Should the United States Implement Democracy in the Muslim World?

The Islamist Ennahda party in Tunisian parliament.

Ever since the fall of the Soviet Union and subsequent establishment of Western liberal hegemony, American academics, politicians, and policy analysts have debated whether or not the United States should implement democracy in the Muslim world. In this paper, I will argue that it should not. Why? Islam’s tradition of mixing religion and politics means that liberal democracy is unlikely to flourish in Muslim-majority societies. Democracy, if it spreads in the Muslim world, will likely be of a strong Islamic and therefore illiberal character. Since history has shown that the U.S. will not allow illiberal democratization, often at the cost of Muslim self-determination and its own national security, it should not attempt to act on the neoconservative dream of democratizing Muslim societies—for both their good, and for its own.

Before proceeding, it’s important to distinguish between procedural and liberal democracy. Procedural democracy merely refers to the mechanism of competitive elections by which power is peacefully transferred. It implies no normative principles nor does it abide by any philosophical presuppositions. It is amoral, in other words, concerned primarily with ensuring regime change without bloodshed rather than establishing any basic ethical or political commitments. This is the minimalist, Schumpeterian conception of democracy as defended by the likes of Adam Przeworski, who calls it “just a system in which rulers are elected by competitive elections.”[1] Then there is “liberal democracy,” which is what American politicians, academics, and policy analysts typically mean when they speak of democracy. Unlike procedural democracy, liberal democracy is predicated on substantive ethical and social commitments. Under this definition, democracy is not merely the peaceful transfer of power via competitive elections: it is also characterized by free speech, religious pluralism, and most critically for this discussion, separation of church and state. As observed by Fareed Zakaria in his book Future of Freedom, “this bundle of freedoms has nothing intrinsically to do with democracy” as a mechanism of transferring power based on the popular will.[2] Liberal democracy, in other words, is grounded in principles beyond simple majoritarian rule. The will of the people is to be respected, but the will of the people is also expected to be liberal (in the classical sense), and therefore in favor of secular government.

Hence why liberal democracy resists easy exportation to the Muslim world. To be blunt, neither Islam nor most of its followers recognize any distinction between religion and politics. Unlike, say, Protestantism, Islam is not a matter of private faith; it’s a totalizing belief system replete with political, moral and societal prescriptions. The Prophet was as much a political leader as he was a religious one, and this dual heritage is reflected in the historical trajectory of Islamic civilization over the past 1400 years. The ideological trends that eventually partitioned religion from politics in the West—the Protestant Reformation’s privatization of faith, the Scientific Revolution’s skepticism, the Enlightenment’s secularism—have no analogue in Islamic history. The essentially Western (and Christian) character of the divorce between politics and religion is reflected in its name: separation of church and state, not mosque and state.

Therefore, in attempting to forcibly impose liberal democracy on Muslim-majority societies, the U.S. is doing more than simply instituting an alternate mode of governance; it is attempting the wholesale transformation of an entire culture’s social and political consciousness. Successfully implementing liberal democracy abroad would require the U.S. military to not merely topple rulers, but to also enforce a revolution in societal values—a process that could span decades, if not centuries. The unworkability and undesirability of such a scenario is evident in its potentially crippling financial costs and troubling imperialistic overtones.

To be clear, I am not advancing a pseudo-orientalist argument that the Islamic world “isn’t ready for democracy” or that religion has hindered its political evolution.  Such arguments transpire within a narrow philosophical framework that presupposes liberal democracy’s unqualified good and position as the “natural” endpoint of civilizational development (a la Francis Fukuyama’s The End of History).[3] Instead, I am arguing that if democracy were to take root in the Islamic world—and since most contemporary Muslim societies believe that democracy is the best form of government, that scenario is likely—it would be in a form unrecognizable to the West. [4]  This form is not necessarily inferior. However, especially as it pertains to mixing religion and politics, it will likely be illiberal. For example, although Indonesia is often praised as a rare example of secular Muslim democracy, roughly 72 percent of its Muslims favor rule by Islamic law. In some areas of Indonesia, sharia bylaws requiring that female civil servants wear headscarves have already been implemented.[5]

And thus we arrive at the dilemma that the U.S. faces in democratizing the Islamic world: if given the choice, the average Muslim would vote an Islamist party into power. History has repeatedly demonstrated the truth of this prediction. In 1989, when Algerians voted in local free elections for the first time, the Islamic Salvation Front (FIS) won 62 percent of the popular vote.[6] Iraq’s 2005 parliamentary elections handed the Islamist National Iraqi Alliance roughly 41 percent of the vote against at least a dozen opponents.[7] Tunisia’s first free elections in 2011 saw the Islamist Ennahdha Movement Party win a plurality of 37 percent of the popular vote.[8] In 2012, Egyptians voted the Muslim Brotherhood into power with a nearly 52 percent majority.[9]

