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Islamist Democracy Is For Real

The Muslim Brotherhood and Hamas can’t be written off as easily anymore

Marc Tracy
April 23, 2012
Khaled Meshaal, of Hamas, in January.(Mohammed al-Hams/Khaled Meshaal's Office of Media via Getty Images)
Khaled Meshaal, of Hamas, in January.(Mohammed al-Hams/Khaled Meshaal's Office of Media via Getty Images)

Two thinkers expert in Islam, neither anybody’s idea of a dove, have published articles recently suggesting that political Islam and democracy—democracy loosely defined—are compatible, and that from a Western perspective the movements in much of the post-Arab Spring world that combine the two (and are frequently illiberal) are preferable to the rule-by-strongman of the past. In Egypt, for example, the Muslim Brotherhood—the largest party in the parliament and quite possibly the party whose nominee will be president, unless the military steps in—will likely not do things that are in the best interests of the United States or Israel, to say nothing of Egyptian Christians and Egyptian women. Yet, both argue, this new reality is better than the old one—and it’s not like we really have a choice.

“Democracy will not set down roots in Arab countries in transition without including mainstream Islamist groups, such as the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, Ennahda in Tunisia, or Islah in Yemen,” argues Olivier Roy. He adds:

In Egypt, for example, the Muslim Brotherhood cannot cede its conviction that Islam is all-encompassing. Yet it risks losing popular support unless it can also reconcile Islam with good governance and human rights. … Israel is still unpopular and anti-Western xenophobia has visibly grown, but Islamist movements will need more than these old issues to sustain their rise to power.

And Reuel Marc Gerecht perceives democracy’s moderating effect:

Muslims cannot be dragged dictatorially to an embrace of secularism and all the liberal values that spring from it. They have to arrive voluntarily, organically, at this understanding.

Slavery is de facto no longer permitted in Islam—even though it’s authorized by the Quran—because Muslims successfully grafted European ethics onto Islamic mores. (British warships also helped stop the trade.) Individualism, the most insidious of Western exports, has now penetrated deeply into Muslim societies. The Muslim Brotherhood, for example, recognizes a woman’s equality inside the voting booth.

He concludes: “Dictatorship nostalgia, on the other hand, will take us right back to the cul-de-sac where Osama bin Laden was born.”

And then you read about the foreign minister of Turkey—whose government represents the best approximation of Islamist democracy in the world—meeting with the leader of Hamas. Prior to the Arab Spring (of which Prime Minister Erdogan, of Turkey, has been something of an outside hero), it’s hard to envision this happening. Doesn’t Hamas logically fit into their paradigm?

Um, except for one of their top officials insisting the group would never make permanent peace with Israel. So, I guess let’s stand by for now.

Marc Tracy is a staff writer at The New Republic, and was previously a staff writer at Tablet. He tweets @marcatracy.