Islamism and democracy

Submitted by Anon on 20 April, 2005 - 2:16

Israeli socialist and peace activist Uri Avnery comments here on recent demonstrations against Mubarak in Egypt and on the growth of Islamism in the Middle East. The demonstrations have been severely repressed. That is bad, but it is also worrying that the forces that are initiating the demonstrations are growing. How should socialists face up to this reality?

The Western (and, of course, Israeli) media publish enthusiastic reports about the demonstrations for democracy and against the regime of Husni Mubarak. Some of the demonstrators are leftists, but most of them are Islamic militants and their sympathisers. The police have made extensive arrests of political activists, most of them Muslim Brotherhood leaders.

There are no signs that the Mubarak regime is about to fall. He did promise that in the coming presidential election other candidates may stand, but that was said mostly to placate President Bush, who is desperately claiming that his invasion of Iraq inspired a democratic awakening throughout the Arab world. In practice, there is no chance at all that the situation in Egypt will change. No serious candidate will be allowed to stand against Mubarak.

But let us assume for a moment that Mubarak is compelled to give up his intention of having himself reelected, and that truly democratic elections take place. In this hypothetical situation, who would win?

One of the plausible answers: the Muslim Brotherhood. They have, as mentioned, deep roots among the people. Their infrastructure has a history of 50 years and more. The Egyptian upper class, which is secular, liberal and open to the world, may find itself suddenly under the yoke of religious fanatics.

This dilemma exists in most of the Arab countries: in truly democratic elections, the Islamic forces will win — forces that completely reject the vision of a secular, democratic and liberal state that Bush talks so much about…

In almost all Arab and many other Muslim countries, there is a real possibility that in free elections more or less extreme Islamic parties would win. The present dictatorships in so many Arab countries — Libya, Jordan, Sudan, Saudi Arabia, the Gulf States, among others — present themselves as a bulwark against fanatical Islamic forces.

The elements of democracy — multi-party elections, free election campaigns, unimpeded access to the media — do not, in themselves, assure the victory of democracy. That necessitates a proper social environment, the strength of democratic values in the public mind, acceptance of majority rule and the safeguarding of the rights of the minority. In the absence of such a reality, elections are an empty vessel. The jinn of Islamic fundamentalism may emerge from the ballot box, much as the demon of Christian fundamentalism leapt out of the American ballot box.

I believe that [for example] the participation of Hamas in the elections is a good thing. Palestinian society itself must decide whether it wants a democratic-secular or a religious future. I hope, of course, for the victory of the secular forces. But I am convinced that… the integration of religious forces in the democratic process is preferable to their violent suppression. Integration can moderate religious movements, oppression will radicalise them.

The outcome of the entire process in the Arab countries may be very different from the picture painted by superficial Western “thinkers” like Bush. Arab society is different from Western society and Arab democracy will not be a carbon copy of Western democracy.

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