09/11/2008 04:56 PM

Parliaments, Kings and Tribal Councils

Does 'Islamic Democracy' Exist?

By and

For 1,300 years Muslims have been engaged in a search for a form of government that is right for them. There are parliaments and sometimes even political opposition groups in many Muslim countries, but as a general rule political decisions are based on agreements reached between tribal groups and families.

If democracy has ever had friends in the Arab-speaking countries it has been among the monarchs of Kuwait. In 1752, when the age of enlightened absolutism was just dawning in Europe, a man by the name of Sabah bin Jaber became the emir of a Bedouin population known as the al-Utoob.

It was not murder, revolution, or warfare that brought him to power. He got elected. His descendants, the Al Sabah, continue to rule Kuwait to this day and have preserved a noteworthy weakness for letting their people vote.

The country elected its first legislative assembly in 1938. After independence in 1961 it elected a constitutional council. Following their liberation from Iraqi occupation in 1991 the Kuwaitis elected a new national assembly. Two years ago women were for the first time granted the right to vote. The members of the national assembly are sometimes not in office for very long. Not for reasons of incompetence mind you. More often than not it is because the executive government sees them as being too competent: The national assembly in Kuwait has sole responsibility for passing legislation. It determines how much the emir is paid. And it has the right to question and dismiss ministers, a privilege it makes extensive use of.

Kuwait is the most democratic country in the Arab world.

On May 17 this year, the emir called an election, made necessary by the fact that he dissolved the national assembly in March, following a political blockade that had gone on for months. A lively election campaign ensued. Voting districts were redrawn to make it more difficult for closely interrelated tribal leaders to influence voting behavior or engage in electoral fraud. There was detailed television and newspaper coverage of the candidates who ran for office, including 27 women, something still inconceivable in neighboring Saudi Arabia, from whose desert regions the Bedouin forbears of today's Kuwaitis once came. In the judgement of international observers the election was free and fair and went off without any hitches.

But who won? As in most of the elections that have been held in recent years between Cairo and Riyadh, the Palestinian terroritories and Bahrain, it was Islamists who carried the day -- in this case Salafists, particularly radical advocates of political Islam in the Gulf region. They include men such as Hassan Jowhar, a representative of the national assembly who noted with satisfaction at the opening session that nine members of his group walked out one door because two woman ministers walked in another door without wearing headscarves. "Some of us have our reservations," he said. "The government must accept this."

Kuwaiti women cast their votes for the parliamentary elections in May.

Kuwaiti women cast their votes for the parliamentary elections in May.

Nathan Brown, a political scientist at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington, predicts that the new national assembly is "likely to be more confrontational than the outgoing one. The result will be a deepening political deadlock between the government and the parliament in the Gulf's most democratic political order. ... Kuwait's long-simmering and nonviolent political crisis has long been overshadowed by more dramatic and bloody conflicts. But the threat to one of the region's most dramatic experiments is real."

For decades Kuwait was the most attractive of the Gulf states, a destination for bankers and engineers as well as guest workers from Egypt, Indonesia, and Pakistan. Kuwait has lost ground politically and economically and there are not a few who take the view that democracy has been a major factor in this.

Businessman Yassin al-Shammari, 57, is one of those who sees it this way. He drives past the national assembly in Kuwait City with a look of contempt on his face, his reaction to one of the most beautiful parliamentary buildings in the world, built in the 1970s by Danish architect Jørn Utzon, who also designed the Sydney Opera House. "A place for jibber jabber," al-Shammari growls. Like many of his countrymen, he looks with envy to Dubai, Doha, and Abu Dhabi, where sheikhs rule who don't have to worry about parliaments or a political opposition.

Kuwaiti Democracy Heading for a Rough Patch

Kuwait continues to be a wealthy country, and it would be an understatement to describe its middle class as well developed. The average per capita income of the some 1.2 million native Kuwaitis lies somewhere between that of Switzerland and Germany. The country is not threatened by religious or ethnic divisions like those found in Iraq and Lebanon. The Kuwaitis continue to be profoundly grateful for the fact that 17 years ago the United States liberated them from military occupation by Saddam Hussein.

