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“Democracy is the only game in town”


Middle East, Islamic activism and democracy, some reflections on the debate

Jan Jaap van Oosterzee, team leader Middle East and Asia - IKV

7 July 2006

This paper is written to be presented to the CCADD conference 2006 in Slovakia. It will be presented as well to the board of the Dutch Inter Church Peace Council IKV in June 2006.


Introduction: Democracy is the only game in town.

A few months ago I attended a conference of our Middle East network MECA in Amman, Jordan. One of the most prominent speakers in this conference was the well known activist for democracy and Human Rights Saad Eddin Ibrahim from Egypt. His analysis of the situation in the Middle East was remarkable optimistic, in a conference that was dominated by a rather pessimistic tone. His main point was: “Democracy is the only game in town, even in the Middle East. The main opponents of democracy in the Middle East were always the authoritarian rulers, with their Arab nationalist or Arab socialist ideologies, and the islamist movements. Although the authoritarian rulers are still in power all over the Arab World, their ideological legitimization is bankrupt and one by one they are forced to accept at least some reform. And the Islamists have made a remarkable change and embraced the ideas of democracy and Human Rights.” Saad Eddin’s statement was even more remarkable since he himself has spent the last few years mainly in prison for political reasons. In prison he met again the leaders of the Islamist movements (Muslim Brotherhood and the more radical Jamaat al Islami), whom he had met during his research on political Islam in Egypt in the 1970s and during his work as a human rights activist in the 80s and 90s. He described how the opinions of the Islamist leaders have changed over the years; the people who first advocated revolution and violence and denied the legality of the state have now turned to national reformist agenda and have accepted, or even embraced the concepts democracy and human rights. The discourse of the Algerian FIS in 1992 (“democracy is anti-Islamic, we will abolish the democracy as soon as we come to power”) is no longer the discourse of the Islamist movements in the Middle East today.


I found Saad Eddin’s statement brave and inspiring, although I must admit I find it hard often to share his optimism. But then again, who am I to deny his optimism, he has spend years in prison, has been struggling and fighting, and he will have to live in the end with Islamists, while I am just a NGO activist doing my work safely from Den Haag.


In this paper I will touch some of the main issues concerning the Islamist or Islamic activist movement and democracy. I will focus mainly on developments in the Middle East, although developments in countries like Indonesia, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Sub Sahara Africa could be equally interesting. My paper is mainly based on two recent reports: Understanding Islamism of the International Crisis Group (2005) and Dynamiek in Islamitisch Actisme (Dynamics in Islamic Activism) of the Dutch Scientific Council for Government Policy (WRR) (2006). Naturally I will combine my reflection with observations from the reality of the Middle East of my colleagues in IKV and myself in the Middle East and Asia. My paper will not be exhaustive (how could it be?) but will touch briefly the following issues:

  1. some general reflections on the question of Islam and democracy
  2. a rough sketch of the “Islamist” or “Islamic Activist” movements in the Middle East and in the Muslim World
  3. how to democratise the Middle East? Approaches from Europe, United States and civil societies
  4. dialogue with the Islamist movements as a strategic choice for the peace movement.



  1. Some reflections on the question of Islam and Democracy


Somehow “Islam” and “democracy” sounds like “water and oil”, it doesn’t mix or combine easily.


Samuel Huntington in his famous essay on the “Clash of Civilisations” made the analysis that conflicts in the 21st century would be determined not by a difference of ideology, as in the 20th century, but by a difference of cultural identity or civilisation. He divided the world in several “civilisations” of which the “Western Christian civilisation” and the “Islamic civilisation” were probably the two blocks that were already most clearly in conflict with each other. The analysis has been heavily criticised and, as the acting US Ambassador in the Netherlands assured me, can not be seen as the corner stone of foreign policy neither in the US nor in Europe. I will not go in detail into the analysis of Huntington, neither into the response of his critics. But the idea of a conflict of civilisations has an enormous impact still on public opinion, in particular since 9-11. I am not very familiar with the public debate in the US, but in Europe and in particular in the Netherlands Islam and the impact of Islam on political processes has been in the centre of public debates and has covered the front page of our newspapers almost every day since 9-11. The “Muslim” has become the prototype of “the other” and “Islam” has become the main factor to describe the difference in the culture, lifestyle or political orientation of “the other”. A central element in this entire debate is the lack of democracy in the Muslim world and the (supposed) lack of loyalty of Muslims in Europe to our democratic system. Personally I am convinced that this entire debate in the Netherlands emerges while there is uncertainty about “our” culture and identity. “The Muslim” as “the other” serves as a negative orientation point: the “otherness” of Muslims helps us to determine who and what “we” are. However Huntington’s idea of the clash of civilisations is not only followed in the West; radical Muslim groups as well embrace the idea of a fundamental difference between civilisations and for them as well “democracy” is one of the key issues. The Algerian Islamist movement FIS in 1992 declared openly, when it participated in the first democratic elections since independence, that democracy was against Islam and that the FIS would abolish it immediately when it would come to power.


