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Islamism and democracy

Pakistan is often cited as a worst-case example of the role political Islam can play in the infringement of minority rights, or in fostering terrorist violence. But no Islamist party in Pakistan has come even close to winning the country’s national elections. In fact, the intensification of violent activity by Islamist groups directed at Islamabad does not represent the triumph of political Islam, but its failure.

In recent history, Islamism has failed globally as an autocratic ideology; it has only succeeded when it won broad-based support and became a democratic movement.

According to its critics, Islamism is an insidious political creed, an early twentieth century construct, which has more in common with fascism than the true spirit of Islam, and that jihad is Islamism taken to its logical conclusion. This characterisation has much to do with its origins: formulated during anti-colonial movements, its early ideologues rejected everything Western, including liberal democracy. This negative image was bolstered by its association with radicals and would-be autocrats since the 1930s, including Osama bin Laden and the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood’s Sayyid Qutb.

One of the most influential advocates of Islamism was Abdul A’la Maududi, a journalist and religious propagandist born in 1903 in Aurangabad, in then undivided India. In the later decades of India’s independence movement, he founded the Jamaat-i-Islami to promote his ideas. As plans for the partition of India unfolded, Maududi condemned the idea of Pakistan, because it was led by secular, Westernised politicians like Mohammed Ali Jinnah. Maududi insisted that Muslims should live in a society from which all non-Islamic elements were purged. Despite his early disapproval of the formation of the new nation, he moved to Pakistan in 1947, and spent the rest of his life fighting for a constitution based on a rigid interpretation of the religious law and freedom from materialistic Western influences, including freedom from liberal democracy. He argued instead for “theo-democracy”, a rule of the religious.

Due to its focus on the distinction between Islam and Western “godless” secularism, Maududi’s brand of Islamism became a popular model for would-be revolutionaries in post-colonial states, where predominantly Muslim populations were governed by autocratic, notionally secular rulers backed by Western countries. Many of these leaders, like Hosni Mubarak in Egypt, employed the same secularism/ Islam binary to argue that dictatorship was the only safeguard against religious fundamentalism—even as they used religious institutions to achieve legitimacy. In countries as diverse as Iran, Turkey and Egypt, Muslims were told that the doctrine of political Islam was not compatible with politics, whether autocratic or democratic.

Still, since the late 1970s, in many Muslim-majority states, elite groups arguing for secularism have been swept aside by people’s movements for whom the centrality of Islam is an essential feature of political organisation. In none of these developments—revolutionary and democratic—did Islamism emerge as a top-down system.

In Turkey, the ruling Islamist Justice and Development Party (A.K.P.) emerged from a ‘”Reformation” in rural Anatolia in the 1980s, spread by the region’s largest Sufi order, the Naqshbandiyya-Khalidiyya. Even in Iran, the revolutionary leadership managed to harness genuine popular support (and arguably continues to do so) based on its religious authority, spreading the message of Ayatollah Khomeini. In both countries, deep social changes found expression in Islamist political movements that overwhelmed non-democratic forces.

In Pakistan however—where Maududi consolidated his ideology—Islamism did not take root. Muslims are more profoundly divided in Pakistan by sectarian, linguistic and ethnic affiliations. As a result, although Islamist parties have contested every national election in Pakistan’s history, they have never won a significant proportion of the votes. The more material attractions of secular, populist parties have consistently trumped calls to impose the shari’a.  When, in 2002, a coalition of Islamist parties formed the provincial government of the North West Frontier Province, it collapsed within three years as Deobandi, Barelwi, and Shia factions argued about how to implement Islamic government.

Pakistan’s leading Islamist parties have only enjoyed widespread support when they have joined broad-based pro-democracy movements against military and civilian despots. The Jamaat-i-Islami took to the streets as part of Benazir Bhutto’s Movement for the Restoration of Democracy in the 1980s. This demonstrates that Islamism and populism are not necessarily antagonistic.

The involvement of Islamists in democratic movements is sometimes dismissed as a means to achieve power through democratic elections, after which democracy will be abolished. Yet there is strong evidence that people in Muslim majority democracies support Islamist groups which challenge illegitimate government, rather than those who seek to replace secular autocracy with Islamic autocracy.

When Maududi’s Islamist party joined the government of the hard-line General Zia-ul Haq and attempted to enforce his unpopular Islamising programme in the late 1970s, its electoral support halved in eight years, winning a third of the seats it contested in 1977 and just under 15% in 1985.  While Islamist movements may initially have been pushed into accepting democratic participation for short-term tactical reasons, they have learned from hard experience that they could not succeed without developing broad-based support.

This is a lesson that the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood learned early. It has evolved from an anti-democratic, revolutionary group to become an institutionalised political actor. In the process, its leadership abandoned an early disdain for Western systems to make their party an important democratic player in Egypt, with its members contesting nearly every election since 1984. Although its earlier ideologues, including founder Hassan al-Banna and Sayyid Qutb, rejected multi-party pluralism (though not necessarily electoral democracy), the Muslim Brotherhood now seems committed to it, both in theory and practice. For instance, in 1984, the Muslim Brotherhood allied with the Wafd Party, a secular and liberal political party, and in 1987 it formed a tripartite alliance with the socialist Labour Party and the Liberal Party. Even the slogan that has caused much disquiet in the Western media—“al-Islam huwa al-Hall” (“Islam is the solution”)—was originally coined as an electoral slogan. Their commitment to Islamism is profoundly shaped by their democratic experience.

During this process, an older generation’s anti-democratic positions have been sidelined by a younger generation committed to democratic processes, including but not limited to multi-party elections. The Brotherhood party uses religious terminology alongside a commitment to institutional and economic development rather than to theology. The content of its political programme, as outlined in its 2007 manifesto and the recent Renaissance Project, is analogous to those of leading Islamic—though not necessarily Islamist—parties in other Muslim majority democracies.

In Muslim-majority states as diverse as Turkey, Indonesia, Malaysia and Pakistan, democratic politics since the late 1980s have been dominated by parties which blend moderate religious conservatism with an economic right-of-centre platform. The popularity and electoral success of parties such as the Pakistan Muslim League, Turkey’s Justice and Development Party, the Bangladesh Nationalist Party, Indonesia’s Golkar-led coalition and Malaysia’s United Malays National Organisation, are all evidence of this trend.

In Muslim-majority democracies around the world, it is only a small minority—the inflexible Islamists and inflexible secularists—who argue for a total separation of religion and democracy. In these democracies, Islamism has only succeeded where it has evolved from a despotic “theo-democracy” as envisaged by Maududi, into a true Islamic democracy.

Daniel Jacobius Morgan is a Research Intern at Gateway House: Indian Council on Global Relations. He is currently working on an M.Phil in South-Asian Studies at the University of Oxford, U.K.

This article is part of Gateway House’s Democracy in Motion report.

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