If democracy is heading for a rough patch in a country as thoroughly blessed with prosperity, stability, and political tolerance as Kuwait is, what is likely to be awaiting it elsewhere in the Islamic world? What future will it have in Iran whose parliament is the scene of lively debates but doesn't decide anything; in Indonesia where a moderate form of Islam exists in a relatively democratic system; in the Gulf Region and Northern Africa where tribes and families rule instead of parties and labor unions?

The United States, which has been singing the praises of democracy in the Middle East since the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, is not making it easy for champions of the political form here and in neighboring regions. "Since the fall of Iraq the very word 'democracy' has had a radioactive taste to it," says Saudi Arabian human rights activist Ibrahim Mukaitib. He says that educated Saudis come to him and ask him why parliamentary democracy is supposedly better than other systems when the democratic governments of the United States and the United Kingdom made the colossal mistake of occupying Iraq?

Needless to say, the war against terrorism and the widespread perception in the West that Islam and terrorism are one and the same thing don't help to promote the reputation of democracy in the Islamic world. As little as the middle class in Turkey, the elites in the Gulf states or the students in Iran have in common with al-Qaida jihadists, a religious tradition based on 1,400 years of Islam is a unifying force that reaches above and beyond their differences.

They also share a sense of bitterness over the fact that talk of the "democratization of the Middle East" has ceased as a result of the fact that the wrong side has been winning elections. This was the case early in 2006 when Hamas won in the Palestinian territories and, shortly before that, when the Muslim Brotherhood was able to quadruple the number of seats it has in the Egyptian parliament. We were reminded that democracy sometimes brings people to power who are not democrats, a dilemma not unknown in European history as well. The euphoria triggered in the West by the Cedar Revolution in Lebanon and the strong voter turnout in the first postwar election held in Iraq in 2005 was rapidly deflated.

This led to renewed support for autocratic rule of the kind practiced by Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, Tunisian President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, and Jordan's King Abdullah II. Democracy, these rulers say, is a good thing, to be sure. But democracy also brings chaos with it and chaos must be prevented. This is the lesson that has been learned from Iraq and for them the bottom line is that stability must be given priority over democracy.

How is it that not one of the 22 Arab countries is really democratic and that it takes longer to find genuine democrats in Turkey, Pakistan, and Bangladesh than it does elsewhere? Are the usual suspects to blame -- a weak middle class, a lousy education system, a lack of tradition with regard to debating political differences? Or are Islam and democracy fundamentally incompatible?

Muslims Want Democracy with Religious Values

Surprising results were produced by a Gallup poll in which interviews were conducted with more than 50,000 Muslims in 35 countries over a period of six years. It is not democracy in and of itself that is the problem. This is the form of government that 93 percent of all Iranians and 94 percent of all Egyptians wish for themselves. Where there are major differences is with regard to the type of democracy that is considered acceptable.

According to John Esposito, co-author of "Who Speaks for Islam?," a study based on the Gallup poll, what the majority of Muslims want is democracy with religious values. They don't want to lose their traditional culture. Like the majority of Pakistanis, for instance, they would like to have both more democracy and more Islam. Can it be said then that what Muslims want is not Western democracy but rather a kind of "Islamic democracy"?

Muslims have been addressing the question as to the right form of government and legitimate leadership for more than 1,300 years now. The problems began with the death of the Prophet Muhammad in 632. During his lifetime this messenger of God on earth revealed a wide-ranging system of beliefs to his followers, conquered territories, united tribes, and forged alliances. The one important thing Muhammad neglected to do, though, was to appoint a successor.

The passing of the prophet, whose name means "praiseworthy," left an enormous gap and the Muslim community found itself without a leader. Who in the community would have sufficient authority to be a spiritual guide to the faithful and at the same time the ruler of an empire that in the 7th century had already expanded well beyond the confines of the Arabian Peninsula?

