From Doha, Qatar–
Is Islam compatible with Democracy? This is a question that has been sticking in the minds and on the tongues of many westerners and local secularists. The real question is not whether Islam is adaptable with democracy, but is it adaptable with democratic laws and socio-economic values.
This is a $500,000 question, unless you are in Qatar, where the ruling family finds a way to combine social Islamic values with modernity. Such a case creates a conceptualization of democracy and soft capitalism à la Gulf. Evidently it cannot be compatible with western societal values. However, one should ask: Is Islamic political theory, the source of inspiration and reference of the legalist Islamists, adaptable with democracy and modern capitalism?
The Islamist ideology that provides the definition for other religious adjectives is associated with the Islamists’ socio-political project which complements the concept of democracy as a whole. For instance, although the State of Israel does not have a written constitution, it has arrived at a combination between theocracy and democracy, i.e., Jewish democracy. Political parties in Europe inspired by the center-right ideology contain a solid dose of Christian values, and are proud to announce their political program from those values, like the C.D.U. in Germany, the right-wing party in Spain, and the Modem party in France. This puts the on-going dialectic narrative within the Muslim and Arab societies explicitly in the post-Arab Spring, where the Islamists are emerging as an alternative force. One could argue that Islamic values of pluralism*1 have already established themselves, in spite of the rational and historical determinants that direct the theme to be only a result of its determination and exercise.
This is criticized by the local secularists and skeptical westerners because, according to them, the negation of freedom is an essential dimension of the human condition. This debate is taking place in Tunisia and Egypt over the elaboration of a new constitution. Under these conditions, the instrumentalization of Islamic pluralism becomes easier for the neo-conservative social class to go from a middle-class to the creation of an “Islamic” bourgeois class. One could draw a parallel with the economic boom in Qatar. Nonetheless, the argument of the Islamists is weak. Because Qatar has a flow of liquidity that is heavily invested in education and real estate, it offers even a decent prosperity to Arab and Muslim expatriates that they lack in their own countries*2. On the other hand, the Islamists’ free market and trade argument has an attentive ear in Tunisia, Algeria*3, Morocco, and Egypt, because the Islamists believe in commerce in terms of macro-economy. Also, the lack of social and economic opportunity make these newly-elected governments in these countries face serious democratic challenges from the lower class that is their voting reservoir.
For instance, in Morocco, the people are frustrated with their government*4 and in Egypt they are worried about the deep financial crisis. Tunisia still does not know which path it should take involving change and continuity in its economic program, knowing it does not possess many options besides tourism. The ruling party seems to be seeking a realistic strategy to adjust between Sharia, martini and bikini. It is a crucial question for the Islamists to explain their approach on how to distinguish between the text and the context of the Sharia.
The acceleration of this process could clash with economic globalization. The main stake for the Islamists is in the conquest of power by democratic means, through elections as it is happening now. Sociologists worry about their economic agenda, knowing the Islamists in North Africa and the Middle East appeal to the masses like Robin Hood, unlike in the Gulf where they are patronizing the nationals. Here is another question that deserves to be asked when it comes to their macro-economic public policy: Are they going to favor the emergence of a “neo-bourgeoisie” aimed at the masses? In Algeria, one finds huge market control by the Islamists in the sense of economy of the bazaar*4. In this case, not only is this parasite economic class operating in the local anarchic code, but it is destroying any creation of wealth and development and to some extent helping to collapse the local currency.
The Islamists have become a horizontal alternative to the status quo. Despite the fact that they are questioned about their political and economic motif and agenda fur using Islam, the secularists believe that the exigence of Unity in Islam disallows any idea of division within the nation of el-Oumah el-Islamiya (the Islamic nation) into clans and factions. In the Koran the term Hezb (party)*5, which in the current Arab-Muslim world serves to indicate a party in the modern sense of the term, is pejoratively employed. In the 1920″s in Syria and Iraq, a secular movement that was the voice of modernity arose within the Arab societies out of the post-Ottoman Empire dislocation, replacing political religious sentiments with secular values. Michel Aflak and Salah Bitar became the founding fathers of an Arab republicanism based on ethnicity and not religiosity*6.
This political movement put the modern structures of the nation-state in Iraq and Syria in place and paved the road to a political Arab elite, adopting the ideas of democratic values which led to the creation of el-Ba’ath (the resurrection) of the Arab nation. Such a movement was contrary to the Islamists who were nostalgic and saddened by the death of the Islamic Caliphate under the reign of the Ottoman Empire in 1928. This initiated the dichotomy between Islamists’ and nationalists’ societal objectives. Nationalists look at the Arab Nation as an entity of common language and common destiny, whereas the Islamists look at the Oumah (nation) not as a nationality but a religious entity.
In 1979 the Islamic Revolution led by Imam el-Khoumeini in Iran not only regenerated the Islamic ideology but was considered the rebirth of the Islamist political project across the Muslim world, even though the mainstream Islamist militants did not share el-Khoumeini’s doctrine. Dr. Abassi (the leader of the ex-F.I.S.) was asked about the Mullah’s model and he responded explaining his party’s difference with Iran, saying not to get confused between sugar and salt — they look the same, but they taste different. Nonetheless, the Islamists supported el-Khoumeini in his war against Saddam’s regime because they identified the fight as one between secularism and Islamism.
To understand better this problematic situation, one needs to study the ideology and major themes of Islamic fundamentalism. The pivotal concept of its ideology is what is known among the fundamentalists as En-Nedham (order). Their goal is an Islamization of the political order by all means, either by revolution or evolution. The latter is more plausible following the events currently taking place in the region with the implication of de-westernization. Thus it follows a divine order versus secular order, echoura versus secular democracy. On a final note, Arab and Muslim political consciousness is heading toward a “neo-patriarchal bourgeoisie” between the emerging actors, the Islamists and the military in the case of North Africa and the Middle East, and the Royal families in Morocco. Eventually Jordan and the Gulf will reach a social order that should implement the rule of laws, if they want their policies to be exclusive and just for all.
1- The application of the Shari’a principles based on equality.
2- None Qatar citizens who represent 65% of the population in Qatar.
3- A coalition government led by Justice and Development.
4- This practice used to be called trabendo, for ultra-vendu. Today the Islamists control this lucrative trade, the so-called “Import-Export” but Algerians jokingly call it “Import-Import” — everything from religious book to women’s lingerie.
5- By opposition to the faction of the Devil. The Koran evokes one faction will be in heaven and the other will be in hell. (XLII, 5/7).
6- Cf., E. Kedourie, article “Hezb” of The Encyclopedia of Islam, the new edition, volume III, pp. 531-544.