The new Muslim democracy: What you need to know about today's Middle East

Listen to the presidential candidates and you come away with a warped view of Islam and democracy. Here's the deal

Published December 26, 2015 2:29PM (EST)

Egyptian anti-government demonstrators hold a symbolic funeral for journalist Ahmed Mohammed Mahmoud, killed during clashes with pro-government supporters at Tahrir Square in Cairo February 7, 2011.   (Reuters/Amr Dalsh)
Egyptian anti-government demonstrators hold a symbolic funeral for journalist Ahmed Mohammed Mahmoud, killed during clashes with pro-government supporters at Tahrir Square in Cairo February 7, 2011. (Reuters/Amr Dalsh)

Excerpted from "Islam and Democracy After the Arab Spring"

By the beginning of the 21st century, states and political movements around the world were being transformed by new technologies of communication and the broader impacts of intensified globalization. Religion is increasingly important as the “major world religions are all taking advantage of the opportunities provided by globalization to transform their messages and reach a new global audience.” The new technologies are changing the nature of the way movements can mobilize support to the extent that Charles Tilly could argue that old-style social movements could be replaced “as vehicles of popular claim making” by new forms of claim making and new ways of mobilizing expressions of social and political visions. These changes set the framework for movements of democratization in the Muslim world at the beginning of the 21st century.

The events of the Arab Spring in 2011 were seen by some analysts as the coming of a fourth wave of democratization, this time involving Muslim-majority countries. Demonstrations overthrowing the authoritarian regimes in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, and Yemen; a major civil war in Syria; and demonstrations in many other Arab countries showed the strength of popular support for democratization. However, already by the end of the 1990s, the new politics were visible in a number of places.

Reformasi movements in Southeast Asia were a starting point for a new cycle of democratization. In Indonesia, large demonstrations in 1998 resulted in the overthrow of the authoritarian military regime of Suharto, who had ruled for more than thirty years. The transition created an elected parliament that elected two successive presidents, and then in 2004, a new president was directly elected. The success of the transition to democracy is reflected in the successful transfer of power in the presidency three times.

In Malaysia, the political system was multiparty but the coalition led by the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO) had ruled since Malaysia had gained independence. This dominance was challenged by a reformasi movement when the prime minister and head of UMNO, Mahathir Mohammad, fired his deputy prime minister, Anwar Ibrahim, and brought criminal charges against him. The supporters of Anwar joined with other opposition parties to create a major opposition coalition that challenged the UMNO coalition in the 1999 general elections. Although the new opposition did not win, it had success in gaining Malay ethnic and younger voters, and the parties continued to work together as an effective coalition. An observer at the time noted, “The institutionalization of a two-coalition system ... changes the dynamics of Malaysian politics.” In the first decade of the 21st century, this “two-coalition” politics resulted in highly competitive elections and growing power for the opposition coalition. In the 2013 elections, the opposition won a majority of the popular votes but did not yet win a parliamentary majority.

The new politics are visible in Senegal and Turkey. Until 2000, Senegalese politics had been dominated by single major party from the time of independence. Small opposition parties were allowed, like the Senegalese Democratic Party led by Abdoulaye Wade. Wade ran for president four times, losing to the head of the dominant party each time. Then, in 2000, he again challenged Abdou Diouf, who had served as president since 1981, and won. This victory signaled more competitive politics, with Wade serving two terms as president and then losing elections in 2012, followed by a peaceful transition of power.

In Turkey, following military involvement in the resignation of a government in 1997, the Islamically oriented political groups reorganized and some formed the Justice and Development Party (Adalet ve Kalkınma Partisi; AKP), which was “a new style of party” whose populism went beyond the appeal of both the older, more rigid Islamist parties and the secularist parties of the old urban statist elite. The party and its allies won parliamentary majorities in 2002 and subsequent elections, and dominated politics sufficiently to raise fears of “majoritarian” authoritarianism by the second decade of the 21st century. Part of the AKP program was democratic reform to comply with European Union membership guidelines. An important dimension of these reforms was the reduction of the political role of the military. By 2012, an observer could state, “For the first time in the republic’s history, Turkey’s performance is also totally in civilian hands. The military, once empowered to check civilian politics, is no longer strong enough either to step in or to threaten to take action.” During the demonstrations of 2013, there was little indication that the military was prepared to intervene.