No Need for Democracy

For one group of believers, the Shiites, Muhammad's cousin, Ali, was the sole legitimate heir. Later "Shi'at Ali," the followers of Ali, split away from the Muslim majority. Another group, the Kharijites, believed that any pious and able believer could lead the Muslims. A third group, the Sunni majority, took the view that the leader of the community, the caliph, should be from the prophet's tribe but elected by a "shura," a council of respected men.

Thus it was that an autocratic form of government emerged that had the appearance of democratic legitimacy. The caliph was to be subject to Islamic law ("sharia") in exactly the same way as all other believers. Muslims would quote pertinent verses from the Koran that raised the negotiation of compromise to the level of a religious duty: "… and take counsel with them, and when you have decided, then place your trust in God" (Sura 3, verse 159). It was said that if the caliph were to misuse his office then the shura could depose him, although this never occurred.

Egon Flaig, professor of ancient history at the University of Rostock, in northern Germany, writes that Sunni Islam offered "the most successful form of theocracy in recorded history." As long as the representative of God on earth defended the true faith and Islamic scholars had the last word there was no need for councils, assemblies, elections, or constitutions. In the 19th century Alexis de Tocqueville wrote that "Muhammadanism has merged religious and political power so completely with one another that nearly all activities in civil and political life can be regulated by religious law."

Towards the end of the 18th century the Muslim community began to notice that there was something wrong in the Caliphate. After centuries of Islamic glory Napoleon's triumphant campaign in Egypt provided devastating proof of Western technological superiority. The Ottoman Empire recognized the seriousness of the situation and from then on sent its officer candidates to Europe. The military training they received in Paris, London, Vienna and Berlin was to be used to reform their own armed forces. The subsequent period of governmental and societal reform is referred to in the history of the Ottoman Empire as Tanzimat.

The first constitutional monarchy ever to exist in a Muslim country was created by Sultan Abdülhamid II in 1876. The existence of an Ottoman parliament was cut short by Russia's declaration of war against the "sick man on the Bosporus" only a year later. Fearing for the survival of his government, the sultan suspended the constitution and it was not put back into effect during his reign. A further experiment in democracy was considered too great a risk for stability.

Turkey's Great Leap Forward

The Ottoman-Turkish situation continued to be an exception in the Islamic world. The reforms introduced by sultans who had been inspired by developments in Europe went much too far for many members of the old establishment, particularly in the Arab-speaking provinces of Northern Africa and the Middle East. The Arabs soon came to view their Turkish brothers as Muslims who had fallen from the faith.

Mustafa Kemal Pasha, better known to us as Atatürk, the founder of modern Turkey, temporarily cut Turkey's ties with the shared political legacy inherited from Islam. What he thought of the religion that determined every aspect of life in the Ottoman Empire he expressed in words that one might have been more likely to attribute to Voltaire than to a highly decorated Turkish general: "For more than 500 years the rules formulated by an old Arab sheikh (a reference to Muhammad) and the abstruse interpretations of generations of ignorant preachers in Turkey have shaped our civil and penal laws. Islam, this absurd theology created by an immoral Bedouin, is a decaying cadaver that is poisoning our lives." He termed any politician who needs religion to rule an "imbecile."

Remaking Turkey in the Image of France

Atatürk launched a cultural revolution of a kind never before seen in the Islamic world. He ended the Sultanate. He abolished the Caliphate that had existed for 1,300 years. He replaced sharia law with European civil and penal law and the Islamic calendar with the Gregorian calendar. He prohibited the use of the Arabic alphabet as well as the wearing of religious robes and fezzes, which he considered symbols of backwardness. He ordered Turks to accept the Latin alphabet, Sunday as their day of rest and equality for women.

"There are different cultures, but only one civilization," Atatürk said, making it clear that he was not referring to Islamic civilization: "We Turks have always gone from east to west."

The German writer Emil Ludwig called him a dictator right to his face in an encounter in 1929. But this was not the kind of image Atatürk wanted for himself. He detested Mussolini and later Hitler as well. In 1930 he ordered the creation of an opposition party to stimulate a free exchange of views in parliament. In the final analysis, he was seeking to remake Turkey into a country that would bear a resemblance to France or Great Britain.

