InsightSeptember October 2007

The Future of “Islamic Democracy” in the Middle East- Islamists and Democracy: Friends or Foes?

Radwan A. Masmoudi


With few exceptions, most of the Arab countries are ruled by corrupt and secular elite that is benefiting from the status-quo. They are afraid of what democracy might bring, so they are doing everything in their power to scare the U.S. and the West of the so-called “Islamic threat”. The secular elite are becoming increasingly marginalized, isolated, authoritarian, and corrupt. They are neither genuine secularists nor democrats, but they raise such flags in order to solicit support from the West. Being elitist, they have no grassroots or popular support, and they discourage popular participation in the political system because they do not trust the people to keep them in power. These regimes are not interested in real democracy or democratization, therefore, external pressure (from the US, European Union the UN, and the international community) is absolutely necessary. Real democratization requires pressure from inside and out. Pressure from within right now is coming mostly from the Islamic movements that have the popular support needed to push for reforms in their respective countries, but pressure from the outside is also very important to prevent violent reactions, radicalization, and give hope to millions of people who want real change, a decent representative government, and accountability. This means that the US must learn to accept and support democracy even if moderate Islamic (or Islamist) movements, and not secularists, receive the majority of votes.

In reality, change is inevitable, but the only question is what kind of change: Will it be slow, peaceful, and progressively move us towards real democracy, or will it be violent, revolutionary, and lead us towards another form of dictatorship. To guard against more violence, anarchy, and the possibility of a theocratic state, we need a working coalition of moderate Islamists and secularists who trust each other and work together for the public interest. They need to develop a consensus on what democracy means, how it can work within the context of their Muslim societies, and how to encourage progressive, modern, and moderate interpretations of Islam.

Secularity was developed in Europe as a reaction to the Church’s control of governments during the Middle Ages. The Muslim world has never been ruled by a religious institution, with the exception of modern-day Iran where the clerics took control after the Iranian people turned against the Shah’s oppressive government; thus complete separation between religion and state is undesirable and unnecessary in the Muslim world.

In the middle 19th and early 20th century, when democracy was being developed and implemented in Europe, there was fear that the church (especially the Catholic Church) would be an obstacle to democracy, but the “Christian democratic” movement grew and defended the idea that democracy was compatible with religion. In the Muslim world, we are seeing the birth of “Muslim Democrats” who are advancing similar ideas.

Identifying “Islamist” and Islamic Movements

What does “Islamist” mean and what do Islamic movements stand for? While it is true that there are extremist and radical fringe groups, the overwhelming majorities of those who call themselves “Islamists” reject violence and theocracy, and want a democratic form of government which respects Islamic values and ideals without imposing them on individuals or on society. Among the most moderate Islamic movements today are the Justice and Development Parties in Turkey and Morocco, and great examples of the most prominent moderate Muslim leaders are Anwar Ibrahim in Malaysia and Abdulwaheed in Indonesia. The Gallup Poll recently conducted in 10 Muslim-majority countries showed that the overwhelming majority of Muslims (over 90% in Egypt and Pakistan) want a democratic government, but also want Shariah (Islamic law) to be either the main or the only source of legislation in their countries; they want neither a theocracy nor a secular democracy. The majority of Muslims want “religious leaders” to be advisors to the lawmakers, but not to be lawmakers or rulers themselves.

For the past 40 to 50 years, various United States administrations have supported secular dictators in the Arab and Muslim world, and that has resulted in very dysfunctional political systems, in which both corruption and oppression are prevalent. As a result, the idea of secularism has been completely discredited in popular eyes as it is now associated with dishonesty and tyranny. Hence the choice is between either a “secular tyranny” (i.e. the status quo in the Arab and Muslim world) or an “Islamic democracy”.

