Tag Archives: Democracy

Pragmatic Disengagement and Islamic Democracy

When many Westerners think of the Middle East today they tend to see a region gripped by religious and sectarian violence. Within Sunni Islam there is a struggle over religious authenticity, while secular governments in places like Egypt, Algeria and Syria face armed opposition to their rule by Islamist extremists. Meanwhile, much of the violence in long-running civil wars has taken on a sectarian nature, both between different strands of Islam and against religious minorities. Sometimes this has been encouraged as a deliberate divide-and-rule strategy by embattled regimes and, as in the case of Syria, the categories often overlap. What all the conflicts are perceived to have in common is the participation of inflexible and fanatical groups of fighters dogmatically opposed to the further modernization and Westernization of their home countries.

Should any of these groups seize power, it is feared that they will impose a backwards-looking theocratic form of governance across the spaces that they dominate, and will trample on the human rights of vulnerable groups such as religious minorities or women. The panacea for this in the eyes of many Western citizens is to temper religious fervor by separating it from politics and implementing a secular and liberal democratic system of government. However, no Middle Eastern state has yet to obtain such a system by its own efforts, while Western attempts to enact nation-building have so far ended in failure. Consequently, Western policymakers have tended to back authoritarian governments as a bulwark against fundamentalist rule.

The chronic weakness of state authority in the Middle East, coupled with the flourishing of extremist movements, once helped to maintain this ‘strongman’ model of governance. Yet, even in the face of political Islam’s enduring appeal in Muslim societies, this strategy is now regarded at best as a stop-gap measure rather than a long-term solution to the region’s myriad problems. The default Western response to this double-sided problem has been to propose the transfer of functions performed by some religious organizations (for example healthcare) over to a stronger state. Under this scenario, religious groups would cease to perform political functions and the state would guarantee their freedom to practice their beliefs without interference. Islamic movements are thus seen as an obstacle to better state capability as well as challengers to its monopoly on force and violence. As a consequence, attempts by local rulers or outsiders, to modernize, secularize and centralize the Middle East have quite often resulted in a religious backlash.

Towards Religious Democracies

But what if the West’s secular state model is a merely a product of its own historically violent struggles with modernity in the 17th century? Up until this point in time, the very idea that religious authority should have no place in the political system of a European state would have been controversial to say the least – just as it is in parts of the modern day Middle East. But the creation of democratic systems in Indonesia and Turkey help to disprove the notion that Muslim or Middle Eastern cultures are incapable of living under systems of governance inextricably linked to the West.

For the likes of Turkey and Tunisia, democratic transformation occurred after decades of secularist dictatorship or military coups. The price for Islamist participation in the political process was the promise not to pursue a theocratic or one-party model of government once in power. Only then did both the secular and religious sections of these societies agree to be bound by the results of future elections. By contrast, when Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood gambled that they could rule alone through electoral majoritarianism, they lost and a more familiar form of government returned.

These scenarios, in turn, suggest that while the Middle East’s secularists cannot keep the influence of Islamist organizations completely in check, Islamists are seemingly unable to monopolize power without resorting to the same type of oppression that discredited their republican or monarchical enemies. In this respect, democratic elections might offer a third path. However, developing organic and sustainable democratic processes undoubtedly takes time. Indeed, the collapse of Libya and Iraq as functioning states shows that removing a dictator does not immediately create the conditions for political transformation. If anything, the ongoing travails within these countries helps to reinforce that the Middle East has been through a whirlwind of political ferment since decolonization began a mere five or six decades ago – a predicament that bears some resemblance to the century of nation-building associated with German or Italian unification.

And when it comes to nation-building in Europe, it must also be remembered that political change in the West has quite often been violent and inconsistent. Even the most pacific Western democracies are less than a hundred years old. Indeed, at two hundred and thirty-eight years old, the United States could be viewed as a venerable patriarch. Accordingly, we should not distort the growth of groups like Islamic State as an inevitable consequence of political Islam’s rise to power once a secular dictatorship is removed. It should also be remembered that most Islamist movements remain locally-focused in their political objectives and have condemned violence as a political tool.

Stop Taking Sides

The emergence of democratic states in other parts of the Islamic world suggests that they can also emerge in Arab and Middle Eastern states. However, it is also highly likely that any indigenous political group that attains significant popularity under these systems will be influenced by Islam. This is in much the same way as many Western political parties are influenced by Christian frameworks and assumptions, such as Germany’s Christian Democratic Union. And just as Western politicians have to be in favor of ideals such as “freedom” or “democracy“, leaders in Muslim-majority countries also have to appeal to the core values of their societies. Invoking Islam is both a legitimizing measure and a short-cut to the communication of ideas. Even secular Middle Eastern political parties will have observant members.

