Arab politics is much more dynamic and diverse than is generally portrayed in the west, says Anoush Ehteshami. Sweeping governance reform is already afoot in much of the Arab world – and, in many cases, is being driven by the ruling elites themselves. The danger is that external pressure for reform could imperil emerging democratic ideas and institutions

Since September 11, the international spotlight has been more firmly than ever on the Muslim world, and its Middle East heartland in particular.

All aspects of life in Muslim societies – history, educational system, attitudes toward the west, gender relations, cultural underpinnings, political and economic systems, demography, foreign relations – have been pored over by policy commentators and analysts in attempts to unearth the root causes of Islamist militancy against the west and the al-Qaeda attacks on western targets.

In search of explanations of the al-Qaeda terrorist attacks, commentators have explored the “what went wrong in the Arab world?” approach, arguing that the problem has always lain within the Muslim world itself and Islam’s inability to adapt to the modern age. This approach has been setting the tenor of much of the policy debates in the west about the complexities of Muslim societies and their shortcomings in a globalized world.

These societies, shackled by the teachings and practices of Islam, are said to be so timid and unstable as to pose a direct threat to international security; while their shortcomings mean that they are ill-prepared and ill-equipped to manage the challenges of globalization on their own.

Left to themselves, it is often stated, Islamists will continue to threaten international security by externalizing the internal, deep-rooted crises of Muslim societies.

As always, the reality is somewhat more complex. When viewed in the full light of day, it is much less stark than is painted by some commentators.

Islam and democracy

Though the concept of democracy has been rejected by many Muslim activists as a western import designed to destroy Islam and the Sharia, there are scores of Muslim and non-Muslim scholars who vehemently argue that there is no contradiction between Islam and democracy.

They believe that Muslim teachings and practices of collective debate, consensus, accountability and transparency – if followed properly – will produce Muslim versions of democratic rule.

Some, like Iran’s president Mohammad Khatami, have been known to talk of Islamic democracy as an applicable Islamic model, even though such a conceptual link between the two had been firmly rejected by the founder of the Islamic Republic in Iran in 1979. Other democratic forces in the Muslim world may not fully accept Khatami’s notion of Islamic democracy on the grounds that, as the proposed Islamic system would be inherently pluralistic, it would not need the democracy label added to it.

But they would agree that the genesis of liberalization is in Islam itself. Presenting their case in the context of Islamic liberalism, such Islamists as Muhammad Faur have argued that “Islam as interpreted by [western] liberals – with free and fair elections, universal suffrage, multi-party politics, minority rights and equality of citizens – is consistent with the thought of many Islamic liberals”.

Other personalities like Rachid al-Ghannouchi in Tunisia, Anwar Ibrahim in Malaysia and Abdel Karim Soroush in Iran can also be regarded as vanguards of Islamic liberalism.

This school of thought asserts that the fundamentals of democracy are present in Islam: Islam recognizes popular sovereignty, government is based on the rule of law, political leaders are elected and accountable to the people, and equality of citizens is assured in the Quran.

There are others, however, who believe that Islam and the realm of politics are worlds apart. Emmanuel Sivan, professor of history at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, is a typical advocate of this view. “Islam has very little to offer in the realm of politics,” he said, in an article entitled The Clash within Islam written in the spring of 2003.

“The state of Muhammad was prophetic, hence unique – not a model for future emulation. After Muhammad’s death, political history was shaped by circumstances… Islamic thinkers had very little to offer by way of political doctrine. Islamic law had little to say on constitutional matters. Political practice was mostly authoritarian if not despotic. An Islamic state is a mirage, a figment of the radicals’ imagination.”

Between these two extreme interpretations sit a host of other perspectives and many interesting actual practices in the Muslim and Arab worlds that point toward a growing pluralization of their political systems.

Politics in the Arab world

The remarkable fact is that most Arab states exhibit a western-style written constitution and a secular attitude toward institutional structures. In the majority of cases, Arab states are governed by a constitutional framework that is inspired by and wedded to European constitutional law.

