Said Simon

Inchoate thoughts on my stuff

Islam ‘compatible’ with liberal democracy?

As the Egyptian streets are literally on fire and a major if not revolutionary change in the political system of that country seems imminent, our excitement may be dulled by a discomfiting worry. Those even slightly familiar with the Egyptian scene would be aware that the most powerful oppositional movement is Islamist: the Muslim Brotherhood (MB). Were open elections to be held tomorrow, the victor would almost certainly be the MB by a considerable degree.  Certainly this is a cause for concern, as illustrated in one BBC analysis:

The last thing Washington wants is for the currently strongest opposition group, the Muslim Brotherhood, to acquire a position of political power – which would be part of the “grave consequences” Mrs Clinton alluded to.

Yet while the MB may be the strongest social and political movement in Egypt, it isn’t the only one. There are many less conservative and more secular organisations as well, and they too would be part of a democratically-elected government. So how well would that work? Can a government led by an Islamist party truly be all that democratic?

It so happens that I once wrote an essay on just this question, and I think that it would be a valuable co ntribution to the discussion to adapt a portion of it for this post.

Egypt, Islamism, and Muslim Democracy

The Egyptian context is a natural opening for a discussion on how political Islam can impel democracy. Egypt is the host to the oldest and most pervasive and powerful Islamist movement in the world today, the largest organisation within which is the Muslim Brotherhood (MB). The Egyptian political environment has historically been highly repressive and still features only limited opportunities for democratic participation. Recent openings in the Egyptian political environment, however, have allowed Egyptians to participate in democratic institutions of various kinds. These openings have also spawned new “Muslim Democrat” movements, such as Hizb al-Wasat and the Wasatiyya, which depart from MB’s traditionally conservative stance. The MB itself has undergone significant changes in its political goals, from calling for revolution and militancy to advocating political reform and liberal freedoms—though not to the same extent as Muslim Democrats. Thus, in Egypt, political Islam in its various interpretations does indeed impel democracy.

Egypt’s Islamist movement is fundamentally a social movement. At its height in the 1980s, it encompassed a vast and heterogeneous network of social organisations and activities aimed at generating socio-religious reform towards a more Islamic society, through preaching (Daw‘a) and associational works.[i] This form of social organisation had furthermore lain mostly outside the regulation of the government.[ii] During this time, the MB had great political influence, almost comprising a “shadow government” through its network of parallel institutions.[iii] This was not to last, though, and the extensive organisational capacity of the MB during this time was demolished in government crackdowns on Islamists during the mid-1990s; while the movement survived due to its core of kinship ties, associational activism, and ability to shift into abeyance, its political clout had been nullified.[iv]

Despite the decline of MB’s political clout, however, the Islamist movement had succeeded in “Islamising” Egyptian society to a considerable degree, at all levels.[v] It succeeded in penetrating into areas of culture, economy (with Islamic banking and investment), student activism, and trade syndicates.[vi] Particularly noteworthy, the cosmopolitan youth of Egypt had internalised Islamic norms in a flexible piety that suited their desire for an individualistic lifestyle.[vii] Even parliamentarians spoke in Islamic terms, as seen in their use of Islamic language in their significant revision of the Personal Status Law bill.[viii] In the new millennium, due to U.S. pressure on Egypt to undergo democratic reform,[ix] an opening in the Egyptian political scene allowed for increased activism in a somewhat less repressive environment; in this new political environment, the MB once again began to mobilise amidst a constituency that was already socialised into an Islamic identity.

The MB was able to compete—under its own name, even—in a relatively free 2005 parliamentary election. The platform the MB ran under stated that they sought to establish a “republican system of government that [is] democratic, constitutional, and parliamentary and that conforms with Islamic principles.”[x] This platform emphasised the need for constraints on state power, a strong and autonomous judiciary, multi-party elections, adoption of laws that strengthen civil and political rights, and for accountability of a government to its constituents.[xi] The MB also called for guaranteed rights for women and Coptic Christians, stressing the latter’s important role in the nation (al-Watan).[xii]

At least rhetorically, the MB has conceptualises their understanding of the role of an Islamist constitutional and legal framework in a way that resembles classical liberalism: it advocates laws that treat ruler and ruled equally, the creation of institutions to regulate state power, and the protection of political and civic rights and freedoms, as well as broad public democratic participation.[xiii] This is not to say that the MB no longer has illiberal elements to its platform, particularly with regard to its mission to further Islamise society in all dimensions and its understanding of the state as needing to play an active role in this transformation through such tasks as ensuring that people “worship, practice good manners, and act honourably.”[xiv] Despite the invasive role of the state in the MB vision, it nevertheless includes a great many of the institutions which are so important to liberal democracy and envisions a far more democratic political system than what Egypt currently has.

