Are Today's Islamic Movements Compatible with Democracy?
by Daniel Pipes
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[This article is half of a debate in which Geneive Abdo of The Economist argued the question in the title with yes and I with no.]
If by democracy one means an occasional election, with a limited choice of candidates who cannot speak freely, and no voting for the most powerful position - then sure, Islamism has no problems with democracy. But if the term refers to a system in which citizens have those rights (freedom of speech, the rule of law, minority rights, an independent judiciary) needed to make free and intelligent decisions, that they have a real choice of candidates, and that they can vote for the top leader - then no, Islamism is resoundingly not democratic.
Islamists believe in divine sovereignty and express a frank and deep disdain for popular sovereignty, which happens to be the key idea behind democracy. Instead, they hold that Muslims need nothing more than Islamic law (the Shari'a) as applied by an Islamist ruler: "A free man is one who obeys Allah's rules and orders and worships God alone." How the ruler gets to power has to do with God's will, not man's. Hadi Hawang of Malaysia is blunt about this: "I am not interested in democracy, Islam is not democracy, Islam is Islam." Ahmad Qutash al-Azayida, an Islamist deputy of the Lower House in Jordan, is also succinct: "Islamic law is what all Muslims want and the rule of the majority is democracy." In the famous (if not completely verified) words of 'Ali Belhadj, a leader of Algeria's Islamic Salvation Front, "When we are in power, there will be no more elections because God will be ruling."
Muhammad al-Ghazali, one of Egypt's leading Islamist thinkers, explains at greater length that he rejects democracy because it gives humans the power to ignore the laws of Islam. Were the parliament, for example, to abolish capital punishment, this "would violate the Islamic text, which says that killers must be executed. This democracy, then, must be rejected because it violates a religious text that has existed throughout the development of religion: from Judaism, to Christianity, to Islam."
Some thinkers accept a within-the-family consultation of Islamic experts (shura in Arabic) while rejecting the free-for-all that is democracy. Ghazali calls consultation "the rule of God" and democracy is "the rule of the people." He accepts the former because it involves consulting pious, God-fearing people, while democracy involves the opinions of those who "commit major sins and debaucheries." Democracy is objectionable because it treats equally "the virtuous and the debauched, the strong and the weak, the believer and the infidel."
Islamists also insist that Muslims have no need to bother with the superfluities of political democracy, as they already possess something much better. Islam, Hasan at-Turabi of the Sudan blithely asserts, is inherently democratic and has no need for the trappings of Western-style democracy. It "is the most modern form of God's message, is the most democratic religion. . . . God's message orders us to give, to share, everything - power, knowledge, property, wealth. This total sharing is democracy pushed to the furthest recesses of daily life."
Such peculiar logic (what has sharing to do with picking a leader?) leads Turabi to the audacious conclusion that political parties are "traps for hunting votes which ensure the wielding of power for a few people's benefit." In other words, democracy is really a form of dictatorship!
In his survey of audio cassettes recorded by thirty leading Sunni Muslim preachers (and meant exclusively to be heard by fellow-believers), the distinguished Israeli scholar Emmanuel Sivan reaches this unequivocal conclusion:
Still, this philosophical disapproval has its exceptions. Sivan asks: "Should the Islamists, then, have recourse to the much maligned electoral process when available? Despite the preachers' reservations with regard to "rule by the ignorant majority," they answer with a resounding "yes." They may despise democracy but they are ready to exploit it in the pursuit of power."
Like other non-democrats out of power, in other words, Islamists like democracy. They even develop theoretical schemes justifying democracy as an Islamic method of choosing one's leaders.
