The Crisis of Political Islam

Wall Street Journal
July 22, 2016

First Egypt and now Turkey show the perils of ideological religious parties (and strongman rule), but other Muslim countries are faring better with democracy

In 1999, a former mayor of Istanbul named Recep Tayyip Erdogan was imprisoned and banned from politics for life for reciting a poem. “Our minarets are our bayonets, our domes are our helmets, our mosques are our barracks,” the incriminating lines went. “My reference is Islam. If I am not able to speak of this, what is the use of living?”

The ban on Mr. Erdogan didn’t stick. Now Turkey’s president (and prime minister for 11 years before that), he is presiding over a nationwide purge of suspected enemies after the failure last week of a military coup against his government.

For decades, in much of the Middle East, Islamist politicians like Mr. Erdogan weren’t able to speak out — and, when they did, they frequently faced a prison cell or a hangman’s noose. From Algeria to Egypt to Turkey, the apparatus of the state repeatedly unleashed repression — of varying degrees of harshness — to marginalize political Islam, crushing democratic freedoms while offering the excuse of preserving secular values. The West, preferring the autocratic devils it knew over the Islamists it didn’t, often concurred.

In response, many of the Islamist movements that sprang up under the influence of Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood — groups that include Mr. Erdogan’s party — have gradually embraced the language of pluralism and the idea of democratic politics and elections. Crucially, however, these modern Islamists have often viewed democracy not as a value in itself but merely as a tactic to bring about a “true” Islamic order. To them, the voting booth was simply the most feasible way to dismantle the postcolonial, secular systems that, in the eyes of their followers, had failed to bring justice or development to ordinary Muslims.

In 2005, Mr. Erdogan — then serving as Turkey’s prime minister and acclaimed for improving the country’s human-rights record and pushing forward its bid for membership in the European Union — let slip on a trip to Australia that he viewed democracy just as “a vehicle.”

In the subsequent decade, Mr. Erdogan has extinguished major centers of opposition in Turkey’s bureaucracy, media, military and judiciary. In the wake of the failed coup — itself a vivid confirmation that his suspicions weren’t unfounded — he has launched a crackdown on tens of thousands of potential opponents, including detaining nearly 9,000 people since the collapse of the plot. “All the checks and balances have now been eliminated,” said Soner Cagaptay, a Turkey expert at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

In Egypt, hopes for democracy were high in the wake of the 2011 demonstrations in Tahrir Square that helped to topple longtime autocrat Hosni Mubarak. But the country’s first democratically elected president, Mohammed Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood, took just a few months after being elected in 2012 to start ominously consolidating his rule, granting himself immunity from judicial oversight. His power grab was cut short by a successful military coup the following year, which installed the country’s current strongman, Abdel Fattah Al Sisi. His regime has quickly proven more repressive even than Mr. Mubarak’s.

This cycle of conflict — between the entrenched “deep state,” dominated by a country’s military and security establishments, and Islamist parties eager to grab as much power as possible whenever elected due to their wholly legitimate fears that they won’t otherwise be allowed to govern — has been a major reason why democracy has failed to take root in the Middle East.

Tainted by their associations with the West or the autocratic regimes long in power, liberal and secular parties have struggled to emerge as a third option in much of the region. And democracy, after all, is a tough proposition when neither of the two major forces now shaping the Middle East’s politics — the old-guard autocrats and the Islamist movements — truly believes in it.

The democratic exception to this rule is Tunisia, the one Arab democracy to emerge from the Arab revolutions of 2011. It is the only country now rated as “free” by Freedom House, a U.S. organization that analyzes civil liberties and political rights, out of the 17 Muslim-majority nations in the Middle East and North Africa. That’s the worst record for any region.

“There is a lot to be done before democracy has a chance. Education, pluralistic ideas and consensus-building are in short supply in many of these countries,” said Hassan Hassan, a fellow at the Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy in Washington, D.C.