At the state level, therefore, the constitutions of Arab countries look very similar to their European counterparts. It is in the provision of religious courts, particularly in personal matters, that Islamic Sharia law makes an appearance, as much as a means of underpinning the cultural identity of such states as forming their institutional agenda.

In the Arab part of the Muslim world, democracy, as understood in the west, is still rather a scarce commodity. However, in many corners of this community of 22 states, pluralism has been a fast-rooting concept.

Popular elections, a necessary but of course insufficient condition for democracy, have grown hugely in number since the late 1980s. They are frequent and regular. They are becoming a common feature of the regional landscape, and as such are indicative of a slow but perceptible process of change.

In the 10 years between 1989 and 1999, for example, more than 80 elections took place in the region, more than the entire number in the previous half a century. Significant elections now regularly take place in more than half of the Arab countries, affecting the political lives of more than 150 million people from Morocco to Oman.

If we add Iran and Turkey to the equation, then the total number of citizens affected by electoral politics will increase by another 130 million. Today, elections regulate the political life of more than a dozen Muslim Middle Eastern countries and their 280 million citizens.

Although many of these elections have had conditions placed upon them and not been free elections as understood in the west, nonetheless they have become a welcome fixture of the political landscape.

Elections have come to play a key role in shaping the context of the debate for the democracy promoters. These commentators believe that elections will serve to broaden and deepen political participation and the democratic accountability of the state to its citizens.

“In attempted transitions to democracy, elections will be not just a foundation stone, but a key generator over time of further democratic reforms,” wrote Thomas Carothers of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in The Journal of Democracy in 2002. Party politics has also spread roots. Political parties increasingly act as vehicles for mobilization of the masses by both liberal and Islamist actors in the Arab world. Some 22 political parties participated in the 2002 parliamentary elections in Morocco. Eleven registered parties participated in Algeria’s elections in the same year.

Furthermore, in Jordan’s June 2003 parliamentary poll, key figures formed electoral fronts as surrogate parties to organize their electoral campaigns. In Morocco and Jordan Islamists were able to compete, but the regulatory system prevented them from becoming dominant partners, leaving the space open for other forces to emerge as well.

Political dynamism is also evident in some unexpected quarters. In the traditional monarchies of the Arabian Peninsula today, for example, one encounters a growing momentum for political and social reform, and a gradual opening up of the political space.

In Bahrain, Qatar, Oman and Kuwait, we now have active participation in a deepening and broadening parliamentary environment, and the leaders of all four states talk openly of the need for broadening the political base through pluralism. In the two states of Bahrain and Qatar the talk is of full democratization.

Saudi Arabia is also openly debating the introduction of broad, but incremental, reforms. Significantly, as a major first step, the introduction of direct municipal elections by late 2004 has been announced in order to increase “the people’s participation in the administration of local affairs through direct elections and activating the municipal council”.

King Fahd has spoken of following a path of political and administrative reform. “We will broaden the scope of popular participation and open new horizons for women in the workplace,” he declared in May 2003.

More telling still in the context of this discussion is his declaration that not even Saudi Arabia – which he described as being “at the heart of the Muslim world and… the cradle of Arab identity” – can develop in isolation. “We are part of this world. We cannot be disconnected from it,” he declared.

What is of particular interest in the context of institution-building and Islamic practices is that these Gulf Arab states deliberately use traditional platforms of consultation as their vehicles for the introduction of institutional reform.

While Kuwait enjoys the benefits of a well-established national assembly, in Bahrain, Qatar, Oman and Saudi Arabia the old practice of consultation has become formalized in substantive consultative councils (Majlis al-Shura) that act as the main vehicle for the introduction of political reforms.

In Bahrain and Qatar, constitutional changes have accompanied the reform package, which, in practice, has produced a complementary framework between the traditional and western forms of political organization and association.

