MideastWeb Middle East Web Log
Lee Smith has written a very thoughtful essay on the problematic nature of any democracy that might emerge in Iraq. The problem, according to him, lies in the fact that Islamism is not compatible with democracy, or at least it is not compatible with democracy as as you and I understand the term, and, says Smith, it is probable that Islamists will take over Iraq if there are democratic elections.
There can be no doubt about the first premise. Make no mistake, we are not talking about Islam here, but about Islamism. Islam is the religion of over a billion adherents, and like any religion, it is subject to various interpretations. Islamism is a particular interpretation of Islam that is not compatible with democracy because Islamism is a movement based on the idea that democracy is a Western heretical aberration that leads to disorder and amorality. There are different flavors of Islamism, but they seem to all have in common disgust with the West and distrust of democracy. The Shi'a Muslim exemplar of Islamism is the Iranian revolutionary regime that was initiated by the late Ayatollah Khomeini in 1978. The Sunni exemplars are the Al-Qaeda network of Osama Bin-Laden and the Muslim Brothers affiliated with Al-Qaeda [see postscript for background and discussion]. Though Islamist leaders are very popular in the Middle East as folk heros who fight the west, Islamist ideology is probably believed by only a fraction of the people. By way of analogy, many young students in the US bought Che Guevara posters, but very few of them would want to live in Cuba or vote for a Communist party.
Several analysts, including John Esposito, Noah Feldman (After Jihad) and Graham Fuller (The Future of Political Islam ) have been trying to make the case that Islamism is evolving toward democracy or is compatible with it. These arguments are used in support of policies of appeasing the regime of the conservative religious establishment in Iran, on the grounds that such a policy will ulimately result in a drift toward the West and toward democratic institutions, and assuaging the fears of those who fear an Islamic regime in Iraq.
When we examine their work and Islamist thinking however, it becomes apparent that "democratic Islamism" is a trick done with mirrors. Either they are not talking about Islamism, or they are not talking about democracy.
Feldman, for example writes: "Can Islam and democracy cohere, either in principle or in practice?" Well yes, they can, of course, but that is not the question at hand, and the answer to that question cannot guide US policies in dealing with Islamists. Feldman had a hand in drafting the Iraqi constitution, which provides that no law may be passed if it contradicts Islam. The proof of constitutions, like the proof of religions is in their interpretation. A liberal interpretation of that provision and of the constitution might be compatible with Western style democracy. An Islamic interpretation would not be compatible with anything one might call democracy.
Graham Fuller takes a somewhat different tack. He has decided that anyone who wants political reform and is also a Muslim, is an Islamist. There is some historical basis for this idea. The Muslim reform movement began with thinkers like Jamal al-din Al Aghani and Muhamed Abduh who sought to reform Muslim civilization . Their ideas were their way of answering the question, "Why has Islamic civilization, once the greatest in the world, lagged behind the West." They argued that venality and corruption had beset Muslim society. Their answer was to eschew materialism, return to basics and meeting the challenge of modern Western society with innovation. Their ideology of renewal inspired diverse political different offshoots, including the Muslim Brotherhood of al-Banna and, through a totally different route, the Baath party and pan-Arabism. Because "Islam" is a designation of what might in Western terms be called a national group or community (ouma), as well a religion, essentially all political thought in Muslim countries must be, in a sense "Islamic," just as all political ideas of Americans are "American."
Perhaps this is the basis that allows Fuller to write:
This is somewhat like saying that is a political thinker lives in America, he must believe in "Americanism" of the type that was professed by the late Senator Joe McCarthy and the House Un-American Activities committee. According to that definition, just about every Muslim who believes in moral government is an Islamist. Indeed, only someone with the greatest will to believe could think that the Communist party of Kurdistan (PKK) is an example of an "Islamist" movement, or even a Muslim religious movement.
In any case, the definition is incorrect, because that is not what Islamists believe. They don't believe that tradition should be used to "help guide" government. They believe that Shar'ia -- Islamic law as interpreted by the religious leaders -- must be implemented as the law of the land, and must be above any democratic decisions of the people. It is not a question of guidelines. It is not optional. The practical realization of this idea is seen in Iran, where the Guardian Council can cancel any law of the parliament if it conflicts with their interpretation of the constitution, and can also cancel the candidacy for office of anyone whom they believe is not "Islamic."