Even in the carefully controlled electoral system in the Islamic Republic of Iran, the late 1990s was the time of a major reformist movement. In what analysts regard as a major upset, the reformist candidate for president, Mohammad Khatami, defeated the candidate who had the support of most of the ruling religious establishment in the presidential elections of 1997. Khatami won 70 percent of the vote in elections with an 80 percent turnout of eligible voters. Khatami was an activist supporter of creating an open society and declared, “The essence of Iranian history is the struggle for democracy.” Subsequent elections were highly competitive, within the limits set by the system. Popular support for reformist democracy is reflected in the huge demonstrations following the 2009 presidential elections protesting the results which most believed to have been rigged, and also in the surprise victory of the moderate candidate in the first round of the 2013 presidential elections.

The new politics of a possible fourth wave of democratization became globally visible in the events of the Arab Spring and subsequent developments. The year 2011 was a time of mounting protests around the world, with the actions of the Arab Spring leading the way. Time magazine named “The Protester” as the Person of the Year. In the global rise of oppositional politics, Time, among many others, identified a special role for the new electronic media of communication. “Calling the Arab uprisings Facebook and YouTube and Twitter revolutions is not, it turns out, just glib, wishful American overstatement. In the Middle East and North Africa, in Spain and Greece and New York, social media and smart phones did not replace face-to-face social bonds and confrontation but helped enable and turbocharge them, allowing protesters to mobilize more nimbly and communicate with one another and the wider world more effectively than ever before.”

The nature of the 2011 protests tends to confirm Charles Tilly’s prediction that social movements of contention would take different forms in the 21st century. In discussing the nature of protests as public performances, Sidney Tarrow noted that in the 21st century, “electronic communication has made some forms of physical performance less effective, while other forms—such as the use of the Internet—have become more so. For example, protests against the stolen Iranian election of 2009 were organized largely through new means of electronic communication—cell phones, the Internet, Facebook, and Twitter.” The result is a new type of movement that Manuel Castells calls networked social movements. “Historically, social movements have been dependent on the existence of specific communication mechanisms: rumors, sermons, pamphlets and manifestos, spread from person to person, from the pulpit, from the press, or by whatever means of communication was available. In our time, multimodal, digital networks of horizontal communication are the fastest and most autonomous, interactive, reprogrammable and self-expanding means of communication in history... . This is why the networked social movements of the digital age represent a new species of social movement.”

The new movements have many dimensions. Throughout the Arab world, and elsewhere in the world of emerging economies, high levels of poverty and economic inequality exist. This deprivation provides a foundation for the strong sense of discontent among the population. The Arab Human Development Reports over the years document the continuing economic problems of Arab societies. However, poverty and economic deprivation are long-standing problems and are often more acute in countries that did not experience major demonstrations in the Arab Spring, and most of the protesters were not from the poorest levels of society. Mohamed Bouazizi, whose self-immolation was the starting point for the Tunisian revolution and the Arab Spring, was not an impoverished peasant; he was a licensed street vendor who was harassed by the police. Khaled Said, who was dragged from an Internet café and beaten to death by Egyptian security police, became a symbol for the rising fervor of opposition in Egypt. He was a middle-class computer repair person. In Tahrir Square in Cairo, the participants were primarily from the urban educated classes, with strong working-class support. In terms of the economic dimensions of the Arab Spring, some argue that the “uprisings were indigenously inspired movements fueled by the rising expectations of a nascent global middle class in the face of opportunity that for too long had been denied.”

The new movements were not, however, expressions of class tensions in their societies. Marxist class struggle ideology found little expression in the statements of the protesters. The demands were for an end to authoritarian rule and corruption in government, and greater equality. Whatever might be the specific cause for protest, whether opposition to a military dictator or, as in the protests in Turkey in 2013, the reconstruction of a public park, the new movements have an important economic foundation for discontent but are not part of a self-conscious class struggle.