The real question therefore is: “Should Islamic parties be allowed to participate in the political process and contest elections?” The answer is yes, absolutely, because excluding them will lead to an increase in their appeal and popularity, and will completely discredit the democratic system, the elections, and the political process. It will also convince younger people, who are fed up with the current injustices happening in their countries, that peaceful and democratic change is not possible and they will in turn join more radical, violent, and extremist groups to create the changes they want to see happen. History has shown that when and where Islamic parties have been allowed to participate in the political process, they have tended to become more moderate, pragmatic, and have moved away from simplistic or what may be considered hard-line rhetoric.

Democracy is indeed possible and desirable in the Arab world, even with a religious and Islamic flavor. We must come to accept and understand that it will indeed take time for people to discern the proper relationship between religion and politics, and between religious scholars and elected political leaders. We must trust that in the end, people are not incompetent, and that they do not want to continue to live under any form of tyranny, whether secular or religious.

The Challenges of Democracy and Democratization in the Muslim World:

It is increasingly tough to be a democrat or an advocate of democracy in the Muslim world today. The war in Iraq and the ongoing conflicts in Lebanon and Palestine have given democracy a highly undesirable name, and a majority of Arabs and Muslims now believe that the “War on Terror” is actually a War on Islam. Thus, anything coming from the West is regarded with great suspicion and mistrust. Regardless, there is no other option besides working as hard as we can to bring democracy to their governments and hope to the Arab and Muslim people. This is why I consider that what Daniel Pipes, and others like him, recommend (to consider all Islamists as enemies) is not only wrong, but will lead to disastrous results. It will swell the ranks of the Islamists and even of the extremists, and it will turn the entire Muslim world against us. Talk about “self-fulfilling prophecies!”

The issue of democratization is complicated by two misconceptions that people have about democracy, and about secularism. Many people judge democracy by what they see on TV – promiscuity, pornography, homosexuality, destruction of family values and marriage as an institution, drugs, crime, greed, etc; in short, the image they have is not pretty. The concern is that democracy will destroy the culture, religion, values, and traditions they have held for centuries. Secularism is even more problematic, because it is linked in the minds of most Arabs and Muslims with hostility towards religion, atheism, and oppression.

There is currently a serious crisis in the Muslim world, one which has manifested in many ways: from rising levels of poverty and unemployment, to lack of education, to growing corruption, violence, and wars. Terrorism is of course the most violent form of this rage and anger, which finds its roots in the terrible conditions that millions of people, especially young people, find themselves in today. Most of all, this crisis is the result of bad governance, poor strategic thinking and planning, and lack of freedoms, dignity, and respect for all inalienable human rights. First and foremost, it is the twin curse of corruption and oppression, which is at the core of all these problems. As global citizens, Muslims and non-Muslims alike who are concerned about the future of the Muslim world in this increasingly interconnected ‘global village,’ it is imperative that we develop and implement a strategy for resolving this crisis. Of course, there is no short-term quick fix to all these problems, but the most important and urgent ingredient in this strategy must be good and participatory governance.

The political crisis and deadlock in the Muslim world needs and deserves our immediate attention, even though it will of course take time to be fully addressed and corrected. Rather than respond in a knee-jerk “band-aid” approach to the crisis, we need to think strategically and understand the root causes of this crisis. Real change and significant reforms are absolutely necessary and needed, but governments are resisting it (for fear of the unknown or of losing their privileges) and opposition political movements are weak, divided, lack maturity, and are grossly under experienced.

The Experience of CSID:

