Islamists and illiberal democracy

Islamists and illiberal democracy

If you would like to read a book these days that would help you grasp the political dynamics of post-Arab Spring societies, I would wholeheartedly recommend a new title: “Temptations of Power: Islamists and Illiberal Democracy in a New Middle East.” Penned by Shadi Hamid, an American scholar of Arab origin, the book shows how the tension in the Muslim world is not only between dictatorship and democracy; it is also between the conflicting views of democracy.

When Westerners use the term “democracy,” what they really refer to is “liberal democracy.” This is a political system where free elections decide who will rule, but individual liberties – such as freedom of speech, religion, lifestyle, etc. – are protected regardless of whoever is in power. When you lack those liberties, and merely have elections, you can end up with “illiberal democracy,” where the majority rules, but does so by suppressing the rights of the minorities and dissenting individuals.

It was Fareed Zakaria who coined the term “illiberal democracy” and brought it to public attention with his seminal book, “The Future of Freedom.” What Hamid does is he borrows the concept and demonstrates how it works within the framework of Islamist parties, such as the Muslim Brotherhood.

There is a more challenging type compared to other illiberal democracies, he explains, because: “Illiberal democracies exist all over the world, but, whether of the leftist or right-wing varieties, their illiberalism is usually negotiable. Restricting personal rights or freedoms is a product of the desire to consolidate power, rather than stemming from any particular ideological conviction. Yet, illiberalism is central to the Islamist raison d’être: they’re supposed to be illiberal.”

But what does this inherent illiberalism mean? For starters, all Islamists want to establish Islamic law, or shariah, in some form. And the shariah, in its unreformed (i.e., current) form, includes a myriad of highly illiberal practices, such as the execution of “apostates” or “blasphemers” and various other ways of morality policing.

In a country such as Egypt, which is deeply conservative, such illiberal practices can be easily legislated “democratically.” (Polls show that 80 percent of Egyptians support stoning for adultery, and 88 percent support the death penalty for apostasy). This should explain why Egypt’s “liberals” had trouble with democracy and why they (wrongly in my view) supported the military coup against the Muslim Brotherhood.

Hamid also underlines the differences between various Islamist parties, and explains how Tunisia’s Islamists are much more moderate and even-liberal leaning compared to the Egyptian ones. The main reason is that the Tunisian Islamists are simply operating a more secularized, modernized society, whose “democratic” support for authoritarian Islam is weaker. The same context has made Turkey’s Islamists relatively liberal-leaning, too.

Yet there is a caveat that Hamid stresses throughout his book: When Islamists assume full power, or have the illusion of it, they tend to abandon their modest, gradualist, liberal-like approach and engage in realizing their ideological ambitions with the support of “the people.” (Sounds familiar?)
All in all, I agree with Hamid’s arguments, and feel that they support my longtime argument: We Muslims need a debate not just on electoral democracy, which can easily turn authoritarian, but also liberalism, which is really the heart of the matter.