Most Islamist movements also offer programs of action that do not necessarily threaten the West. For example, the Muslim Brotherhood’s determination to secure power via democratic processes diverges with the aims of groups like IS or Al-Qaida’s Syrian franchise Jabhat al-Nusra. Consequently, the West’s ‘tolerance’ of the removal of elected Islamist political movements by force could be regarded as a strategic blunder that has helped to encourage jihadist narratives of victimization. The recent killing of al-Shabaab leader Ahmed Abdi Godane is a case in point. While this Somali militant group’s profile has undoubtedly increased over the past few years, it could be argued that its rise to prominence was facilitated by the overthrow of its more locally-focused predecessor in a US-backed Ethiopian invasion of Somalia. By being seen to take sides in inter-Muslim disputes and colluding against fundamentalists with their local enemies, the West might have indirectly encouraged more extreme forms of Islamism.

Democratic Islamism Will Lead to Accountability

It might even have been wiser to leave these movements alone so that they can discredit themselves locally, much like the Iranian or Sudanese regimes have over the years. In this respect, have Tehran and Khartoum behaved any worse than the Soviet Union, Cultural Revolution-era China or today’s Gulf monarchies? It’s a question worth thinking about, given that the West managed to co-exist (or even aligned) with all these governments for decades. Indeed, China’s example shows that the need to tackle mounting social problems slowly brings out the pragmatism in the most extreme of movements. Even an Islamic movement in power inevitably leans to pragmatism as part of its bid to survive in government. Since 2002, the mildly Islamist Justice and Development Party (AKP) has dominated Turkey’s domestic politics not because of its iron grip on culture and society, but mainly because it delivered on solid economic growth. This, in turn, gave it the legitimacy to defang Turkey’s coup-prone army, a feat that no previous elected government had managed to achieve.

Indeed, elections offer a fresh source of legitimacy for groups that have become popular through religious advocacy or offering social services. They provide a future goal around which supporters can be mobilized. Revolutionary parties which have relied on battlefield victories for their legitimacy have to adapt or lose ground when elections start to become more important. Once Islamic parties have to focus on practical problems such as healthcare and economic growth, they either lose much of their crusading zeal or risk their political credibility and relevance. It’s even possible that Iran might go through such a transformation in the coming decades.

No Quick Fixes

The key to separating religion and government in the region, and therefore creating a stronger Middle Eastern state, might be to tolerate religion governing through the state. By exposing the shortcomings of this model, democracy might consolidate its status faster in the Middle East as its political elites lose another vehicle for mobilizing public support. Electorally successful Islamic parties will moderate and their methodologies will be copied elsewhere. Consequently, it might be better if the West practiced a policy of pragmatic disengagement towards those countries now electing Islamist political parties. If it neither helps nor hinders the process of change, it cannot be held responsible for the outcome. This strategy is not a quick fix for the problems of the Middle East today, but it might be among the most enduring.

Re-posted from the ISN Security Watch blog.


Islamists Will Be The Future Democrats Of The Middle East

There seems to be an international trend towards less blatant outside interference in the Middle East recently. Last week it was the governments of France, Germany, Italy, the United Kingdom, and the United States (of all people) issuing a joint statement condemning “outside interference” in Libya’s civil war. Prior to that Iran and the US tacitly joined forces behind the new Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, offering a welcome contrast to their past struggles over that country. Even in neighbouring Syria, the Middle East’s quarrelling powers may have temporarily set aside their differences to work together. Coming after the successful removal of Syria’s chemical weapons in June, cooperation seems to be more popular than confrontation this autumn. For this to be more than a short-term trend however, longstanding Western preconceptions blocking reform in the Middle East will have to be overturned.

The first myth that needs to be thrown out is the notion that the West has a better idea of how to design and direct Middle Eastern countries’ political systems and social organisation than the people who live there. Ever since Napoleon marched into Egypt Westerners have had a bad tendency to swallow their own rhetoric about improving Middle Easterners’ lives as a justification for running their countries. The unintended consequences of each round of intervention are then used as a justification for the next one, proving that “they” need “us”. The Middle Easterner is supposedly the perpetual student of the Western tutor.

