The issue is liberalism, not democracy

The issue is liberalism, not democracy

There was a time that mainstream Islamist parties of the world, such as the Muslim Brotherhood of Egypt, had a problem with democracy. This “Western system,” according to them, implied “the sovereignty of the people” versus “the sovereignty of God.” Since all true Muslims should submit to divine will, they added, democracy could only be “an infidel regime.”

Even in Turkey, whose Islamist movement has arguably been more advanced than its Arab or Pakistani counterparts, this anti-democratic stance had some basis. Hence you could see cars in Istanbul in the mid-1990s whose driver’s seats were occupied by long-bearded men and whose rear windows carried the bold slogan, “Sovereignty belongs to Allah.”

Democracy, according to this view, had to be rejected by Muslims categorically or, at best, used only temporarily with the aim of annihilating the “infidel regime” from within.

However, since the 19th century, there has been a democracy-friendly interpretation of Islam as well. First suggested by Ottoman thinkers such as Namık Kemal (1840-1888), this view saw parallels with the Western notion of democracy and the Quranic principle of “consultation” (shura) among believers. That was the basis which allowed the Ottoman Empire, the very seat of the Islamic Caliphate, to open an elected Parliament in 1876.

Now, the good news is that in the past two decades, the case for democracy has become quite accepted among Islamists. Fringe groups such as al-Qaeda still denounced “the infidel regime” (and hence bombed voting centers in Iraq, for example), but mainstream Islamists have made their peace with democracy. They, in fact, have even become its ardent champions.

The Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, which has proven to be victorious in the post-Hosni Mubarak era, is a perfect example. Their political messages constantly emphasize “the will of the people,” in sharp contrast to the old Islamist line that condemns “the sovereignty of the people.”

This, of course, has a practical reason: Islamist have realized that they have a broad appeal in their society, and they have cultivated it more with successful grassroots efforts. In other words, “the will of the people,” in the majoritarian sense, very much proved to reflect their own political line. That is why they insist on going to the ballot for Egypt’s new Constitution before seeking consensus with secular groups.

Does this mean, then, that the matter of “Islam and democracy,” or Islamists and democracy, has been resolved?

No, not exactly. At least in the Western sense. We have to recall that in the West, the post-World War II political consensus is not called “democracy.” It is called “liberal democracy.” In this system, the boundaries of the “will of the people” are clearly drawn by individual rights and freedoms, which are articulated by the liberal political philosophy advanced long ago by thinkers such as John Locke or Immanuel Kant.

If you do not have such a liberal doctrine that upholds individual rights and freedoms, democracy can easily turn into “illiberal democracy,” where a popularly elected Parliament can pass illiberal laws.

In other words, Islamists need to recognize not just democratic processes but also liberal principles. Some of them, such as Rached Ghannouchi, the leader of the Tunisian Ennahda Party, already do, whereas others, such as the Salafis, obviously don’t. Which view should prevail is the topic of the next big debate in the Muslim world.