Atatürk's experiment with an opposition lasted only three months. However, after World War II his successor, Ismet Inönü, continued the work begun by the founder of the Turkish Republic and did what no Arab head of government had ever done. He permitted the formation of a political opposition, declared an election, lost, and stepped down.

Sixty years later the struggle between democracy and authoritarianism has still not been decided in Turkey. Three times the military has putsched, three times the generals have handed the reins of power back to civilians. Just this summer the secular establishment employed judicial means in an attempt to push democratically elected Islamists out of the government. And earlier this year, the constitutional court in Ankara handed down a ruling in favor of the secular traditionalists and the ban on women wearing headscarves at universities is again in place.

No matter how this power struggle ends, Turkey has taken a great leap forwards after a long history of having a deeply rooted connection to Islam. If Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan's moderate Islamist Justice and Development Party (AKP) loses in an election it will step down and assume an opposition role.

Tunisia's President Distrusts His People

The Turkish model has numerous supporters in the Islamic world. They include former Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf, who lived in Turkey and is an admirer of Atatürk, as well as members of the elite in Damascus (philosopher Sadiq al-Asm), Amman (Basma Bint Talal, an aunt of the current king), and Tunis.

Habib Bourguiba, the first president of Tunisia and an ardent secularist, was so fascinated by Atatürk that he also emulated his critical attitude towards Islam. In 1964, during the fasting month of Ramadan, he drank a glass of orange juice in front of television cameras and told his puzzled countrymen that fasting unnecessarily drained energy from people and that this energy would be put to better use by helping develop their society. The "Maghrebin Atatürk," as Bourguiba was called, created the most secular of all Arab countries, abolished forced marriages and polygamy, allowed abortions and told women they didn't need to wear headscarves.

It might have been possible to repeat the Turkish experiment in this part of North Africa. But if there was ever an example of how to keep a country with a population inclined towards democracy from becoming a democracy then it is Tunisia, a tourist paradise and surveillance mecca, a small country with 140,000 police officers, one for every 75 inhabitants.

In contrast to its neighbors, Tunisia is poor in natural resources. It can't count on a steady flow of foreign exchange earnings from oil and gas sales. As such, Tunisians early on began investing in the development of an industrial sector. Given that they don't feel threatened militarily by anyone, they prefer to spend their money on developing their educational system rather than buying arms. With people living an average of 75 years, Tunisia has the longest life expectancy and second-highest per capita income in Africa, trailing only Libya. It shows constant economic growth and has a broad middle class. The only thing that is missing here is democracy.

President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali, Bourguiba's successor, doesn't distinguish between terrorists and members of a critical opposition. He distrusts his people and first and foremost he mistrusts the prohibited Nahda Party. It is one of the world's most moderate Islamist movements, which has come to terms with democracy and wants to be a conservative party with religious values along the lines of Turkey's AKP. As far as the Tunisian president is concerned, it is nothing more than an abettor of international terrorism.

'A Gulag for the Mind'

The German government's 2007 human rights report says of Tunisia: "A large part of the population is apparently willing to accept restrictions on human rights as a price for stability and economic prosperity." But can an educated middle class be kept from having a voice in government over the long term? And what dangers lurk in the development dictatorship model, which Tunisian intellectual Mohammed Talbi has called a "gulag for the mind"? Isn't authoritarianism a factor that provokes the emergence of radical, militant movements?

Examples in Morocco and Algeria show that some Islamists become pragmatists when they are integrated into the political system. Members of the Justice and Development Party (PJD) sitting in parliament in Rabat and of the Social Movement for Peace (MSP) sitting in parliament in Algiers, conservative Muslims, many of them lawyers, doctors, and teachers, are not interested in challenging the system. "We're not extremists, we stand for democratic Islam," says PJD chairman Saad Eddine al-Othmani, a psychiatrist. His stance on democracy and national sovereignty differs very little from that of a conservative Christian, a person who may rail against the decline of moral values and yet be far from calling for revolution.

Can it be said that the situation in Morocco is good for democracy?

Although Morocco is formally a parliamentary monarchy, political power here lies totally in the hands of King Mohammed VI. A self-styled "amir al-muminin" ("commander of the faithful"), he is alleged to be a direct descendant of the Prophet Muhammad, a family connection that enables him to present himself not just as a worldly ruler but also as a protector of Islam.

