Islam vs. Democracy (Martin Kramer, January 1993, Commentary)

For most of the 1980s, those who saw Islamic fundamentalism for what it is saw groups as violent and dogmatic as any in the world. These were people who mixed nostalgia with grievance to produce a millenarian vision of an Islamic state – a vision so powerful that its pursuit justified any means. Angry believers invoked this Islam when they executed enemies of the revolution in Iran, assassinated a president in Egypt, and detonated themselves and abducted others in Lebanon. Their furious words complemented their deeds. They marched to chants of “Death to America” and intimidated all opponents with charges of espionage and treason. They did not expect to be understood, but they did want to be feared, and feared they were, by Muslims and non-Muslims alike.

Yet their violence failed to overturn the region. While fundamentalists did seize the state in Iran, in most Arab countries they lurked about the edges of politics. They were often dangerous, and always fascinating, but they posed no mortal threat to the established order.

By the decade’s end, however, many of these same groups had managed to transform themselves into populist movements, and even win mass followings. They did so by riding a huge tide of discontent, fed by exploding populations, falling oil prices, and economic mismanagement by the state. While governments fumbled for solutions, the fundamentalists persuaded the growing numbers of the poor, the young, and the credulous that if they only returned to belief and implemented God’s law, the fog of misery surrounding them would lift.

“Islam is the solution,” ran the fundamentalist slogan. What that meant, no one would say. The treatises of those billed as first-rate theoreticians seemed vague, by design. Here and there, fundamentalists organized model communities. Although billed as successful experiments in self-reliance, they were actually Potemkin mosques, built and supported with money from oil-rich donors. Fundamentalists also organized Islamic investment banks, which were supposed to prove that market economics could flourish even under the Islamic prohibition of interest. The most extensive experiment in Islamic banking, in Egypt, produced Islamic financial scandal in fairly short order.

But most of new followers read no theory and lost no money. They stood mesmerized by the rhetorical brilliance of men like the Sudan’s Hasan al-Turabi, Tunisia’s Rashid al-Ghannushi, and Lebanon’s Muhammad Husayn Fadlallah. These preachers did not intone musty Islamic polemics against the unbelievers. Often they sounded more like the tenured Left, venting professorial condemnations of the West’s sins.

Indeed, many of them issued from the academy. Turabi, schooled at the University of London and the Sorbonne, had been a professor of law and a dean; Ghannushi, a teacher of philosophy. They had overheard the West’s self-incrimination, uttered in Left Bank cafés and British and American faculty lounges. This they reworked into a double-edged argument for the superiority and inevitability of Islam, buttressed not only by familiar Islamic scripture but by the West’s own doomsday prophets, from Toynbee onward. These wise men of the West had confessed to capital crimes: imperialism, racism, Zionism. If they felt the tremors of the coming quake, could Muslims not feel them? Those who listened long enough to words pumped from pulpit amplifiers did begin to feel a slight tremor, and the mosques filled to overflowing.

A great deal of solid scholarship on these movements appeared during the 1980s, making it difficult to view them benignly. Their theories of jihad and conspiracy, embedded in wordy tracts, received critical scrutiny. True, Edward Said, Columbia’s part-time professor of Palestine, presented a contrary view in Covering Islam, a book which bemoaned the Western media’s treatment of Islam. The book was much admired by the Islamic Jihad in Beirut, prolific deconstructionists (of U.S. embassies) who circulated it among Western hostages for their edification. But the violence of the fundamentalists made them a difficult sell, and when in 1989 they filled the streets to demand the death of Salman Rushdie, they bit the hands even of those few Western intellectuals who had tried to feed them. As the decade closed, Islamic fundamentalism could count on few foreign friends.

While Islam’s fundamentalists demanded the death of Rushdie, a longing for democracy (and capitalism) swept across Latin America, Eastern Europe, and the Soviet Union. Throughout the Middle East and North Africa, rulers took fright at the scenes of revolution from Romania and East Germany, and proceeded to initiate tightly controlled experiments in political pluralism. At the time, the architects of these experiments had no sense of the fundamentalists’ appeal; they thought that the openings would work to the benefit of parties advocating liberal reform.

It was the fundamentalists, though, who led the dash through the newly opened door. The first of a succession of surprises had occurred in Egypt’s parliamentary elections in 1987, when a coalition dominated by the fundamentalist Muslim Brethren emerged as the biggest opposition party in a contest gerrymandered to assure victory for the ruling party. The fundamentalists also outdistanced all other opposition parties in the 1989 elections for Tunisia’s parliament, although a winner-take-all system gave every seat to the ruling party. That same year, the fundamentalists nearly captured the lower house of Jordan’s parliament, in that country’s first general election since 1967. Then, in 1990, the fundamentalists swept the country-wide local elections in Algeria.

Given these successes, almost overnight fundamentalist movements became the most avid and insistent supporters of free elections – an unpatrolled route to the power that had hitherto eluded them. Liberal Arab intellectuals, who had lobbied for democratic reforms and human rights for much of the 1980s, now retreated in disarray, fearful that freer press and elections might play straight into the hands of fundamentalists.

For Western theorists of democracy, it was as if the Arabs had defied the laws of gravity. Few admitted the bind as frankly as Jeane Kirkpatrick, who said:

“The Arab world is the only part of the world where I’ve been shaken in my conviction that if you let the people decide, they will make fundamentally rational decisions. But there, they don’t make rational decisions, they make fundamentalist ones.”

Most theorists, however, refused to be shaken. In order to synchronize the Arab predicament with the march of democracy, they developed a convenient theory – the theory of initial advantage.

The fundamentalists, according to this theory, enjoyed an advantage in the first stage of democratization: they knew how to organize, to stir emotions, to get out the vote. But “as civil society is enlivened,” announced one political scientist, “it is only natural that the influence of the Islamist groups will be challenged.” Then their appeal would fade, once the people enjoyed a full range of options. In the privacy of the voting booth, the voters would become rational actors, and elect liberals and technocrats who proposed serious answers to the crisis of Arab society.

This is why the failure of the Iranian Revolution and the theocracy it created is so important, because it serves as a warning to others that the answer to Islam’s problems do not lie down the road of fundamentalism. If Iran can reform itself from within and move in a more Westerly direction, as it is trying to do now, it will establish a vital precedent.

Then, though, questions arise as to whether a revolutionary period is inevitable in the rest of the Middle East–is this a necessary phase that the states will all or almost all pass through, just to get it out of their systems?–and, more importantly, will countries that did not have long experience of a pro-Western liberalizing dictator like the Shah (or like Attaturk in Turkey) be able to shuck off the revolution as quickly as Iran has? Support for freedom, constitutionalism, liberation of women, etc., predates the Revolution in Iran and has apparently remained strong. Is there any reason to believe that a nation like Egypt–after it descends into its fundamentalist epoch, as surely it will–which seems to have few of these foundations upon which liberal democratic society is built, can develop them during a period when Islamic fundamentalism reigns? It seems at least somewhat dubious.

And it is here that Iraq comes in. For the new Iraq to succeed it will require a constitution that diffuses political power, a secular government, a free market economy, an independent judiciary, vibrant mosques and churches, a depoliticized military, and myriad social and community organiztions. Can all of these things be developed before it submerges into chaos or fundamentalist enthusiasms? Can it serve as an example of how democratic institutions might be built and revolution avoided? Here too it’s necessary to be skeptical. But we have to help both Iran and Iraq make the efforts, don’t we?


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