Washington, D.C.

The Pew Forum interviewed Dr. Vali Nasr following a roundtable on Islam and democracy co-sponsored by the Forum and the Council on Foreign Relations. Dr. Nasr is a professor in the Department of National Security Affairs at the Naval Postgraduate School and an expert on the politics of the Middle East and South Asia, political Islam and comparative political theory. He discussed U.S. foreign policy efforts to promote democratization in the Muslim world and the prospects for political reform in the Middle East and South Asia, specifically with regard to Iraq and Pakistan.

Vali Nasr, Professor of National Security Affairs, Naval Postgraduate School

Timothy Shah, Senior Fellow in Religion and World Affairs, Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life

Most of our questions are related, not surprisingly, to Islam and democratization. I wanted to start with a recent article that you wrote, “The Rise of ‘Muslim Democracy,'” which suggests that in the past 15 years, several Muslim majority countries, notably outside the Arab world, have experienced varying degrees of political liberalization. You label this trend “Muslim democracy.” What would you say are the characteristics of Muslim democracy, and what explains its emergence as a political force in places like Bangladesh, Indonesia, Malaysia and Turkey, but not, generally speaking, in the predominantly Arab Middle East?

Essentially Muslim democracy means an opening of political space, which allows different political actors to participate. Given the fact that Muslims have become much more interested in religious values in public life, the forces that are likely to dominate in an open Muslim environment are likely to have some religious colors. I use the term Muslim democracy as a parallel to Christian democracy in the same way in which Catholic parties became active in Europe when that opening occurred. It did not mean that these were religious parties; rather, it meant that they were democratic parties whose platform reflected the religious values and demands of their constituents.

This is still a very young phenomenon in the Muslim world. What we are seeing in the Muslim world is that when you allow many parties to compete — in open electoral politics — you are likely to have forces dominate that tend to be right of center, forces that are Islamically conscious but not necessarily fundamentalist or Islamist. Those who dominate the strategic middle (the center of gravity in politics) can come from either direction. They could be reformed Islamists, like the AKP (Justice and Development) party in Turkey, or they could be secular parties that adopt a sufficient degree of religiosity to become appealing to the majority of the population. In some ways, it is not different from the tenor of American politics or how American politicians operate. We now think the center of gravity in American politics is to the right and believes in Christian values. This leads secular politicians not to become completely religious but to try to appeal to these key values.

This is what might happen in the Muslim world. The approach I suggest is not to focus on the actors. Are we going to have the perfect actors? Are we going to have the perfect democrats, the perfect moderate Muslims? Rather, I suggest that we should focus on having the right arena. The arena will produce the right actors because in a fully competitive arena in which neither side can dominate, and you have competition, ultimately the Islamists will have to moderate to compete and the secularists will have to Islamize a bit to compete, and then that will determine the middle.

How does that analysis bear on what is going on in contemporary Iraq? You have suggested that the mistake of prewar analysis was to see Iraq as essentially secular, and to see the differences between Sunni and Shia as essentially minor theological differences. Perhaps there was a failure to adequately assess what would be the real center of gravity in Iraqi society. Is it more religious than perhaps we anticipated?

Sure. In Iraq it is a bit more difficult because you have the ethnic and sectarian divide, and in election after election we’ve seen that people vote ethnically and along sectarian lines– the Kurds vote for Kurds, the Shias vote for Shias, the Sunnis vote for Sunnis. Therefore, Iraq has this sort of ethnic component to it, which is different. But within one community, say, within the Shiite community, hardline Islamic parties have not been the dominant force. Secular parties haven’t done well either. Neither Allawi nor Chalabi has done well. Rather, it is a mix of Islam or Shiism and secular politics and nationalist politics that are likely to be the dominant political platforms.

By and large we can assume that the center of gravity in the Muslim world is likely to be to the right of center and is likely to be more religious than secular. The question now is, who will dominate that center? Is it going to be a reformed Islamic party? Or is it going to be a secular party that moves in the direction of religion? If you took a country like Egypt and really opened it up and allowed free-for-all elections, in the long run, would it be the Muslim Brotherhood that moderates and dominates as a form of nationalist religious party, or would it be the National Democratic Party of President Mubarak that would become sufficiently Islamic to occupy that middle?