Far from constituting a radical program unmoored from popular preferences, then, political Islam as an idea enjoys at least as much support in Muslim-majority societies as the Democratic and Republican parties do in the U.S. This is not to imply that most Muslims are Islamists; rather, it’s merely to suggest that most tacitly or explicitly desire a significant role for Islam in public life. Such a deep groundswell of support for political Islam exposes as hollow any conception of Islamists as “extremists” outside of the political mainstream of the Islamic world. If anything, they are emblematic of it. Because no dramatic fallout between religion and politics ever occurred in the Muslim world, Islam still enjoys far more social currency in the public sphere than any religion does in the West. Worth noting, too, is that the Islamic world’s negative experience with secular governance has done much to discredit it as an appealing political option. In the West, “secularism” means “religious pluralism.” In the Muslim world, under “secular” leaders like Kemal Ataturk and Saddam Hussein, it has typically meant “state-mandated atheism”: not equal tolerance, but equal intolerance of all faiths. [10]

Thus, as argued by Shadi Hamid in his book Islamic Exceptionalism, liberal democracy is unlikely to ever find a stable home in the Middle East.[11] The question, ultimately, is whether the U.S. can bring itself to democratize Muslim countries, or allow them to be democratized, even with the understanding that they will not yield secular fruit. History suggests that it cannot. As explained by then-Assistant Secretary of State Edward Djerejian in 1992, the U.S. typically supports democracy abroad but fears that allowing Islamist electoral victories would lead to “one man, one vote, one time,” as Islamists would presumably dissolve the democratic mechanism that had propelled them into power in order to retain governmental control. [12] The implication is that Islamist parties cannot be allowed to participate in democratic politics, however fair the elections.

Djerejian’s stance is as empty as the historical evidence to support it, then and now. Almost all Islamists parties across the Muslim world have demonstrated a willingness to respect election results and to cede power. The Malaysian Islamic Party (PAS) has quietly participated in parliamentary elections since 1959.[13] Abdurrahman Wahid, founder of the Islamic National Awakening Party (PKB), won the Indonesian presidency in 1999 and stepped down when he finished his term in 2001.[14]  Ennahda, Tunisia’s major Islamist party, lost its parliamentary majority to the secular Nidaa Tounes party in the 2014 legislative elections but gracefully conceded its defeat.[15] Even the poster-boy for the ostensibly autocratic tendencies of Islamists, former Egyptian president Mohammed Morsi, was not particularly more authoritarian than any leader in a transitional democracy; in fact, he was less so.[16]

Thus, the apparent American concern that integrating Islamist political parties into a democratic framework of governance would lead to the collapse of said framework seems more grounded in paranoia than reality. The operative fear here appears not to be that Islamism will transmute democracies into illegitimate dictatorships, but rather that illiberal Islamist agendas will be legitimized and enabled via electoral victories. But since most Islamist parties willingly operate within democratic state structures and appear uninterested in antagonizing the West, it’s unclear why an “Islamic democracy” is such anathema to the U.S. and its allies. This wariness is doubly perplexing in light of their support for ultraconservative theocracies (Saudi Arabia) and brutal secular dictatorships (Mubarak, Sisi, Ben Ali, etc.), both of which grossly violate liberal principles and encourage the Islamist radicalization so central to national security concerns. The West’s sensationalist demonization of political Islam appears to have blinded it to the peaceful disposition of most Islamist parties, fostering a fallacious public discourse that categorizes organizations as disparate in objectives and methods as the Brotherhood and the Islamic State as “fundamentalist.” Tarring all Islamist organizations with the brush of radicalism has only hindered informed policy-making.

The U.S. government’s inability to accept an Islamic democracy instead of a secular one has often led it to violate both its ideals and its self-interest, hurting both the Western and Muslim worlds in the process. The first free Algerian elections in 1991 saw the Islamic Salvation Front (FIS) win 188 of 231 parliamentary seats. Rather than allow the democratically elected Islamists the levers of power, the secular Algerian army dissolved the elections, arrested the party’s leaders, and slaughtered thousands of supporters. The anti-democratic but secular military coup received American approval.[17] In the aftermath, Djerejian made clear that American fear of Islamic politics fueled U.S. support for the coup.[18] The coup set off a decade-long civil war that destabilized the region and facilitated the radicalization of Islamists once amenable to peaceful democratic rule, thus endangering U.S. national security. The U.S. government’s support of the coup thus not only disregarded Algerian self-determination, but encouraged radical violence as the only avenue to power available to Islamists.

