A Monthly Newsmagazine from Institute of Contemporary Islamic Thought (ICIT)
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Democracy: the challenge still facing Islamic movements after the Arab Spring

Iqbal Siddiqui

Islamic movements, intellectuals and activists long tended to have a love-hate relationship with democracy. On the one hand, democracy has been associated with the aggressive, brutal, exploitative, hegemonic policies of the post-colonial Western powers, the cynicism, manipulation and dishonesty of Western politics and the increasing moral degeneracy of individualistic and hedonistic Western societies. On the other, the proclaimed ideals of democracy — freedom, equality, social justice — are not dissimilar to the ideals and objectives of Islam, and the promises of representative and accountable government have had obvious appeal in the era of repressive and authoritarian dictatorships in the post-colonial Muslim nation-states.

Such ambivalence towards democracy is by no means unique to Islamic movements of course. The US and other Western states that proclaim themselves to be the models and champions of democracy and freedom have long been aware that their interests have been better served by authoritarian but pro-Western government in other parts of the world. Over the last decade or so, we have seen the US in particular flip-flopping between declarations of solidarity with democratic movements in Muslim countries, and practical support for the dictators who serve their interests, depending on the broader state of politics at any given time. Even earlier this year, in the early days of the so-called “Arab Spring”, the US was reluctant to abandon its support for its authoritarian puppets — Hosni Mubarak especially — until it became clear that their positions were untenable; at which stage the US suddenly switched tack to become the champions of the popular movements demanding change.

There is an old saying in English that one should be careful what ones asks for, in case one gets it. That is where Islamic movements find themselves now. Many of them have long proclaimed their commitment to democracy, and argued that there is no inconsistency between democracy and Islam, or even that Islam is democratic. In theory they may be right, depending on how one chooses to understand democracy; it is a concept of remarkably malleable meanings, which different people interpret very differently, and often the same people interpret differently at different times and in different circumstances, almost always to their own benefit. These are debates that are bound to continue, usually with Muslims falling into the trap of accepting the universal myths of democracy, and arguing that Islam measures up to them, instead of having the confidence to argue that it is in fact Islam that represents universal values that democracy, however understood, fails to measure up to.

But the theory is irrelevant; what matters is the practice, and already we are seeing the West in its many forms — governmental and non-governmental, political and cultural — promoting and cooperating with secular and westernised elites in Muslim countries, to ensure that the actual practice of supposedly democratic institutions and structures established in those countries serve Western interests, and that Islamic movements are controlled and/or excluded.

The form that new, “reformed” polities in Arab countries will take remains unclear. In Egypt and other places, this is already resulting in further protests as people fear that the fruits of their sacrifices will be usurped by elites little different from those that preceded them. While the West portrays the threat of Islamists as the main problem facing these countries in the revolutionary period, the people themselves regard the power of the old elites and the threat that the revolutions will be hijacked by pro-Western secularists as the real problem. In Egypt and in other countries, this is a contradiction waiting to be resolved. The West and its allies will hope that they assume control by declaring their new mechanisms of power as reformed and democratic. Islamic movements will have to choose whether to accept these stratagems at face value and work within the resulting political structures and institution, or to challenge them and demand real change to a political framework reflecting the real values of the Egyptian people. (Stratagem: “a plan, scheme, or trick for surprising or deceiving an enemy… [or] any artifice, ruse, or trick devised or used to attain a goal or to gain an advantage over an adversary or competitor” — www.dictionary.com.)

Ideally, one would hope that Islamic movements and leaders would highlight the real nature of these power structures, and say that “this is what democracy really offers, and why democracy is not good enough; which is why we demand Islam, which offers in reality the ideals that democracy offers only in name…” Of course, they would then be attacked and be forced to defend their position, but they would at least be talking about Islam. Realistically, however, it is far more likely that they will fall into the trap of arguing on the enemies’ ground, about whether the new structures are genuinely democratic, and why Islamic movements are the real democrats, and so on. The result is that they will end up talking not about Islam but the hollow concepts of democracy; and end up not confidently asserting Islam, but apologetically defending it, as though democracy represents the standards to which Islam must adhere, instead of the other way round.

Until Muslim intellectuals and Islamic movements directly take on the universal myths of democracy, instead of trying to work around them or even to claim them as our own, Muslims will never achieve the conceptual clarity of thought and political clarity of vision required to mobilise and lead a mass political movement for genuine change in our countries and societies, regardless of the stratagems of our enemies, internal and external.

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