That is really the issue we have to focus on. My interest was to suggest that the United States is too focused on having the perfect actor. We constantly want to know how moderate the political actors are before opening up a political arena. Rather, we ought to trust that the political arena will produce the right moderate force. That does not mean opening the gateway completely, because the cases that I suggest — Turkey and the like — opened gradually. In the case of Turkey, the European community served as a liberalizing force, placing bounds and conditionalities around the process without interfering.

Can I ask you to elaborate on the point you were making in the discussion earlier, that the U.S. did not adequately gauge Iraqi society in terms of its religiosity versus its secularism?

We didn’t have a window into Iraqi society because we were not traveling there or having contact with Iraq. We relied heavily on impressions we had of Iraq before the war of 1990-91. Iraq at that time had the highest number of engineers per capita in the Arab world, had a highly secular society and was pluralistic. It might have been run by hardheaded authoritarians, but Iraqi society was fairly modern. It had the lowest rate of infant mortality and the highest life expectancy in the Arab world. The whole paradox of Iraq in the late 1980s was that the most modern Arab society had the most medieval, dictatorial Arab government. In fact, we were somewhat driven by this vision that Iraq would be easy because its society was so modern.

What we did not adequately gauge was how Iraqi society had changed in the 1990s. Iraq’s middle class began to disappear because of the sanctions. Religion began to make inroads into Iraqi society, both among the Shiites and the Sunnis in various ways. Many of the elements of modern secular behavior began to disappear. This was a key point, particularly among the Shiites, because Saddam did not really allow for any Shia political institutions. Shias participated in the Ba’ath Party — they went up, they got thrown out, they were purged — and within the military it was the same. There were no real Shia institutions that represented the Shia

The only institutions that represented the Shia were the clerical institutions, and even they were persecuted and destroyed — Moqtada al-Sadr’s father and brother were assassinated; 10 of Abdul Aziz al-Hakim’s brothers were killed by Saddam. As an institution, the clerics were the only ones who were there and stayed there and survived through those years. So when the lid was taken off, there were no secular Shia institutions to which the Shia had any allegiance or with whom they had relationships. Those who were secular were outside Iraq. They had no relationships within the country, and they were not in a position to build those relationships very rapidly, whereas Ayatollah Sistani, Moqtada al-Sadr and other lesser known ayatollahs had relationships with their communities — almost, you could say, like rabbis in Eastern Europe or like Catholics in parts of Eastern Europe, who were the natural political force when communism fell. So we ended up not only with a society that was more religious than we thought, that had become more lower and lower-middle class than we thought, but also a society whose leadership was more clerical than we thought, assumed or hoped for.

Shifting gears from Iraq itself to the larger policy of U.S. democratization, many analysts suggest that religious reform within Islam is a prerequisite to democratization in the Muslim world, but in “The Rise of ‘Muslim Democracy’ ” you argue against that view. What, in your opinion, are the real preconditions for democratic transition in the Muslim world? If it is not religious reform, what is it, and what does this imply for U.S. foreign policy?

The argument is that for a long time we’ve assumed that Muslims should modernize and reform before they participate in politics. That is a problem because reform of any religion is a very long, long process. In the West it took centuries. So, to pin our hopes on religious reform is rather farfetched.

Second, religious reform is not necessarily always liberal. In other words, even if you look at the history of Protestantism, early Protestants were by no means liberal. Liberalism and capitalism were unintended consequences of religious reform instead of its intended consequences. There are many people who think of Salafists–who challenge the authority of religious acholars–essentially as religious reformers, the equivalents of early Calvinists.

Third, religious reformers do not really have a strong social base in the Muslim world. Other than maybe in Iran, you really do not see much traction for that. In fact, if you look at the history of Europe, we didn’t have this precondition. It is democracy, viable democracy, which forces religious change, or at least behavioral change on the part of religious people. In the United States, democracy does not necessarily force people to abandon their religious views; rather, it forces them to behave secularly in the political arena. What that means is that our emphasis should be on strong democracy, not on religious reform. Strong democracy does not mean that only Islamic forces have to behave; it also means generals have to behave; it means all political parties have to behave; it means the judiciary has to behave. It means that we have to have repetitive elections, real change of government. That’s really what guarantees that democracy as an institution grows really tall walls. When it builds really tall walls, then it is able to withstand any kind of radicalism from dominating.