The self-destructive tendencies of US foreign policy have not changed since. In 2013, the U.S. again supported a coup that overthrew a democratically elected Islamist party and massacred its supporters, this time in Egypt. Two weeks after U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said that the military was “restoring democracy” in ousting Morsi,[19] it slaughtered nearly a thousand unarmed pro-Brotherhood protestors in the worst massacre in modern Egyptian history.[20] If the past is any guide, the military regime’s subsequent crackdown on moderate Islamists will fuel the radicalization of its surviving members, creating ISIS recruits and further destabilizing a region already teetering on the edge of collapse.[21] The consequences of this damage will reach the West, as they have already, in the form of terrorist attacks.

As demonstrated by the above history, so long as the U.S. insists on the separation of religion and politics in any fledgling Muslim democracy, it will fail to act in accordance with either its ideals or its self-interest. Although neither Tunisia in 1992 nor Egypt in 2013 were U.S.-installed democracies, the U.S.’s encouragement (or at least abetment) of their destruction doesn’t bode well for any democracy instituted by the US itself. So long as the near-inevitability of Islamic democracy in the Muslim world goes unrecognized by the U.S., it is likely to encourage the “correction” of illiberal democracies and thereby crush them in the process.

With this essay’s argument, I do not mean to reproduce Samuel Huntington’s thesis on the so-called “clash of civilizations,” which has been used to justify Western supremacy, paternalism, and intervention vis-a vis Muslim societies.[22] The U.S. should not implement democracy abroad, not because the Islamic world is inherently anti-democratic, but because its democratic vision differs from the West. Just as Western democracies respect the will of the people so long as it doesn’t violate liberal doctrine, so to do Islamic democracies respect the will of the people so long as it doesn’t violate the Quran and the Sunnah. Yet in spite of this philosophical difference, Islamic democracies can (and in the case of countries like Indonesia, already do) coexist with the liberal West. The Muslim world’s resistance to political secularization is not indicative of its “backwardness.” Rather, it’s evidence that it and the West have taken different paths to modernity. The West should not expect liberal democracy at the end of the Muslim road anymore than it should expect Islamic democracy at the end of its own.  Moving forward, both sides need to internalize a genuinely pluralistic understanding of global politics. For the U.S., real tolerance lies not in remaking foreign peoples in its secular image, but in permitting them to institute a system of governance of which it disapproves. Ironically, a democracy like the U.S. might be at its most liberal by allowing illiberal Islamic democracies to spring.

 


Bibliography

Hamid, Shadi. Islamic Exceptionalism: How the struggle over Islam is reshaping the world. New York: Saint Martins Griffin, 2017.

Zakaria, Fareed. The Future of Freedom: Illiberal Democracy at Home and Abroad. W.W. Norton & Co., 2007.

Fukuyama, Francis. The End of History and the Last Man. London: Penguin, 2012.

Przeworski, Adam. “Minimalist Conception of Democracy: A Defense.” P. 23-55, 1999

Huntington, Samuel P. “The Clash of Civilizations?” Foreign Affairs. August 31, 2017. https://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/united-states/1993-06-01/clash-civilizations.

“Islamist Democracies: The West’s Worst Nightmare?” The Globalist. August 05, 2017. https://www.theglobalist.com/islamist-democracies-the-wests-worst-nightmare/.

Alkhateeb, Firas. “How Atatürk Made Turkey Secular.” Lost Islamic History. October 30, 2017. http://lostislamichistory.com/how-ataturk-made-turkey-secular/.

Michael R. Gordon And Kareem Fahim. “Kerry Says Egypt’s Military Was ‘Restoring Democracy’ in Ousting Morsi.” The New York Times. August 01, 2013. http://www.nytimes.com/2013/08/02/world/middleeast/egypt-warns-morsi-supporters-to-end-protests.html.

Wheeler, Shadi Hamid and Meredith. “Was Mohammed Morsi Really an Autocrat?” The Atlantic. March 31, 2014. https://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2014/03/was-mohammed-morsi-really-an-autocrat/359797/.

“Malaysian Islamic Party (PAS).” Wikipedia. November 28, 2017. Accessed November 29, 2017. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Malaysian_Islamic_Party_(PAS).

Gall, Carlotta. “Islamist Party in Tunisia Concedes to Secularists.” The New York Times. October 27, 2014. https://www.nytimes.com/2014/10/28/world/africa/nidaa-tounes-ennahda-tunisian-parliamentary-election.html.

“Abdurrahman Wahid.” Encyclopædia Britannica. May 27, 2013. https://www.britannica.com/biography/Abdurrahman-Wahid

“Egypt, Democracy and Islam.” Pew Research Center’s Global Attitudes Project. January 31, 2011. http://www.pewglobal.org/2011/01/31/egypt-democracy-and-islam/.

“CHANGES IN U.S. DIPLOMACY.” Rice University’s Baker Institute for Public Policy. https://www.bakerinstitute.org/news/one-man-one-vote-one-time/.

