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The rise of the illiberal democrats in the Middle East
on 21 November 2015
Is a happy marriage between political Islam and liberal democracy possible? If we are talking about the Islamic State, then obviously not. But what about mainstream political Islam – like the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood? This is a vexed question and there aren’t that many books aimed at a general audience written to address it. This book does that.
Mainstream Islamic political parties like the Muslim Brotherhood certainly say all the right things that western secular democrats like to hear. But it this tactical? This author’s answer, based on interviews with hundreds of activists in Egypt, Jordan and Tunisia, concludes that it is. Such moderation makes good political sense and has all sorts of advantages.
But he offers more: he challenges a conventional wisdom of Western political science that holds that repression begets radicalization while participating in a democratic process brings forth moderation. In Egypt, to take the leading example, the Muslim Brotherhood moderated its stance on issues like Sharia, women’s rights etc. on because of repression in the years before the 2011 revolution. After the revolution, and when the Brotherhood could actually participate freely in the electoral process, it became more radical.
This should come as no surprise. Culturally, Egypt has moved to the right in the past few decades, with polling evidence suggesting greater popular support for ‘traditional’ Islamic punishments like the death penalty for moral offences, apostasy, adultery and so on. In fact, public opinion was often to the right of the Brotherhood’s stated position on various issues. It was no surprise then that when a democratic space opened briefly after 2011, the Brotherhood simply followed the sentiments of its base and became more radical, with extra push provided by the fact that the Brotherhood’s electoral competitors for votes were not leftist or liberal forces but Salafists and other radicals. Hence, electoral considerations pushed the Brotherhood rightwards.
The Brotherhood and and kindred movements like it can claim to be democratic in the sense of reflecting the will of the majority of believers. But they are not liberal. Secular and Islamic democrats can agree on procedure (elections) but disagree on a fundamental level on substance (like the role of the state, rights of minorities etc.).
The differences cannot be glossed over. Just to take one example to illustrate this. The Brotherhood has a conservative stance that Egypt’s problems can be addressed by a return to a cardinal virtue (Sharia). This is antithetical to the secular liberal view that that we need politics because there will always be conflict about what ‘virtue’ means and that any attempt to impose a uniform moral code only exacerbates conflict. The difference in world view runs top to bottom, on a whole spectrum of issues, such as the rights of women, minorities, freedom of conscience (especially the idea of apostasy, which has absolutely no secular equivalent).
This is not the rant of a conservative Islamophobe. The repression begetting moderation thesis is not a call to for ‘secular’ Arab governments to tame political Islam by extirpating it. The repression concerned is of the sort that aims to clip wings and muzzle political Islam, such as was practised in Jordan, Tunisia and Egypt under Mubarak, and not the war of annihilation launched by the Algerian state in the 1990s or that being undertaken in Egypt at the time of writing. This sort of repression does indeed produce greater fanaticism and violence. In other writings, he makes it clear that the idea of political Islam cannot be beaten into submission. He also discusses the (possible) Tunisian exception, where perhaps political Islamism and secularism can co-exist but cautions against wishful thinking in regard to this, not least because the same sort of shift in public opinion towards the cultural right applies to Tunisia as it does pretty much everywhere else in the Middle East.
Hamid is a realistic scholar of political realities of the countries he studies and free of both wishful thinking and from any wish to promote renewed imperial agenda. It will make sobering reading for those who were enthusiasts for America’s imperial mission in the Middle East in the 2000s but also of that project’s critics, who assumed that the phenomenon this book describes – i.e. political Islam as an illiberal but ‘democratic’ movement – was a mere byproduct of external, Western interference rather than internally generated. It’s a lot more complicated than that. If you want to be properly informed, then this book is a must-read.