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No Democracy in the Middle East Without Muslim Citizenry

The question is not whether or not Islam is compatible with democracy, but rather how and under what conditions pious Muslims can embrace a democratic ethos.

Discussions of a "democratic deficit" in the Middle East are not new. What is novel is the persistent claim that Islam hinders democratic reform; with its emphasis on God's sovereignty and its patriarchal cultures, Islam is argued to be essentially incompatible with democracy.

Even though many Muslims argue that God has granted sovereignty to humans to govern themselves and that Islamic justice disallows discrimination based on class, race, or gender, the debate has generally been bogged down in entirely textual and philosophical terrains. There has been little effort to understand the politics of religious affiliation, and how Muslims perceive their religion in relation to democratic ideals in practice.

In my book, "Making Islam Democratic," I suggest that the question is not whether or not Islam is compatible with democracy, but rather how and under what conditions pious Muslims can embrace a democratic ethos. Nothing intrinsic to Islam—or any other religion—makes it inherently democratic or undemocratic. It depends on the intricate ways in which the living faithful perceive and live their faiths: while some deploy their religions in exclusive and authoritarian terms, others find in them justice, representation, and pluralism.

While much is said about the trends in political Islam, or Islamism, that often draw on exclusivist interpretations of the doctrine, little is known about the social movements that aim to combine Islam and democracy. This phenomenon, "post-Islamism," represents an endeavor to fuse Islam and religiosity with sociopolitical rights and liberties. It emphasizes rights instead of obligations, plurality in place of singular authority, historicity rather than fixed givens, and the future instead of the past.

Whether or not Islam merges with such democratic ideas depends primarily on whether advocates of these perspectives—Islamists and post-Islamists alike—are able to establish their predominance in their societies and on a state level.

Since the 1979 revolution in Iran, Muslim women, youth, students, religious intellectuals, and other social groups have struggled daily to incorporate into their faith notions of individual rights, tolerance, gender equality, and the separation of religion from the state; by their active presence in society, they have compelled religious and political leaders to undertake a paradigmatic post-Islamist shift. The reformist government of President Mohammad Khatami (1997-2004) represented only one—the political—aspect of this pervasive trend.

In Egypt, on the other hand, there developed a pervasive Islamist movement with a conservative moral vision, populist language, patriarchal disposition, and an adherence to scripture; engulfed by the pervasive Islamist mood, major actors in Egyptian society—the intelligentsia, the nouveaux riches, Muslim women activists, al-Azhar university, the ruling elites, and the state—all converged around nationalist ideologies and conservative moral ethos. The result was a "passive revolution" that left the state—the original target of the movement for change—fully in charge while marginalizing critical voices, innovative religious thought, and democratic demands.

Thus neither did Iran's post-Islamism succeed in democratizing the Islamic Republic, nor Egypt's Islamism in Islamizing the Egyptian state. Both movements encountered stiff opposition from their respective power elites. To what extent then can social movements, without resorting to violent revolutions, alter the political status quo in the Middle East—a region entrapped by authoritarian regimes (both secular and religious), exclusivist Islamist opposition, and blatant foreign domination?

Successful social movements are not single-episode expressions that melt away under an act of repression. Rather, they are prolonged multifaceted processes of agency and change. Through their cultural output—establishing new lifestyles and new modes of thinking, being, and doing things—movements are able to recondition, or socialize, states and political elites to match society's sensibilities, ideals, and expectations.

However, social movements do not evolve in a vacuum; they need fertile intellectual ground and a basic critical capacity that nurtures a collective movement for change. In the case of many Muslim-majority states, the hope is that these movements will also have the capacity to lead governments to embrace democratic institutions. After all, a change in public opinion is a precondition for a sustainable democratic turn.

Such change is brought about not only through information and education, but especially by an active citizenry of ordinary people—teachers, students, the young, women, workers, artists, and intellectuals—who in their everyday lives voice their demands, broadcast violations, fulfill their responsibilities, and excel in what they do.

Muslim citizens cannot spearhead a democratic shift unless they master the "art of presence"—the skill and spirit to assert collective will in spite of all odds by circumventing constraints, utilizing what is possible, and discovering new spaces within which to make themselves heard, seen, and felt.

Asef Bayat is academic director of the International Institute for the Study of Islam in the Modern World (ISIM) and ISIM Professor at Leiden University in the Netherlands. His latest book, "Making Islam Democratic: Social Movements and the Post-Islamist Turn," has been published by Stanford University Press, 2007.

This article from ISIM Review is distributed by the Common Ground News Service (CGNews).