Is Islamism a threat to democracy?

An unfortunate result of the discussion on Islamism has been the muddling of definitions, terminology, historical references, and political positions. It is not uncommon to find criticisms of contemporary Islamist parties rooted in criticisms of premodern Islamic ideas. Even the basic definition of political Islam and “Islamism” is unclear, with no consensus as to what the term means.

This emphasis on political Islam took on far greater significance following the overthrow of former Tunisian president Zine El Abidine Ben Ali in 2011. For the first time in their history, self-described Islamist parties across the Arab world were free to engage in the political process, campaigning for parliamentary and other positions within state institutions. In both Tunisia and Egypt, Islamist parties – Al-Nahda in the former and the Muslim Brotherhood in the latter – won pluralities in their countries’ parliaments.

Al-Nahda went on to lead the drafting of a new Tunisian constitution, while in Egypt the Muslim Brotherhood fell victim to a counterrevolution in 2013. The ban on the party was reapplied, and democratically elected president Mohamed Morsi was imprisoned, replaced by Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, former chief of the Egyptian Armed Forces.

On November 11, Harvard Arab Weekend held the first debate in its ten-year history on political Islam and Islamism. The debate’s motion was, “Islamism represents a threat to democracy in the Arab world.”

Amr Hamzawy, an activist and a former member of the Egyptian parliament, argued in favor of the motion, declaring that Islamism is indeed a threat. Arguing against Hamzawy was Radwan Ziadeh, an analyst at the Arab Center, a Washington-based research institute. The debate was moderated by Harvard history professor Khaled Fahmy. A pre-debate poll of the audience found an even split in opinion, with 48 voting for the proposition that Islamism is a threat to democracy, 48 voting against it, and many abstaining.

Distinguishing between Islamism and Islamists

Hamzawy did not address the question of whether political Islam is inherently undemocratic, instead arguing that the application of Islamist ideology is antithetical to the democratic process.

He began his argument by conceding that, while Islamists do represent a serious obstacle to democracy in the Arab world, they are not the only threat. He argued that in Egypt, the military-industrial complex is a greater threat to Arab democracy than Islamists.

While Islamists have won elections in several countries in the Arab world because they do embrace some political and social rights, Hamzawy argued that they have always sustained “grey zones” on issues such as freedom of religion, equal citizenship rights regardless of religion, and gender equality, to name a few. He added that Islamists, in keeping with their aversion to clear declarations of universal rights, have been consistently reluctant to acknowledge cross-ideological alliances. “You need a bit of bipartisanship to make democracy work,” he said, claiming that Islamists have had serious difficulties in developing relationships with non-Islamist parties.

For Hamzawy, Islamists’ contentment with respect to operating within undemocratic systems is more damning. One example is that of post-revolution Egypt, in which Islamists were more than willing to operate within the non-democratic authoritarian, pre-revolutionary political framework. Although Islamist political parties may seem to represent a break from the autocratic past, Hamzawy argued that is not the case in practice.

Hamzawy’s final two points centered on the tensions within Islamists’ view of the nation-state. He claimed that Islamists do not work within a constitution that operates as a governing legal framework, or at least have not in the majority of cases in which they gained power legitimately. More importantly, Islamists in some countries have been reluctant to recognize the legitimacy of the nation-state. He seemed to imply that, after decades of Islamist groups being sequestered into roles of providing social welfare and religious education, often relying on international networks for monetary support, they have come to not accept the nation-state as the sole structure through which politics unfold.

Including Islamists ‘modernizes them’

In his rebuttal, Ziadeh stated that the main issue is not Islamists, Islamism, or even Islamists’ role in the democratization process. Rather, he argued, it is necessary to assess the structural conditions shaping democratization. Few Islamist movements identify as democratizing forces, he claimed, and so meditating on whether or not they are is a moot point.

Ziadeh asserted the importance of three aspects when analyzing the democratization process: the functioning of state institutions, the role of the military, and the nature of the political opposition. Egypt, for example, had weak state institutions and an army that interfered in the country’s politics, but also had a strong opposition movement. Because Islamists only fit in one of these three factors – the opposition – he argued that they cannot represent a genuine threat to democracy. He concluded his argument by referring to the extent to which evangelical Christians in the United States voted for Donald Trump, indicating that while religion cannot be excised from politics, it can be included and neutralized. By involving the Islamists, his argument went, you “modernize them.”

“We are in societies, we are in polities,” Hamzawy announced in his concluding remarks, stressing the need to operate within the framework of state systems and institutions. This captures the central difference between his and Ziadeh’s positions: Hamzawy emphasized the material experiences of the individual, championing the normative validity of justice and equality, while Ziadeh focused on a theoretical frame through which democratization could be understood. A hybrid approach, more equally balanced between the ideological and the material, may help to light a more productive course forward.

So, who won the debate? A second poll taken afterwards found a noticeable change in Ziadeh’s favor. Forty-eight people again voted in favor of the proposition, but they were outnumbered by the 75 who voted against it.

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