The Iranian reform movement was for a time the great hope of the apologists of Islamism. Here at last they could point to religious figures such as President Khatami and his reformist supporters, who held out the hope of enlightened democratic government and a peaceful and constructive course for an Iranian society that would coexist with the West and with its neighbors. It is not at all clear if that was really the program of the reformists, but at this point it doesn't really matter. The fraudulent elections held in Iran in February are ample proof that the Guardian Council never had any attention of allowing democracy in the Western sense, to flourish in Iran.
Likewise, the Muslim Brotherhood and Israeli Arab Islamist movements ostensibly have moderated their radicalism, but when we examine the rhetoric closely, it becomes apparent that they have not become democratic. They have moderated their program to nonviolent takeover of society, rather than violent takeover, and they say that where Muslims are a minority, Islamists have to behave more circumspectly. This is not a great democratic epiphany. It is much closer to Lucky Luciano telling the mobsters to "look legit." It is quite similar to the tactics advocated by the CPSU for infiltrating Western democracy by working through the system. This was not "democracy," because "back home" in the USSR, the Bolsheviks had come to power by elections in the Soviets, and then mercilessly suppressed all of their former sodeletedt allies.
Islamist government as practiced in Iran or as proposed by the Sunni followers of ideologues such as Said Qutb is inimical to democracy by definition. If it evolves to support democratic institutions, it won't be Islamism any more. This is unlikely, as Islamist government, as practised in Iran, has built-in self-preservation mechanisms.
A revealing and not unsympathetic exposition of the Islamist position is given by Amal Saad-Ghorayeb, in her book, Hizbullah. The heart of the problem is that Islamism believes that God must legislate for man, because man is imperfect and incapable of legislating for himself. In the Islamist view, majority rule is oppressive, because it denies the rights of the minority. In fact, the "majority" is usually really a minority which does not represent the "oppressed." In any case, the system can only represent those of voting age in the present generation, and doesn't take into account the rights and needs of future generations. Therefore, Shi'a Islamists reason, democracy must be under the governance of "the yurisprudent" - velayet e- faqih, who are the Ayatollahs who interpret the law. There is room for non-Muslims in this system - Jews and Christians and other religions perhaps, but not for any other political party. Therefore in practise, in a country that is largely Muslim, Islamism guarantees that only Islamist parties can rule.
The advent of Islamism must mean the end of democracy, as was demonstrated in Iran. The system is designed not to evolve, but to be conservative, so it is unlikely that it will ever become anything else, and there is no point in placing any hope in evolution of Islamism. Sunni Islamists like the Hizb ut Tahrir movement want to reestablish the caliphate. Though the Caliph may consult with various ministers or even with an assembly, this Shura is not the same as democracy, and is limited to certain areas of life. A Caliphate is decidedly not an elected government, but the Caliphate was not Islamism either.
We should not fall into the error of identifying Islamism with violence. True, the terror attacks of Osama-Bin-Laden and Qaida were violent, and most Islamist groups are identified with terrorism and violent tactics. However, the adoption of less violent means to attain the end does not mean that the society governed by non-violent Islamists will be democratic. In Iran, the Islamists came to power following nonviolent strikes. In Algeria, they are trying to come to power through elections. Hizb-Ut-Tahrir, which is popular in Central Asia and wants to establish a Caliphate after taking over the Central Asian republics, advocates violence against non-Muslims, but believes in attaining its goals by non-violent means in Muslim societies.
Again, we should remember that Islamism is not Islam. It is noteworthy that except for the first years of the existence of Islam, the Arab empire, and after it the Turkish empire, were not really ruled by the religious authorities (ulema), except in religious matters and matters of custom. Policy was made by politicians. Though Suleiman the magnificent called his attack on Vienna a Jihad, it is not likely that he would have obeyed religious authorities if they had all ruled that the war was wrong. There was no velayet - e - faqih in those days, nor was there a defined political-religious hierarchy such as the Shi'a have set up. The Islamist concept of government is not traditional Islam, but an artificial creation meant to "recreate" an "artist's conception" of Islamic government as it ought to have been, somewhat like an "old western town" in Disneyland or a recreation of a colonial American town shown to tourists. Muhamad probably could not have stood for office in Iran, as he would've been ruled "unIslamic."
