Freedom works! – Towards Democracy in the Arabic and Islamic World

Freedom works! – Towards Democracy in the Arabic and Islamic World

Tunisia´s revolution succeeded, Egypt´s followed and Libya will be next. In all cases, people did not struggle for another dictatorship, rather rallied for their freedom. Furthermore, we saw no burning Israeli or US flags in Tunis, Cairo, Benghazi, Sana´ or Amman. Despite existing problems people will not give up their achievements. But as it is the Arab´s own revolution the West has no major role to play in the up-coming democratization processes.

What should be proof enough for the great window of opportunity, anyhow, the skeptical voices come up warning of fundamentalist regimes and doubting about the compatibility of Islam and Democracy. Nevertheless, both fit together and, moreover, recent developments in the Arab world are likely to proof this. Democracy, however, can only be seen as fully established, when the first generation, grown up under these circumstances, takes on the lead. The Egyptians, Tunisians and others, though, have a long path to go.

However, it is time for optimism. Nobody has foreseen the ongoing developments, but rather most Westerners would have been skeptical, if asked, whether Egyptians and Tunisians are able to throw over their governments without violence. The people, obviously not caring about academic discussions, just did. Hence, the most important lesson of Egypt is, people acting, instead of theories written, make history.

Islam and democracy – Yes, they fit!

Democracy has its origin in the Greek words `Demos´ and `Kratia´. As Demos means people and Kratia stands for sovereignty, therefore, democracy is the sovereignty of people. Nevertheless, modern democracy contains eight more undeniable elements: “(1) Freedom to form and join organizations; (2) freedom of expression; (3) the right to vote; (4) the eligibility of all citizens for public office; (5) the right of political leaders to compete for support and votes; (6) availability of alternative sources of information; (7) free and fair elections; and (8) the existence of institutions for making government policies depend on votes and other expressions of preference” (Hashemi 2009: 124).

From a neutral perspective, religion is always a weltanschauung and, therefore, a case of human interpretation. Thus, a single definition of Islam can hardly be made, because there is not one Islam, but rather many “Islams”, like Shia, Sunni, Wahhabi, Sufism and others. Of course, all Muslims share a general core. With a look from Morocco over to Indonesia, however, one can see the numerous interpretations of Islam and their implementation into practice. Here is the decisive point. A number of interpretations and practices may not fit to the eight elements above. Neither the Qur’an forbids democracy nor is it demanded, because “the Qur’an itself does not specify a particular form of government” (Abou El Fadl 2004: 5). But the Qur’an names three major values a political system should be based on, which come close to the eight elements for democracy stated above. These three are “pursuing justice through social cooperation and mutual assistance (49:13, 11:119); establishing a nonautocratic, consultative method of governance; and institutionalizing mercy and compassion in social interactions (6:12, 6:54, 21:107, 27:77, 29:51, 45:20) (Ibid.: 5).

Most important is the difference between Islam and Islamism. The first one “encompasses a wide variety of modes of operation and ideologies” (Karam 1997: 158). Thus, Islam, instead of Islamism, is very familiar with pluralism. But Islamism, “aiming for a deep structural change at all levels of society”, rejects the opportunity for pluralism. In consequence, Islamism is much more questionable to be compatible with democracy than Islam. Anyhow, one has to be careful with labels. Not everybody who is called an Islamist aims deep structural change. Instead, conservative Islamic politicians, who may be labeled by whomever as Islamists, can have a place within a democratic system. An Islamic, therewith pluralistic, democracy will likely contain, as everywhere else, a wide range of parties from left to right.

Frequently, it is argued that there are no examples for a working interaction of Islam and Democracy. That is wrong. The Indian Census 2001 found out that more than 13% of the country´s population would be Muslim. Hence, in India, with more than one billion people the world´s largest democracy, there must be working interactions. Furthermore, the German Ministry of Foreign Affairs considers Indonesia, the biggest Muslim country in the world, to be a functioning democracy since the 2004 elections. Additionally, the Economist Intelligence Unit claimed Malaysia and Mali to be on the path of Democracy. Last but not least, Muslims have been and still are part of democratic processes of countries around the world (Nasr 2005: 13-15).

Some readers may, anyhow, dismiss the arguments made and say, look at the world: “We have so many non-democratic Muslim countries (Saudi Arabia, UAE, etc.), radicalization, terrorism and others”. Anyway, nobody said, we actually have a democratic Islamic World; rather Islam and democracy are generally compatible. See Iran´s 2009 elections. It has not been Islam, who manipulated these elections. Responsible were the regime and its fundamentalist ideology, though, humans including their world views.

