will not, just be based upon opposition to terrorism. We seek broader engagement based on mutual interest and mutual respect.

Also in the debate on democracy support co-hosted by the Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance (International IDEA) and openDemocracy:

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)

Kristen Sample, "No hay mujeres: Latin America women and gender equality" (4 February 2009)

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

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

Asef Bayat, "Democracy and the Muslim world: the post-Islamist turn" (6 March 2009)

, "American democracy promotion: an open letter to Barack Obama" (11 March 2009) - a document hosted by the Center for the Study of Islam and Democracy (CSID) and the Project on Middle East Democracy (POMED)

Rodrigo de Almeida "The inspectors of democracy" (13 March 2009)

Tarek Osman, "Democracy-support and the Arab world: after the fall" (17 March 2009)

Christopher Hobson & Milja Kurki, "Democracy and democracy-support: a new era" (20 March 2009)

Shadi Hamid, "Democracy's time: a reply to Tarek Osman" (6 April 2009)

Rumbidzai Kandawasvika-Nhundu, "The gender of democracy matters" (7 April 2009) 

Vessela Tcherneva, "Moldova: time to choose" (9 April 2009)

Krzysztof Bobinski, "The partnership principle: Europe, democracy, and the east" (22 April 2009)

Winluck Wahiu & Paulos Tesfagiorgis, "Africa: constitution-building vs coup-making" (28 April 2009)

Achin Vanaik, "Capitalism and democracy" (29 April 2009)

Anna Lekvall, "Democracy and aid: the missing links" (13 May 2009)We will listen carefully, we will bridge misunderstandings, and we will seek common ground. We will be respectful, even when we do not agree. We will convey our deep appreciation for the Islamic faith, which has done so much over the centuries to shape the world - including in my own country."

The overall message is somewhat in vogue these days. In March 2009, a group of international experts and scholars wrote a letter to President Obama urging him to put democratic reform at the heart of the US's engagement with the Arab World (see  "American democracy promotion: an open letter to Barack Obama" (11 March 2009). The core advice of the letter - jointly hosted by the Center for the Study of Islam and Democracy (CSID) and the Project on Middle East Democracy (POMED) - was the need for Washington under its new leadership to engage with the political Islamic currents in (mainly) the Arab world, as well as to support Arab liberals.

In reply, I suggested that the letter erred in respect of its scope and content. My central argument was that the United States, as a result of its strategic interests in the middle east, is on a clashing path with the Arab world's political Islamic current (see Tarek Osman, "Democracy-support and the Arab world: after the fall" [17 March 2009]).

Shadi Hamid, co-convenor and one of the lead drafters of the open letter, responded in turn to my article by arguing that leading representatives of political Islam in the Arab and Islamic worlds (such as key members of the Muslim Brotherhood) are showing signs of increasing liberalism; for example, by inherently accepting peace with Israel and writing in Jewish newspapers in the United States. Accordingly, America, should seek to find common ground with such currents of political Islam:

"There is an important change underway. In much of the middle east, Islamist groups are aware that gaining power within their countries will remain unlikely, if not impossible, without US encouragement or, at the very least, neutrality....It would be wise for the United States to carefully consider such overtures. After all, autocracy cannot be made permanent. Eventually, the authoritarian regimes of the region will cease to be. An uncertain ‘something else' will replace them. Western nations would be wise to prepare themselves for the change to come. It is better to have leverage with Islamist parties before they come to power, not afterwards when it is too late" (see Shadi Hamid, "Democracy's time: a reply to Tarek Osman" [6 April 2009]). 

Shadi Hamid's response is in my view based on a flawed and limited framing of the US's relationship with the Islamic world. This article continues the discussion, itself also part of the debate on the future of democracy-support jointly hosted by the Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance (International IDEA) and openDemocracy). I develop here the case outlined in my original contribution: that the United States - and where appropriate the European Union and other interlocutors too - needs to frame its view of, and dialogue with, the Islamic world in a different and more creative way. Three dimensions of this proposed change are considered.