Lee Smith's second point is quite a bit more controversial. He writes:
Who is the "everyone" who might know this, and why woud free elections necessary bring Islamists to power? The Shi'a constitute about 60% of the Iraqi electorate. It is true that the regime Shi'a regime is not an encouraging example, but it is not necessarily the case that Iraqian Shi'a will take the same path. Parties supported by the Ayatollah Sistani, who is the spiritual leader of the Iraqi Shi'a, will certainly be a major force in Iraqi politics, but it is not clear that Sistani is of the same school as the followers of the Ayatollah Khomeini in Iran. Supposedly, Sistani is self effacing, doesn't allow posters of himself or other personality-cult objects characteristic of Khomeini, and doesn't believe in involving religion in politics. He is a concervative in religious matters and does not think too highly of Americans, but he hasn't declared himself to be an Islamist or to eschew democracy. Considering that he is a fellow who doesn't get involved in politics, he certainly had a great deal to say about the Iraqi constitution. At least however, most of what he said was favorable to democracy, Sistani of course does not represent all Shi'a in Iraq. Achmed Chalabi is a Shi'ite as well, and, on the other hand, there are radical Shi'a groups sponsored by Iran. The Kurds and the Sunni are not likely to join forces with any Shi'a Islamist party, and therefore it will not be easy for an Islamisc party to get a majority, unless it is "nondenominational Islamist." Given the long history of enmity between Sunni and Shi'a in Iraq, that is hardly a foregone conclusion.
Of course, there is every likelihood that Islamists will try to subvert Iraqi democracy. If the coalition or whoever supervises the elections manages to convince themselves that Islamists are just folks like everyone else, or that Islamists are like the PKK or perhaps the Christian Democrats in Germany, then of course, it will be much easier for Islamists to take over.
Postscript - Background on Islamist Movements
Since Jonathan Kuttab (see comments) has confused the issue and challenged the facts as I present them, I will provide a bit of background. The label "Islamism" has been used in very sloppy ways. I think it should apply to any Islamic group that believes in a state that is literally governed according to Shari'a law. In theory, they could advocate a liberal interpretation of Islam, but in practice all Islamist groups are conservative and, as it happens, anti-democratic. The Sunni groups follow Said Qutb. The Shi'a Islamists follow the ideas of Ayatollah Khomeini, who decreed that the will of the people is subordinate to the legal authority of the Faqih, the jurisprudent, who is a Marj al-Taqlid, a religious leader to be emulated, and who is supposedly a stand-in substitute for the 'hidden' twelfth Imam.
Many of the Sunni Islamist movements are in some way derived from, influenced by and contain members of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood. The Muslim brotherhood was founded by al-Banni in 1928, and eventually adopted the violently anti-democratic philosophy of Sayid Qutb. The point of the movement is to be against democracy, and therefore it is unlikely to evolve to be "for democracy." It is impossible for obvious reasons to ascertain all the members in such secret outlawed societies. However, Ayman Zawahiri, who is the right-hand man of Osama Bin Laden, was a member of the Muslim Brotherhood before it was outlawed and later joined the Egyptian Jihad movement.
The association of Islamism with Qutb and the Muslim brotherhood is well known.
But if one man deserves the title of intellectual grandfather to Osama bin Laden and his fellow terrorists, it is probably the Egyptian writer and activist Sayyid Qutb (pronounced SIGH-yid KUH-tahb), who was executed by the Egyptian authorities in the mid-1960's for inciting resistance to the regime.
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Replies: 10 comments
Whether Sistani is an Islamist -- one who believes that God's law should rule on earth -- is less interesting than whether he is a theocrat -- one who believes that the clergy should rule on earth.
In theory, he may not be. In practice, he's the head of the Shi'ite community in Iraq, and apparently quite determined to see them come to power. When that day comes, will he step into the role of elder statesman, perhaps even as a ceremonial head of state? Or will he remain in charge?
At a minimum, I'd expect him to continue exerting a powerful influence over the affairs of the nation under any such scenario. So whether it's an Islamic Republic or not may be just a matter of semantics.