The second notion needing smashing is that there is something in Islamic, Arabic or Middle Eastern culture that is inimitable to democratic systems of governance. The collapse of Libya and Iraq as functioning states shows that removing the dictator does not change the political calculations or social conditions that led to the original dictatorship. But what escapes the notice of those who use this to paint the Middle East as somehow “different” is how typical the early failure of outwardly imposed electoral systems is. A democracy is ideally an indigenous system of political organisation whose advantages emerge slowly over time as its competitors are tried and fail. Historically the Western world’s political turn to it happened violently and inconsistently. Our democracies emerged only after the alternatives slowly lost their credibility over time. Most of today’s Western European ones are less than a hundred years old; at two hundred and thirty-eight America’s system is their venerable patriarch.

The elites in the region will gradually embrace democracy as they stop being able to mobilise political support any other way. The Middle East has been through a whirlwind of political ferment since decolonisation a mere five or six decades ago and the states in it are undergoing a century of nation-building akin to the German or Italian unifications in Europe. This is hardly evidence for stagnant medieval backwardness. Pessimists should ask Qatari pensioners if nothing has changed in their lifetimes. The tragic partial collapse of the Arab state system in the Levant and Mesopotamia should be a warning against the dangerous consequences of outside military action; but we should not distort the rise of hate groups like the Islamic State (IS) movement as being somehow an inevitable consequence of the end of secular dictatorship in the Arab world. That simply plays into the hands of old-school autocrats like Bashar al-Assad of Syria, who use violence to repress all opposition to their rule.

What is inevitable is that almost any political group that attains significant popularity in the Arab world and the wider region will be influenced by Islam, in much the same way as Western ones are affected by Christian frameworks and assumptions. Often even secular Middle Eastern political movements will have observant memberships. Just as Western politicians have to be in favour of things like “freedom” and “the right to bear arms”, leaders in Muslim-majority countries have to appeal to the core values of their societies. Often most of the political activism in the Middle East gets tabled under the catch-all term “Islamist”, despite it covering a wide spectrum of conflicting outlooks. This is a bit like taking the range of views represented in a typical Western country’s parliament and labelling them all “democrats”. It is technically true but vague to the point of meaninglessness.

Western paranoia about Islamists is therefore hard to completely understand. Certainly political Islam in power in such places as Sudan, Iran or Afghanistan has been nasty. But has it been any harder to co-exist with than the old Soviet Union or today’s Chinese Communist Party? Has its track record on human rights been any worse than Western allies in Central Asia or the Gulf monarchies? When the overthrow of elected Islamist political movements has been tolerated by the West (most recently in Palestine in 2007 and in Egypt in 2013) we simply look like hypocrites.

What should be clear for Western leaders is that fundamentalist movements like the Muslim Brotherhood or even Hamas show clear ideological divergences with anti-Western groups like IS or Al-Qaida franchises such as Jabhat al-Nusra. Repressing them is a bit like banning the Tea Party to fight the Ku Klux Klan. It just causes people to rally behind extremists. Secondly collusion in the suppression of Islamist movements in general is a mistake because it retards progress towards politically stable representative systems. An Islamist movement in power inevitably needs to learn compromise if it is to survive (as happened in Tunisia or Turkey). If the West had weighed in against Tunisia’s Islamist al-Nahda party could the Tunisian elite have negotiated the successful transition to democracy that has eluded its North African neighbours? When such indigenous Islamist parties have to focus on the practical problems of governing such as economic growth they lose much of their crusading zeal about regulating their citizen’s private lives. The Turkish Islamist AKP government has not secured itself in power since 2002 because it focused on controlling Turkish people’s social life. Instead it delivered sustained economic growth to Turkey.

Accountable movements tackling real social problems are desperately needed in the Middle East today. When that comes it will be a grassroots phenomenon built on the increased awareness that new communications technology brings and the spread of higher education today’s regimes have been responsible for. Foreigners removing an Assad or a Maliki will not bring it about. As democracy takes root in the Middle East parties with religious values will eventually come to power. Once there they will either break into left and right-wing factions, or have to make a common cause with secular groups in order to govern. Either way Western governments need to get out of the way and stop assuming that they need to be on hand to stage mange events. Their failures in Libya and Iraq show that they can’t hold Middle Eastern countries together or build them functional political systems. Only Middle Easterners can manage that.

US is an Oligarchy, Not A Democracy

You heard it at the BBC first!

A study by Princeton professors backs up what people have been saying since incomes began stagnating for the middle class in the late 1970s. The current neo-liberal ideology doesn’t improve the lives of ordinary people and ends up undermining the democracy Western states claim to represent. The study focuses on the US, but I don’t think we in the UK can point the finger.