Muslim Democracy

London – Hoda al-Husseini

While the term contains the word Muslim, Muslim democracy seeks neither to reform or build theocracies, but rather to incorporate Islamic ideals into democracies in Muslim majority countries.

Muslim democracy as a concept is being practiced by Islamist groups which aspire to political relevance without revolutionary goals. Violence is an issue that determines whether a group is relevant to the Muslim democracy discussion, in that groups must have an attitude of deterrence as regards violence.

While an unfavorable position on violence is a vital aspect of Muslim democratic status, it is not the only aspect.

Other characteristics that determine how an Islamist group would fair in a democratic setting include its attitude toward minorities, political pluralism, and whether they believe religious authorities should have veto power in the political processes.

While all these elements are germane to determining a Muslim democracy’s potential, gauging how successful Muslim democracies are is less clear-cut.

Muslim leaders can claim an affinity for democracy while behaving in ways that tell a different story. The best way then, to gauge a Muslim democracy’s status is to determine how internally democratic a given group is. Until political freedom exists in a community, none of the aforementioned amounts to much. If there is no political freedom, then there is no incentive for political parties or leaders to explain themselves and their views on issues. A democratic process wherein any group can engage is essential in determining a group’s legitimacy. The case studies in Muslim Democracy are Turkey’s AKP party and the IAF in Jordan.

The AKP, Turkey’s Justice and Development Party, has been in power since 2001 and has seen three free and fair elections. The dissolution of the Ottoman Empire midwifed the Turkish Republic, which was founded by Mustafa Kemal Ataturk. The “Kemalist Ideology” was a secularist ideology based on rapid modernization. This ideology was based on the glorification of pre-Islamic Turkey, and it endeavored to eliminate the Islamic traditionalism that had been a part of Ottoman rule. However, the Kemalist Ideology never gained traction with the rural masses, yielding many Islamic and Kurdish rebellions.

The AKP was created by the reformist wing of the Islamist Refah Party, after recognizing no openly Islamist party would gain momentum in Turkey.

AKP succeeded in a landslide in 2002 with 34% of the vote and 2/3 of the seats. The success can be attributed to the rise of the new conservative provincial classes, as well as the AKP being labeled as a conservative democracy. AKP embraced minority and human rights, democracy and demilitarization instead of orientation to the Muslim world. The adoption of a neoliberal fiscal policy brought about a Turkish economic boom, and a focus on issues like health care, housing credits, student grants, and infrastructure.

While AKP rose to power espousing a secular ideology, it later used its popular mandate to implement more Islamist policies, such as banning adultery in 2004 and reintroducing headscarves in universities. In 2008, the government launched investigations of the military based on secret deep state paranoia.

In 2010, alleged coup plans were revealed resulting in the arrest of army officers. The Turkish President, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, had gained newfound confidence at this point which resulting in more Islamist reforms like upgrading flight attendant uniforms to ones in accord with Islamic teachings. The regime also took a more authoritarian tone: censoring the internet, issuing new press laws, and shutting down anti-AKP protests. While the AKP initially inspired optimism as a democratic model and seemed to be moving in the right direction, the absence of a significant, effective opposition has allowed it to veer closer to authoritarianism.

The Islamic Action Front (IAF), established in 1945, started as a charitable organization advocating religious awareness and practice.

It had built and maintained a close and cooperative relationship with the government before entering politics in 1989. Later known as the IAF, the Islamist bloc emerged as the single largest political fraction in the 1989 elections. In the 1990s when there was nothing uniting the Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamists with the regime after the secularists and nationalists had been sidelined, they looked to curb the political influence of the Islamists.

By this point, the Islamists were more vocal in their opposition to the regime, and the regime had become wary of pro-Palestinian youths groups emerging from the Muslim Brotherhood. The electoral reforms of 1993 were seen as driven to disadvantage Islamists and the Islamic Action Front was created by the Muslim Brotherhood.

Islamists were shut out of the political system after opposing the 1995 peace deal with Israel and boycotting the 1997 election. The IAF contested the parliamentary elections in 2003 after King Abdullah postponed elections in 2001 to gerrymander. The IAF participated in the 2016 elections, winning 16 out of 130 seats after boycotting elections in 2010 and 2013.

Within the IAF, the question now is how to participate and attain its goals, not whether to participate or not. Islamism, as used by the IAF, can be seen as loyal opposition to the liberal autocracy of Jordan, and the potential for greater tension between the Islamists and the state has been predicted.

While both of these case studies fulfill requirements about opposing violence, they prove that a political environment that allows for open competition and free political processes is prerequisite for Islamist ideals to thrive in a democratic environment.

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