This democracy problem is linked not so much with Islam, an ancient religion, as with political Islam — a modern ideology developed in 20th-century Egypt, in part, to redress the Middle East’s backwardness compared with the West. Its founding fathers in the Muslim Brotherhood met violent deaths — Hassan al-Banna was gunned down in 1949, Sayyid Qutb was hanged by the Egyptian government in 1966 — but their ideas took root throughout the Middle East after the repeated failures of autocratic regimes that preached the rival ideas of socialism and Arab nationalism. Offshoots of the Brotherhood now represent the dominant political movements from Morocco to Turkey to the Gaza Strip.

But the Muslim world is more than the Middle East. And the further one travels from the Middle East’s core, the less relevant this strain of political Islam tends to become. The world’s most populous Muslim country, Indonesia, has been a successful democracy since 1999. Conservative Islamist parties have remained at the margins of power, and local demands for more religious rule have been addressed through decentralization.

“Even though we are mostly Muslim, the way we practice Islam has very local characteristics. We in Indonesia like to live together in diversity; we are different, and this has created a challenge here for Islamist movements such as the Muslim Brotherhood,” explained Samsul Maarif, a scholar at the Center for Religious and Cross-Cultural Studies of Gadjah Mada University in Yogyakarta, on the Indonesia island of Java.

Islamist political parties have also consistently failed at the ballot box in Pakistan, the world’s second-most-populous Muslim country. That is one reason why Islamist radicals in Pakistan have embraced the strategy of terrorism instead. Even though Pakistan’s army still retains considerable influence over foreign and security affairs, democratic politics has consolidated there since the end of direct military rule in 2008. The 2013 election led to the country’s first handover of power between rival parties. Outside the Middle East, democracy has also worked, at least so far, in Muslim-majority nations as diverse as Senegal and Albania.

But political ideas tend to travel from the Muslim world’s core to its periphery, not the other way around. A decade ago, the West African nation of Mali was often held up as the freest Muslim democracy, a potential inspiration for democrats in war-torn Afghanistan and Iraq. Fast forward to 2012, and Mali’s democracy collapsed under the onslaught of Islamist radicals who had emulated the Taliban and al Qaeda.

Arguments about the role of religion — and divinely inspired morality — in public life are hardly unique to Muslim societies, of course. Established Western democracies have grappled with these issues too, and not always gracefully. During the lifetimes of many older Americans, after all, it has been a felony to sell alcohol or to engage in adultery or homosexual sex.

But Islam is a religion whose founder established a successful empire instead of dying on the cross. As a result, it offers a far more detailed prescription than Christianity of how government and society should be run. “The Quran is our constitution,” runs the Muslim Brotherhood’s historic slogan.

As such, politicians and voters who believe in the primacy of Islamic law inevitably find themselves in conflict with the principle of democracy whenever a majority favors a different path. This, after all, is why more radical groups, such as Islamic State, have rejected democracy outright as an infidel heresy.

After its 1979 revolution, Iran purported to reconcile this conundrum by establishing its “Islamic Republic.” Yet the Iranian system — in which the country’s Shiite clerical establishment retains supreme authority — has turned the country’s democratic institutions and elected officials into a sideshow whenever major decisions are made. Ultimate power rests with the supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, not with parliament. As the Iranian constitution explicitly states, all laws and regulations “must be based on Islamic criteria” — which are up to the clerics.

The Iranian Revolution also led to a hardening sectarian divide across the region that has proven to be another obstacle to democratic politics. Sunni Saudi Arabia, whose legitimacy as the custodian of Islam’s holiest sites is hotly contested by the theocracy that runs Shiite Iran, has fought back by fomenting anti-Shiite sentiment and funding proxy battles with Iranian allies from Yemen to Syria. (Most Muslims are Sunnis.)