Posted by Josh Pollack @ 03/11/2004 10:03 PM CST
The history of Islam shows that it has been a religion of violence and conquest by the sword. Islam has no concept of democracy. And Muslims are hostile to the concept because it runs contrary to the Quran.
Posted by Abdul Rahman Al Alwani @ 03/12/2004 05:56 AM CST
Josh Pollack correctly defines an Islamist as "one who believes that the clergy should rule on earth."
This is not a problem unique to Islam. When the Catholic church was in the ascendency, they maintained the same legitimacy for their control of governments of countries where Christianity dominated. This occurred in Europe in the middle ages and was arguably largely responsible for the death, destruction and domination of the populace that was the norm in those times. It was only with the Reformation and the subsequent separation of church and state that the modern era of growth, science, universal education and other markers of modern free societies occurred. The backwardness of current Arab states, recently reported by the UN is, no doubt, due to the influence of Islam over those states.
I think that it is clear that complete separation of church from the state is needed for the achievement of participatory democracy. I fear that such a change is still in the offing for Islamic controlled countries.
Posted by Elchanan Ross @ 03/12/2004 07:31 PM CST
I lost interest in the article when the author mentioned that Sunni examplers of Islamists are Al Qaeda and its Moslem Brother adherents.
AlQaeda is a very recent phenomena of a few thousand , at most, terrorists, while the Moslem Brotherhood is a politrical movement of millions which has been around for almost a century, with parties, institutions, thousands of publication. Either the author is thoroughly ignorant of modern islamic societies, or is deliberately misleading readers.
On the other hand, if one defines Islamism as that interpretaion of Islam which is incompatible with Western democracy, then his thesis, that Islamism is incompatible with Western democracy is undoubtedly, and manifestly correct.
Posted by Jonathan Kuttab @ 03/12/2004 09:16 PM CST
Reply to Jonathan Kuttab,
It doesn't bother you that Graham Fuller classifies the Kurdistan Communist Party as Islamist. However, it does bother you that I classify Al-Qaeda and the Muslim Brotherhood as Islamist, because one group is small and the other is big? Is that the sum of your deep philosophy? Can only big and old parties be Islamists, or only small and new ones, which do you prefer?
They both believe that God (the Islamic God) must rule on earth, and they both hate the West. Yes, my point is that Islamism is by definition anti-democratic. I don't define it as incompatible with democracy. The Islamists do. They tell us that they believe Islam is incompatible with democracy, and that Islam in their undemocratic version of it must rule society, and that is what makes them Islamists. Those organizations are by definition antidemocratic. That is the root of the problem.
The argument I am countering, offered by others, is that Islamism (not Islam, but Islamism ) will evolve to democracy. Of course it is an tenuous argument, and it is supported by spurious data. However, your notion that political views should be classified on the basis on the size and age of the party is even more questionable. You are clutching at straws because you don't want to admit that there is a problem that must be faced.
Posted by Moderator @ 03/13/2004 01:33 AM CST
I love to listen to intellectuals flapping their tongues to hear themselves.
Posted by mike levine @ 03/13/2004 09:45 AM CST
Another mega terror attack Al Qaeda style occurred in Madrid on 11th March 20. The reasons are manifold in the Islam extremist psyche. One needs to examine the history of Islamic conquests as well as read the Koran to find some thread to what causes Arab terrorists to hate the West so much. There seems to be a sort of Islamic rebirth that has taken a very radical and cruel direction. It is an established fact that where Islam once had ruled and had been overthrown there will be no peace until Islamic rule is re-established for all time.
It does not matter how many years have passed. Once the time is ripe then there will be a massive re-awakening of the Moslem spirit which will determine the future of the world and attempt to convert the non-Moslem infidel to Islam. The main purpose of Islam is to rule the world. Al Qaeda is one of their many tools to attain that goal.
The ever-evasive Osama Bin Laden and his despicable cohorts who slip through Afghanistan, Pakistan taunting the West with pre-recorded tape messages calling the faithful to rise and destroy the U.S, Israel and western civilization. Threats of massive terror attacks, part of his armentarium of psychological war tactics, seems to leave the West â€“ even a world power like the U.S. in trepidation of what will happen next and who will be the next victim. By some strange coincidence â€“ or maybe not â€“ the Madrid attack occurred on the 11th March â€“ the number 11 seems to be significant in the Al Qaeda lexicon. This attack occurred in the Spring while 11th September 2001 attack occurred in the Autumn. Bush and his allies including Spain and Britain (who will probably be next in line for a mega attack) are seen as enemies that must be destroyed.