“Tunisia’s Islamist Ennahda party wins historic poll.” BBC News. October 27, 2011. http://www.bbc.com/news/world-africa-15487647

“All According to Plan | The Rab’a Massacre and Mass Killings of Protesters in Egypt.” Human Rights Watch. June 16, 2015. https://www.hrw.org/report/2014/08/12/all-according-plan/raba-massacre-and-mass-killings-protesters-egypt.

Clampdown and Blowback: How State Repression Has Radicalized Islamist Groups in Egypt | Origins: Current Events in Historical Perspective. http://origins.osu.edu/article/clampdown-and-blowback-state-repression-egypt


Endnotes

[1] Przeworski, Adam. “Minimalist Conception of Democracy: A Defense.” P. 23-55, 1999

[2] Zakaria, Fareed. The Future of Freedom: Illiberal Democracy at Home and Abroad. W.W. Norton & Co., 2007.

[3] Fukuyama, Francis. The End of History and the Last Man. London: Penguin, 2012.

[4] “Egypt, Democracy and Islam.” Pew Research Center’s Global Attitudes Project. January 31, 2011. http://www.pewglobal.org/2011/01/31/egypt-democracy-and-islam/.

[5] Hamid, Shadi. Islamic Exceptionalism: How the struggle over Islam is reshaping the world. New York: Saint Martins Griffin, 2017.

[6] “Islamist Democracies: The West’s Worst Nightmare?” The Globalist. August 05, 2017. https://www.theglobalist.com/islamist-democracies-the-wests-worst-nightmare/.

[7] “Iraqi parliamentary election, December 2005.” Wikipedia. November 16, 2017. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Iraqi_parliamentary_election,_December_2005#Full_result

[8] “Tunisia’s Islamist Ennahda party wins historic poll.” BBC News. October 27, 2011. http://www.bbc.com/news/world-africa-15487647.

[9] Kirkpatrick, David D. “Mohamed Morsi of Muslim Brotherhood Declared as Egypt’s President.” The New York Times. June 24, 2012. http://www.nytimes.com/2012/06/25/world/middleeast/mohamed-morsi-of-muslim-brotherhood-declared-as-egypts-president.html.

[10] Alkhateeb, Firas. “How Atatürk Made Turkey Secular.” Lost Islamic History. October 30, 2017. http://lostislamichistory.com/how-ataturk-made-turkey-secular/.

[11] Hamid, Shadi. Islamic Exceptionalism: How the struggle over Islam is reshaping the world. New York: Saint Martins Griffin, 2017.

[12] “CHANGES IN U.S. DIPLOMACY.” Rice University’s Baker Institute for Public Policy. Accessed November 29, 2017. https://www.bakerinstitute.org/news/one-man-one-vote-one-time/.

[13] “Malaysian Islamic Party (PAS).” Wikipedia. November 28, 2017. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Malaysian_Islamic_Party_(PAS).

[14] “Abdurrahman Wahid.” Encyclopædia Britannica. May 27, 2013. https://www.britannica.com/biography/Abdurrahman-Wahid.

[15] Gall, Carlotta. “Islamist Party in Tunisia Concedes to Secularists.” The New York Times. October 27, 2014. https://www.nytimes.com/2014/10/28/world/africa/nidaa-tounes-ennahda-tunisian-parliamentary-election.html.

[16] Wheeler, Shadi Hamid and Meredith. “Was Mohammed Morsi Really an Autocrat?” The Atlantic. March 31, 2014. https://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2014/03/was-mohammed-morsi-really-an-autocrat/359797/.

[17] “Islamist Democracies: The West’s Worst Nightmare?” The Globalist. August 05, 2017. https://www.theglobalist.com/islamist-democracies-the-wests-worst-nightmare/.

[18] “Islamist Democracies: The West’s Worst Nightmare?” The Globalist. August 05, 2017. https://www.theglobalist.com/islamist-democracies-the-wests-worst-nightmare/.

[19] Michael R. Gordon And Kareem Fahim. “Kerry Says Egypt’s Military Was ‘Restoring Democracy’ in Ousting Morsi.” The New York Times. August 01, 2013. http://www.nytimes.com/2013/08/02/world/middleeast/egypt-warns-morsi-supporters-to-end-protests.html.

[20] “All According to Plan | The Rab’a Massacre and Mass Killings of Protesters in Egypt.” Human Rights Watch. June 16, 2015. https://www.hrw.org/report/2014/08/12/all-according-plan/raba-massacre-and-mass-killings-protesters-egypt.

[21] Clampdown and Blowback: How State Repression Has Radicalized Islamist Groups in Egypt | Origins: Current Events in Historical Perspective. http://origins.osu.edu/article/clampdown-and-blowback-state-repression-egypt.

[22] Huntington, Samuel P. “The Clash of Civilizations?” Foreign Affairs. August 31, 2017. https://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/united-states/1993-06-01/clash-civilizations.

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