The recent and surprise election victory of the conservative Justice and Development Party in Turkey constitutes good news for democrats in the Muslim world. Moreover, it suggests what future trends throughout the Islamic world may be.

Clearly, the majority of governments in the Arab and Muslim world are out of touch with their people and have become increasingly oppressive and unpopular. Out of despair, anger and frustration, legions of Muslims, especially the youth, have turned to the minority of fundamentalists as a way to feel proud, strong, and secure.

However, most of these radical, extremist movements have until now failed to improve the economic and social predicament of anyone, nor have they offered any real hope of doing so. Repression of all Islamists by non-democratic Arab regimes, and lack of maturity on the part of many Islamists themselves, have resulted in an outburst of violence which those regimes have used to justify further repression and crackdowns. Is there any way out of this terrible cycle of violence?

The answer coming from Turkey is yes—and that answer lies in more, not less, democracy.

Ten years ago, a moderate Islamist movement won the first round of a democratic election in Algeria. The Algerian military, with encouragement from France and a green light from the United States, intervened and prevented the second round of voting, which would almost certainly have brought moderate Islamists to power. Rather than respect the will of the people, the Algerian army removed an elected president and embarked on a campaign of military repression that has proven to be an abject failure. Worse, repression has radicalized an Islamist movement that formerly was primarily moderate. Today, civil war is still raging in Algeria. More than 200,000 innocent civilians have been killed to date, the economy is in shambles, and fundamentalist parties are still strong.

The principal lesson to be learned from the sorry case of Algeria is that authoritarian regimes, over time, simply cannot succeed. After so many failures and so much bloodshed, the Algerian government seems to have finally learned this hard lesson. As a result, today it is trying to reform itself. However, old habits die hard and the damage that has been done to Algerian society has been devastating.

The experience of the Taliban in Afghanistan also constitutes an exemplary lesson. Its attempt to adhere to out-dated interpretations of Islam and to force those interpretations on an entire population was stupid, destructive and anti-Islamic. The Taliban regime has been a disgrace to all Muslims, and has been a wake-up call for many religious people.

The fact is that when a government tries to rule in the name of religion or God, terrible things are likely to happen. Freedom and dignity are often the first victims. Self-proclaimed religious regimes have time and again demonstrated their inability to provide social stability or achieve economic development because their methods simply do not work. Furthermore, since such regimes insist that they are not accountable to anyone—except God—there is no mechanism to provide criticism and correct mistakes.

Caught between secular and religious extremisms, the world’s 1.3 billion Muslims are struggling to find a middle ground. They are looking for a government that respects their religion but does not force it down their throats. Like non-Muslims and people everywhere, they desire governments of the people, by the people, and for the people. What Muslims most emphatically do not desire are governments led by tyrants who insist that they are always right, and that anybody who opposes them or even disagrees with them is a traitor or a disbeliever. The truth is that the vast majority of Muslims today want governments that honor the basic teachings of Islam—love, respect for others, justice, tolerance, compassion and peace—and are at the same time modern, effective, and efficient in solving a myriad of economic, political, and social problems.

In the Muslim world, history has proven that radical secularism does not work. Habib Bourguiba of Tunisia, Gamal Abdel Nasser of Egypt and of course Saddam Hussein in Iraq instituted radically secular regimes, and the results are long since in. Each of these rulers became a secular dictator. Bourguiba ordered his subjects not to fast in Ramadan, Nasser made war on all Islamists, and Saddam has made war on everyone. All of them proved to be spectacularly undemocratic, and all were or are confronted with a strong religious backlash.

For Muslims, secularism means that the state and the government are neutral in personal religious matters. What Bourguiba, Nasser and Saddam have done is not “secular,” as Muslims understand that term, but radically anti-religious. Each of those rulers has given secularism a bad name. In a recent visit to Morocco, Egypt, and Lebanon, I was surprised to find non-religious parties and organizations mostly refusing to associate themselves with secularism for fear of being seen as anti-Islamic. In the Muslim world, secularism carries a virulently anti-religious meaning in a way that it does not in the West.

In Turkey today, we at last have a group of Muslim conservatives who are trying to develop a version of secularism that is acceptable to Muslims. Theirs is not the anti-religious sort of secularism that has been practiced in many quarters of the Muslim world, but an Islamically acceptable secularism, which says that the government belongs to the people and that religious practices and views should not be enforced by the state. Members of the Justice and Development Party and their leader, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, refuse to call themselves either Islamists or secularists. Rather, they call themselves Muslim democrats, and have adduced the influence of Germany’s Christian Democratic Party on their views. The recent, overwhelming victory of the Justice and Development Party at the polls may be the harbinger of a new day not only in Turkey, but elsewhere in the Islamic world.

There are many Muslim democrats, and they are everywhere in the Islamic world. Such democrats are sincere and genuine Muslims. They are proud of their religion and its teachings. At the same time, they realize that Islam, like any other religion, should not be forced on people. Religion is a matter of choice, and is always open to varying interpretations, schools of thought, and degrees of piety. Muslim democrats do understand that it is against the will of God to try to force anyone to practice a faith, or to
interfere with the way that any religion is practiced.

Furthermore, Muslim democrats believe that the Qur’an is indeed the word of God, but that it is interpreted and practiced by people and not by saints. They comprehend that there is always room for differences of opinion, and that no one can claim to represent God on earth. Muslim democrats are therefore willing to abide by the rule of the majority and respect the rights of minorities.

Today, more than ever, there is a need to adapt the ideals and principles of Islam to the ever-changing needs of society. This process, achieved through the use of reason on which the Prophet Muhammad himself placed such great emphasis, is well rooted in Islamic jurisprudence but has not been practiced for the last 500 years. It is not a coincidence that the Muslim world has been lagging behind other cultures for the last several centuries—after being one of the most open, most developed, and most tolerant civilizations for a thousand years before that. When one closes one’s mind, or begins to
blindly imitate others or previous generations, one is surely destined to regress.

There is no question that Islam and democracy are compatible. Likewise, there is no doubt that a new, modern, and democratic interpretation of Islam is needed to solve the endemic problems of the Muslim world. The European Union has played a positive role in nudging Turkey toward real democracy. Americans need to understand what ought to be one major lesson of the September 11 attacks: namely, that support for dictators and oppressive regimes in the Islamic world is a recipe for disaster.

Today there is a pressing need for the United States to support genuine Muslim democrats everywhere, who will prove among our most important allies in the on-going quest for a more stable and more prosperous world.

Dr. Radwan Masmoudi is founder and president of the Center for the Study of
Islam & Democracy (CSID), a Washington D.C.-based organization dedicated to
promoting democracy in the Muslim world.  Visit their website at http://www.islam-democracy.org/

Originally published at http://www.forward.com/issues/2002/02.11.15/oped1.html



Published in The American Muslim with permission of the author.