TCS Daily

Is Islamic Democracy The Answer?

By Melana Zyla Vickers - December 13, 2005 12:00 AM

"The United States and our friends and allies can help build a Middle East where hope triumphs over bitterness ... where greater political and economic freedom, and better, more modern education encourage people to reject the path of terror, and instead fully join in the progress of our times. A free, democratic, and successful Iraq can serve as a beacon, and a catalyst, in this effort. And a free, successful Iraq can help create new momentum toward a lasting peace between Israelis and Palestinians. ..."
-- Condoleezza Rice

As Iraqis go to the polls to elect a permanent legislature, a neighboring Middle Eastern country further along the path to representational government can teach onlookers a lesson about democracy's limitations: While democracy is the best of all flawed systems of government -- and it is vital that the U.S. assist Iraq in setting up a democratic system -- democracy is sometimes far less than the unalloyed good implied by the Secretary of State.

Sometimes, it can be a conduit towards greater repression than voters had heretofore experienced.

In Egypt last week, radical, pro-violence Islamists made a strong showing in that country's parliamentary elections. There, the Muslim Brotherhood advocates and pursues the violent overthrow of the existing leadership in Egypt, and has pursued the same in Syria and elsewhere in the region. The Brotherhood gave birth to modern Middle Eastern terrorism -- its "thinkers" are to this day revered by al-Qaeda and other killers around the globe.

Egypt's been fighting the Brotherhood for more than five decades and even assassinated leading figures in the group. It banned their party, jailed their politicians, and short-circuited their funding. But because Egypt's ruling autocrats are corrupt and ham-handed, their repression has perversely helped the Brotherhood, making its leaders cleverer at becoming wolves in sheep's clothing, and cleverer at keeping their message of "Islam is the answer" popular with the masses.

Yet, if the party had instead been recognized and encouraged, Egypt might today have a full-blown constitutional crisis on its hands. After all, the Brotherhood's anti-constitutional and anti-freedom pronouncements, while kept quiet during the campaign, remain just below the surface. They would not stray from their fundamentals if their power grew beyond the 20% they just won. Consider that their website still advocates surveillance of Muslim and other foreign workers to make sure they're compliant with Islamic law, according to a French-language Egyptian newspaper. That as a matter of policy, they believe foreign countries are a source of cultural rot. And that their principal thinker, Sayyid Qutb, opposed democracy, arguing that sharia law was so perfect that no other legislation was possible, and that in Egypt or elsewhere, no group of people could rule over another group (except, presumably, through an Iran-style council of religious elders.)

The popularity of radical Islamic parties such as the Brotherhood among disgruntled poor and middle-class voters is one of the knottiest problems in the Middle East: Repress them in opposition as Egypt does, and they attract the sympathy of voters and foreign human-rights advocates including the U.S. Department of State. Let them come to power, and they risk following through on their promise to restore Allah's place at the helm of government -- by replacing the constitution with Islamic sharia law, turning back the clock on freedom, human rights, and ending peaceful relations with neighbors that are unlike them and therefore infidels.

The current history of the Brotherhood in Egypt is but one example. In Algerian elections a mere 14 years ago, the radical Islamic Salvation Front (FIS) won democratic elections using slogans such as "Democracy is blasphemy," "No democracy in Islam" and "Islam is light, democracy is darkness." Chillingly, they shared the "Islam is the Answer" slogan of Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood.

Algeria's ruling military junta ended up annulling the election -- a democratic travesty but a political necessity. Armed struggles followed, although Algeria has a modicum of political calm today. There as elsewhere, the alternative to Islamic fundamentalism wasn't too attractive either: Continued rule by repressive, autocratic incompetents.

Iraq doesn't face this problem just yet -- its radicals are still in the primitive stage of blowing up voters rather than courting them. But Iraq's government leaders and their American advisors would do well to recognize the risk presented by radical-Islamist populism, and nip it in the bud. Nip it, that is, over the objections of American and other human-rights advocates who will see the move as repressive.

Think that's too harsh? Consider that the Nazis were a tiny political party in 1928, yet over the subsequent five years used the democratic system -- and the help of the German Communist party -- to come to power. The deadly results are more than familiar.

In the 1970s and 1980s, Syria's now-deceased leader Hafiz al-Assad did the election-canceling Algerians and party-banning and politician-assassinating Egyptians one better: He never did go down the democratic path, surrounded himself with tribal loyalists, and essentially tried to exterminate the Muslim Brotherhood by murdering its adherents. That was surely not very tolerant or democratic of him. But as Robert Baer writes in Sleeping With The Devil, Syria was as stable a dictatorship as any in the region, and Assad died of old age, in his sleep.

What the Egyptians, Syrians and Algerians did with their radical Islamic opponents in the 1950s-90s was pretty much ignored by the United States, preoccupied with the Cold War and far more threatening evils. The United States did, though, quietly support similar bans on Communist parties -- in Muslim Malaysia, Indonesia and many other states. It was an unattractive compromise of values to be sure: Since the ruling parties were corrupt and often unable to stay in power through their own virtue, the US allowed them to use dirty tricks.

But politics is the art of the possible, not the desirable. With the Cold War gone, Condi Rice and the rest of the administration now appear a little tipsy with love for democracy and human rights, and ignorant of both Middle Eastern and Cold War history. Before this problem of radical Islamist parties rises in Iraq, it's high time for some clearer thinking. Do we really favor democratic processes over all else? Is a political party pro-democracy and pro-freedom just because it campaigns for office? Might it not be wise to learn from Egypt's experience and allow these countries to keep down political movements that risk throwing away freedom once they are elected?

Democracy may be the best of many flawed systems of governance, and the one that affords the greatest amount of freedom to the greatest number of people. But given the social conditions that voters in the Middle East face, and the popularity of radical Islamicists among disgruntled populations, unlimited freedom for all political movements is not a path away from oppression and terrorism.

If anything, it's a path toward it.

The author is a TCS contributing writer.



Something Better
While it is true that organizations like the Muslim Brotherhood take advantage of democratic elections to accrue more political power, I do not think that Egyptian style oppression is the answer. After all, that kind of support-the-dictator to fight socialism/fascism is what allowed radical Islam to grow so strong to begin with. During the Cold War, those actions were necessary, in order to combat the evils of communism. And, of course, the violent and oppression-filled history of the Middle East made it easier for these groups to take root. Now I agree with President Bush, in that we need to try another way. We need to show the rest of the Middle East what the pro-democracy movement in Iran seems to understand - Freedom of Thought is not anethema to Islam.

A democracy is three wolves and two sheep deciding who or what is for lunch.
In a constitutional republic voting on dinner is expressly forbidden, and the sheep are armed.
It is too bad that there is not a quick sound bite word for a constitutional republic.

RE: Democracy
Maybe we could call it a ConRep for short?

There are many religous groups that don't like democracy including some christians sects. We should treat all with comtempt not banning becuase that only gives them more power.

And they will know...
The real test of any organization is how many people are converted.
Christians convert non-Christians by showing them what being Christian is.
People will have to be shown that liberty is better than tyranny.
If there are Christians who oppose democratic government, I would challenge the strength of their faith.

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