Yet, the reality is quite different. First of all: worldwide the majority of Muslims already lives in countries with a political system that, although far from perfect, at least has elements of democracy: as migrants in Western Europe or in countries as India, Indonesia, Turkey and to some extent even Iran. Indonesia and Turkey both have gone through a remarkable positive development recently. In all these countries Muslims do participate actively as citizens or politicians in democratic processes. The main democratic deficit can be found in Arab countries in North Africa and the Middle East, Pakistan and Central Asia, and some sub-Saharan countries.


Secondly: When analysing the problem between “Islam” and “democracy”, critics of Islam usually refer to the text of the Quran and the Islamic tradition. In a way these critics follow the same methodology of the fundamentalists: they try to explain the reality from texts. To my idea this is the wrong way of analysing the situation in the Islamic world or the attitude of Muslims in the West; we would never use the text of Deutronomium or Josua to justify the use of violence by Christians. An interesting parallel: in Western Europe in the 1950’s the lack of democracy in Spain and Portugal, Greece and the weakness of the political system in Italy would often be explained by the fact that these countries were Catholic or Orthodox and did not share the “democratic Protestant tradition”.


Thirdly: Muslim advocates of democracy in turn refer to other parts of the Islamic tradition. The notion of Shura (consultation by the ruler and his subjects) is used to legitimize democracy and to justify rights of minorities they refer to the status of Jews and Christians as Dhimi’s, accepted and protected minorities in early Islam. As a historian I could have objections to this approach, but I think it is wiser to accept any legitimization of democracy in Muslim countries. Remarkably this line of thinking is not only used by liberal advocates of democracy, but even by some of the Islamist movements with a more political orientation (see below) as the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood or the Moroccan Justice and Development Party.


In general I would state that there is no fundamental contradiction between Islam and democracy. In most undemocratic Muslim countries (and there are still a lot left) the ruling regime has either a strong secular character (for instance in Algeria, Tunisia and Syria) or uses Islam for legitimization (Egypt and Pakistan). In several countries the threat of an Islamic revolution is even used to legitimize authoritarian rule. The Islamic tradition as such can neither be seen as pro- nor contra-democratic. As we will say below, some of the Islamist movements even have made a remarkable turn towards a democratic orientation. Yet, the key questions in the this remain the attitude of political Islamic movements to the rights of minorities, equal rights to women and men, and the role of the Sharia, Islamic law, in the legal system.


2.       A rough sketch of the “Islamist” or “Islamic Activist” movements in the Middle East and in the Muslim World


Islamic activists or Islamist play a major role as political actor in each of the countries, except in Israel. However there is a great variety of Islamic activist or Islamist organisations. The International Crisis Group in its report Understanding Islamism (2005) describes three major trends, specifying the Islamist groups by form of action rather than political position. ICG reacts to the tendency to describe Muslim political or social activists as “radical” or “moderate”, normally meaning more or less anti-Western. ICG makes a division in three main trends in the Islamist movements, more related to role and strategy:


-          Political Islamist movements. Islamic parties or movements aiming at a political role. Examples are the AKP in Turkey and the PJD in Morocco; the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and the Hizbollah in Lebanon also have developed in movements mainly focussed on a political role in recent years. Most of these movements or parties accept the concept of the state and the constitutional framework. Some of these political Islamist movements strongly advocate democratisation. Most will reject any form of political violence, except in cases of foreign occupation. Yet, the concept of state and democracy, legislation and position of women can be radically different from secular activists for democracy and intellectuals.

-          Missionary, the Islamic missions of conversion; political power is not an objective; the overriding purpose is the preservation of the Muslim identity and the Islamic faith and moral order against the forces of unbelief, and the characteristic actors are missionaries and the ulama.

-          Jihadi. Armed struggle which exists in three forms:

o        Internal. Armed struggle against a “corrupt” government (for example the GIA in Algeria). This approached was developed by the Egyptian Muslim thinker Said Qutb in the mid 20th century. He followed the logic that the Egyptian State was in a state of Jahiliya, or ignorance, the traditional way to describe the pre-Islamic situation in the Arab world.

o        Irredentist. Armed resistance against non-Muslim rulers or foreign occupation (for example Hamas in Palestine and Hizbollah against Israeli occupation in Lebanon). Mostly these resistance movements have a strong objection against the use of violence against their own government or citizens.

o        Global. Combating “the West”. The main example being Al Qaida and related groups.


