Los Angeles, California

The Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life and the Pacific Council on International Policy co-hosted a meeting on “Islam and Democratization in the Middle East” on April 27, 2005, at the Pacific Council on International Policy in Los Angeles.

The roundtable featured one of Egypt’s foremost human rights activists, Saad Eddin Ibrahim of the American University in Cairo, who discussed the issue of U.S. engagement with Islamism as a potential path toward greater democratization in the Middle East. Ibrahim also addressed several important foreign policy questions: Is Islam the primary impediment to democratic reform in the Middle East? Or conversely, can the region’s democratic weakness be explained historically, economically and politically?

Saad Eddin Ibrahim, Professor of Sociology and Chairman of the Board of the Ibn Khaldun Center for Development Studies, American University, Cairo

Walter Russell Mead, Henry A. Kissinger Senior Fellow in U.S. Foreign Policy, Council on Foreign Relations

Presider and Rapporteur:
Jack Miles, Senior Fellow, Pacific Council on International Policy

This meeting was off-the-record; however, the speaker and presider consented to posting the following rapporteur notes online. The notes, prepared by Jack Miles, summarize the key issues and attribute statements only to the speaker and presider, not to individual participants.

Hereditary autocracy vs. democracy. The most explosive topic in the Middle East today is not Islam. It is not Israel or the place of women or sectarianism or the rights of religious or ethnic minorities or electoral democracy or economic underdevelopment. The most explosive topic in the Middle East today is hereditary autocratic rule.

In 2000, when Saad Eddin Ibrahim was imprisoned, he had published articles in his native Egypt on several of the controversial topics just named. But when in that year he dared to write an article discussing the likelihood that the then-rulers of Egypt, Libya, Iraq, and Yemen–not one of them officially a hereditary monarch–would all be succeeded by their sons with the added thesis that any regime remaining in power for more than twenty years begins to regard itself as ruling by right rather than consent, he was imprisoned before midnight on the date of publication.

Islam the prop of hereditary autocracy? Is Islam a mainstay of the hereditary autocracies of the Arab world and therefore perhaps a major obstacle to democracy? The fact that two thirds of the Muslims of the world live under democratic rule argues to the contrary. Granting that democracies in countries of Muslim majority are new and imperfect, they bear fair comparison with democracies in other, non-Islamic countries whose passage from autocracy to democracy is comparably recent. Islam is not plausibly identified as the main obstacle to democracy in the Middle East.

Arab culture the core problem? Is Arab culture then the problem? There is no gainsaying the fact that the Arab world is ruled disproportionately, though (it should be noted) not entirely, by autocracies. However, the thesis that there exists some deep, inherent, cultural or quasi-genetic proclivity to authoritarianism in the Arab world calls to mind comparable theses offered in the recent past about the Japanese, the Germans, the Slavs, the Iberians and, to add a religion to the list, about the Catholics. In every case, there were historical arguments to bolster the pessimistic thesis, and there was a school of essentialist (in a few cases quasi-racist) theoreticians prepared to defend the thesis. But in every case, events have told a different story. Since the Portuguese revolution of 1974, one hundred countries in Europe, Asia, Latin America and Sub-Saharan Africa have moved to the democracy column. The notion that any nation or culture is inherently incapable of democracy does not withstand scrutiny.

Are current Arab moves toward democratization a mirage? Arab dictators are tenacious, as a former political prisoner like Ibrahim can testify, and it is surely too soon to speak of the Arab equivalent of a “Prague Spring.” One recalls, however, that the original Prague Spring preceded the fall of the Berlin Wall by fully twenty years, and it may not be too soon to speak of a thaw or, to us an image better suited to the region, to declare that the signs of popular pressure toward democracy are not a mirage. Progress will not be linear, but unprecedented free elections in Afghanistan, Palestine, Iraq and Lebanon do matter. So do a mini-election in Saudi Arabia and the grass roots movement in Egypt that goes by the name “Kifaya!” (Arabic for “Enough!”). Elections can be faked, but these elections were not faked and indeed were held in the face of significant opposition. Whether the thaw continues into a spring and then a summer will depend on 1.) whether the existing democratic forces are ready to rule, 2.) whether Islamism is effectively recruited as a partner and 3.) whether external powers play wisely the role that it falls to them to play.

