The people are speaking: democratic Islam is no contradiction

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Egypt held municipal elections last week, won handsomely across the country by the ruling National Democratic Party. To be honest, I’ve merely assumed the outcome: a safe assumption given there was effectively no opposition. The most powerful opposition movement, the Muslim Brotherhood, fielded only 20 candidates in 52,000 seats. Inconsequential doesn’t begin to describe their electoral presence.

It is not for a lack of trying. The Brotherhood is outlawed under Egypt’s constitution, which bans religion-based political parties. It dodges this legal obstacle by fielding its candidates as independents and won 20 per cent of parliamentary seats in Egypt’s 2005 elections. This time, it simply ran out of candidates. In a Government crackdown in the weeks before the election, up to 800 of its members were arrested, some in pre-dawn raids, which prevented them registering as candidates. The Brotherhood called for a boycott and it seems the public listened. Some independent observers estimate a turnout as astonishingly low as 3 per cent.

It’s becoming a sadly familiar scene in the Muslim world. About a month ago, Iran’s elections were – according to one professor of Iranian studies in Britain – “rigged on quite a monumental scale”. The Guardian Council had banned huge numbers of reformist opposition candidates for being insufficiently loyal to the Iranian revolution and held the poll during New Year celebrations.

Election rigging seems to be in global fashion, as recent developments in Zimbabwe, Ethiopia, Kenya, Georgia and Russia demonstrate. But the breadth of this democratic deficit does little to dilute the perception that the Muslim world in particular is a series of democratic wastelands, from Central Asia through to Africa.

There are hopeful exceptions. The fact that last month’s Malaysian election delivered a spectacular rebuke to the ruling party suggests an improving democratic environment there. Turkey, despite an authoritarian streak, has a reasonably well-functioning democracy that has delivered a change of government in recent years. And Indonesia has made astonishing progress in the decade since emerging from the Soeharto dictatorship.

It is not as if these democratic developments have accompanied a decline in religiosity. All indications are that Islamic consciousness is alive and well in these nations, especially in South-East Asia, but so too is a democratic spirit. Clearly, the people of these nations see no reason why their religiosity should compromise their democratic aspirations, or vice versa. For them, these two dimensions seem broadly reconciled. There are signs that whatever prevents the great majority of the Muslim world from realising democracy, Islam is not that barrier.

Even – perhaps especially – in the least democratic Muslim countries, strong majorities repeatedly express a democratic orientation. A Pew Global Attitudes Poll in 2006 found some 74 per cent of Jordanians and 65 per cent of Egyptians believed democracy could work well in their countries. The following year, a Gallup poll of Muslims in 10 countries similarly found pro-democracy majorities, a finding reiterated this year with a more comprehensive poll of 50,000 Muslims across 35 countries. Perhaps most interesting was a 2003 US study that found levels of support for democratic ideals in Muslim countries were almost identical to those in the West. Gallup’s polling seems to have confirmed this, finding majority Muslim support for “freedom of speech, freedom of assembly, freedom of religion” and an “admiration of liberty and freedom of expression in the West”.

Of course, these populations tend to think about democracy in slightly different ways to the West. It is clear from Gallup’s polling, for instance, that Muslim majorities would prefer their democracy to be inspired by Islamic principles. This does not, however, imply a theocracy: huge majorities from Indonesia and Pakistan to Iran believe religious leaders should not draft legislation. It seems they seek a democracy that reflects the Islamic values of their societies, but does not place power in the hands of clerics.

Perhaps one day, these hopes will be manifest. Until then, the least we can do is welcome the fact that most Muslims feel comfortable being both democratic and devout. Let the status quo not fool us: a huge gulf exists between the authoritarian regimes of the Muslim world and the democratic aspirations of its people.

Waleed Aly is the author of People Like Us: How Arrogance Is Dividing Islam And The West (Picador). He will participate in the IQ2Oz debate “Islam Is Incompatible With Democracy” at the City Recital Hall tonight.

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