Islam and Democracy:
Benazir, Hasina and Erbakan

 By Saad Eddin Ibrahim


Conferences, seminars and books on Islam continue to grow at an increasing rate. In the last three months alone, I was invited to at lest nine conferences in five continents: North America, Europe, Asia and Australia. They all revolve around the common theme of political Islam and its compatibility with democracy, in the modern world and especially with the West. The article published by the American political scientists Samuel Huntington three years ago, "The Clash of Civilizations" (Foreign Affairs, Sept.-Oct., 1993, pp.22-49) has fueled an already raging debate on the subject. Recent acts of violence attributed to Islamic militants at home (e.g. Algeria, Egypt and Palestinian) and abroad (e.g. the bombing of the World Trade Center in New York) have turned concern with the subject into fear, if not to panic, in some Western quarters.
Thoughtful Western scholars such as Augustus Richard Norton, John Esposito and Michael Hudson, as well as Muslim scholars living in the West such as Ali Mazrui, Ferhad Kazemi and Fou'ad Ajami have taken issue with Huntington's stereotypical views of Islam and Muslims. These scholars recognize and are teaching fellow Westerners that Muslims are as diverse from Indonesia to Morocco as Christians are from the Philippines to Italy to North America to Latin America. But more important is that societies with predominant Muslim majorities are going through processes of socio-economic political transformation similar to those of the West a century or two earlier.
In a recent conference organized by the UN University on the "Changing Nature of Democracy" (Oxford, July 24-27, 1996), A.K. Norton made a forceful plea to understand young Muslims yearning for full economic, political and cultural inclusion. He documented his arguments by fresh field observations from a number of Arab Muslim countries (e.g. Egypt, Jordan and Lebanon). On the issue of Islamic tolerance, Professor Ali Mazrui reminded the conference that nowhere in even the most established western democracies could a country elect a president from a tiny religious minorities as happened in Senegal several years ago. Senegal is 97 percent Muslims, yet the people freely chose a roman Catholic Christian President, Leopold Sengor, for repeated presidential terms, until the man wanted to retire form politics.
Even the often-repeated charge that Islam discriminates against women in clearly refuted by starting contemporary evidence that many westerners, including some "scholars", refuse to see. Two of the world's biggest countries Pakistan (120 million) and Bangladesh (110 million) have elected two women as their top chief executives - i.e. prime ministers Benazir Bhutto andSheikha Hasina, respectively. Turkey (60 million) also had a secular woman prime minister, Tansu Ciller, who is currently serving as a deputy Prime Minister with an "Islamist" prime minister, N. Erbakan. The term "Islamist" is distinct from "Muslim", as the former has come to mean an activist Muslim with a political program based on religious edicts. Erbakan's Rafah Party of Turkey obtained a plurality in the last parliamentary elections (22%) last December 1995. After the failure of two major secular parties to form a coalition government. Arbakan was asked to do so; and he chose the woman led secular Straight Path Party as a coalition partner. It is too early to judge this witnessing experiment. But the fact remains that the mainstream Islamists in Turkey, as in Jordan, Kuwait, Yemen, Lebanon and Egypt have opted to participate in "politics-as-usual" - i.e. to play the democratic game according to the rules.
Of course not all Islamists accept such democratic rules. But in this respect they are like their undemocratic counterparts in the West - e.g. American, European and Russian racists and fascists. The plea by Norton, Mazrui, Kazemi and others in recent conferences on Islam is to give Islamists an opportunity to participate peacefully in public life. They should and could be nurtured into Islamic Democrats, just as their Christian counterparts in Europe have evolved into "Christian Democrats".
Equally important, it has been pointed out that whenever they were given the chance, the majority of Muslims participated fully and responsibility in public affairs in general and electoral politics in particular. Sudan and Algeria are different cases in point. Civil society organizations (CSOs) in Sudan mobilized and led civil disobedience campaigns which forced military autocratic regimes out of power in 1964 (that of general Ibrahim Abboud) and in 1985 (that of President Jaafar Numairy). In both cases a multi-party democratic rule was re-instituted (1964-68 and 1985-89); but then the Sudanese military (or parts of it) conspired and captured power. The last time (June 30,1989), it was more tragic for the Sudan than the two earlier coup d'états, because it involved a sinister coalition of some part of the military and the Sudanese National Islamic Front led by Dr. Hassan Al-Turabi - i.e. a military-religious fascism. To be sure Sudan's Islamic Front had ample opportunity to participate in the 1986 elections, its performance had to be quite modest as it came a distant third in fair and honest context. Its leader (Dr. Hassan Al-Turabi) did not win a seat. In Algeria it was the exact opposite - the Islamic Salvation Front (FIS) had a land-slide electoral victory in the December 1991 parliamentary elections. The Algerian military could not bring themselves to accept the fair outcome of the popular will, staged a coup d'état, and canceled the elections. Since then the entire country has paid a bloody price - between 40,000 and 60,000 killed in clashes between the Islamists and the Algerian army and security forces in the following four years.
Thus we see clearly a range of Muslim experiences; from Islamists abiding with peaceful democratic rules of the game (Turkey and Jordan) to Islamists brutally breaking such rules (Sudan) to Islamists being totally robbed of their electoral victory and brutally fighting back their usurpers (Algeria). Our experiences in the Arab-Muslim world are not much different from others elsewhere, especially in Europe. The lessons to be drawn, however, are not to stereotype or condemn a whole civilization whose population is nearly one-fourth of mankind but to see its promises along with its perils.

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