More recently, Gulf monarchies such as Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates have backed Mr. Sisi’s coup in Egypt. The Gulf states, fearing for their own rule, were particularly hostile to the democratic experiment in Tunisia, the country where the Arab Spring began. Tunisia remains the only country where the heady initial hopes for freedom haven’t been dashed by a military takeover (as in Egypt), a bloody crackdown (as in Bahrain) or chaos and civil war (as in Syria, Yemen and Libya).

Tunisia became the region’s lone beacon of Arab democracy largely thanks to the wisdom shown by the local spinoff of the Muslim Brotherhood, the Ennahda Party. After the 2013 Egyptian coup, Ennahda, then essentially running Tunisia’s government, took an unusually pragmatic approach. It compromised on the role of Islam in society during sessions to draft the country’s new constitution and accepted an election that voted the party out.

“We may lose power, but Tunisia will win,” Ennahda’s leader Rached Ghannouchi recently told his party’s congress. Tunisia, he added, was able to avoid the carnage that followed the other Arab Spring revolutions by “adopting the principle of dialogue, acceptance of the other and avoidance of exclusion and revenge.”

That prescription has proven especially hard to apply in countries such as Syria and Iraq. With borders carved on the map by European colonialists, they have been run for much of their modern histories by dictatorial regimes that masked minority rule with a secular facade. Sunni-majority Syria has long been run by the Alawite-dominated Assad tyranny, and Shiite-majority Iraq was held under the boot of Saddam Hussein’s Sunni dictatorship.

After the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003 introduced majority rule, the country quickly fell into Shiite sectarian dominance — especially under former Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, whose refusal to heed Sunni concerns pushed many of them into Islamic State’s embrace. In Syria, Alawites and other minorities continue backing President Bashar al-Assad despite his brutality, fearing that the advent of Sunni majority rule wouldn’t just disempower them but perhaps lead to their extermination.

In pivotal countries like Turkey and Egypt, both important U.S. partners, the political struggle has also become a zero-sum game. In this environment, the U.S. and its European allies have precious few instruments left to promote a democratic agenda, especially after the Obama administration worked to reduce its involvement in the Middle East and the antidemocratic powers of Russia and China tried to expand their influence.

In Egypt, Turkey and other Middle Eastern countries under stress, “leaders have been able to define societal struggles in existential terms,” said Steven Cook, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. “What can a U.S. president or secretary of state do in those circumstances? Not much.”

Memories in the region are long, and few people have forgotten how, in the past, the West often sided with dictators such as Mr. Mubarak in Egypt, accepting the autocrats’ argument that the only alternative to their corrupt but secular rule was theocratic tyranny by bearded fanatics. It also didn’t help that, in 2013, Egypt’s secularists and liberals enthusiastically welcomed Mr. Sisi’s coup — only to be targeted themselves by the wave of repression that followed his takeover.

The West has often struggled to balance its ideals and its interests. The U.S. has offered only the mildest of criticisms of Mr. Sisi’s abuses, and in 1991, key Western countries, especially France, appeared to welcome the decision by Algeria’s rulers to abort a second round of elections that seemed sure to be won by an Islamist party. The Algerian coup sparked a civil war that claimed as many as 200,000 lives, convincing many previously peaceful Islamists that power can only be gained with bullets and bombs — and directly contributing to the rise of al Qaeda.

Turkey a week ago stood on the verge of following a similar route. “It’s hard to be optimistic about Turkey. But if the coup had succeeded, it would have offered further definitive proof that Islamists can’t take power in democratic elections or can’t stay in power through democratic elections,” said Shadi Hamid, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and the author of a new book, “Islamic Exceptionalism.” “That would have sent a dangerous message that ISIS and other extremist groups benefit from: that the only way to achieve anything is through brute force.”

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  1. #1 by boh-liao on Sunday, 24 July 2016 - 5:34 am

    Again, dis foreign paper NO hear of PAS
    Political Islam sudah long time here
    Got crisis meh?

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