Therefore, as elections and party politics broaden so that political forces in the Arab world learn to play by the given rules of the game, when irregularities arise the judicial system is being increasingly relied upon to investigate grievances.

All parties seem to want to avoid a repeat of the Algerian case, in which apparent electoral irregularities triggered a bloody and protracted civil war between Islamist forces and the regime.

Recourse to the judiciary in turn encourages the recognition and application of the rule of law, no matter how imperfect the laws may be or how badly they may be applied in practice.

However, elites and ruling regimes, who ultimately devise the national rules of party and electoral politics, also learn to manipulate the system to their own advantage. They apply the law to regulate access to levers of power and to control participation of political forces. They, in effect, use the civil law to exert control of the political process.

Unchecked, such practices can easily transform a transitional step toward democracy into an elected authoritarian regime in which elections become no more than a hollow shell for disguising deliberalization.

The regimes also use the same mechanisms to balance the competing political forces in the political arena. Their differences in legislative bodies can assist the regime to implement effectively a policy of “divide and rule”.

When parliamentary political groups manage to work more closely together, the regime can take advantage of their pragmatism – demonstrated by their ability to compromise – to push through its own reform agenda. Jordan provides a classic example of this process.

The external factor

With two strong speeches by president George W Bush in November 2003 on the theme of democratization in the Middle East, it is important that the potentially significant role that the external factor can play here is also examined.

In the polarized setting created by the September 11 attacks, democratization and Islamization have come to be positioned at opposite ends of the spectrum of choices in the Muslim world.

The international environment for the interaction between Islam and democracy is a particularly important factor to note. In the 21st century the United States’ agenda has graphically – and, some would argue, dangerously – shifted from one of interaction and containment toward active diplomatic engagement and direct intervention in the Arab world.

Examples of the strategy of engagement and intervention abound already. But in conservative societies of the Arab world, which are largely dominated by risk-averse elites, the wisdom of pursuing a policy of enforced liberalization, or democratization, must be critically considered.

Why? Because this region has a long, enduring and bad memory of external intervention in its affairs and has therefore developed a habit of opposing such pressures.

The Bush administration’s strategy of democratization of the Arab East as a preventive measure in the war on international terrorism is precisely the kind of external pressure that will face resistance.

As it takes root, this policy is creating new and unpredictable pressures for change. It, for example, puts the onus of reform on the very western-oriented elites who, in the eyes of their own people, are tainted by their close association with the west.

If they liberalize – they are doomed for appearing weak and vulnerable, or worse still lose their monopoly on power. And if they do not – they will be subjected to American pressure as well as the same from below.

Also, as the US strategy raises expectations among the disgruntled population about the extent and depth of reforms being proposed, a gap is likely to appear between the reality of managed reforms being introduced and the population’s desire for extensive and unconditional change.

As Arab and other Muslim elites are pressured to open up their societies, so American policy makers may encounter the penetration of government institutions by the best organized and most dedicated of political forces, the Islamist activists.

This has already happened in Pakistan, Morocco and Bahrain in their parliamentary elections over the past two years. Elsewhere, in such strategically important Muslim countries as Turkey and Indonesia, Islamist-leaning parties and personalities are already in government, increasingly painting the national agenda in religious colours. In Indonesia, the Islamist penetration of the parliament as a result of their general election victories in 1999 (in which various Islamist parties won some 38% of the vote) has cleared the way for debates about introduction of Islamic principles in public life, including extensive debates about the introduction of Sharia law.

Even where the Islamists may have been jettisoned from power, as in Sudan and Afghanistan, the leadership has tended to function within the discourse introduced by the Islamists.

In addition, in countries where the Islamists have stood in front of the all-powerful state, one senses the steady rise of conservative forces in society and public life’s creeping Islamization. Egypt and the countries of north Africa are all affected by this phenomenon.

Moreover, it has to be asked, if the American agenda was pursued to its logical conclusion – and if, through the rule of law and a sound electoral system, the political structures did enjoy a broadening of their base – would the west fathom the emergence of Islamist-leaning governments across the Arab world?

