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Will Islamists Derail Democracy?

February 4, 2011

In the contemporary world system, events happening in one place affect lives in other places. Egypt concerns American because half the world’s oil passes through the Suez canal, and hence unrest in Egypt affects prices at the pump. Egypt has been a keystone of US foreign policy in the Middle East while Mubarak has been in power, and uncertainty is often scary.

One of my wife’s friends worried in a recent e-mail that even if the Egyptian protestors realize their highest aspirations, achieving a successful democracy in Egypt might be a bad thing for our national interests.

She articulated her concern thus: “It seems that whenever a true democracy has been attempted in Muslim countries, with time, the Islamists (not the same as Muslims) eventually win a majority, and then all the original hopes of a tolerant society are out the window.”

I find this statement, and the fears it engenders, puzzling. I can’t think of any examples that fit the bill.

There are very few democracies in the Islamic World. There are many reasons for this, and the fact that some successful democracies do exist suggests that it is not endemic to Islam. I think the simplest answer is just that there are few democracies in the world period. Only about one-third of the world’s states are functioning democracies.

Out of the 47 Muslim majority nations (defined as having 50% or more Muslim population) I tally as (more-or-less) democracies Bangladesh, Indonesia, Malaysia, Morocco, Pakistan, Turkey.

Bangladesh’s government is dominated by two powerful parties at complete odds with one another: a secular leftist party and an Islamist party. The Islamist party, when in power, has not destroyed Bangladesh’s democracy. On the contrary, Bangladesh seems to be getting more democratic. The Islamist party has cooperated with its rival in 2007 to change the constitution to provide greater separation of powers, and again to ban Bangladesh’s two Islamist terrorist organizations.

Since the resignation of the dictator Suharto in 1998, Indonesia—the country with the world’s largest Muslim population—has had a functioning democracy with several overtly Islamist political parties of different stripes. Indonesia was hit hard by both the Tsunami and the global recession, yet there’s been no sign of an Islamic takeover.

Malaysia has a strong constitutional monarchy very closely modeled on the British model.

Morocco also has a constitutional monarchy. The king, a descendant of the Prophet Muhammad, has far more powers than the king of Malaysia, but the head of state is an elected prime minister and the legislative branch is relatively independent–albeit, only so far as the king lets them be.

Pakistan has bobbled back-and-forth between democracy and military rule since it was established in 1948. It has had continual trouble with Islamist militants in provinces along the Afghan border (and, to a lesser extent, throughout the country), but it has not ever had an election Islamists won, much less seized power.

Turkey is a great counterexample. A secular democracy, its conservative Islamic AK party swept into power in 2002 and has held on to power in subsequent elections. It promotes social conservative laws and free market economics much like the Republican party in the US, but it has never tried to overturn the secular constitution or overturn Turkey’s tolerant democratic society.

The only thing that I can imagine is that people making statements like this one are looking at Iran and imagining that if Islamists get hold of a government this is what it must look like.

But Iran doesn’t fit the statement either. Iran was never really a democracy because it is committed to the principle of the Velayat-e Faqih, or “rule of the chief jurisprudent.” This political principle, which mandates a hierarchy of clerical decision-making, is rejected by almost all other Islamist political thinkers, both Shi’ite and Sunni.

If the protesters achieve their highest ambitions–an interim government is formed and the Constitution is revised, and free and fair elections are held—I think it unlikely that the Muslim Brotherhood would win a solid majority so that it could form a government without allying with other parties.

The Muslim Brotherhood is highly conservative and well-organized, but there is no reason to think they would take over Egypt. Most Egyptians I’ve talked to respect them highly for their moral conservativism, but they wouldn’t want to actually live under them.

But even if they did win an election, there is no reason—based on the evidence of other Muslim majority democracies—to think they would somehow undermine democracy or tolerance and impose some more radical version of shari’a.

In fact, the evidence all seems to indicate exactly the opposite.

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. Sam permalink
    May 30, 2013 8:05 am

    Think again! How wrong you were!

    • MPeterson permalink
      May 30, 2013 12:48 pm

      I’m not sure I was wrong–I made no predictions about Egypt, just pointed out the falsity of the blanket statement that denied historical evidence for Islamists participating in democratic governments. President Morsi’s efforts to grab as much power as possible for the presidency certainly suggests that democracy remains well over the horizon in Egypt. Its important to remember, though, that Egypt has never had democracy, so it was going to be a long-term challenge irregardless of who won the elections. The next round of elections will tell us whether or not the current system is more or less representative than the Mubarak regime. Ironically, if the MB had simply formulated, implemented and articulated a coherent economic reform plan they would probably not have needed a power grab; I think a majority of Egyptians would almost certainly have kept voting for them.

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