Skip to content

Islam and Democracy: The Catch-22

June 29, 2011

Turkey is one example of a country where democracy and Islam seem to be compatible. Why not North Africa?

A recent paper by Jnc Hill published in Third World Quarterly supports my contention that Islamic participation does not necessarily harm democratic institutions.

(This should not be a very profound contention but in some circles… well, read on)

On the contrary, Hill says in his paper “Islamism and Democracy in the Modern Maghreb,” that the only real harm Islamic groups in North Africa do to democracy is allow authoritarian governments to use them as an excuse to suspend civil liberties and ignore election results.

Why? A Catch-22 in Western political attitudes toward Islam and democracy.

According to Hill, a scholar at Defence Studies Department at King’s College in London, when Washington declared its war on terror North African governments were quick to use this as a way to delimit Islamic participation in electoral politics. They did this by portraying local Islamic reform groups like Morocco’s Justice and Development Party (PJD) and Algeria’s Movement for a Peaceful Society (MSP) as the ideological bedmates of al-Qaida.

Mubarak, of course, did the same thing with the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood. Those who wish to tar the MB as a dangerous Islamic force point out how many terrorist splinter groups have emerged from the MB. But of course, the reason these splinter groups broke off is precisely because the MB swore off violence in favor of peaceful political participation, and (more recently) has admitted at least token participation by women and Copts in its political party leadership.

Hill points out that this creates a Catch-22: because Islam is presupposed to be incompatible with democracy, democracy must be controlled and managed in order to preclude Islamists from participating. But, of course, a democracy in which some citizens are not allowed to participate isn’t really democracy.

According to this narrative, it is far too dangerous to allow democracy to operate unfettered for it might allow the Islamists to gain power. If that happened, then elections would be abolished, political rights suspended and civil liberties cut. Democracy then is portrayed as a desirable yet impossible dream, a luxury that North African societies simply cannot afford.

In actuality, Hill points out, the PJD and MSP have long been among the most vocal supporters of democratic reform. Examining the evolution of their political positions, and their current manifestos, Hill writes that:

both parties are committed to strengthening democratic institutions and processes and that their determination to do so has grown over the past decade. The PJD and MSP have staked their reputations and political futures on democracy. If it fails, then so do they.

Critics, of course, argue that the “Islamists” are merely shamming. They say they want democracy, but once in power they will destroy it.

Aside from being wrong on the evidence (there are only a few Muslim-majority democracies, and none of them have been destroyed by their Islamist parties yet), this position suffers from the logical falacy of petitio principii. That is, it presupposes the incompatibility of Islam and democracy, and offers no form of evidence that will allow this position to be tested, because any favorable evidence can be dismissed as dissimulation.

When I have pointed this out to political scientists who advocate “containing” Islamic political movements, they appeal to the risk–that is, the potential consequences make it impossible for us to take the chance of letting people in the Middle East have democracy. Trying to solve problems that might happen is what got us into the Iraq war, of course, with devastating economic consequences to the US (since we paid for it by borrowing money), and a dreadful human toll on both sides.

The current uprisings in the Middle East have not really upset these kinds of arguments. “Just you wait and see” is a logical fallacy one can maintain for decades.

Meanwhile, El-Mesryoon reports that a recent delegation from Washington is “interfering” in Egyptian politics by stressing the US concern with Islamist participation in the public sphere, and urging the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces to “ensure a balance” between Islamist and secular groups–and that the US would approve of delaying the elections and amending the constitution first, which many secular groups called for but was not supported by the military and not approved by the national referendum.

What was that Tom Lehrer song? “They’ve got to be protected/all their rights respected/until someone we like can be elected…”


Hill, Jnc. 2011. Islamism and Democracy in the Modern Maghreb. Third World Quarterly 32(6): 1089-1105

No comments yet

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: