Islam & Democracy in the Mediterranean

John L. Esposito

             Georgetown University


Despite the failures of political Islam in power in the Taliban’s Afghanistan, Sudan, Pakistan and Iran and the attacks of 9/11, Islam in the 21 st century continues to be a significant force in democratization and electoral politics, from Morocco to Indonesia.


Islam, Muslims, and Democracy

Much as in the former Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, the history of the modern Muslim world reveals a majority of authoritarian regimes.  The Muslim experience has been one of kings, military, and ex-military rulers possessing tenuous legitimacy and propped up by their military and security forces.  Indeed, the states of the Middle East are commonly referred to as security (mukhabarat) states.  At the same time, some self- styled Islamic states and  movements have often projected a religious authoritarianism which parallels that of secular authoritarianism.  Thus, autocrats and autocracies (full and limited) have been the rule rather than the exception.

In recent years, from the late 1980s, the call for greater democratization (political participation, civil society, pluralism, rule of law, free press) has become more common and widespread.  Throughout much of the region, diverse sectors of society, secular and religious, left and right, educated and uneducated increasingly use democratization as the litmus test by which to judge the legitimacy of governments and political movements alike.  Thus, both the principles of democracy and the process of broader political participation or democratization have become the subject of vigorous debate in the Muslim world. 


Islam and Civil Society

The track record of mainstream Islamist movements (as opposed to militants and violent extremists) in recent years demonstrates the extent to which many promote attitudes and values that are conducive to democratic change and the development of modern states and societies, from popular sovereignty, civil society and political pluralism to science and technology. They have been among the most prominent advocates of political, economic and technological development. Islamic movements and activists in countries from Egypt, Algeria, Morocco, Turkey and Jordan to Kuwait, Bahrain, Iran, Pakistan, Malaysia and Indonesia have created both an alternative vision and created or led alternative non-governmental institutions from schools, hospitals and clinics to legal, social welfare services and professional (medical, legal, engineering) associations or syndicates.  Many governments have perceived these developments as a threat, highlighting the inability of governments to provide adequate services and enhancing the legitimacy and appeal of Islamists. Thus, civil society and democratization have been subject to increased government control, under siege or in retreat. If some have spoken of the failures of self-styled Islamic governments (Saudi Arabia, Sudan, the Taliban’s Afghanistan, and until recently Iran) and Islamist movements, others have cited the intransigence of authoritarian states and the military (Algeria, Turkey, Tunisia and Egypt) to tolerate and abide by the results of open electoral politics.


Democratization and Islam Post 9/11:

The Sept. 11, 2001 attacks against New York's World Trade Center and the Pentagon in Washington, suicide bombers’ slaughter of non-combatants in Israel/Palestine, bombings in Bali and the arrests of suspected terrorist cells in Europe and America reinforce fears of radical Islamic movements. Muslim rulers in Tunisia, Algeria, Egypt, Turkey, Indonesia, and the Central Asian Republics as well as the governments of Israel, India, China and the Philippines have exploited the danger of Islamic radicalism and global terrorism to deflect from the failures of their governments and their indiscriminate suppression of opposition movements, mainstream as well as extremists, and/or to attract American and European aid. 

While September 11 and post 9/11 reinforces the threat of the dark side of political Islam, its extremists with their theologies of hate and destruction, the continued importance and diversity of Islamic movements and the forces of democratization are witnessed in electoral politics.  Elections in late 2001 in Pakistan, Turkey, Bahrain and Morocco reinforce the continued saliency of Islam in Muslim politics in the 21st century. Islamic candidates and Muslim parties increased their influence: in Morocco threefold and in Pakistan tenfold. In Turkey, the AK (Justice and Development Party) came to power, and in Bahrain Islamic candidates won 19 of 40 parliamentary seats.

The example of Islamic candidates and movements turning to ballots not bullets is not new.  If much of the 1980s had been dominated by fears of Iran’s export of revolutionary Islam, in the late 1980s and early 1990s, Islamically oriented candidates or leaders were elected as mayors and parliamentarians in countries as diverse as Morocco, Egypt, Turkey, Lebanon, Kuwait, Bahrain, Pakistan, Malaysia and Indonesia. They served in cabinet level positions and as speakers of national assemblies, prime ministers (Turkey and Pakistan), deputy prime minister (Malaysia) and Indonesia’s first democratically elected president. The general response of many governments to this political power of Islam was to retreat from open elections, identifying their Islamic opposition as extremist and/or simply falling back on their “time honored tradition” of canceling, managing or manipulating elections as in Tunisia, Algeria, Egypt, and Jordan.

