Democracy in the Muslim World
Weekly Pulse
May 12-18, 2006
If democracy is an anti-dote to religious extremism and terrorism, then without democracy the world of Islam is likely to be beset by the forces of bigotry and militancy. The leadership of the Muslim world has many a times in the recent past committed to take the preachers of extremism and practitioners of terrorism head on. But declaring a commitment is one thing, taking practical steps to implement it is another. The latter requires a credible process towards democratization, which is hardly to bee seen on the ground in most of the Muslim world states.

At least two architects of change in the Muslim world, Pakistan’s military leader and the Saudi King, show this glaring dichotomy between their expressed desire democratic and human rights reforms and respective domestic performance in respecting the values of democracy and civil liberty.

As for Muslim leaders who are relatively inactive in the affairs of the OIC, from Uzbekistan’s strongman Islam Karimov to Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, they make no secret of their inherent distaste for political pluralism.

War on Terror

Is the “War on Terrorism” promoting or preventing the growth of democracy in the Muslim world? The simple answer is: It is not, especially if we look at the way the regimes of the frontline Muslim states fighting this “War”—such as those of Uzbekistan and Pakistan—are using it as a means to crush opposition and extend their authoritarian rule.

The “War on Terrorism” could only help promote democracy in the Muslim world if the processes of political reforms being implemented in Iraq and Afghanistan succeeded in institutionalising electoral democracy in the two war-torn countries.

Can success in the ongoing democratic experiment in Iraq help realise the post-9/11 US call for Middle Eastern democratisation? Not necessarily. For as long as the Gulf Sheikhdoms have the wealth, they will always find avenues to muddle through the challenge of democratisation.

Future Prospects

Their current preference for the Asian market may be motivated by the fact that, unlike America or the West, Asia’s main players—from China to Singapore—do not have any preconditions of democracy, since they themselves do not practice it that much. In Muslim Africa’s case as well, first of all, the sources of hunger and disease have to disappear, only then can we hope for a real push towards democracy.

As for the authoritarian regimes of Iran and Syria, the only two countries that continue to pursue a confrontational path vis-à-vis the US/West, their chances of moving credibly on the road to democracy rest essentially on how the US-led West or the so called international community deals with their recalcitrant regimes in the days ahead.

Since the basic preconditions of modernity and individualism, particularly the role of religion in public life, remain unsettled in almost all of the Muslim countries—even in constitutionally secular Turkey, on issues such the head-scarf and elementary religious learning—it would be irrational to expect them to realise “liberal democracy” anytime soon.

Having said that, however, countries like Malaysia and Turkey do constitute a glimmer of hope in terms of Muslim world’s democratisation. Malaysia has succeeded where others have not in creating a prosperous, moderate Muslim country with a stable democracy and pluralistic society. Turkey’s consistent quest for EU membership has only further added to its democratic growth. Turkey can help transfer Europe’s liberal democratic creed to the Muslim world.

Institutionalising secular polity, the separation of the Mosque and Mullah from the affairs of the State and Government, constitutes the very ideal on the basis of which a real modernist transformation in the Muslim world could be visualised. It was the separation of the Church from the State that triggered the wave of renaissance in Western Europe and North America, the consequent industrialisation and the rise of today’s Western civilization.

Tracing the Roots

However, we have to realise the fact that the pathetic position the world of Islam is in today, is an outcome of a centuries-long process of decline caused essentially by stigmatic internal developments facilitating external domination and exploitation of the Muslim people.

Therefore, at this budding stage of the Muslim world’s potential revitalisation which could eventually turn the tide of Islamic history for better, we can only expect minimalist political outcomes from grand strategies such as the ones recommended by Mecca Summit policy documents.

When even the basics of the requirements of modernity are currently unseen in a vast majority of OIC countries, how can its specific outcomes, especially democracy, become a reality in just one decade?

After all, it took centuries for the West to achieve the current level of democratisation. In short, the Muslim world first needs to resolve the basic issues of social politics, society and economy, only then it can realise the ideal of democracy.