Problems to solve

The one, often called undeniable, theoretical difficulty can be dismissed right at the beginning. It is argued that Islam would not fit to democracy, because all sovereignty stays with Allah. But as Pakistan´s constitution shows, this is just a theoretical wording issue. While sovereignty above all things may stay with Allah, the `Kratia´ part of democracy, can be named `authority´ instead of `sovereignty´. And there is no reason, why the authority on earth, due the Qur’an calling for a nonautocratic, consultative method of governance, should not belong to people.

On the other side, there are certain clerics interpreting the Qur’an in a contrary way. Though, the first major difficulty is the export of Islamist fundamentalism, especially Wahhabism. Like the West did realpolitik with Mubarak, nobody openly cares about the Saudi people spending loads of money on Wahhabism promotion throughout the Islamic world. After Western realpolitik was ended by the Egyptians, it may be time to end the realpolitik ignoring close-state, organizational or individual sponsored fundamentalism export.

In addition, democracies in the making are extremely vulnerable. Thus, efforts to stop fundamentalism export decrease the probability of a turn over back to dictatorship. People´s disappointments are the likeliest potholes on a democracy´s road to long term stability. After Egypt´s and Tunisia´s protesters named corruption, fraud and idleness as their regimes inacceptable behavior, henceforth, honesty among politicians is decisive.

At this point, we face the last difficulty. Can you trust Islamists or conservative Islamic politicians to preserve the system? Hence, conservative, but democratic, Islamic politicians have to be differed from Islamists. How to do it? An Islamist would never accept an election defeat with a transition of power over to a new left or liberal government. Voters and activists, therefore, have to grill their politicians about one question: what are you about to do after an election defeat? When grilled, non-democrats hardly find convincing answers. It is, therefore, not important whether people have the sovereignty or authority over the BBQ.

Please stop doubting – Why freedom will work

Let us come back now to the ongoing events in the Arabic and Islamic world. From now on, Egypt and Tunisia are up to a democratic transition. Libya is still unclear, but may follow its neighbors. If even China censors news about Egypt and Tunisia, there must be an enormous signal effect. Hence, this effect is the first reason why freedom will work. Now freedom´s flare is lightning visibly around the world and, henceforth, cannot be turned off. Inside and outside Tunisia and Egypt people realize, they have thrown over their governments once. After they did it once, they know how things work and can do it again. Behind both countries’ borders, furthermore, everyone could see, it was one country, rather two. Tunisia started. Egypt followed. Both succeeded. Libya and maybe Bahrain are next.

Doubtlessly, the internet including Facebook and Twitter will not be turned off. Even when governments try to cut connections, activists find ways to avoid cyber barriers set. Look at China, Iran or Egypt. Imagine, additionally, how activists, throughout all Middle Eastern countries and beyond, are starting to catch up with each other. Contacts established and experience shared cannot be deleted. Hence, the freedom´s flare spread through glass fiber cables or wireless LAN. Moreover, protesters throughout rally for better long term life conditions. Likable, they falsify, therewith, the existing Western clichés of Arab protesters as Kalashnikov wavers and flag burners.

Many commentators doubted about Egypt´s military´s role during the transition. But the military is highly likely not to establish a military rule, rather, as said by the generals, fulfill the people’s demands. The military has high reputation among the Egyptians. Not fulfilling the people´s demands means that the armed forces would, surely, lose all their reputation. Furthermore, it is questionable, whether the young and middle rank officers, often trained at Western military academies, would follow a path to military rule. Most soldiers, rejecting the Egyptian´s demand, would lose their face against their families and neighbors. The younger the soldiers are, the more they are likely to sympathize, some for sure more privately, with the protesters.

Moreover, the flare continues to spread. Activist in Morocco organized major protests. Algerians forced their President Bouteflika to end the state of emergency. We saw minor protests in Mauretania, Oman, Djibouti and Saudi-Arabia. But in Bahrain “thousands of demonstrators marched to call for reforms to their hereditary monarchy and clashed with police” (Al Jazeera 2011). Major protests continued in Iran, Jordan and Yemen. Except Iran, the regimes already made concessions. Only in Syria the government succeeded in suppressing protests. However, “suppressing” underlines that there is a potential for protests. Nevertheless, the Arab´s will for better life conditions due freedom is visible. The unanswered question is, which regime is about to fall next after Gaddafi´s.

(No) Job for the West

Recent protests were not the result of Westerner´s work. Libyans, Egyptians and Tunisians did it on their own. Hence, Western politicians should stay quiet with demands or advice. Anyway, there is only one policy recommendation for Western governments: Give the feeling through adequate statements “we are there, when you ask us”. In the future the work is up to Western civil societies. However, work does not mean organizing any protests, but peculiarly extending contacts. Foremost, politicians should stay in the back. Transnational networking activist will do the work online on their own. No need for Obama, Merkel and Co.

The Article is a co-release and also appears on Felix Seidler’s individual blog [Seidlers Sicherheitspolitik].

Felix F. Seidler (Guest-Contribution)


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