1. The memory of Arab liberalism. Democratic forces in the Arab world, though untested, should not be pre-judged as too weak to matter. Many thought Eastern Europe was not ready for self-government. They were wrong: Eastern European democrats successfully revived liberal traditions that antedated the Russian Communism that had dominated their political lives since the end of World War II. Arab liberalism has a history as well. Though the history differs from country to country, it began, broadly, in the mid-19th Century and continued until the mid-20th Century when military regimes suppressed it in Egypt, Iraq, Syria and Libya. A collective memory remains of parliamentary rule (Egypt’s first parliament was established in 1866), of a free press, of a robust indigenous film industry, of open debate about topics as unthinkable now as Darwinism and atheism, and of much more. Whether all this can be revived or not is a practical rather than a theoretical question, one that can only be answered by making the attempt.

2. The surprising openness of Islamism. Islamism as the attempt to develop a viable politics from Muslim roots can take and has taken various forms, one of which, as an Islamist party has come to power, has been more effectively democratic than its secular predecessor. Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development party has been more willing to compromise on Cyprus than its Kemalist secular predecessor. It has also been notably more accommodating and tolerant toward Kurds. Both in Turkey and in Morocco, where a similar party ran third in the most recent election, the Islamists have not lived up to the dark legend of “one man, one vote, one time.” Moreover, Islamism is widely trusted in Muslim countries, including Arab countries, for the range of social services that it has provided. Indeed, its appeal is so strong that it is difficult to imagine a viable democratic movement working other than in cooperation with it.

Most interestingly, Saad Eddin Ibrahim’s prison experience of Egyptian Islamism argues that the movement is intellectually open enough to make serious engagement quite promising. Ibrahim had visited the prison where he was eventually incarcerated in two capacities: as a human rights advocate and as a sociological researcher (he holds an American doctorate in sociology). As a result, on his third visit, this time as an inmate, he enjoyed an unusual credibility among his fellow inmates, who included violent radicals involved in the assassination of Anwar Sadat and the attempted assassination of Nobel laureate novelist Naguib Mahfouz. Discussions ensued about their opposition to the existing autocracy. He explained his own understanding of the basics of the democracy and why, in his opinion, authentic opposition required it. The Islamists responded with interest. Eventually they asked for, and he procured for them, literature about the Christian democratic parties of Europe. They went on to write, collectively, three small books outlining a Muslim philosophy of democracy. Somewhat to his surprise, the 9/11 attacks, coming months into his imprisonment, left some of these radicals genuinely disturbed at the thought that they may have been role models. In the aftermath of the attack, they then wrote a fourth brief volume to complement the first three. After Ibrahim’s release from prison in 2003, the dialogue continued between him and at-liberty comrades and colleagues of the imprisoned Islamists.

A turning point came when leaders of the Muslim Brotherhood–the grandfather of most, if not all, the world’s Islamist groups–asked if Ibrahim would arrange for them to meet face-to-face with European and American dialogue partners. Ibrahim did his part. The Europeans were willing; the American embassy in Cairo alleged that it had “no authorization” and sent no one. About a year later, the Islamist group issued a public declaration in support of democracy, using the most unmistakable Arabic word to refer to it and further spelling out the meaning of the declaration with clauses on the rights of women, the rights of non-Muslim religious minorities and more. For Ibrahim, this experience suggests that an alliance between the Muslim Brotherhood and the smaller forces favoring a more secular democracy in Egypt is clearly thinkable; and as Egypt goes, so, often enough, goes the rest of the Arab world.