It goes without saying that democracy and good governance cannot and should not be imposed or imported, but they certainly can be supported. Reformers in the Arab and Muslim world have been working and pushing for real democracy and reforms for decades, but in the past have received very little support or encouragement from the outside world. It is time for this to change and it is our duty and obligation to provide them with as much support and encouragement as needed. Our support begins by providing the intellectual and philosophical support for the simple and basic truth that Islam and democracy are perfectly compatible. Without doing so, democracy will never become accepted by the masses in the Muslim world because the government-controlled media will continue to portray democracy as un-Islamic or even as being part of a Western conspiracy in the Muslim world. There is nothing that could be further from the truth, and the Center for the Study of Islam and Democracy (CSID) is in the best position to demonstrate this. Secondly, we need to convince the US and European governments and policymakers that they must stop their support for oppressive and authoritarian rulers in the Arab and Muslim world. Even though these dictators claim that they are providing stability for the region, the reality is that they are creating the perfect conditions for despair and hopelessness which will only lead to further violence, extremism, and turmoil. Thirdly, we need to engage and support moderate Muslims and Islamists who are trying to be both true to their religion while adopting and accepting democracy, modernity, and development. Building strong coalitions between moderate Islamists (i.e. those who reject violence and accept democracy) with secularists is the only way to challenge the status quo and provide a real democratic alternative to the untenable and discredited rulers and regimes. As citizens of America and Europe, we must realize that we are directly responsible for what our governments do, and that their ongoing support for oppressive regimes in the Arab and Muslim world is one of the main causes for the current crisis in the Muslim world.

Since 1999, CSID has developed and implemented a strategy for achieving these objectives, by:

1. Organizing conferences and seminars to bring democrats together (both moderate Islamists, secularists, and others)

2. Educating the masses about democracy, how it works, and its compatibility with Islam

3. Establishing a Network of Democrats in the Arab World (NDAW) and providing them with training and support

4. Lobbying the US govt. and policymakers to stop supporting dictators, and to engage with and support democrats.

To my knowledge, CSID is the only organization in the world that has organized conferences on Islam and Democracy in Saudi Arabia, Iran, Sudan, Nigeria, and Tunisia, in addition to over 20 other countries. There is not a single other organization (American or otherwise) that has done so or is even capable of doing so. The reason we have been able to organize such activities simply has to do with the huge credibility and connections that CSID has established throughout the Muslim world during the past 8 years. Our credibility and strong network of friends and colleagues (among Arab and Muslim reformers) is simply unmatched. This growing network – which again includes both secularists and moderate Islamists – is also capable of pushing for significant dialogue and reforms in their respective countries.

As a result, we are making a difference. Over 1,000 people (political and religious leaders) have attended our workshops and conferences, and over 2,000 people in Morocco, Algeria, Egypt, and Jordan have been trained through our “Islam & Democracy – Toward Effective Citizenship” training workshops. The demand for both, however, is much greater, and our objective is to train between 5,000 and 10,000 people per country, per year, for the next 10 years. For the first time in history, secular leaders and moderate Islamist leaders are starting to work together in many countries, learning to build trust and strong coalitions for positive and meaningful reforms. The Network of Democrats in the Arab World is growing, and has provided training on leadership skills, communication skills, consensus-building, and conflict resolution skills to hundreds of members and NGO leaders. US and European governments are beginning to realize that it is against their interests (not to mention their values) to promote oppressive regimes in the Arab/Muslim world and are beginning to put real pressure on these regimes to reform and democratize. Our long term goal is that both the US and European governments, with the help of the international community as a whole, will work with and support governments that are serious about democracy and are achieving real progress toward it, while isolating any government that rejects democracy and continues to oppress its people while paying false lip service to any real reforms. Finally, CSID has just opened two regional offices – one in Morocco and one in Jordan – to help support the network and all of our activities, conferences, and training workshops in the Arab world.

Islamism and Democracy:

One of the most disappointing developments occurred after the Dec. 2005 elections in Egypt and January 2006 elections in Palestine when the US seems to have lost its appetite for democracy in the Middle East for fear that the Islamists were going to win the elections. For over 20 years, the regimes have been using the “Islamist menace” as justification for the lack of accountability, freedoms, and democracy. It is shameful for the West, and truly catastrophic for the region, to continue to support the current regimes under the belief that they provide stability and the promise of reforms and development. The real lesson of the last 40-50 years in the Arab world – and much of the Islamic world – is that neither long term development nor stability are possible without real democracy, transparency, and accountability. It is time for the US and Europe to support voices for genuine reforms, freedoms, and democracy in the region. Democracy in the Arab world and in the foreseeable future will have a more or less “Islamic flavor”, but this is normal, natural, and in the long run, a healthy development which will ultimately lead to the modernization and reinterpretation of Islamic principles for the 21st century.