Younger people were, and are, among the most pressured by economic problems. Even in a relatively strong economy like Tunisia’s, the youth unemployment rate was around 25 percent. Throughout the Muslim world, the demographic “youth bulge” is a major factor. In most Muslim countries, the majority of the population is under 30 years of age, with median ages ranging from 31 in Tunisia and Albania to 17–18 in Afghanistan, Yemen, and the Gaza Strip. Although participants in the protests in the Arab Spring and in other protest movements around the world in 2011 came from many different levels of society, young people were central, especially youth with some education and real expectations of upward mobility and freedom. One study of the opposition movements around the world in 2011 concluded, “At the centre of all protest movements is a new sociological type: the graduate with no future.” Although urban poor and workers participated, “it was to the ‘graduates without a future’ that it fell to kick things off. From the rich world to the poor world, it is educated young people whose life chances and illusions are now being shattered. Though their general conditions are still better than those of slum-dwellers and some workers, they have experienced far greater disappointment.”

Tawakkol Karman, who received a Nobel Peace Prize for her participation in the Arab Spring in Yemen, identified the movement as “our peaceful popular youth revolution.”56 The youth dimension of the Arab Spring and other protests around the world was central. The new forms of the networked social movements were especially open to encouraging participation by youth. The movements “are organized around informal networks facilitated by new information and communication technologies” most accessible to younger people, and they involve nontraditional and highly theatrical forms of direct action protest in which youth are actively involved. Younger activists are also characteristically drawn to more non-conventional forms of direct action protest, involving “creative, expressive or violent repertoires.” Viewing “the activism of 2011 through a nationalist, ethnic or even class lens is to miss its unifying trait—2011 was the year of a global youth revolt.”

The youth dimension of Arab Spring is highly visible in the emergent pop cultures of protest. Among the most effective articulation of the demands of the demonstrators were the blunt words of rappers. Hip-hop stars like El General in Tunis and Rami Essam in Cairo, and the protest singer Ibrahim Qashoush, who was murdered for singing songs critical of Bashar Assad, the dictator in Syria, in the early days of protests in Syria, provided what some call the “soundtrack of the revolution.” The pop culture of the street protests was clearly part of the youth culture in the Arab world from Morocco to Iraq and in many other parts of the Muslim world as well.

Women are also an important element in the Arab Spring movements. In general, as one analyst described the broader global movements, women are “very numerous as the backbone of movements. After twenty years of modernized labour markets and higher-education access, the ‘archetypal’ protest leader, organizer, facilitator, spokesperson now is an educated young woman.” Women like Asmaa Mahfouz in Egypt were in the front lines of the early protests and were major voices as bloggers. When Newsweek in 2012 published a special study on “150 Women Who Shake the World,” at least fifteen of the women listed were participants in some aspect of the Arab Spring. Tawakkol Karman noted the important role of women in the revolution: “Our peaceful popular youth revolution has succeeded in attracting to its ranks and marches hundreds of thousands of women who have fulfilled, and still fulfill, a major noticeable and effective role in its activities, and in leading its demonstrations... . Not tens but hundreds of these women have fallen as martyrs or have been wounded for the sake of the victory of the revolution.”

In the general non-hierarchical and open frameworks of action in the networks of opposition that developed, patriarchal habits of male domination of organizations as in old-style political parties and associations were limited. This lack of structure made it possible for young people and women to have significant influence in shaping the movements. The new-style movements have been described as leaderless, as a conscious part of their movement. Disappointment with existing leadership is a global phenomenon. “The disaffection is so great, and so pervasive, that allegiances around the world seem to be shifting not to new leaders but to the exact opposite—to leaderless movements like Occupy Wall Street, the Arab Spring, and the Tea Party.” In the new movements of democratization, as in the networked social movements in general, key figures were organizers and coordinators rather than more charismatic leaders at the top of an emerging hierarchical command structure. In Egypt, for example, Wael Ghonim was important in organizing a Facebook mobilization for demonstrations but did not emerge as someone in a position of command. He emphasizes his lack of eagerness to assume a leadership command position in the movement which he helped to mobilize. After his Facebook group tried to recruit a major figure like Mohamed ElBaradei to lead the opposition to Mubarak, he and his colleagues concluded, “We did not need a savior; we had to do this ourselves.”

In addition to being relatively leaderless in structure, the new movements tend to be non-ideological. Already in the early days of the Arab Spring, analysts like Emad Shahin observed, “It’s not the age of ideology anymore.” The old competitions between Arabism, socialism, and Islamism were replaced by unifying demands “to end government corruption, institute the rule of law and ease economic suffering.” Within this framework, mobilizing people to become engaged became more important than converting people to an ideology of a movement. Wael Ghonim argued that “engagism is more important than activism.”