The role of Islamist organisations is in particular problematic if they have adopted a potentially violent takfir-ideology, an ideology in which non-muslims are dehumanised and seen as an enemy. This ideology however is not dominant in each of the Islamist organisations. In particular political Islamist organisations have developed a tolerant approach or even friendly relations to other religious groups. The Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt has developed relations to the Christian Coptic churches in the country; the Palestinian Hamas movement is actively protecting churches in the Gaza strip against more radical Islamist terrorist groups and tried to set up a Muslim-Christian Hamas branch in Bethlehem.

As pointed out by Saad Eddin Ibrahim not only the relatively moderate Muslim Brotherhood but even the more radical and violent Jamaat al Islamiya in Egypt have embraced the principals of democracy. Similar developments can be found among Muslim political parties in Morocco, Turkey and Indonesia. Each of these parties is called the Justice and Development Party and has adopted an agenda of anti-corruption and a sort of social market economy. The agenda of these parties is national, conservative on social issues and personal status of women, and reformist on economic issues. Most of the Islamic political parties have a much stronger popular base than the secular parties in the same countries. In Morocco the Justice and Development Party is the only political party with a form of internal democracy and transparency, allowing young people and even women to make a political career. These Muslim political parties are clearly interested in the European experience with democracy and in particular the role of Christian Democratic parties. However, from the side of European Christian Democrats so far there has been little opening for a dialogue. On the other hand, the moderation of the majority in the Islamist movements also leads to a further radicalisation of the extremist groups.


3.      How to democratise the Middle East?


In this paragraph I will focus in particular on the Greater Middle East. 9-11 has been a watershed in the debate about democracy in the Middle East. While until 2000 it was still largely accepted in Europe and the US to tolerate authoritarian rule in Muslim countries and in particular in the Middle East in order to maintain stability, now “freedom and democracy” are the key notions. Has the agenda of president Bush become the same as the agenda of civil society in the Muslim world or the peace movement in Europe?

First of all, let me state clearly that I think this move is essentially positive. I do share the analysis of Wolfowitz that one of the main problems of the Middle East was not the instability of regimes, but the deadly stability. Even civil society activists in the Middle East who are extremely critical about the US interventions in Afghanistan and Iraq, might, in a private conversation, admit that the change in US policy has led in several countries to more readiness for reform, and that they would never be able to change anything in the Middle East without strong pressure from outside. However, when people in Islamic countries are really given a free choice, they often do not elect liberal democrats with a pro-Western policy, but might opt for the Islamist movements in stead. Both Hamas in Palestine and the Islamists in Iraq gained the majority of votes in elections that can be considered relatively free and fair.


The key question is of course which approach is legitimate and effective to stimulate political change in the Muslim world. Usually a representative of the peace movement like myself, would state here that “democracy has to grow from inside and cannot be forced upon a country against its will”. Although I like most people would generally agree with this statement I find this approach a bit too easy. In my understanding and experience there are a few main dilemmas:


-          First of all, even though most authoritarian regimes in the Middle East and elsewhere in the Muslim world lack legitimacy, ruling elites are often too strong and opposition too weak for a drastic change from inside, unless a part of the ruling elite sees a clear advantage in political change. In Morocco the royal family itself is interested in change and reformation. But in a country like Iraq under Saddam Hussein, where the ruling class was extremely violent towards its own population, it was difficult to imagine a political change from within. Most of the Iraqi’s in the Netherlands that I met in the years before the War openly expressed that, although they opposed an intervention in Iraq, they had no idea how they would ever be able to get rid of Saddam. On the other hand: the interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan also make clear the enormous problems and dilemmas that do occur when “regime change” comes as a result of intervention from outside. Suddenly the US and UK have become completely responsible for the country and its citizens. An intervention force that legitimizes its intervention (at least partially) with the claim that it will bring freedom and democracy, does not have the choice of gradual reform as a domestic government has. The US and UK seem to be surprised by the chaos, the internal violence in Iraq, by the resistance of the insurgents and the choice of the Iraqi people for Islamist parties. I wonder what else we could have expected.