After taking the throne in 1999, Mohammed VI got his career off to a brilliant start by introducing a new style of monarchy. He provided financial compensation to the victims of human rights violations, rehabilitated political opponents, dissolved his father's harem and reformed the country's archaic system of family law. At the same time, he did nothing to change the old power structures.

The government and parliament here are seen as being weak and ineffective. Their legitimacy suffers from the fact that hardly anyone votes in elections. The king's sharp-witted cousin, Prince Moulay Hicham Ben Abdallah El Alaoui, criticizes the Moroccan system as being, at best, a "hybrid regime", a coexistence of autocracy and democracy that has encouraged political disinterest in the general population.

In Jordan, the King Decides Everything

The political situation in this kingdom on the Atlantic is similar in some ways to that of another monarchy some 4,000 kilometers to the east. Jordan, ruled by King Abdullah II, sees itself as a pluralistic democracy and a model for other countries in the region. Surrounded by difficult neighbors (Iraq, Syria, and Israel), it has neither oil to sell nor holy sites on which to base a tourist industry and has recurrently been faced with the task of absorbing refugee flows. Jordan has always had to struggle to survive. "We are dependent on cooperation to keep us from going under," says Sausan Saida, editor-in-chief of an alternative radio station in Amman. "We have no choice."

Zaki Bani al-Rashid, Secretary General of the Islamic Action Front (IAF) sees it the same way. He has learned to live with the semidemocratic rules that are prescribed by the regime. But acceptance of the status quo has its price. His party fared poorly in last autumn's parliamentary election, winning only 6 out of 110 seats, and this despite the fact that the IAF campaigned as the strongest advocate of the interests of low-income groups.

At the party headquarters, a neatly kept, whitewashed house in the center of Amman, a bearded Rashid didn't mince his words in explaining the outcome. "Lose? We didn't lose," he says. "That assumption would be correct, if there had been a real election. But what took place was stage-managed. Government in our country is not an expression of the will of the people."

The fact of the matter is that aside from the Islamist IAF no other political party made it into parliament. Otherwise it was only independent candidates, provincial Bedouins loyal to the king and wealthy business people who secured seats in the house of representatives on the basis of their tribal connections or their money. According to Michael Bröning, a representative at the Amman office of Germany's Friedrich Ebert Foundation, which is aligned with the center-left Social Democrats: "Lots of votes were simply bought."

Thanks to voting districts being gerrymandered to give an advantage to the thinly populated eastern and western parts of the country, representatives of Bedouin tribes, who constitute the king's power base, remain in the majority. A candidate running for parliament in Amman needs around 90,000 votes to be elected whereas in the Mafraq district, a desert region, 2,000 votes are sufficient.

Jordanians Critical of the US

As in Morocco, it is the king who decides everything here. The palace has to give a "thumbs up" or "thumbs down" even on minor details. The cabinet serves at the king's pleasure and, as such, is pretty much reduced to serving in a lightning rod function. The monarch likes to hand out public tongue lashings when mistakes are made. But for the sake of future stability in his desert kingdom he is going to have to ask himself how much opposition it is going to be necessary to permit and how much leeway can be given to Islamists?

Middle East expert Renate Dieterich believes that opening up the country politically would reveal the fact that many Jordanians are extremely critical of the United States. This, in turn, could have a negative effect on the flow of Western financial support. The United States provides hundreds of millions of dollars worth of military and development assistance to Jordan each year as a reward for its pro-Western stance. At the same time, government suppression of the Islamic opposition will inevitably increase the danger of radicalization.

This same dilemma is being faced in the Maghreb countries, in Syria, and, to a very significant extent, in Egypt. For many years now Muslim Brotherhood activists have been arrested in large numbers by Hosni Mubarak's autocratic regime, particularly in Cairo. This gives the heirs of Hassan al-Banna (founder of the Muslim Brotherhood) all the more motivation to rail against the cronyism and corruption of the political class. The popularity of the Muslim Brotherhood in the country keeps growing all the time.

