Reports 2013

Islam and democracy in the Middle East – Challenging assumptions

23 April 2013


Competing interests are clashing freely and openly in North Africa and the Middle East for the first time. Waves of economic and political unrest triggered exhilarating and unprecedented change across the region. But while change is relatively easy to achieve (by tearing something down), building things back up again is much more difficult, said Reza Aslan, Adjunct Senior Fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.

For the first time, Egyptians are beginning to express themselves in the political realm and starting to discuss issues like the role of religion in society: issues which were impossible to talk about two years ago. All this is happening in the midst of a far more important issue, according to the Iranian-American writer: the economic collapse of Egypt.

Asked to comment on the relationship between religion, society and the state, he argued that it is too simplistic to talk of the rise of Islamist groups like the Muslim Brotherhood as somehow representing a “backward slide” for the region’s societies.

Recent clashes in the streets between so-called religious and secular groups create the impression that these sections of society are somehow equally representative, but they are not: Egypt is 96% Muslim and a deeply conservative religious state, said Aslan, reminding participants that all democracies are free markets of ideas in which the majority view will prevail.

He argued that it was very easy for Islamist parties to be in opposition – especially to a dictatorial regime – but once democratically elected into power, they face two choices: either moderate their ideologies and succeed, or not moderate them (and therefore fail).

He said such a failure would in fact serve a good and necessary purpose if it were to begin to dull the shine of apparent incorruptibility that surrounds these parties.

Claire Spencer, Head of the Middle East and North Africa Programme at Chatham House, said 2013 had been an interesting year so far, particularly due to events in Mali, which had raised fears of a return to the days of talking about the region in terms of the ‘global war on terror’.

Spencer argued that for Islamist parties to dominate the state completely, they would have to completely control the army and the economy too, but they do not.

Spencer pointed out that if you cannot persuade people to support you, then you have to impose a dictatorship by force – which you cannot do without the support of the army and the intelligence and security services.

Advising against prejudging Islamism from outside, she argued that these societies will need time to adjust to democracy after having been subjected to long periods of authoritarian dictatorship.