I am still not convinced that they would, given the imperatives of the war on terrorism and the potency of the radical Islamist movements in some key Muslim countries. Indeed, it is clear from the agenda in Iraq that the US is prepared to take every step necessary to ensure that the Ba’athist regime is not succeeded by an Islamist one.

Iraq as a test case

So, despite their many shortcomings, many Muslim elites are encouraging political reform. The essence of the democratization process can be captured in the debates about “good governance”.

Democratization – which includes the extension of suffrage, the breakdown of hierarchies and traditional authority, and the opening up of closed systems through deregulation – is at heart of an argument for improving governance.

But even where good governance may be a scarce commodity initially, as has undoubtedly been the case in post-Saddam Hussein Iraq, the departure of a dictatorial regime can in itself enhance liberalization.

One does not have to accept the propaganda of the allies to appreciate that despite the country’s many and considerable problems, Iraqi citizens today enjoy freedom of debate, worship, association, organization and action in an unprecedented way.

The presence of over 150 newspapers has encouraged debate and, to the dismay of the occupying forces, has galvanized the people into action. Iraqi citizens now take a more active interest in local and national affairs.

Access to satellite television and the other modern conveniences of the 21st century (like the cellular telephone for instance), which most people outside Iraq now take for granted, are helping in the restructuring of public space for the benefit of ordinary citizens.

Civil institutions, of both religious and secular nature, are emerging – and under the nose of the occupying powers, individuals are reacquiring the skills of political association and organization.

In Iraq’s case, the trauma of unseating the ruling dictatorship has proved to be a positive catalyst for reform – even in the absence of a liberal democratic framework, which clearly is still missing.

Iraq’s experience will therefore become a crucial test case for the Muslim world, and its ability to move towards democratization in the aftermath of a costly and destructive war will be an important indicator of the reformability of Muslim political societies under severe external pressure. It will be a test case, moreover, for the impact of external variables on Muslim and Arab affairs. The consequences of democratization for state-society relations in Arab polities need to be noted as well. One of the core issues for Muslims and Islamists alike is how pluralism, if introduced in conjunction with suitably accountable modern institutions, might affect the role of religion in politics and society.

There is a danger that the plurality of political parties, societies and movements could challenge the monopolizing tendency of the one-solution-fits-all syndrome, “Islam is the solution” argument.

In doing so, pluralism could destabilize the emerging democratic institutions themselves, as well as possibly result in the weakening of the very basis of Islam in the political process.

The transition from liberalization/pluralization to democratization in the Muslim world is riddled with contradictions. So the inherent tensions that mark the boundaries between civil and religious power offer another unique but important barrier yet to be overcome if Islam and democracy are to emerge as complementary forces in modern Arab societies.

In this context, the pursuit of the agenda of constitutionalism and good governance, which largely avoid some of the ideological underpinnings of the western “democratic model”, might still bear fruit – particularly if systematically pursued in Muslim polities with pluralizing tendencies and embedded horizontal features of democracy. Although the west’s military footprint is already clearly visible on Arab lands, it is far from clear how its highly publicized agenda of reform will manifest itself.

But we must acknowledge that if the US-led western attitude is shaped by fear of Islam, or its strategy driven by the need for containment, it is unlikely that the tensions between Islam and the liberal democracies will be reduced any time soon – with deleterious consequences for the Arab states.

The cry of the early 1990s that it is time to embrace “Islam’s expression in pluralist forms” may well fall on deaf ears both on the inside as well as on the outer perimeters of the Arab world.

Anoush Ehteshami
Anoush Ehteshami is professor of international relations at the University of Durham in the UK. His many publications include The Middle East’s Relations with Asia and Russia (RoutledgeCurzon, 2004), The Foreign Policies of Middle East States (Lynne Rienner, 2002), and Iran’s Security Policy in the Post-Revolutionary Era (RAND, 2001).