The non-ideological character of the new-style movements means that they may have a very specific demand like the end of the rule of a dictator, but they tend not to have concrete programs and have a variety of demands. Because “demands are multiple and motivations unlimited, they cannot formalize an organization or leadership because their consensus, their togetherness, depends on ad hoc deliberation and protest, not on fulfilling a program built around specific goals: this is both their strength (wide open appeal) and their weakness (how can anything be achieved when the goals to be achieved are undefined?).”

In the new political dynamics of the 21st century, the democratization movements in the Muslim world have a major impact in changing the political orders of their societies. However, the new networked social movements also have distinctive vulnerabilities that open the way for possible reverse waves or unexpected outcomes. Although youth and women were important elements in the movements, when new governments were established, they did not have the same prominent roles. Successful participation in elections requires effective organization and, as a result, old-style groups were better able to compete in the new political arena. Although the success of Islamically identified parties in elections in the aftermath of the Arab Spring surprised many people, that success was based on the widespread grassroots organization of groups like the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt.

A reverse wave developed in Arab Spring countries, receiving support from people who feared rule by Islamists as well as from groups associated with the old regimes. Democracy can appear to be in trouble when those people are willing to accept the re-establishment of rule by the military, as happened in Egypt in 2013. However, it is no longer possible to speak of the Muslim world as an unlikely participant in democratization developments in the 21st century.

A possible fourth wave of democratization is visible from Senegal to Indonesia, and it is clear that support for democracy is not limited to a small urban elite. A major Gallup research study between 2001 and 2007, conducted in more than thirty-five countries, reported that most Muslims “see no contradiction between democratic values and religious principles.” They gave strong support for political freedom and freedom of speech. This support for democratic principles was expressed even before the enthusiasms of the Arab Spring, which confirmed in many ways the Gallup findings. Subsequent polling shows a continued and widespread support for democracy. In 2013 the Pew Research Center published the results of polling done in 2008–2012 in the Muslim world and reported, “Most Muslims around the world express support for democracy.”

In the 21st century, political developments throughout the Muslim world show the desire for more democratic governance. Each Muslim-majority country has a distinctive experience and it is difficult to select a few case studies to illustrate the variety of histories. In this volume, we will present seven case studies as a way of opening further discussion on Islam and democracy in the 21st century. Egypt and Tunisia, where the Arab Spring began, provide important examples of the new style of movements in action, with their strengths and weaknesses. Senegal and Indonesia are early manifestations of the new politics in their transformations of military and dominant party rule into functioning democracies. Pakistan allows an analysis of the continuing conflictual relationships between a politically powerful military and supporters of a greater degree of civilian-controlled democracy. Turkey and Iran are the extremes of the spectrum in terms of religion and politics, with Turkey being officially a secular republic and Iran an Islamic republic.

From these studies, it becomes clear that the new politics of the 21st century is a dramatic combination of new types of social movements and a continuation of important elements of the old 20th-century political dynamics. The political power of the military may be transformed in many places but it does not disappear. Youth and women have power and influence that they never had before, but their activism did not cause older patriarchal habits to lose much of their power. New technologies of communication and information have transformed the vocabularies of politics and created new and novel ways of mobilizing popular support, but the old face-to-face methods of institutional and street politics continue to be a necessary part of effective political operation. And the relationship between religion and politics may well have to be re-examined by those who assumed a radical distinction between their spheres of operation. As a result of Europe’s history of church support for authoritarian governments, Western liberal democracies developed a separation between political and religious institutions, traditionally manifested in an absence of overt religious claims in political discourse. But the increased presence of religious discourse in US political campaigns over the past two decades suggests that the “wall of separation” is in fact porous; the separation between religion and politics is not as definitive as it once seemed, even in the West. In Muslim-majority countries, on the other hand, Islamic movements tended not to support authoritarian governments. Indeed, the religious leaders often articulated popular political discontent, with frequent reference to Islamic themes. Thus, while in Europe, secular discourse was the vehicle of political opposition to authoritarian governments, in Muslim-majority countries, religious discourse has often expressed populist opposition to authoritarianism. The choice may well not be, then, between religious and democratic political systems, but for some combination of the two.

Excerpted from "Islam and Democracy After the Arab Spring" by John L. Esposito, Tamara Sonn and John O. Voll. Published by Oxford University Press. Copyright 2016 by Oxford University Press. Reprinted with permission of the publisher. All rights reserved.

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