Center for World Conflict and Peace

Center for World Conflict and Peace

Friday, June 29, 2012

More Thoughts on Democracy and Islam

A few weeks back, my colleague Yohanes Sulaiman wrote an interesting piece on the connections between democracy and Islam. If you didn't get a chance to read it, or need a refresher, you can find it here. In this blog post, I'd like to build off of a part of what Yohanes wrote.

I agree with him that Islam and democracy can and does fit together. Democracy, as he wrote, is just an empty vessel waiting for countries to fill it with leaders, institutions, ideologies, and so on. Democracy is flexible and malleable enough to allow for substantial variation from country to country throughout the world. America's democracy looks and operates differently from democracies in, say, france or ghana or japan or Indonesia.

But some in the Muslim world don't think about democracy in these terms. Instead, they are critical of democratic institutions and processes, with a fraction going so far as to undermine, threaten, even at times wage war against the presence democracy in their land. Why? There are a host of possible factors, including religious reasons, fears of americanization, resistance to change, doubts that democracy can improve people's lives, and anger that democracy jeopardizes their political self-interests.

In my view, while we find traces of these attitudes in almost all Muslim democracies, they are more likely to be widespread in partial democracies and democratizing countries--countries where the shape and substance of the political system, is still new, in flux, and possibly contested by competed elites and groups. It is likely less applicable in Muslim countries like Indonesia and Turkey, where the political system has already congealed and people have come to accept it. There, democracy has become routine business.

In partial democracies and democratizing countries, we should not expect a nice, neat division between moderates and radicals, which is the conventional wisdom. This conventional wisdom suggests that good liberal moderates are engaged in a political struggle for civility and modernity with hardened extremists. Rather, over time, I expect that some mainstream civilians (some conservatives, moderates, and centrists), out of disillusionment and/or desperation, will become angry with and deplore democracy, putting them in the same camp ideologically, though not necessarily physically, with the fanatics and zealots.

With this in mind, we need to be careful when demonizing the critics of democracy in Muslim countries. Not all are extremists and radicals and terrorists bent on creating an Islamic caliphate. After all, not all are anti-system, ant-democratic groups and individuals. For instance, quite a few are simply sore losers who know that their place and status in society and access to resources are imperiled in a new democratic political order. Some are disgusted that the new democracy is not adequately or fairly providing political goods to the country. Hence, it's quite possible that the critics do not like democracy as it exists in their country, but could still hold favorable attitudes toward the idea of democracy more generally.

Yes, Yohanes is right: the critics, at least the persuadable ones, need to understand the functions and benefits of democratic systems. If they don't get it, we risk witnessing the political conditions that gives rise to the kinds of nasty consequences, particularly ones that can prevent the state from developing, democratic reforms from sticking and progressing, and the country from remaining unified and cohesive. Just look at the cases of present-day Iraq, Egypt, and Afghanistan, among others. The very nascent democratic systems in those countries have become a political football and the target of violent attacks.

Yohanes argues that democracy proponents worldwide need to make a better case to Muslims and Muslim countries that democracy is the way to go. This can't hurt, I suppose, but begs a series of questions: who communicates this pro-democracy message? How can they communicate this message? What tools can be used? And would this effort even be effective? Wouldn't they likely be labeled as Western propagandists?

But the overall thrust of Yohanes' point rings true: that democracy critics in Muslim countries have to update their beliefs about the nature of democracy. In the end, this process won't be easy and will take time. At bottom, prolonged experience with the process of democracy is the most probable way that will occur. As experts in social psychology tell us, direct, hands-on experience is a powerful way to cultivate and entrench lessons learned. It can break through distorted beliefs and alter beliefs that are seemingly resistant to change.

Indeed, direct experience can underscore a several important lessons. First, the critics can discover that while they might not have political power today, they can compete and win power in the future. The losers in democratic systems aren't necessarily outsiders forever. Moreover, they are not helpless. Free and open political systems provide an array of opportunities for political outsiders to influence politics. If they get involved in the process, they can voice their concerns and demands. They might be able to foster ties to the governement. The critics can even develop links to democratic countries and pro-democracy groups, which can then put pressure on their own governments to act in ways that they desire.

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