One of the main challenges for democracy in the Arab and Muslim world is the massive support for Islamic movements and/or political Islam, and the weakness of liberal, secular groups and parties. The concern that some people and policymakers have, especially those who are interested in prolonging the status quo, is whether the Islamist movements will respect democracy and abide by its rules, if and when they come to power.

In fact, it is important to remember that the support that Islamist parties enjoy today did not exist a mere 20 or 30 years ago, and is clearly the result of the despair and hopelessness to which these failed states have led their populations. Out of despair, people, and especially young people, are turning to Islam as their last hope to unite, mobilize, and fix the ills of their societies. In addition, there are many positive and encouraging signs that Islamic parties and movements are now convinced of the necessity of political participation, democratization and reforms as the only way to resolve the myriad of problems and challenges that their societies face (not least of which is over 30% unemployment rate, over 60% illiteracy rate, while over 50% of the population is under the age of 20). There are also indications that when Islamic parties come to power or parliament through the ballot box, they become more practical and pragmatic, and much less ideological and intransigent. Politics, after all, is the art of compromise, and Islamists must learn this art if they want to succeed in politics. Certainly the experience of the Justice and Development party, which is now ruling in Turkey, is a good model for other Islamist parties to follow.

There are three truths that can prevent and protect against the danger of the monopolization Islam by Islamic movements and turning their countries into theocracies:

First, There is no clergy (at least in Sunni Islam) and therefore no one individual or group can claim to be divine representatives on earth. Second, we need multiple Islamic parties in each country, so that none of them can claim to solely represent or speak on behalf of Islam. These Islamic movements represent various interpretations (conservative or otherwise) of Islam and competition among themselves would only provide for healthy debate and interaction. Finally, secular forces and groups need to develop a better understanding for the importance of religion in their countries, and must understand that being portrayed as anti-Islam or anti-religion will severely hurt their prospects to gain sufficient political representation. They must develop a new paradigm that makes it clear that it is possible to be secular and religious at the same time.

Islamist parties have evolved so tremendously within the past 15-20 years that we can no longer continue to judge their intentions. There are ambiguities in the platform of every group, Islamist or otherwise, and there is no longer a guarantee that secular parties will be matters of politics. In democracy, the only safeguard is to build strong institutions and educate the public about their rights and their duties as active citizens; constitutional guarantees are worthless without an educated and mobilized citizenry. We also need to establish clear mechanisms to guard against abuses. Normative consensus on issues such as definitions of democracy, and rules of the game, final guarantor (king – military – international community), and the idea of pacts need also to be articulated.

The participation of Islamist parties in the political process is essential for strengthening political reforms and democratization in their countries – it is impossible for democracy to prosper while 30% to 40% of the population is excluded from the political arena. The agendas of Islamic parties now focus on economic development, fighting corruption, reducing illiteracy, and an independent judiciary, and not the implementation of Shari’ah punishments. Most Islamist parties now do not call for the implementation of Shari’ah punishments as they did 15-20 years ago. Their main priority is good governance, transparency, fighting corruption, poverty, illiteracy, among many other progressive ideas.

Recent developments in Iran, Sudan, and Afghanistan have been both negative and destructive, and we now find ourselves searching for different and more positive democratic models in the Arab and Muslim world. Turkey, Indonesia, and Malaysia are now becoming the models for both Islamists and secularists. Modern Islamists today look at Turkey as a model, much more than they look at Iran, which has unfortunately become a theocracy and has limited the freedoms and the choices of its citizens. Turkey, on the other hand, is a model of a very progressive and democratic Muslim state, where the state itself is secular but the society is deeply religious. The state is not and should not be in the business of imposing religion or forcing people to practice any particular religion; imposing religion is, in Islam, not only strongly discouraged, but also looked down upon as it generally turns people against religion instead of bringing them closer.

