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The Middle East’s Springtime of Democracy

Election results around the Middle East mark a new trend: Islamist political parties – those that base their platforms on Islamic law – are highly popular. Where elections are held, Islamists do well: Hamas among Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza; the religiously-oriented Shi’ite coalition in Iraq; a parliamentary faction in Morocco and, most significantly, the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) in Turkey.

Democracy movements in Lebanon, Egypt, and elsewhere in the region must face the challenge of incorporating Islamist parties into democratic systems. But can the Islamists be trusted? If they rise to power, will they respect the rights of minorities and women and leave office when voted out? Will they tolerate dissent? Or will such elections be based on “one man, one vote, one time?”

As a sociologist, I have been studying these issues for 30 years. As an inmate of an Egyptian prison, I discussed them with my fellow prisoners, many of whom were imprisoned as supporters of Egypt’s Islamic movement. My conclusion? Islamist parties are changing.

These parties understand the social transformations underway in the Middle East that are leading toward democracy, and they want to take part. In my view, we may be witnessing the emergence of Muslim democratic parties, much like the rise of Christian Democratic parties in Europe in the years after World War II.