Political Islam’s Loss of Democratic Legitimacy

DURHAM – This year, Islamist politics has faced massive setbacks in two major predominantly Muslim countries: Egypt and Turkey. But it is too soon to write political Islam off as a capable participant – even a leading force – in a pluralist democracy.

Just one year after the Muslim Brotherhood’s Mohamed Morsi became Egypt’s first elected president, millions of Egyptians took to the street, triggering the military coup that ousted him. Morsi’s political incompetence and lack of vision in the face of economic collapse would have been enough to diminish support for his government. But his rejection of pluralism and pursuit of an Islamic dictatorship, exemplified by his efforts to centralize power in the hands of the Brothers and place himself beyond the review of Egypt’s judiciary, proved to be his undoing.

Similarly, Turkey’s Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, of the Justice and Development Party (AKP), has taken to governing in a way that is unraveling a decade of progress, one marked by economic dynamism, rapid growth, and the subordination of the armed forces to civilian control. The Erdoğan government’s recent brutal crackdown on popular protests against planned construction in Istanbul’s Taksim Gezi Park made Turkey look like a one-party dictatorship. To make things worse, Erdoğan then spent weeks subverting pluralism through polarizing speeches that stigmatized Turks who do not share his social conservatism or subscribe to his particular interpretation of Islam.

Given that Egypt and Turkey are two of the three most populous countries of Islam’s historic core (the third is theocratic Iran), one might infer that their ongoing difficulties have destroyed any prospect of reconciling political Islam with pluralist democracy. But the two countries’ situations include fundamental differences, as do political Islam’s prospects for renewal.