Many political analysts and policymakers have maintained that Islam and democracy or Islam and civil society are incompatible because of an underlying clash of civilizational values between Islam and the West.  However, Iran, long regarded as a terrorist threat, has in fact provided a major example of the mobilizing power of an appeal to democratization and civil society. The election of President Khatami, his civil society agenda, and the ensuing power struggles within the clerical establishment in Iran have often framed within the context of civil society and democratization issues. 

            Despite the concentration of power in the hands of the Supreme Guide, Ali Khamenei, Mohammed Khatami’s advocacy of civil society, the rule of law, and democratization though not imposed, has become part of the political culture and debate within Iran. Though conservative forces have been able to arrest and imprison liberal supporters of Khatami, their actions have become contested in public space. The actions of ministries, courts and police have been the subjects of public criticism and demonstrations. Though clerically dominated institutions, from the Supreme Guide and the Council of Experts, prevail, they have been publicly examined and criticized, their powers questioned and challenged by reformers and in parliament.

The most remarkable demonstration of Islam’s prominence and transformation in mainstream politics post 9/11 was the victory of Turkey's Justice and Development Party (commonly referred to as the AK Party), which won a parliamentary majority (almost two-thirds) in a Muslim country that has long been seen as a limited democracy and symbol of “secular Islam”. The party's victory followed similarly important performances by Islamic candidates in Morocco, Bahrain, and Pakistan and the persistent strength of religious currents in countries like Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, Bahrain, Kuwait, Malaysia and Indonesia, all regarded in the West as allies or friendly governments.

Turkey, a key ally in NATO and in the confrontation with Iraq, elected AK, a party with Islamist roots (the former Welfare and Virtue parties). AK is mainstream, not extremist, broad-based (in terms of ideology and social class),  and maintains that is it not Islamist. The AK-led Turkish government indicated and has demonstrated its willingness to work with Europe, the U.S. and the international community while retaining Turkey’s independence. The example of Turkey’s AK Party shows that experience and the realities of politics can lead to change. Though its roots were Islamist, the founders of AK chose to create a more broad based party much as Christian democrats had done in Europe.

Democracy faired less well in Morocco’s parliamentary elections in September.  The Justice and Development Party (PJD) was a major gainer, jumping from 14 to 42 seats, tripling its vote and winning 10% of the seats in Parliament. The largest Islamist opposition group, the banned Al-Adl Wal Ihsan (Justice and Charity), boycotted the elections. Many observers believed that had it been authorized, the Party would have scored a sweeping victory among voters, observers say. However, despite the performance of the PJD, reformist King Mohamed VI refused to name an Islamist to any of 31 Cabinet posts. This failure reinforced critics who charge that though his rhetoric and style seem different, he is ultimately little different from his father. Morocco's last legislative elections were held in 1997, under King Hassan II, amid allegations of vote-rigging and rampant fraud.

Bahrain's monarchy attempted a top-down reformation, as part of a promised move towards democratization.  In October 2002 elections in Bahrain, the first in 30 years, Islamic candidates, representing Sunni and Shiite Islamic parties, won 19 of 40 seats in Parliament. Bahrain's parliament has a total of 80 seats; half are elected and the other half is filled by members of a consultative council, appointed by the king, Sheikh Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa. Moreover, Bahrain is the only Gulf country where women are allowed to vote in national elections and to run for office; however, no women were elected.

Many observers were shocked in Pakistan when an Islamic bloc, (The Joint Action Forum, Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal (MMA), which included the more moderate Jamaat-I-Islami and hardline religious parties), placed third with 30 seats in the Oct. 10 elections. Running on a platform critical of President Pervez Musharraf, the MMA denounced his control of elections and failure to democratize and his backing of the American military campaign in Afghanistan and the continued American military presence in the region. In addition to Parliament, some of Pakistan's Islamic parties now govern the North West Frontier Province and extended a helping hand to Afghan and Pakistani extremists. Some observers charge that the Pakistani army willingly played into their hands, rigging last October's general elections. Thus the surprising success of Islamic parties at the polls enabled Gen. Musharraf to claim greater need for U.S. support his government now “threatened by fundamentalists”.