Islam will never accept foreign rule in countries where they once ruled. This places even Hungary on the line for an Al Qaeda style attack in the not too distant future. In fact, all countries that were once part of the old Ottoman-Turk Empire are at risk for mega terror attacks by Al Qaeda in an attempt to regain the Islamic glory and power they once held many centuries ago. The handwriting is on the wall and the non-Moslem countries of the world are due for a slide towards increasing terror attacks of Al Qaeda cell origin.
Another reason for Al Qaeda type terror is the constant accusation made by Moslem extremists who accuse the West of being responsible for the poverty amongst the Arab population in the Arab countries. Progress in these countries is limited to the rich upper classes while the rest of the population are ruled by non-democratic regimes that are an obstacle to progress. There are repressive laws against the well being of women and certainly progress in the social sphere is almost non-existent. There is also a very high illiteracy rate. All these factors are successfully manipulated by Al Qaeda who accuse the West, Europe and, of course Israel, for their plight. The Iraqi War and the result of US-British occupation is total anathema to the Islamic World. If anybody believes that the new Iraqi constitution which the U.S. had compiled will solve the problem of Iraq and lead her to democracy is totally naÃ¯ve and lacks understanding of the Islamic psyche. There will always be terror in Iraq until the last U.S. and British soldier leaves. The use of suicide attacks against U.S. and British soldiers will never cease no matter what constitution is introduced there. Even when the occupying forces leave, there will be civil strife and war between the Sunnis, Shiites and one must not forget that the Kurds will also be in this struggle for power. The possibility of a tyrant in the footsteps of Saddam Hussein could re-emerge.
Achievement in the Arab world that grasps the world's imagination has been very small. There are no great industrial achievements or production, apart from oil, coming from the Arab world. It is as if the Arab world is being left behind in world progress. Many Moslems leave their countries of origin and arrive in Europe and the US where they establish Moslem religious schools which preach hate and brainwash their followers. The west has been far too liberal towards Moslem immigration into their countries. Fear of discrimination against Moslems could jeopardise the West's oil supplies from the Arab World. Thus a very liberal policy, which allowed all and sundry elements of extreme Islamists to arrive en mass, was ensured. A breeding ground for discontent was created in their new adopted countries. Some of this was no doubt caused by a certain amount of discrimination against these Arab immigrants which stoked up hate against the West.
In the Middle East, the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict is based on similar reasoning. Prior to the British Mandate, Palestine was part of the Ottoman-Turk Empire. Any dent in that would never be tolerated by Islamists and there is no doubt that Hamas, Islamic Jihad and their ilk see the occupation as not just the territories occupied in the Six Day War of June 1967 but that the whole of Israel is occupied territory. It may of course be argued that Israel should give up the occupied territories but this does not mean that peace will eventually be attained. Prior to June 1967, there was no "occupied territory" and yet the desire to destroy Israel was there since her establishment. The "occupied territory" syndrome is today an added excuse to delegitimize Israel. Using that reasoning has helped the Palestinian stand immensely in their fight to get back the territories to establish their state. What the world does not realise (or maybe they do but for reasons of expediency will not admit it) is that it is not the Palestinian Authority that rules the roost but Hamas and their terrorist allies whose agenda for the total destruction of Israel is well documented. The establishment of a Palestinian State is legitimate, morally justifiable and an end to the occupation is in Israel's long term interests provided that this state does not threaten Israel's existence. However, there does not seem to be any serious negotiating partner. The most that could be achieved is a temporary cease fire or hudna which would temporary stop the carnage. This could also apply to Al Qaeda, the ally of Hamas, Hezbolla, Islamic Jihad and their related groups.