-          The alternative approach is to stimulate change from within. In European foreign policy (both governmental and NGO) this often means: supporting civil society. Attractive as this may sound, it does bring other dilemmas. Civil society is not well developed in most of the countries of the Middle East or functioning under constant pressure of the authoritarian government and domination by political parties. In Countries where some liberalisation took place, such as Turkey and Morocco, activists for human rights and democracy have taken impressive initiatives to develop associations and civil society structures. Lebanon has a wide spectrum of non-governmental organisations and civil activists, who played a major role in recent protests against Syrian occupation. In Palestine there is a wide range of non-governmental organisations, often heavily funded from abroad and taking over main functions of the (semi) state. Many of the organisations however have serious problems functioning since the beginning of the second Intifada. In countries like Egypt and Jordan the civil society is functioning under constant supervision and tutelage of the state. In Iran civil society developed during the years of reform of Khatami, but now is confronted with growing pressure from the state and security. In the most authoritarian countries Tunisia and Syria, independent NGO’s are almost non-existent and civil activists are usually some brave but rather isolated individuals. The situation in Iraq has drastically changed after the fall of the Saddam regime in 2003 and civil organisations are mushrooming, some of them heavily supported by foreign aid (in particular from US and UK sources). Even in countries with some form of civil society, civil activists usually belong to intellectual middle class or elite, having limited contact with the more disadvantaged parts of society. In particular in the popular parts and slums of major cities and universities, the society is largely dominated by more popular based Islamic activist groups, often forming the popular base of the Islamic political movements.


-          The often proposed other alternative is a sort of Helsinki process for the Middle East. The European Union has indeed chosen the same approach of a combination of economic cooperation, mutual guarantees for security and promotion of democracy and human rights with the Barcelona-process: the process of association agreements between the European Union and Mediterranean countries which started in 1995. So far the process did not have much result. One reason is that “Barcelona” depended on the success of “Oslo” since not only Arab countries were involved, but Israel as well. When the peace process in Israel and Palestine had no success, and in particular since the start of the second Intifada, the Barcelona process was severely damaged. Secondly, the process did not include (and for obvious reasons could not include) the two of the most crucial countries in the region: Iraq and Iran. Thirdly, the European Union never used the agreement on human rights and democracy with Mediterranean countries as a condition for assistance; it was a “carrot”-policy without a “stick”. 


  1. Dialogue with the Islamist movements as a strategic choice for the peace movement.


The internal development in the Islamist movements offers a potential for a constructive political dialogue. To my idea the need fort such a dialogue is obvious. The Islamist movements in the Muslim world and in particular in the Middle East are by far the most popular and grass root based movements, there is a potential conflict, not only between these Islamic political parties and the West, but even more between Islamist political parties and secular trends in their society. One should however realise that the approach and objective of Western or European and secular partners in this dialogue and the Islamic political parties are different: while “we” would try to “democratise” or “modernise” the Islamic movement, the Islamic movement in turn would try to “Islamise” democracy and modernity.


In this dialogue critical issues will be:

-          The military and political role of the US and its European allies in the Middle East. Even the most “moderate” Islamist will never accept the legitimacy of the US presence in Iraq and will be extremely critical towards the Western policy towards Israel.

-          The status of religious minorities. Islam, with the Dhimi status of minorities in Muslim countries, to which Islamist movements refer, has a better record than medieval or pre-Enlightenment Christianity concerning the protection of minorities. Yet, this is far from equal citizenship.

-          The status of women. For most of the Islamic movements the position of women in society and the description of this in the sharia is a crucial point. The recent reforms of the family law in Morocco, which is also accepted by the Islamic movement, shows that a reform within the framework of sharia is possible.

-          The Sharia. Islamic law has a negative connotation in the West and among non-Muslims in Muslim countries, yet most Muslims do consider the Sharia as their main reference in questions of justice. To Muslims “sharia” sounds like “justice”; who can be against that. Since the sharia is given by God, and not by worldly rulers, it is seen as a protection against authoritarian rule. In reality there is not just one sharia, but very different interpretations with different degrees of flexibility. A specific question is the process of the formulation of laws. While in any democratic system the formulation of laws is in the mandate of the parliament, the sharia is usually formulated by the ulama, the Muslim scribes.

-          A key question is the approach of the Islamist movements towards the use of violence for political means. The “political” trend in the Islamist movement generally rejects the use of violence, except in some particular cases. One could even argue that these political movements have a better chance in fighting violent radicals, knowing their discourse and having a better popular basis than most ruling parties in Muslim countries. Yet, very often the response to violence by radicals is often somewhat ambivalent. Any dialogue which starts with the demand to condemn violence by Hamas against Israeli citizens will immediately fail. Yet, in our experience it is quite well possible to explain in a dialogue with the Islamist political activists why we find a methodology as suicide attacks immoral.