By Spring 2004, both the war on terrorism and his desire to better secure his position domestically saw Musharraf shifting further away from democracy as his government rammed through a bill to create a 13-man National Security Council (NSC), chaired by the president and gathering leaders of the armed forces, giving the military control of all strategic policymaking in Pakistan.

Islamic candidates and parties share some common issues but also reflect significant differences. All were critics of the status quo, their political and economic establishments. Most cast themselves as reformers and emphasized justice and development. Importantly, most of their supporters were not just the downtrodden but also the aspiring middle class. The leadership of most Islamic movements continues to be lay rather than clergy, graduates of modern educational systems rather than madrasa; trained in science, engineering, education rather than religious disciplines. Their attitudes towards the West vary considerably from Pakistan’s Joint Action Forum’s denunciation of American influence and presence to the Turkish AK’s care to demonstrate that it was not anti-American or anti-European and its agreement to permit the placement and deployment (in a war against Iraq) of American-led military forces in Turkey. 


The War in IRAQ & Post War Reconstruction

            The reasons given in the lead-up to war in Iraq by the Bush Administration ranged from Saddam, WMD, links to al-Qaeda, to in late stages, the liberation of the Iraqi people, liberation/creation of a democratic govt. and the promotion of democratization in Arab/Middle East.

Secretary of State Colin Powell delivered a major policy speech on American support for democratization in the M.E. and the roadmap for the Middle East. Powell acknowledged that democratization meant acceptance of those who might not be the administration’s first choice, critics of U.S., and even election of Muslim/Islamic party. However, the Bush administration declined to talk about specifics re what would be done in post-Iraq. Reference to the roadmap came at a time of mounting anger regarding U.S. failure to operate as an honest broker, to pursue a balanced policy which fully recognized two culprits, two leaders whose policies contributed to the cycle of violence of terror that had put mainstream Arabs and Israelis under siege in Palestine/Israel. The Bush administration underestimated the dynamics of religion and politics in Iraq and the potential role of Shii religious leaders. It was unprepared for the religious and cultural revival that followed the collapse of Saddam Hussein’s government. Initially, it failed to recognize the need to understand, take seriously and cultivate relations with Shii leaders and groups, especially those in exile.

The Bush administration underestimated the dynamics of ethnic, tribal and religion in Iraq, especially the potential role of Shii religious leaders. It was unprepared for the religious and cultural revival that followed the collapse of Saddam Hussein’s government. Initially, it failed to recognize the need to understand, take seriously and cultivate relations with Shii leaders and groups, especially those in exile.

This was due in part to the tendency to exaggerate the secular character of Iraq, to see Iraq through its largely secular profile under Saddam and the Baath party (overlooking extent to which Saddam increasingly in recent years used religion) and to regard the Shii as a largely oppressed, subdued and politically marginalized.  

Thus, the American-led coalition was unprepared for the bid by Iraqi Shii for major role in post-war Iraq and determining the nature of the new government. They failed to appreciate extent to which Shii identity was important and desire of many Shii to express it in a democracy. Moreover, this failed vision overlooked the diversity of Shii leaders and groups, from religious to secular, mainstream to extremist, from Ayatollah Sistani and Ayatollah Muhammad Baqir al-Hakim, leader of SCIRI (the Supreme Council of the Islamic Revolution) to the youthful militant Muqtada al-Sadr. This underestimation of the relationship of religion and national identity and the organizational strength of religious leaders blinded many to the potential role of religion and religious leaders in the development of new Iraq, a democratic Iraq. It contributed to the growth of anti-Americanism and perception of the coalition as occupiers rather than liberators

Failure to appreciate the realities on the ground could be seen in the Bush administration (despite serious differences of opinion among government agencies) futile attempts to parachute Ahmad Chalabi into the position of Iraqi leadership, in premature, counter-productive statements and policies by officials like Donald Rumsfeld and Paul Bremmer regarding role of and limits on religion in the new Iraqi state and constitution.