Posted by Shimon Z. Klein @ 03/13/2004 12:18 PM CST
I think that all of us need to recognize three facts - most of the problems we are seeing today are not the results of decisions made nearly 100 years ago having to do with the Middle East. They are the result of one generation after the next teaching their children that life is not about living - it's about hurrying up and dying so one can get on with paradise. Does that really make sense to anyone? Do you really believe that we tiny specs of chemistry are THAT important? Next - the idea that any organized religion should be allowed by all of humanity to exist without leadership to set the rules is to take humanity back to living in caves - opps - I see that many of the "leaders" do. Religion should NOT be allowed to run countries. Instead it should be allowed to exist within them - any religion, not just one! Finally - all of us need to stop trying to be right and take a look at the latest Hubble Space Telescope images showing over 10,000 galaxies in just a fraction of an inch of the universe in which we exist. Can we not step aside the petty human cancer of the mind and stop the killing and blame long enough to notice that we are less than insignificant in the bigger picture? Do any of you actually think that your GOD is THE one and that you are right about that? We need to wake up and find a way to bring all humanity together. We're going to need it as we leave this planet and head into the cosmos. Let's not take our insanity with us. So instead of strapping on bombs and killing yourself in order to kill others who don't believe what you believe how about looking into a mirror and noticing what you are about to do and ask yourself if this religion of yours is just some made up stories that nobody can validate? Stories you were told by others who were told by others and here you are about to blow yourself up over it and end the lives of many other innocent humans in the process. Let's get to the bigger picture people. Let's stand back and see how our existance on this world is simply a random chemical experiment to allow a small part of the universe to achieve conscious awareness. And the experiment is just getting started. None of the hundreds of religions on this planet is the right one let alone one started in the 7th century that teaches death to anyone who does not think as the teacher says we should.
Posted by Will Robertson @ 03/14/2004 07:36 PM CST
I find the remarks about Islam posted on this page and the main article itself to be a classic case of racist, orientalist views disguised as "learned scholarship". Ami Isseroff claims to be distinguishing between "islam" on the one hand and "islamism" on the other but occassionaly the mask slips and the racist vapidity of the argument is revealed. Islam is an extraordinarily diverse and fascinating culture which it is simply impossible to reduce to a bunch of empty slogans. It is also interesting to note that no attempt is made to define the concept of "democracy" which Islam (oops sorry "Islamism") is supposed to be incompatible with. Similarly no attempt is made to assess the problems of the Arab and Muslim world in the light of centuries of colonial oppression which continue to this day, both indirectly via Western support for tyrants, and directly via Zionist occupation in Palestine and US-British control of Iraq. Why is no mention made of Jewish extremists in Palestine who believe "God gave them that land" and hence they have the right to displace and slaughter a whole nation? Do these people represent Judaism? Should I call Judaism a violent and anti-democratic religion because of Israel's actions?
Posted by Nick Kardahji @ 03/22/2004 11:46 AM CST
I have lived in two Islamic, Arabic countries, I have lived in the same appartment as a British Afgani, an Indian Hindu and a Syrian.
Arab Muslims and most others (as far as I can tell) are distinguished by their total lack of responsibility for their own, or there peoples actions.
"September 11th was a plot by the Jews and the Americans to make us (Muslims/Arabs) look bad" was an idea I heard a great deal.
When Challenger was destroyed on re-entry, this was an act of God because there was an Israeli on board and parts of it came down in Palestine, Texas.
However none of these noble Arab gentleman (I wasn't permitted to talk to the women) seemed to care that Palestinian refugees living in Arab states were not offered and would not be given statehood or citizenship by their hosts. (So much for Islamic Political Asylum)and charity towards their own.
"It cannot be our fault we are Muslims, therefore it must be the fault of the evil Jews and the West."
In the appartment my friend an otherwise very intelligent (MBA & Degree in Computing) British Afgani, would not speak to under any circumstances, the Indian Hindu, another MBA. He was an idolterer, and not a person of the book.
I have always believed that a man has the right to worship how he wishes, and see it as a part of a free society, for which my fathers generation fought and died.
If an ideal is worth dying for, freedom of thought and worship, is a good one.
It is the intollerance of other religions, and the ignorant and blind belief in your own, that has been the cause of so much misery in the past.
Islam, in any of its forms, is the most intollerant and beligerent religion on the planet.
It must be careful, that it is not trying to take away my freedom of thought or worship.
That freedom is worth defending and worth dying for.
Posted by Kim Morfin @ 03/23/2004 07:15 PM CST
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