3. External powers: will they do what works or what doesn’t? Rather than direct military intervention, which is working out so poorly in Afghanistan and Iraq (despite the mentioned elections), Western powers interested in ending autocracy and promoting democracy in the Middle East should do what has worked so well for them in the past. The Helsinki Accords and Radio Free Europe–institutionalizing, respectively, unwavering support for human rights and the diffusion of reliable information–contributed to the downfall of the Soviet Empire without the firing of a single shot. This approach can work again. Taking it will mean working with religiously affiliated Muslim opponents of hereditary autocracy as well as with secular opponents. Islamism must be engaged, in short, rather than quarantined. The West should stand forthrightly for what it believes in and require accountability of any Islamist partner. Frank cooperation will never come about, however, if either party rules it out as impossible in principle. Engagement must assist and, to a point, may even guide but must never seek to control and must assiduously avoid the kind of ostentatious embrace that can only discredit.

Beyond Bush in the Middle East. A sea change seems discernible in American policy toward the Middle East that will outlive the Bush Administration’s “war on terror” or its shooting wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. For the latter half of the 20th Century, the Middle East was a third-place priority for the U.S. foreign policy establishment, behind Europe and East Asia. Today, the Middle East has become the U.S.’s top priority, and it is likely to remain in that spot. Meanwhile, the old policy of attempting nothing in the Middle East other than keeping the Russians out, the Arabs quiet and the oil flowing will not be revived in any future administration. The emergent policy is one that makes the United States an advocate of the same two values–democracy and economic development–in the Middle East that it advocated earlier in places like Japan and Germany. The state of public opinion in the Middle East toward the United States is undeniably abysmal. All the same, a shift is under way that in the long term could well align the U.S. with the will of the people in the Middle East. In retrospect, unless the Iraq war ends in a debacle like the American evacuation of Saigon in 1975, it may be seen to have provided, if nothing else, a shock like Napoleon’s invsion of Egypt in 1798. The French left; their experiment failed on the face of it; and yet something was set in motion that could not have started on its own.

Mobilizing Islam against hereditary autocracy. In the long run, the potential exists for a favorable alignment between American political tradition regarding religion and the Islamism that is now taking shape as a revolutionary force in the Arab Middle East. Why is this so?

The Jacobin tradition, originating in France, saw all forms of religion as essentially identical with the Roman Catholic Church, which in turn it saw as a mainstay of the monarchy it so violently opposed. By contrast, the Whig tradition, originating in Britain, had a more accommodating attitude toward religion, especially toward the dissenting (non-Anglican) forms of British Christianity, whose hostility to monarchy created the basis for a working alliance.

In the United States, the overthrow of monarchical rule owed at least as much to Christian democrats in this Whig tradition as to radical secular democrats like Thomas Paine or American Jacobins like Thomas Jefferson. Past the founding generation, movements to extend democracy within the United States (abolitionism, women’s suffrage, labor unions) have never lacked religious allies. Against this background, the United States ought to be sympathetic in principle to efforts by Muslim democrats to make history in a similar way. Thus, Turkey’s recent move to an Islamist form of democracy, though viewed askance in much of Europe, might well be welcome here as a move away from the more Jacobin tradition of Kemal Ataturk (who wrote all his correspondence in French and equated the caliphate with the papacy) toward a more Whig or, if you will, even a more “American” approach.

By just what steps the existing autocratic regimes of the Arab Middle East will give way to democratic regimes is scarcely to be predicted. It was scarcely to be predicted in the Europe of an earlier era. Since the eighteenth century, freedom of religion has taken sharply different institutional forms in different European countries, several of them far less severely secular than the American. Germany has a church tax, for example, and Scandinavia an established church, all the while respecting freedom of religion. The comparable story in newer democracies is no less varied, and we should expect the same in the Arab world. At the end of the day, we need to remember that autocracy is the problem, not Islam. Islam may yet be a part of the answer.