The Islamic Democratic Paradox

The rage across the Arab world over the publication in Denmark (months ago) of cartoons depicting the prophet Mohammed, together with the victory of Hamas in Palestine and the increasing radicalization of Iran’s politics, has made “political Islam” a fundamental question of international diplomacy. But a one-size-fits-all response won’t work. Indeed, we need to abandon the idea that there is a holistic or global Islamist movement.

Political Islam of all colors has emerged as the main alternative to secular Arab nationalist regimes whose legitimacy, based on the struggle for national liberation, has evaporated due to their inability to resolve economic and social problems, establish the rule of law, and guarantee fundamental freedoms. In Palestine, for example, the Islamists triumphed over Fatah because of years of bad governance under the harsh conditions spawned by Israeli occupation.

Successive European and American governments share an atavistic fear of the “Islamic alternative” to Arab secular nationalists like Fatah, and so have defended the status quo. But repression of all Arab opposition movements by the region’s monarchs and secular dictators meant that “protection of the Mosque” became the only umbrella under which to engage politically.

Now political Islam can no longer be contained, because democracy cannot be built by driving underground parties that have a strong social base, as was tragically demonstrated in Algeria 15 years ago. The only alternative to authoritarianism is to craft a transition that allows Islamists to participate in public life and encourages them to accept unequivocally the rules of the democratic game.