In another recent article, “The Conservative Wave Rolls On,” you quote a prominent Iranian editor in reference to the outcome of Iran’s recent presidential elections — “reformism lost to democracy” — suggesting that political reform is in tension with democracy. What are the implications of this assessment of the so-called Bush doctrine, which holds that the spread of democracy will reform the Muslim world and blunt the militant forces generating terror?

I don’t think they’re inimical to one another. For democracy to grow roots and change a society, it has to persist over time. But single elections can produce undesirable governments that may even derail democracy. So you have the example of the Weimar Republic. That does not mean you give up on democracy; it means that you try to fix it so you don’t have a repetition of what happened in the Weimar Republic. In Iran you have a case where, rightly or wrongly, a very conservative militant populist president was able to win through the process that was on the ground, and the suggestion of this editor is that democracy does not necessarily favor the reformers; democracy is a process that can elect a conservative, a liberal, and a religious person.

If we thought that elections would always produce pro-American governments, or governments that are friendly, that may not happen and should not be our focus. In other words, we should not get fixed on one election. There are always other elections. What is important is to make sure that there is another election and that there is another election after that. In the long run, you may get bad governments, corrupt governments, ineffective governments, anti-American governments, but at the end of the day, over a long duration, you are going to see change as people buy into the process.

In fact, ironically, that has happened in Iran, and that is part of the paradox of Iran. Iranians have now had nine presidential elections, more than most other Sunni countries around them. They’ve come to learn the mechanics of campaigning, of voting, of everyday democratic behavior. If this process continues, it will change the political aptitude of Iranians altogether; and that has already begun. Now, even the conservatives in Iran believe you need to win at the ballot box. There is no possibility of an outright military coup like the kind that occurred in Pakistan, for instance.

Do you believe the balance of evidence favors this view, that in the long run, liberal democracy is going to lead to the reform of extremist elements? What concrete evidence would you point to, that either supports or opposes this view?

Well, the example of Europe bears that out; so does that of the United States. Regardless of the liberal intentions of the founding fathers, the point is that the success of American democracy and the respect Americans have for the Constitution, even the debates we have about church and state and how to interpret that barrier wall between church and state, has everything to do with the longevity of democracy in America. That is what has changed, fixed or created certain political attitudes within the American political mindset. Respect for the process dominates all other values, whether you are an avid atheist or a very strong Christian, Jew or Muslim.

If you look at the history of Europe, you see the same thing. Whether you had doctrinaire Marxists or very strong Catholics, once they became involved in the political process, essentially their political aptitude was shaped by the rules of the process. But the rules of the process are not a one-time thing. You cannot have an election the first time and sing the virtues of it to people and expect that they will have a conversion to democracy. Democracy is practiced. In this country, democracy begins in the third grade. When you run for class president, you learn how to campaign and how to lose, and you go back and do it again. So much of this has to do with values that are internalized over a long period of time. We have to anticipate that the Middle East will fall on its face, will produce bad governments, will produce corrupt governments, like in Pakistan, but that the solution is not to bring in the military or to do away with the process, but to keep strengthening and fine-tuning democracy. So you change the rules to make it stronger; you change the rules to make it better. We have had that in this country. We have augmented presidential powers, we gave Congress the War Powers Act. In other words, you improve on the process, but these improvements do not change the fundamental logic of it.

A devil’s advocate might ask: Aren’t there times when even democracy over the long term, even the system as it takes hold, can ultimately legitimate extremist movements, especially if they reflect a majority of the population, say the Hindu Nationalist Party in India or the extremist Sinhalese in Sri Lanka?

That is the Weimar Republic argument — the one man, one vote, one time argument. The difference between India and the Weimar Republic is that the Weimar Republic, once Hitler came in, could do away with the whole process altogether. In India, the ultra-nationalist and religious BJP (Bharatiya Janata Party) could not do that. For democracy to continue, the BJP had to moderate itself. The BJP came in trying to use Indian democracy to take total power, but it was Indian democracy that in the end conquered the BJP.