Post-Iraq has demonstrated the important, powerful as well as dangerous roles religious leaders (Sadr, Hakim, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani and Moqtedar Sadr) have played and can play in reconstruction or resistance. The challenge has been to balance incorporation of Shii religious leaders with recognition of internal divisions and power struggles among religious leaders/families, to demonstrate what Iraq will gain (political, economic, cultural interests) and to minimize and contain militant religious mobilization and violence. 

More than a year after the “liberation” of Iraq and promises that democracy, successfully rooted in Iraq, would be promoted and spread throughout the Middle East, Iraq is more dangerous, anti-Americanism is rampant and America’s credibility in the Middle East and broader Muslim world is seriously damaged.. Amidst the deep religious, ethnic and tribal divisions and the dangers of a civil war in Iraq, increasingly constituencies have united in opposition to what they see increasingly as failed American policies that have resulted in an occupation rather than liberation and democratization of Iraq. As Chas Freeman, former American ambassador to Saudi Arabia and Assistant secretary of defense and currently president of the Middle East policy Council observed: “The view in the region, from which I have just returned, is that by destroying the Iraqi state the U.S. made it almost impossible to accomplish regime change, as opposed to regime removal, in Baghdad. No one regrets the end of Saddam's tyranny, but Iraq over the past year is viewed as an Arab zone of anarchy under foreign occupation. No one believes that what will be transferred to the Iraqi Governing Council on July 1 is "sovereignty" …. They see it as truly Orwellian to describe a large U.S. force accompanied by a small number of foreign auxiliaries as "the coalition," foreign occupation as "freedom," desecularization as "democratization," the establishment of a hand-picked government of exiles as a "transfer of sovereignty," and the presence of a plague of federally funded U.S. carpetbaggers and mercenaries as "reconstruction" and "development." (The Washington Post, April 18, 2004, B 05) America and its coalition partners seem enmeshed in a war that they can't win but don't know how to end and democracy remains a distant dream.

Secretary of State Powell’s articulation, in the final weeks before the war in Iraq, of the Bush administration’s rationale as one of liberation and democracy of Iraq and America’s commitment to the promotion of democracy in the Middle East have been severely undermined in the Middle East and Muslim world by the twin failures of the Bush administration’s leadership in Iraq and in Israel-Palestine.




Issues and Policies

The experience of political liberalization in the late 1980's and 1990's, the track records of many governments, raises several concerns. Responding to failed economies and public unrest ("food riots" in Egypt, Algeria, Tunisia, Jordan) and to the euphoria and calls for democratization that accompanied the breakup of the Soviet Union, governments hesitantly opened up their systems and held limited elections.  A world which often accepted the popular wisdom, peddled by many Muslim governments and academic experts alike, simply equated Islamic organizations in the 1980's with a small non-representative marginalized and alienated segment of the population, underground, guerrilla fighters, stood stunned by the results. 

After a decade of charging that Islamic movements did not enjoy significant support and would be turned away in elections (a prediction that none, however, had been willing to put to the test) governments in the Muslim world and the West alike were quick to voice a common concern that Islamic movements threatened to hijack the system. 

Concern that Islamic movements or any movement, secular or religious, might use the ballot box to come to and then in effect seize power is rooted in a realistic possibility.  At the same time, this issue must be balanced by an equal awareness that given the authoritarian nature of many governments, rulers' commitment to political liberalization or to the democratic process is equally questionable.  The manner in which many rulers have come to and retained power and their reluctance to tolerate significant opposition, their pragmatic (response to public unrest) opening of the political process and subsequent limitation or cancellation of political liberalization and suppress Islamic movements at the first sign of the emergence of significant political opposition supports concerns that many governments only believe in "risk free democracy," electoral reform as long as there is no risk of strong political parties or a challenge to the monopoly of the state.  




Recent events reveal a world in which democracy may well be characterized as under siege -- but the question is "By whom?": by militant movements that reject or duplicitously seek to hijack democracy; by governments in the region that, as with anti-communism during the Cold war and post 9/11 use the specter of global terrorism, to obtain support (economic and military) from the West as well as excuse their authoritarianism or half-hearted approach to political liberalization, by some Western powers whose promotion of democracy is perceived in the end to be primarily based not upon the principle of self-determination but self-interest.