Yes, Islamists do sometimes talk like democrats, but there is no reason to believe that these fine words are a true guide to their intentions, as opposed to a way to gain legitimacy and enhance their chances to get into office. Ballots are fine so long as Islamists are on the outside. Once ensconced in power, they will not gracefully relinquish power (an attitude Assistant Secretary of State Edward Djerejian characterized in 1992 as "one person, one vote, one time"). Plenty of evidence suggests that their sweet words about democracy are temporary. Hans Guenter Lobmeyer, a specialist on Syria, concludes about the Muslim Brethren in that country: "It is beyond question that democracy is not the Brotherhood's political aim but a means to another end: the assumption of power." Ahmad Nawfal, a Muslim Brother from Jordan, candidly sums up this dual dynamic: "If we have a choice between democracy and dictatorship, we choose democracy. But if it's between Islam and democracy, we choose Islam."
Martin Kramer, a leading analyst of Islamism, has clearly established that as Islamists approach the corridors of power, their enthusiasm for popular sovereignty drops by looking at three important Islamist thinkers: Rashid al-Ghannushi, an exiled Tunisian; Muhammad Husayn Fadlallah, head of the powerful Hizbullah movement in Lebanon; and Turabi, the key power-broker in Sudan (until his recent fall from grace).
This spectrum, Kramer finds, argues against the appealing idea that power moderates Islamists. Quite the contrary, he finds, "Weakness moderates Islamists. It's distance and exclusion from power that have created the possibility for some new thinking."
Adolf Hitler and Salvatore Allende decades ago showed how a non-democrat can exploit the democratic process. Islamists have also done well in elections. They swept municipal elections in Algeria in 1991 and installed a prime minister in office in secular Turkey in 1996-97. They have had success in the Lebanese and Jordanian elections and won a substantial vote in the West Bank and Gaza. They have yet fully to take over a government, however.
Were they to do so, we have some idea of what they would do from existing Islamist regimes in Iran, Pakistan, Afghanistan, the Sudan, which are all highly autocratic with totalitarian tendencies: they control the political domain and aim to control all other aspects of their subjects' lives.
The Islamic Republic of Iran provides the most important case study. So long as the shah ruled, Iranian Islamists made promised to replace his autocracy with an open, democratic system. Even as he took power, Ayatollah Ruholllah Khomeini promised real democracy (an assembly "based on the votes of the people," to use his words). Once in charge, he partially fulfilled this pledge: Iran's elections are hotly disputed and parliament does have real authority. But there are some important limits. First, only candidates (including non-Muslims) who subscribe to the official Islamist ideology may run for office, so the parliamentarians represent a narrow spectrum of Iranian opinion. Second, the non-elected Supreme Guide (in the old days, Khomeini, now 'Ali Khamene'i) has far more powers than the elected government, including control of the military, police, intelligence services, courts, electronic media, and schools. The regime in Tehran thus offers a very limited - almost token - version of democracy.
In recent years, as the Iranian population has showed increasingly restive, the authorities have permitted a somewhat wider array of candidates to run for office, Muhammad Khatami in particular. But the Khatami faction is still very much within the fold, trying not to dispose of the Islamist ideology that rules Iran, only to improve it. These are reformers, not revolutionaries, who hope to improve the Islamic Republic to make it longer-lasting.
Listening to thirty Islamist preachers discuss democracy, Sivan concludes that "Westerners debating the question of Islam and democracy would do well to listen to these voices, representing as they do the hegemonic discourse in the Islamist movement. When Islamists talk to each other rather than for external consumption, the talk is clearly and unambiguously anti-democratic. And so would be their behavior should they seize power."
It's not just the Islamists themselves who make this clear; moderate Muslims are trying to alert the world to the anti-democratic nature of Islamism. They should be heeded. Zazie Sadou, spokeswoman of the Algerian Rally of Democratic Women, explains that "Fundamentalist Muslims, their paymasters, and all their supporters . . . do not want what is best for us. What they want is all of the power to establish a fascist and theocratic state." El Mahdi Abas Allalu, an Algeria political leader, holds that the Islamists "do not accept democracy because, in their opinion, democracy is tantamount to atheism." Or, in the wise words of Khalid Duran, an American analyst: they cannot "be judged by what they say or write, but solely by what they do."
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