Islamists and Democracy

17/10/2012 12:20 BST | Updated 17/12/2012 10:12 GMT

Recently, opposition parties have asked the Tunisian Islamist-led government to clarify its position with regards to democracy. This follows a leaked conversation between Rachid Ghannouchi and Salafists where the leader of the Ennahda party, is filmed discussing the inclusion of the shariah in the Tunisian constitution and the fact that the country's institutions are controlled by secularists. Ghannouchi warns Salafists against any rash actions and points to the experience of Islamists in Algeria during the 90s when they were crushed following their success at the municipal elections. Ennahda has brushed aside the video and pointed to it being heavily edited and that Ghannouchi's comments were made in March during the formulation of the constitution. However, it still raises questions about Ghannouchi's vision of Islam and Tunisian democracy.

In fact, since the Arab Spring there has been repeated calls for Islamist parties to clarify their position on democracy. This is not just from secularists but from faith communities, ethnic minorities and others who view their call for democracy as a ruse to seize power. Some Western governments are also hesitant to give their support precisely because their fears have not been alleviated. As the Secretary of the Council of Europe, Thorbjørn Jagland said in his opening address for the World Forum on Democracy in Strasbourg: "the reality of 2012 is different from the hopes of 2011...and youngsters are frustrated about how slow the changes are". Perhaps Islamists have not worked hard enough to convince the world of their intentions. But part of this suspicion also rests on misunderstanding the relationship between Islamists and their attitude towards democracy.

A recent Chatham House paper, Identities and Islamisms in the GCC, reminds us that Islamists are not monolithic entities and have diverse political visions. Their visions are products of modernity and historical events and the decline of Muslim hegemony. The slow decline of the Ottoman Empire caused a great deal of soul searching amongst Muslim thinkers especially with regards to its relationship to democracy. Many thinkers like Rifa'ah Tahtawi, Khairuddin Tunsi, Jamal al-Din Afghani, Muhammed Abduh and Rashid Ridda did not view democracy as antithetical to Islam rather they viewed European liberal democracy as something positive. Consequently, by the 20th century a body of political thought emerged that believed that Islam had the equivalent of constitution, voting, pluralism and consensus. Many influential Muslim thinkers like Abdur Rahman Azzam and Bennabi were comfortable with the label Islamic democracy. Islamist parties like Ennahda drew heavily on this current of thought and believed that democracy was compatible with their political outlook. These sort of Islamists viewed democracy as a political mechanism for removing despotism and encouraging civil society. It was not a complete system tied to a political ideology.

However, there was also a body of thought within the modern Islamist thought that rejected this definition of democracy. The Indian thinker, Mawdudi believed that democracy was inherently secular because the basis of sovereignty rested on the will of the people and not God. In the Middle East, these ideas were hardened by the repression that many suffered at the hands of secular police states. By the time of Syed Qutb many believed that any man-made system not subject to God was tantamount to infidelity. For Islamists who drew on this body of thought there could be no separation between state and religion; consequently democracy was incompatible with Islam.

For the likes of Tunisia's Ennahda then, democracy was simply a political mechanism. According to Dr. Tamimi's political biography, Rachid Ghannouchi - A Democrat within Islamism (OUP), the latter's commitment to democratic principles manifested itself in a transparent party structure. Of course that didn't mean that Ghannouchi liked secularism or liberal democracies; in fact he accused liberal democracies for being like its Athenian equivalent; colonizing and rapacious but he still maintained that:

"The flaws inherent in the liberal democratic system should not be used as a pretext for rejecting it, for there is no alternative out there to democracy except dictatorship. An incomplete freedom is always better than no freedom at all, and to be governed by an imperfect democratic order is better than being governed by a despotic order that is the whims and desires of the tyrant."

Thus for ideologues like Ghannouchi democracy was an essential counter against tyranny. A similar position was adopted by the Egyptian Brotherhood when they declared their commitment to the democratic principle in 1994. But then the problem still remained, how should Islamists behave in a democracy? Few Islamist parties had any real experience in government let alone in a democratic one. However, with the success of the Turkish Islamist AKP party in a democratic government set a precedent for other Islamists and a gradual move towards accepting democracy as a tool became more palatable. Consequently, the Janus-like behavior of Islamists is not necessarily due to duplicity but rather symptom of Islamist parties evolving and adjusting to different political dynamics post-revolution.

Islamist's attitudes towards democracy then, are still evolving and before dismissing their calls to democracy as just Machiavellian ruses to power, we must understand what sort of Islamist they are and what intellectual tradition they come from. The biggest mistake would be to treat all Islamists as one monolithic whole; after all the difference between Al-Qaida and the Ennahda is like night and day.