Today, many Arabs and Muslims charge that democracy, from self determination to human rights, are under siege in Iraq and Palestine where the political situations have deteriorated precipitously. In many, places, anti-Americanism has never been stronger or more bitter and the credibility of the Western democracy more fragile.

Iraq and Palestine are critical and pivotal to the democratization of the Middle East.  American policy has increased the belief among many Iraqis, Arabs and Muslims that Iraq is under occupation, a client state with a strong American or Western military presence. It risks playing directly into the hands of those who charge that the real goal of the Bush administration post 9/11 is not democratization but the redrawing of the map of the Middle East by a new imperial power. However much many Arabs and Muslims want reform and democratization, they do not want Western imposed reform and control in order to ostensibly implement a New American Century. The failures of American policies in Iraq are compounded by its policy in Palestine-Israel. It is difficult to underestimate the negative impact of George Bush’s reversal on April 15, 2004 of decades of official U.S. policy when he endorsed the Sharon plan. Critics saw it as the clearest proof of a Bush-Sharon alliance and that policy for Palestine and indeed the Middle East is made in Tel Aviv-Washington.

In effect, Bush with Sharon excluded the Palestinian Authority from the negotiation process and as if negotiating on the behalf of Palestinians agreed to a plan that included Israeli annexation of huge illegal settlement blocs in the West Bank, construction of the Wall, and denial of the Palestinian right of return.  The Bush policy undermines U.S. credibility in the Arab and Muslim world and the prospects for a two state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict which remains critical not only to the peace and security of Israelis and Palestinians, the future of democracy in the Middle East, and relations between the Muslim world and the West.  The failure of American policy in Iraq and Palestine has not only contributed to anti-Americanism but also threatened to discredit pro-democracy advocates.

At the same time, observers of the Muslim world will need to remember that we are watching a process unfold, a process of experimentation.  The Western experience of the democratization experience was one of trial and error, accompanied in France and America, for example, by civil wars and intellectual and religious conflicts.  So too in their own way, Muslim societies that attempt to reevaluate and redefine the nature of government and of political participation as well as the role of religious identity and values in society will in many cases undergo a fragile process of trial and error in which short term risks will be the price for potential long term gains.  Governments may be able to derail or stifle the process of change; however they will merely delay the inevitable. 

In the 21st century, relations between the Muslim world and the West will require a cooperative effort to eradicate or contain global terrorism while at the same time supporting mainstream Muslim efforts to democratize their societies. The process will entail constructive engagement, dialogue, self-criticism and change on both sides. The extremists aside, the bulk of criticism of Western, and particularly American foreign policy, from many Muslims comes from a majority that judges the West by whether its policies and actions reflect principles and values that are espoused and admired: self-determination, political participation, freedom and human rights, the sanctity of life, a desire for economic prosperity, social justice, peace and security.



John L. Esposito is University Professor as well as Professor of Religion and International Affairs and of Islamic Studies at Georgetown University. Founding Director of Georgetown’s Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding: History and International Affairs in the Walsh School of Foreign Service, he has served as President of the Middle East Studies Association of North America and of the American Council for the Study of Islamic Societies as well as a consultant to governments, multinational corporations, and the media worldwide. Esposito is Editor-in-Chief of The Oxford Encyclopedia of the Modern Islamic World, The Oxford History of Islam, The Oxford Dictionary of Islam and Oxford’s The Islamic World: Past and Present. His more than 30 books include: Unholy War: Terror in the Name of Islam, The Islamic Threat: Myth or Reality?, Turkish Islam and the Secular State (with H. Yavuz),  Islam and Politics, What Everyone Needs to Know About Islam, Islam: The Straight Path, Modernizing Islam (with F. Burgat), Islam and Democracy and Makers of Contemporary Islam (with John Voll), Political Islam: Radicalism, Revolution or Reform?, Iran at the Crossroads (with R.K.Ramazani), Islam, Gender and Social Change (with Yvonne Haddad), and Women in Muslim Family Law.