Political parties become popular when they reflect the values and principles of the majority of the people – and religion and religious standards represent a big part of those values. Islamic parties should not be excluded from the political system, so as to allow them to participate actively and peacefully in the democratization process of their societies and countries. This process will take time – several years and perhaps even decades – but it is the only way to bring real tangible peace, stability, and development to the Muslim world.

Ijithad and the Reinterpretation of Islam:

The effort to reinterpret Islam and modernize Islamic thought is not a new phenomenon. It started at the end of the 19th century and beginning of the 20th century with famous reformers, such as Jamaluddin Al-Afghani, Mohammed Abduh, al-Kawakibi, and many other prominent religious scholars. It was delayed or slowed down by the struggle for independence for about 50 years, and then by oppressive and corrupt regimes for another 50 years. However, now it is back on track and is moving at a much quicker pace, and is on the agenda everywhere, in the United States, in Europe, and in every Muslim country. I believe that American and European Muslims are called upon to lead in this effort as we enjoy the freedom, the means, and the opportunity to create the atmosphere necessary to harbor democratization.

The relationship between religion and the state needs further investigation and clarification. Religious beliefs and practices should not be controlled by the state as this damages both the state and its religion. In CSID conferences, we make it a point to always bring both secularists and Islamists together, and encourage them to develop joint objectives and strategies. They all agree, for example, that they want a democracy governed by Islamic values, but where individual rights are protected, and equal rights and duties are accorded to all citizens, irrespective of their ethnic, religious background, or gender. ‘Equal rights for all citizens’ is an essential component of real democracy, and of justice, which is a basic tenent in Islam.

There are many questions that need to be studied and clarified today, and they require Muslim leaders and scholars to come up with new answers and interpretations of Islamic texts. However, Ijtihad cannot succeed or happen under dictatorships that stifle dissent and forbid free debates and discussions. This is another reason why democracy is and should be a priority for the Muslim world because without it, there can be no real or meaningful Ijtihad, and consequently Muslims will continue to live in ignorant and backwards countries.


Violence and terrorism cannot prosper or exist in democratic societies or countries. The calls for freedom and democracy are not new in the Arab and Muslim world. Arab and Muslims have struggled for freedom and democracy for decades (e.g. there were close to 200,000 political prisoners in the Arab world in 2000, according to Amnesty International). For decades, the US and the West have turned their back to democrats and reformers in the Arab and Muslim world, and have supported the authoritarian and oppressive regimes in place.

Democracy is coming to the Arab and Muslim world, whether we know it or not, and with or without our support. These regimes and governments are too weak, too discredited, and too corrupt to last too much longer. The only question, then, is whether we as Americans and as free people of the world will support the aspirations for freedom, democracy, and dignity in the Arab and Muslim world, or whether we will go back to supporting Arab dictators and “doing business as usual” with corrupt and unpopular regimes. I believe that it is in the long term interest and benefit of the United States to support the Arab and Muslim people’s aspirations to freedom and democracy so that we can build future relations based on respect, dignity, and mutual understanding.

We are making rapid progress in the democratization of the Arab and Muslim world. This does not mean that we will have full democracy tomorrow or the next year, but I am very optimistic that we will see real and successful democracies in the Arab and Muslim world within the next 10 years if we pull our resources together as an international community. In any case, we have no choice but to do our best to make sure democratization does come about because the alternative is simply unacceptable and cannot continue.

Main Conclusions:

· Democracy is the only solution to (and only way out from) the current crisis in the Muslim World, and particularly in the Arab world.

· Democracy is perfectly compatible with Islam.

· Democracy cannot and should not exclude the moderate Islamic movements (i.e. those that reject violence).

· The role of the US and the West is critical for the success of democracy.


· We need to engage moderate Islamist movements and leaders in peaceful political dialogue and processes.

· We need to build strong coalitions between secular groups and moderate Islamist groups,

· We need to put real and sustained pressure on current corrupt and authoritarian rulers and regimes to implement serious and much-needed reforms.

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