Range and complexity

The first dimension is to recognise nuance and complexity, in ways that move beyond the reductive view of reducing political Islam as (at heart) little more than hapless opposition movements in a number of Arab countries.

The United States political outlook with regard to the Islamic world tends to centre around such groups as the Muslim Brotherhood, Hamas, Harakat al-Tahrir, Hizbollah, and the multitude of other Islamist movements in the middle east. This reductive tendency to respond to the most ambitious and manipulative Islamist voices rather than the quieter and truer leads it to be drawn into petty, tactical and localised issues and problems (see Ali A Allawi, The Crisis of Islamic Civilization [Yale University Press, 2009].

A more mature outlook would see Islam also as a sort of grand socio-political umbrella of values and guiding principles that can comprise and accommodate many different political currents. It is not the exclusive doctrine of any political movement; it vastly transcends them.

This more nuanced view of political Islam would retrieve the ideas of Sheikh Ali Abdel Razek (1888-1966). In his Islam and the Principles of Government (1925) He argued that the institution of the caliphate (or for that matter any concentration of political power in the name of Islam) is obsolete; that Muslims have graduated from their need for religious chaperoning; and that the separation of the state from the mosque had become effective since the politicisation of Islamic rule at the end of the "rightly guided caliphs" era, only a few decades after the death of the Prophet Mohammed.

A perspective of this sort, intelligently undertaken, would seize the initiative and reclaim the agenda from the different political Islamic movements. It would help position the US as the mature, long-term, weighty, and strategic player that it is. Its engagement with the Islamic world could then become part of a serious dialogue between civilisations - shorn of the unfortunate and loaded atmospherics that have surrounded this term. The results might be surprising. In its spirit, for example, Sheikh Ali Abdel Razek's message resembles many of the principles of the US's own "founding fathers".

The adoption of a grander definition of political Islam by the United States would enable many of the reactionary forces in the Islamic world to be seen in terms of their actual and natural (rather than inflated) size. It would also the best way of supporting Arab liberals, and an important departure from the approach of outright backing which all but discredits them in front of Arab populations as a whole. 

Confidence and flexibility

The second framing dimension is to address explicitly and centrally the Islamic - rather than the Arab world and "mind". I argued in my earlier article - "Democracy-support and the Arab world: after the fall" (17 March 2009) - that the scope of the open letter to President Obama was misleading and over-general. Shadi Hamid retorted that the middle east, the Arab world, and the Muslim world "are all relevant to our call". True, they are all relevant, but choosing which one to address is hardly a matter of semantics.

There are two reasons why the US should formulate its democracy-support policy and its wider policy aspirations in relation to Islamic, rather than Arab, realities. First, Arab nationalism is far from the dominant identity in today's "Arab world"; it is a weak political force living only on the momentum of nostalgia. In no Arab country are Arab nationalists serious political contenders. Islamists have come to dominate the region's social life, and become the sole challengers to the region's ruling regimes.

Second, Islamism is - unlike Arabism - a flexible notion. Arabism is by definition a national and exclusive identity, whereas Islamism is a multinational and inclusive one. The Islamic identity encompasses rich, refined traditions that express the mixing and merging of different cultures that have come together under the banner of Islam. In its healthy and progressive manifestations, the Muslim "mind" draws upon a host of influences and traditions - Persian, Egyptian, Indian, Andalucian, even Hellenic. Such diversity and richness breads progressive, liberal and tolerant thinking.

An important and relevant example is Ibn Rushd, the 12th-century Andalucian philosopher (also known as Averroes ). He was confident enough in the great flexibility and moral strength of Islam to shun the notion of al-Jahiliyyah (the era of ignorance eradicated by the advent of Islam - and the term frequently used by militant Islamists in describing the west), and to advocate borrowing from the thinking of al ummam al salifa al saliha (the pious ancient peoples) in a direct and reverent reference to the Greeks. Ibn Rushd also sought dialogue between the Muslim rulers of al-Andalus and their Christian neighbours in northern Spain and western France - as well as to their Jewish subjects in Andalucia itself.

There are more contemporary examples. The United States's and Europe's thinkers should - instead of seeking common ground with the ideas of the Hassan al-Banna (the founder of the Muslim Brotherhood) or Sayyid Qutb (the leading theorist of rejectionist political Islam) - study the work of the al-Azhar scholar Taha Hussein. In his book Mustaqbal al-Thaqafa fi Misr (The Future of Culture in Egypt) (1936), Hussein scolded the religious establishment (then the main bearer of political Islam) for its reductive view of the religion and its role in society; and reminded his readers of the immense influence of the Greeks, Jews and Christians on the land of al-Azhar and the Islamic empire itself.

The confidence and flexibility of such thinkers are vastly superior to the insecurity and rigidity of many players in today's political Islam. They are also (again) resonant of the best American and European traditions.

Realism and discrimination

The third dimension is to embrace realism and intelligent discrimination: to abandon the silly and condescending declaration (frequently voiced by George W Bush) that Islam is "a religion of peace", and to engage with those currents of political Islam that have integrity.

A careful study here could, for example, involve a recovery of elements 

Tarek Osman is a writer and a merchant banker

Among Tarek Osman's articles in openDemocracy:

"Egypt's phantom messiah" (12 July 2006)

"Mahfouz's grave, Arab liberalism's deathbed" (23 November 2006)

"Arab Christians: a lost modernity" (31 August 2007)

"Nasser's complex legacy" (15 January 2008)

"Egypt: the surreal painting" (14 May 2008)

"Youssef Chahine, the life-world of film (29 July 2008)

"China and the Olympics: a view from Egypt"  (7 August 2008)

"Egypt's dilemma: Gaza and beyond" (12 January 2009)

of the Salafi tradition as embodied in a number of late-19th and early-20th-century Muslim intellectuals. Sheikh Mohammed Abdou (1849-1905) and Abbas Mahmoud al-Akkad (1889-1964) for example - the latter arguably the most compelling Islamic thinker in the 20th century - invoked a return to the purity of early Islamic thought to commend modernisation and rejuvenation of the religion's spirit.

In his theology, Al-Akkad explored Jewish and Christian writings with open, confident faith; in his socio-political writings, he argued for free elections, a serious constitutional parliamentary system, free speech, and a system of checks and balances applicable to all powers. Abdou bluntly called for "learning from the civilised societies of Europe", "embracing modernity", and "rediscovering in the core of our religion the elements of rationality that made its societies great and permitted modernity and innovation". Their tradition continues in the writings of Gamal al-Banna, Mohamed Sayyed Ashmawi, and others (many of them inside al-Azhar itself).

The Salafists are interesting because - unlike the organised political movements in the region - they have no specific political agendas; their lack of local political ambitions, their genuine piousness and sense of religious continuity, means that they more closely embody and represent the increasing religiosity of the "Islamic street". In this context, the United States - as the most religious western society - would find greater common ground in forging a relationship with the Salafists than most European states.

A new frame

This is not to promote Salafist thinking or propose that the US embrace liberal schools within Islam. Rather it is to suggest that a sophisticated approach to the Muslim world and democracy-support there needs to discard formulaic frameworks and policies, and rise to the challenge of developing new ways of thinking about and engaging in dialogue with Islam.

This would be a service both to the Islamic world and to the United States and the Europeans - for all "sides" need a more serious and rigorous discourse than is represented by (for example) the mediocre missionary-ism of Amr Khaled, the zealous and somewhat vengeful militancy of Ayaan Hirsi Ali, those western leftists and others who indulge and even embrace ultra-reactionary Islamist currents, or those who seek to extend "clash of civilisations" rhetoric into the next decade. 

The drafters of the open letter to Barack Obama are right to suggest that the coming to power of an intellectually curious president could open a new strategy. But that strategy should not involve engaging with mediocre political groups and ignorant, semi-literate reactionaries; nor a public-relations campaign in the face of nihilistic groups consumed with desperate resentment.

Rather, the United States - and the west in general - should frame its dialogue with Islam by seeing both itself and the latter as a civilisation that was (and is) rich and confident enough to adapt, to borrow, to change, to dare and to confront its demons. That is the way to encourage, promote and support democracy, and much else besides.

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