The Shari’ah Spring: Media Gets It Backwards

In Egypt, with elections around the corner, the Muslim Brotherhood’s Party plans to contest over fifty percent of the seats—up from its more modest position a few months ago. In Tunisia, the long-suffering Ennahda Party looks to be the biggest winner of that country’s first free elections. And in Libya, the interim leader of the National Transitional Council has called for a Libya founded on Islamic tenets and respectful of the country’s Muslim identity, with a place for Islamic institutions such as Shari’ah-compliant finance.

Considering our role in Libya’s revolution, that last speech raised eyebrows and elicited concern—never mind that Tunisia, long a bastion of Arab state secularism, seems to be witnessing the return of political Islam. It seems as if Islamic politics is the main victor come this Arab Spring. What are we to make of all this? Will a geographically contiguous stretch of one hundred million Arabs and Berbers choose authoritarian Islamists, enact Islamic law, and snuff out whatever democratic potential might have existed only months ago?

“Secular” Does Not Equal Democratic

Sadly, we’re reading the Islamic side of the Arab Spring through an outdated lens. Thus, the New York Times is reading things precisely backwards when it describes Tunisia’s Ennahda as aiming to “reconci[le] Islamic principles with Western-style democracy.” As far as Ennahda and others might put it, there is no contradiction between Islam and democracy. Democracy is part of the Islamic tradition, converging with core Islamic values of consultation, humility, a strong interest in social justice, and the sacredness of human life, property, and intellect.

When journalists discuss Islamic politics, they often reach for Saudi Arabia, Iran, or Afghanistan. But that form of Islamic politics, authoritarian and draconian, has been discredited. Mostly by itself, without much need for foreign intervention (but, keep in mind, that doesn’t mean America’s stock has risen). Most of the popular Islamist figures in the Arab world today are all about democracy, although they articulate their interest in democracy by way of religious language. Which, of course, rouses our suspicions and confusions: When we think secularism, we think democracy. Because of Western history—not Muslim history.

It’s important to remember that “secularism,” as a political ideology, did not exist when America was born. Rather, our rather religious society evolved different ways to prevent religion and power from coalescing dangerously, and in the years since, we identified this arrangement as “secularism.” But in the Muslim world, secularism has often been identified with authoritarianism. In response, Islamic politicians do not seek one-party states, but rather articulate, defend, and promote a democratic form of government whose roots are believed to lie in their Islamic values.

In part, they’ve done so to empower themselves—as the most organized parties on the ground, Islamic groups know democracy will usually work to their benefit. In part, they’ve done so against the Iranian model, because that model has widely discredited many Muslim thinkers and movements and has served as an excuse for authoritarian governments to refuse elections. There is of course genuine Muslim opposition to Iranian Islamist authoritarianism, found most obviously in Iran itself: the Green Movement, led by clerics, among others.

But they also do so because they cannot impose their will on their societies, a lesson that’s been learned after the failure of the Iranian model—especially seen in contrast to Turkey’s recent growth and attractive political model. Because there are other social currents, sometimes personally religious but politically liberal, secular, or nationalist, the only way to get rid of authoritarian leaders is to create a common, non-ideological front. The one thing everyone can agree on isn’t secularism, or Islamism. It’s democracy: Human rights, rule of law, and elections with alteration of power. A great and pragmatic compromise.

Not a Zero-Sum Game

But this doesn’t mean more sophisticated Islamic thinkers don’t believe democracy isn’t worth having, in and of itself. The relationship between Islamic values and a democratic form of government shouldn’t be unfamiliar to many Americans, for whom Christianity and democracy are assumed to go hand in hand: A democratic society is based on Christian principles (however historically tenuous that argument is, the fact is, many believe it). Some dynamic thinkers in Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood advocate—if we take them at their word—a dawlah madaniyyah, a civil state, democratic but not secular, affirming religious values without imposing religious opinions. This shift, from religion as pure politics to religion as ethics and principles, is a subtle one, and it is of course unclear how it will play out in actual democratic politics.

Nevertheless, Arab democracy can only be the product of existing social realities, where religion is very often far more public and important than in many Western societies, but exists alongside strong liberal, nationalist, and secular currents: Egypt has a significant Christian minority; Tunisia is overwhelmingly Muslim with a strong tradition of state secularism; while Libya is a culturally conservative, nearly fully Muslim country, whose recently deposed tyrant frequently promoted Islamic practices and pieties.

If we read the Arab Spring as a zero-sum game between Islamists and secularists, we’re going to miss what’s happening; if we imagine Arab democracy will look like secular Western democracy, we will likely be disappointed. And if we assume reference to Islam and democracy reveals only hypocrisy, insincerity, or ideological confusion, we’re likely to be surprised.

The Arab world has to figure out what its democracies will look like, but in the meanwhile, we can find a clue a bit closer to our American home. Most Americans would never want an institutional church running this country. But many of those would, all the same, want their president to be a church-going, God-fearing Christian. In that tension lies a better understanding of the latest Islamist politics, and a sober explanation for how Libya’s new government can call for a democracy that nevertheless converges with Islamic values.