Political Islam and Democratic Transition

Apr 15

It would be an understatement to say that westerners remain concerned about the role of Islam in democratizing Arab states.  Some, however, have suggested that secular democracy need not mean a complete exclusion of religion from the public sphere, but instead permit its participation against a background of institutions that serve to moderate the risk of a “tyranny of the majority.”   I agree that this is the most that can be reasonably obtained under present conditions in a country like Egypt.

In my opinion, modernist Islamic thought — the ideological basis of moderate Islamism –has been concerned primarily with equality before the law, establishing accountability of the government to the people, and eliminating arbitrary decision-making so as to better pursue the public good. They are attracted to democracy because they see democratic institutions as the best means to establish these ends.  Unfortunately, Islamic modernism (nor secular modernism in the post-Ottoman world, for that matter) has not been gravely concerned with pluralism as such.

That does not mean that one cannot imagine a turn toward liberalism in post-revolutionary Islamic political thought; indeed, I certainly expect such a turn, but only after the minimal standards of formal democracy are met.  That should not be terribly surprising: no liberal democracy is born fully-formed, as if Athena coming out of Zeus’ head.  It would be unfair to demand that Egypt, for example, blossom into a liberal democracy without first establishing a functioning formal democracy in the sense demanded by most Islamic modernists.   The path to a more liberal form of democracy will arise once it becomes clear that in the context of a formal democracy there will be irreducible ideological conflicts that can only be managed by creating a liberal public space as opposed to a modernist Islamic public space.

Two reasons give me confidence that a modernist Islamic public space will evolve into a more liberal. The first is that a merely formal democratic constitution, as it becomes more fully entrenched in the lives of citizens living under its norms, tends to be construed in a more expansive and tolerant fashion over time, rather than the other way around.  That has generally been the path in the US, in which the constitution evolved into being read as a liberal document rather than being born as a liberal constitution. The second is that Islamic modernism, with its emphasis on independent though (ijtihad) and pursuit of the public good through collective governance, itself gives rise to pluralistic forces.

Obviously, a constitution that is merely democratic in form is not an ideal, but given the shakiness of democratic transitions, the establishment of even a formally democratic regime will represent a substantial step forward for realizing the human rights and democratic aspirations of the Egyptian people.

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