Promise & Peril: Prospects for Democracy in the Muslim World Today

“Promise & Peril: Prospects for Democracy in the Muslim World Today “

Change is in the air in the Muslim world, and, unlike in the past, democracy is at the top of the agenda in Washington and other Western capitols. An unprecedented international consensus has emerged that human rights, the rule of law, government accountability, and other trappings of democracy that many Americans take for granted, are not a luxury in the case of Muslims, but rather a sine qua non of durable peace and stability around the world.  At the same time, many Muslim countries are inching their way towards increased political participation and freedoms.  Finally, as widely reported international surveys have revealed, the Muslim masses are not only comfortable with democracy in principle, but yearn impatiently for it.  The stage would seem to be set for dramatic breakthroughs.

Unfortunately, to paraphrase Charles Dickens, we live in both the best of times and the worst of times for Islamic democracy.  Dickens’ memorable description of Victorian England could easily be applied to the prospects for the spread of democracy in the Middle East, South Asia, elsewhere in the Muslim world, as formidable barriers to the establishment of culture of democracy remain. 

It is widely acknowledged today that America has an “image problem” in the Muslim world and that the situation is only worsening.  It seems reasonable to wonder whether the image problems of the world’s most visible and influential proponent of democracy might not undermine support for democracy among Muslims

However heartening they are, the aforementioned polls are, they should not be taken as evidence that the debate is over, or even that it has truly begun.  Most respondents to these surveys have in fact never known or participated in democracy—sadly, most Muslim-majority states are secular dictatorships, military juntas, theocracies, tribal oligarchies, or some blend of the four—so what do these responses really mean?  Have Muslims made an intellectual and cultural transition that took the West centuries overnight?  I think the explanation is much more mundane:  Muslims around the world like the freedom, security, and prosperity that they see in Western societies and rightly perceive this thing called democracy as a means to that end.

This highlights the need to remember that the battle for the hearts and minds of Muslim has only begun. Until Muslims around the world have experienced democracy—warts and all—firsthand, the pendulum could swing back.  There is nothing inevitable about the spread of democracy, especially in today’s volatile world.

This is why the widespread anxieties and grievances of Muslims around the world matter.  From Morocco to Mindanao, Muslims are becoming increasingly polarized by an American-dominated international order that they perceive as systematically marginalizing Muslims.  Whether viewing bloody, lopsided conflicts involving Muslims in Palestine, Kashmir, Chechnya, Xinjiang, and elsewhere; the selective application of international law in those conflicts; or the systematic erosion of once “inalienable” civil rights for American Muslims, Muslims around the world wonder about the international community’s intentions towards them. 

Thus, the case for democracy be made by Muslims as Muslims, in an idiom that speaks to other Muslims, and in a way that shows respect for Islamic tradition.

Unfortunately, even defining “tradition” is a challenge today, and many of the most influential spokesmen for Islamic tradition have questionable credentials.  A rarely noted by-product of oil wealth over the last few decades has been a dangerous eclipse of the rich, varied spectrum of ideas found in Islamic tradition by a narrow range of permitted beliefs, often called “Wahhabism”.  While I think extremism has rarely been a goal of this process, the result has been no less grim for it. 

The treatment of Sufism by much of the Islamic religious establishment is illustrative of the depths of the problem.  A student of Islam in the holy city of Medina is taught today that Sufism is deviant—if not heretical—even though by any objective standard Sufi beliefs and practices are clearly rooted in Islamic scripture, tradition and history.  Inconvenient facts or differing opinions are literally written out of history.  This is alarming, as if the voices of Sufis—who draw on a respected, established Islamic school of thought arguably representing the beliefs of the majority of the world’s Muslims—can be arbitrarily silenced, what hope is there for reformers tackling thorny, sensitive contemporary issues, like democracy, ijtihad, the role of women in society, or the rights of minorities? 

The decades of petrodollar-funded censorship only aggravated another cultural crisis in Muslim societies: the botched reform of education by Westernized leaders.  In the decades following independence, a pattern repeated itself in Muslim societies of secular-minded leaders replacing their countries’ traditional schools with secular institutions that—being often lacking in resources as well as educational vision—not only failed to produce educated citizens, but created a cultural vacuum that was eventually filled by extremism. (Pakistan under Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto is a textbook case of this phenonmenon.)

In conclusion, the mission of CSID and its allies—Muslim and non-Muslim alike—must be more than just helping Muslims understand the affinities between Islam and democracy.  In the today’s strife-ridden world, Muslim societies must be “innoculated” against the siren call of extremism and intolerance.  This is done not through advocacy or “spin”, but with knowledge, by restablishing an awareness of the richness and flexibilty of Islamic tradition.  As the Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him, said long ago, Ikhtilaf al-umma rahma (“Differences within the Ummah are a blessing”). Amen.

This article will be appearing in an upcoming issue
of MUSLIM DEMOCRAT, the newsletter of the Center for
the Study of Islam & Democracy (CSID), of which Svend
White is the Secretary.  For more information about
CSID, visit