The MB had the opportunity to practice what it preached when it captured 88 seats in the 2005 election. Its commitment to regular attendance at parliamentary sessions has in turn forced a significantly greater attendance of the ruling NDP party in order for the NDP to still pass legislations, compared to the nearly empty sessions of previous years—challenging the role of parliament as a rubber-stamp for the regime and attempting the reform of a flawed institution.[xv] The MB’s influence in parliament can be seen in the passing of the 2006 annual Government Statement on budgetary and policy priorities, which the MB criticised and which even some NDP MPs voted against.[xvi] MB MPs have also acted in coalition with other parties and movements (such as Kifaya) to protest the renewal of oppressive “state of emergency” laws that legalise continued repressive and coercive measures by the regime.[xvii] What all this demonstrates is that the MB is willing to take the institution of parliament seriously and transform it into an institution that represents its citizens and requires accountability from the government—two qualities that are vital to a democratic state.

The new and as-yet small Wasatiyya movement, and its party Hizb al- Wasat (HW), represent another important trend in Egyptian Islamism. Like the MB, HW calls for democratic reform, governmental accountability, and participation of non-Muslims, women, and secular activists.[xviii] In a departure from the MB’s more conservative and strictly Islamist mantra of “Islam is the Solution,” however, HW sees religion as only one part of the solution, in conjunction with national interests, economic factors, and culture.[xix] HW’s mission is not to Islamise society but rather to “embrace the spirit of the shari‘a” and the concepts of social justice contained therein. Thus, HW calls for pluralistic political dialogue that includes disparate views and sees non-Muslims as equal partners in the search for a just society.[xx] In this respect, HW and the Wasatiyya movement move even closer to the liberal democratic paradigm than the MB does in their own platforms and exhibit fewer of MB’s illiberal tendencies.

What this all shows is that Islamic political groups can use religious language to legitimise increased political input and greater civic freedom. This language is not merely rhetoric, either. It is the language of Muslims whose conception of their religion allows for plurality and liberal rights, and permits them to lead an individualistic lifestyle where they have the freedom to make their own decisions and leave others to do the same. Islam comprises a vast array of ideologies and understandings, and has no monolithic interpretation. Rather, the social and political climate that Muslims live in and their interaction with other cultures and intellectual trends will determine how they choose to see the relationship between themselves and their religion.  Some might choose the repressive authoritarianism of the Taliban, but many others may certainly choose the near opposite.


The fact that the MB has contributed to Egyptian democracy and the evidence to suggest that Islamic norms can serve as a foundation for liberal politics is encouraging, but it doesn’t mean that the whole thing won’t go tits up. A MB-dominated Egyptian government may very well implement a social platform that would make us very uncomfortable. However, it seems very unlikely that Egypt would ever end up as a theocracy similar to Iran, nor does it seem likely that an MB government would close off all avenues to political participation upon taking power.

[i] Asef Bayat, Making Islam Democratic: social movements and the post-Islamist turn (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2007) . 137

[ii] Peter Mandaville, Global Political Islam (London: Routledge, 2007), pp. 100

[iii] Bayat 143

[iv] Ibid, 143.

[v] Bayat 147-155

[vi] Mandaville, 110.

[vii] Bayat, 161.

[viii] Bayat 148

[ix] Bayat 183.

[x] Rutherford, 721

[xi] Rutherford, 722-3.

[xii] Rutherford, 725.

[xiii] Rutherford, 726.

[xiv] Rutherford, 727

[xv] Shehata and Stacher

[xvi] Ibid.

[xvii] Ibid.

[xviii] Mandaville 118.

[xix] Mandaville 116.

[xx] Ibid, 115.


One response to “Islam ‘compatible’ with liberal democracy?

  1. Ian January 31, 2011 at 3:48 pm

    Great post Simon, you should submit a version of this to The Peak.

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