Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Islamist Parties and Democracy

The rise of Islamist Parties throughout the globe has restructured the historical debate regarding Islam and democracy not only as a theoretical issue but now as a policy concern. The July 2008 issue of the Journal of Democracy presents various essays containing experts’ opinions on this issue to “highlight the key points of controversy in assessing the implications of the rise of Islamist parties for the future of democracy in the region.” On July 21st, The National Endowment for Democracy and the Journal of Democracy held a panel featuring four of the essayists from the symposium including Tamara Cofman Wittes, Hillel Fradkin, Laith Kubba, and Amr Hamzawy.

Tamara Cofman Wittes, from Brookings Institution’s Saban Center for Middle East Policy, dates the beginning of this discussion back to the 1992 coup in Algeria which established a “prism through which many actors” in the western world view Islam and Democracy. She enlist as examples of the lack of Islamic democracies resulting partially from the western (i.e. American) insincerity regarding their commitment to democratic transportation as seen in Algeria and Gaza with the election of legitimate, illiberal, anti-American Islamic governments. Further, the American failure throughout the 1990s to differentiate between Islamic groups has contributed to a backlash against democracy promotion. Ms. Wittes explained that it is the militarism and not the religion on many Islamist political groups that dooms their democratic process as well as their environment of operating in failed states.

Hudson Institute’s Hillel Fradkin approached the discussion of Islamic parties and Democracy as one of paradox and caution. He believes it to be a paradox seeing as most Islamic parties have an origin in the Muslim Brotherhood which was a movement and not a party; furthermore, the Brotherhood was against liberal democracy and even the very idea of nation-state governance. Secondly, he believes that conversation of Islam and Democracy should be accompanied by a word of caution. In light of past failures he poses the question: is it in our security interest to encourage Islamic democratic experiments? Although he cites Turkey, Jordan, Morocco (PJD), and Iraq as examples of Islamic parties moving in the right direction towards democracy he explains that each attempt will be country specific and that the “crucial thing is the question of environment.”

NED’s own Laith Kubba cautioned against automatically associating Islamist politics with authoritarian governments because both secular and religious governments can be authoritarian. It is disastrous for American polity to assume that there is only one Islamic approach to political thinking although Islamic politics can be authoritarian and that “the minute religion is pushed on politics it is too powerful” and becomes so counterproductive and destructive instead of unifying; therefore, all political parties should guard against the abuse of religion according to Mr. Kubba. He insists that the focus should be on the CONTEXT in which Islamists come to power. Weak state and civic institutions can often lead to authoritarian politics. If the state is in better shape then political Islam is less autocratic; therefore, we should focus on strengthening civil institutions and culture to allow the democratic process to take place.

The last presenter, Amr Hamzawy of the Carnegie Endowment for Peace, conveyed his essay’s explanation of the wide spectrum of Islamic movements, highlighting three patterns. The most successful attempts of Islamist parties pursuing democracy are seen in Morocco, Algeria, Bahrain, and Kuwait. These countries exhibit relatively stable and integrated legal politics with checks and balances in the government. No one party in these countries has a monopoly over Islam itself allowing for internal debates and differences to be managed institutionally. Furthermore, these countries successfully shift the debates from ideology concerns to public policy and the needs of the people. However, these Islamists still face the challenges of keeping their constituencies convinced as many came to power out of reform oriented movements and they now have limited outcome of participation.

Secondly, Egypt and Jordan are examples of less stable developments of Islamist parties and democracy as the cycles of repression and intimidation have generated a polarized political scene creating a challenge for organized political participation of Islamists. Furthermore, the Muslim Brotherhood holds a monopoly over Islamic politics and has been unable to move away from ideological debates. The lack of institutions to manage differences has lead to factionalism and resulted in instability; therefore facing a challenge of managing debates over participation in politics and the role of Islam. Sudan and Yemen have been the most unsuccessful in fostering democracy and their Islamic parties have shifted position to become opposition movements when they were once members of governing coalitions. They have been unable to fashion convincing messages to their audiences and their debates are increasingly out of touch. Saudi Arabia and Syria do not currently have modern, organized movements of Islamist Political Parties engaging in democracy.

All four panelists emphasized the political environment in which Islamic political parties come to power as a major influence in determining the success of democracy. Ms. Wiites summarizes this in saying that the “quality of overall political environment determines the quality of political participants.” Therefore, improving the scope of political freedom in the Middle East will allow the relationship between Islamist parties and democracy to progress.

Sponsor: The National Endowment for Democracy and the Journal of Democracy
Date: July 21, 2008
Time: 4:30-6 p.m.
Representative Attending: Jessica Walker

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