And the lesson for us is that if democracy is strong, if we commit to the process and to the arena, we have to trust in the fact that democracy ultimately will win. But the challenge for the U.S. is that the short run is likely to be ugly. There are dangers of Weimar Republics; there are dangers of Islamists taking over. The choice we have is that either we don’t risk it at all or that we trust the process and say we can negotiate a way in which there is a gradual opening, then a bigger opening and a bigger opening, as in Turkey, and that ultimately the process will win over the actors. It is not the actors who shape the process; it is the process that shapes the actors. This insistence that the actors shape the process really has nothing to do with the West’s own experience or with the democratic experience itself. Yes, you’ve had enlightened people like the founding fathers who wrote an enlightened constitution, but ultimately Americans were not converted by that document. They have been made democrats by living in democracy.

How does the U.S. best face the short-term challenges we have talked about, say, for example, if Hamas were to win a free and fair election in Palestinian-controlled territory? We have committed to disagreeing with Sharon, to allowing Hamas to compete in the elections in Palestinian-controlled territory, even if they have not yet disarmed. Let’s say they have a significant share of power, what, in the short term, does the U.S. do with that outcome?

In the case of Hamas, the process should not open the floodgates completely all at once. There should be a measured opening in which everybody has been held to account in the process, as was the case of Turkey, where the European community mandated that there could not be a military coup. You could dismiss a government according to law, but there could not be a military coup.

The way to deal with such an outcome is to accept Hamas’ presence within the political process, provided that Hamas agrees to certain terms, but also to make sure that Hamas ensures real competition and that there are certain safety valves if the whole thing goes south in order to bring it back to the center. The case of Turkey suggests that if democracy has fallen, you don’t do what you did in Pakistan; that is, put democracy aside altogether and have the military come in permanently. Every time the Turkish military dismissed the government, there was another election immediately. It was self-controlled because of the EU. And it is not because the EU was committed to Turkish democracy; it was because the EU has certain generic democratic rules. So if Turkey wants to be a member of the EU, it has to agree to those rules.

So you would want that to be there, and after three elections Hamas will begin to look a lot more like Hezbollah. It does not matter what ideology Hezbollah spews. At the end of the day, when they go to the polls, they need to win those elections. And when you sit in a parliament and have to make deals with people — that has an impact on you. You want to find ways, as much as possible, to bring in these people who are throwing stones on the outside, to sit them at the table and get them involved in the dirty process of politics.

Let me just shift gears to Pakistan. In your recent piece, “Pakistan and Afghanistan: Islam and Democracy,” you address the challenges of democratization in Pakistan, a key U.S. ally in the war on terrorism. You note that democracy has obviously not made dramatic gains in Pakistan in recent years. To what extent do Islamist groups and political movements pose an obstacle, or at least a problem, to Pakistani democratization, and how is this challenge best negotiated?

Right now the main obstacle to democracy in Pakistan is the military, not the Islamists. After the military took over, it essentially set about destroying civilian parties and civilian institutions, and it probably even made a pact with the Islamists in order to do so. Therefore, the main challenge is not Islam. As we discussed earlier, the Islamists could be contained within a strong democratic environment in Pakistan. They have never formed a government. In the 1997 elections they won only 1 percent of the vote. In fact, their vote percentage went much higher after the military coup. Pakistani democracy has no problem containing Islamists at all, and to make them an issue does not serve the case.

Now, Pakistan needs strong democracy to deal with corruption and mismanagement. The way the military in Pakistan should have done this was to come in and say: These are the problems; now these are the reforms for them. For instance, if some politicians were corrupt, sideline only those politicians through the courts. Have new elections and mandate that from now on, any party that participates in elections must have an internal party elections based on a free and fair vote. Or for instance, members of parliament cannot serve more than two terms — things that even we do in this country. You don’t shelve the whole process — you try to fix it.

I think now, actually, Pakistan is more in danger of an Islamist takeover than it was under democracy, because then Pakistan had far stronger political parties, which is a very rare thing in the Muslim world. The problem in the Muslim world is that there are no strong political parties; Pakistan had two. Now they’ve been somewhat scuttled, and you are much more susceptible to instability if the military collapses or has to withdraw rapidly — the political process will be in shambles.