Gulf States Arrive at Decisions Through Compromise

A conviction repeatedly expressed by political scientists and Middle East experts is that democracy needs to take root and grow within these societies and that institutional mechanisms need to be put in place that would help to achieve a balanced accommodation of interests. What this may mean in practice can be seen in those places where democracy, in the Western sense of the term, has developed the furthest.

Countries like Qatar, Oman, and the United Arab Emirates appear to be ruled by sheikhs and emirs who don't even pretend to care what their subjects think. At least that's the reputation they have. But that's not altogether true. None of the decisions issued by the palaces in Doha, Masqat, or Abu Dhabi is something the rulers have determined in isolation from the rest of society. They all navigate the choppy waters of political decision-making with the help of a complex steering mechanism that has evolved over centuries and proven to be surprisingly effective even in the age of globalization, the "majlis", an informal council that can parley for nights, weeks, or even months and in the end may not resolve every issue discussed but, as a rule, arrives at compromises that the parties involved can live with.

Paternalism and Islamic Egalitarianism

The oil wealth as well as the ethnic and religious homogeneity of the Gulf states no doubt makes the job of governing them easier, but at the same time there is no lack of potential dangers and conflicts. A dominant neighbor, Saudi Arabia, is under the influence of Wahhabism, an ultraconservative form of Sunni Islam. Across the Persian Gulf they face Iran, a country ruled by Shiites who make no bones about their hegemonial ambitions. Oil production has created immeasurable wealth for some areas and tribes. Without their support others would still be milking camels and diving for pearls to make a living. Rapid and large-scale development has drawn in millions of foreigners, making the native populations minorities in their own countries.

These countries have always been faced with fundamental decisions. Who gets how much of the oil revenues? Where do the Gulf countries stand in the conflict between Washington, upon whom they are dependent for protection, and Tehran, which they need as a trading partner? How far should they go in opening up their societies? As far as the Sheikh of Dubai, who brings in millions of Western tourists? Or as far as the Emirate of Sharjah, where alcohol consumption is prohibited?

None of these decisions is ever made without prior consultation. How this is done is determined in part by the paternalism of tribal society and in part by Islamic egalitarianism. Someone who has an issue he wants resolved either goes to the majlis himself or has an older and more influential cousin speak for him there. Despite efforts to the contrary undertaken by the secular regimes in Iraq, Syria, and Egypt, tribal and family connections continue to be a much stronger social glue in Arab societies than political parties or labor unions. The informal nature of these meetings -- dozens of men, all in white dishdashas, nibbling on dates and nuts and sipping tea -- clearly reflects just how flat hierarchies here are.

It would be naive to assume that the fairly democratic discourse that is conducted among tribes and families in the Arab world can achieve the same kinds of things that parties, parliaments, and labor unions are able to get done in the West. The "good governance" status that international organizations attribute to some of the Gulf monarchs is comparatively easy to achieve in a situation (as is currently the case) where they have so much money they hardly know what to do with it. But what happens when resources are limited, the balance of social interests is destroyed after decades of dictatorship and domestic conflict spills out into the streets? Wouldn't parliamentary democracy, the model that has established itself in Europe, the Americas, and parts of Asia, be a better choice in the final analysis?

Many have concluded that lesson that can be learned from Baghdad is that democracy cannot work in the Islamic world, particularly if an attempt is made to impose it from the outside. The fact of the matter is that this conclusion could turn out to be just as wrong as the illusion that the Middle East was going to be just as easy to democratize as Germany and Japan were after 1945.

Hope for a democratic Middle East remains, despite the fact that policies pursued by the Bush administration has made it very difficult for this hope to be sustained. It goes without saying that giving the peoples of the Islamic world a voice in shaping their own destinies will help make their lives easier, the region more predictable, and the West more secure. The extent to which political parties, quirky rules governing proportional representation, annual statements to parliament by monarchs, the existence of superdelegates, or any of the other phenomena manifested by Western democracies would be needed in this connection would best be decided on a case-by-case, country-by-country basis.

Translated from the German by Larry Fischer.


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