Common interests, closer allies: how democracy in Arab states can benefit the West.

Author:O'Connell, Jamie
Position::IV. Engaging Political Islam through Conclusion, with footnotes, p. 386-404

    Part III argued that democratization in Arab countries would advance four important Western interests in the region: stability within those countries, peace among them and with other states, minimization of terrorism that targets the West, and friendly relations between Arab and Western countries. This Part addresses a possible counterargument: that Arab democratization would undermine Western interests because it would bring to power Islamists who would take various undesirable actions. A wide spectrum of Western commentators, from neoconservatives to feminist human rights activists, have expressed concern that democracy in Arab countries will increase the influence of conservative religious (Muslim) forces in those countries' politics, social life, and foreign policy. Some fear that Muslim extremists will be voted into office, then abrogate democracy, severely restrict the rights of women and religious minorities, oppose Western countries at every turn, and even sponsor terrorist attacks against them. (206) More measured analysts see little risk that democratically elected Islamists would overthrow the political system, export terrorism, or turn their foreign policies against the West. They are more concerned that elected Islamists might try to restrict the role of women in society and limit the rights of religious minorities, such as Coptic Christians in Egypt, to practice their religion and participate in public life. (207)

    This Part argues that these concerns do not justify ambivalence about democratization and that, to the contrary, continued autocracy is more likely to strengthen religious conservatives in the long run. Religious conservatives are indeed likely to gain power through democratic elections in Arab countries. (208) For the reasons set out in Subpart III.D.1, above, it is unlikely that democratically elected Islamists would sponsor terrorism against Western countries or reverse the cooperative position their authoritarian predecessors adopted. This Part focuses on religious conservatives' potential impact within their countries, especially on the rights of women and religious minorities. Westerners' extreme fears on this point are overblown. It is unlikely that democratically elected Islamist governments in Arab countries would overthrow democracy in order to entrench permanent Islamist rule, because their mostly secular military forces might well stage a counter-coup, backed by Western countries, and then purge Islamists from power. Elected Islamists are also very unlikely to transform the social positions of women or religious minorities, although those groups do face some risk. The analysis in this Part suggests that the likelihood that Islamists will implement seriously problematic domestic policies is low and that supporting autocracy to limit their influence is likely to backfire. Concerns about elected Islamists' actions in office therefore should not limit Western countries' enthusiasm for democratization in Arab countries, let alone lead them to oppose it, as they did in Algeria in 1992. (209)

    This Part begins, in Subpart A, by clarifying terminology and addressing common misunderstandings about Islamists. Subparts B and C identify factors that may dissuade Islamists from advancing restrictive social agendas if they gain power: Participation in politics may trigger a variety of moderating dynamics, and economic opportunities and government performance appear to be more important to most Arab citizens than legislating morality. Subpart D notes that even if elected Islamists attempt to limit the rights of women or religious minorities, domestic and international influences may constrain their ability to do so. Subpart E acknowledges that the analysis so far provides no guarantee for women and religious minorities against Islamist encroachments on their rights, but argues that opposing democratization is the wrong way for Western countries to address this risk. Subpart F urges Western countries to monitor developments carefully, engage with Islamist political forces, and use their influence in Arab countries to try to moderate any proposed restrictions on women and minorities.

    1. Who Islamists Are

      Conceptual and terminological confusion plagues popular and policy discourse about the relationship between religion and politics in Arab countries. This Subpart responds to, and attempts to clarify, concerns about certain Muslim actors in Arab countries who are described with a range of confusing labels. Nearly all of those actors fall into one or both of two categories: politically engaged Muslims in Arab countries who believe that religion should play a greater role in politics and government and those who identify themselves religiously in political contexts. Those actors include groups such as Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood, (210) religious political parties such as Morocco's Justice and Development Party (PJD), some religious leaders, and a substantial swath of the citizenry in many Arab countries. This Article uses the familiar term "Islamist" to cover all of those people, but sometimes employs "religious conservative" as a synonym to remind the reader that the views of these actors are not unique to Islam.

      Sweeping generalizations in Western commentary often obscure two important truths. The first is that violent extremists such as Al Qaeda constitute a miniscule fringe among Islamists. This should be obvious, but mainstream Western commentators regularly mention Al Qaeda and the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood in the same breath. (211) The implicit equation of the two suggests that all Muslims who believe religion should play a greater role in politics are committed to religious slaughter--a view that can come only from ignorance, prejudice, or both. (212) The overwhelming bulk of Islamist organizations and individuals with Islamist views, as defined above, reject violence as a means of changing society or gaining political power domestically. (213)

      The second important truth about Islamists is that the social and political views and priorities of those outside the violent fringe vary greatly. (214) Many but not all are willing to participate in electoral politics. (215) Islamists' positions on the role of women in society tend to be much more conservative than the Western mainstream, but range from Egyptian Salafists who object to women running for office (216) to Tunisia's Ennhada party, some of whose female candidates do not even wear headscarves. (217) Many Islamist parties are internally diverse, with more and less liberal factions. (218) Some have adopted notably democratic internal procedures: The Muslim Brotherhood held elections for every level of party official in 2004 and 2005, and the internal structure of Jordan's Islamic Action Front "mirrors that of a democratic state, with a complex set of institutional checks and balances ... [and] accountability of party officials." (219) The vast majority of Islamists believe that sharia--Islamic law--should form the basis for state law. (220) But this superficial consensus masks tremendous diversity of opinion on the more important questions of what sharia requires and how to ensure that state law follows sharia. (221)

    2. Moderation Through Participation

      Imperatives of political competition may discourage most Islamist politicians and parties from pursuing social policies that would dramatically change the status quo in their countries, for example to sideline women or religious minorities. Ordinary Arabs may care more about improving economic opportunity and government service delivery than about enacting a conservative social agenda. Islamist parties' recent electoral success may result as much from their reputation for competence and their organizational strength as from voters' sympathy with the parties' positions on social and moral issues. Finally, other actors inside and outside the state will limit elected Islamists' power. Under these circumstances, ordinary dynamics of electoral competition and of governing a state will steer many Islamists away from trying to use government as a vehicle for substantial conservative social change.

      Numerous analysts of Arab politics believe that participation in the political process will tend to moderate Islamists' positions. (222) Several dynamics could have this effect. First, the "median voter" theory in political science predicts, in its simplest form, that competitors for votes will adopt positions close to the center of the political spectrum, because doing so will attract more support than extreme platforms. (223) Political scientists developing this model further have found rational electoral strategies that involve adopting more extreme positions, but the central insight that competition for votes promotes moderation may hold in some cases in the Arab world. In this vision, the most successful parties will be those that "integrate Muslim values and moderate Islamic politics into broader right-of center platforms that go beyond exclusively religious concerns. Such forces can appeal to a broad cross-section of voters and create a stable nexus between religious and secular drivers of electoral politics." (224) In Morocco, the PJD won a parliamentary plurality in 2011, but was pressed by a major potential coalition partner to commit to supporting women's equality and other human rights. (225)

      Practical aspects of politics are a second force that could draw Islamists away from extreme positions. The array of practical tasks--organizing people, interacting with voters, even arranging the printing and delivery of campaign materials--requires political movements to seek out and promote people with skill in those areas, and comparatively diminishes the stature of ideologues within organizations. (226)

      Third, allowing Islamist movements to form separate political parties can make it easier for the movements' political activists to adopt moderate...

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