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Islam and democracy

The Arab Spring, protests help but are not enough


When hearing the Arabs calling for democracy during the protests of the “Arab Spring”, we cannot help but associate the word “democracy” to the liberal model of government adopted by the West. In this immediate association lies a misconception that takes for granted the applicability of the concept of “popular sovereignty” to Islamic countries. 

A fundamental trait for the establishment of a democracy as intended in the West is the separation of politics from religion, which obviously conflicts with the Islamic affirmation of God’s sovereignty.  Despite the secular nature of the “Arab Spring”, the form of government and the cultural background of the countries overwhelmed by the protests make it practically impossible to completely dissociate religion from their political life. Are these Islamic countries really able to embrace democracy? And how far can democracy, as intended in the West, be applied to their context?

Democracy does not necessarily follow one model; after all, it is to the discretion of a State to choose to include, and to which extent, religious elements and norms in the government. But the clear cut between the two is essential.

Some analysts rule out the incompatibility of Islam with democratic concepts, especially considering that Islam bases its fundamentals on the Shari’a, which per se constitutes a set of rules and norms. But is that enough to make an Islamic country a democratic one? Can a country be considered such simply because it avails itself of a Constitution?

In terms of the Jurisdiction, the incompatibility is rather questionable; after all the Shari’a does contain concepts of “rule of the majority”, “mutual consultation” (Shura), “accountability of the leaders” (even if towards Allah and not its people), but is the cultural background of the Arab world that makes the difference. 

If we take a look at the Arab countries that are experiencing the so-called “Arab Spring”, like Egypt, Jordan, Morocco, Saudi Arabia, Syria, we notice that their Republican and Monarchical forms of government are united by the same element: the lack of a political culture and of a secular political class, something that could effectively lead the transition process from the current regime structure to a more democratic one.

The structure of the society also plays an important role: the absence of a political class is also the consequence of a tribal social configuration. In Jordan, for example, the Parliament has been traditionally run by tribal leaders, which are often elected by virtue of their wealth, rather than their political capabilities or the success obtained in free political competition.

Furthermore, this lack of a political class is also the result of the strong nationalism and of the need for national identity, which often leads to the discrimination of the minorities, which cannot find representation or recognition in the political structure of the state, and unfortunately to their isolation.  

The risk is that in societies where the people lack organized representation, and there is no middle class in the social configuration, a forced separation of religion from politics creates a gap, a vacuum, that can easily open the way to political systems that have no sense of moral value. On the contrary, it may also happen that if leaders grant more democratic rights, for example freedom to vote for the representatives in the parliament, power might end up in the hands of the only opposition parties politically present in the region and well organized, as at the moment are the Islamic parties (such as the Islamic Action Font in Jordan and the Islamic Brotherhood in Egypt). In this case, the power would be shifted towards those political groups that base their policy on religious values and on Islamic law, rather than on secular democratic concepts. Would, therefore, more democracy, or a secular state, open the way for abuse of power?

The Arab leaders are currently facing a dilemma. The issue is not whether Islam and Democracy are compatible in their nature, but whether these leaders will successfully lay the foundations in their societies, for the democratic transition to take course. They will have to face more protests, be ready to give up on some of their power and compromise with their people, if they want to maintain their status.

History teaches us that Democracy is not something that can be donated by third parties, but it is a treasure for which people have to fight for; the margin of error to obtain this treasure is very limited. Uprisings are not enough to bring democracy into a culture, but to every process there has to be a beginning.

The writer works in the Middle East Faculty of the NATO Defense College in Rome and holds an MA in International Relations from LUISS University in Rome. The views expressed in this article are her own.


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