As the latest chapters of the Arab Spring continue to unfold, scholars and other observers alike wonder about the role of political Islam in shaping the nature of things to come. One way to better understand the currents underlining the relationship between Islam and politics is to trace the historic evolution of Christianity and politics.
Christianity was once one of the main pillars of authoritarian political systems throughout Europe and the Americas. Popes and kings alike ruled arbitrarily and despotically in the name of religion. In the process, they seldom hesitated to bend religious precepts for the sake of political expediency and enhanced authoritarian legitimacy.
In South Africa, to mention one of the more egregious contemporary examples, the political corruption of religion was taken to inhuman extremes. The Dutch Reformed Church became one of the central bastions of the former white minority apartheid regime.
Slowly, as the institutions of democracy developed and gained in strength, Christianity’s continued political relevance dictated that it adapt itself to emerging realities. This did not necessitate changing the core values of Christianity itself, but rather the way that Christianity, as a body of beliefs, functioned and interacted with other belief systems and political ideologies. Democratic institutions such as parliaments, and practices such as voting, forced Christian churches into making political compromises if they were to retain their role and relevance in political life.
Across Europe, the phenomenon of Christian Democratic parties emerged. The same absolutist values that constituted one’s faith became sources of political bargains, compromise, and parliamentary politics. In Latin America, Christianity fell into the embrace of democracy as its center of gravity shifted away from the halls of authoritarian power toward inner-city barrios and slums, where it promised liberation and deliverance from dictatorship. And in South Africa, Christian churches began condemning the evils of apartheid and calling for racial equality and harmony.
Throughout the Middle East, the institutions and practices of democracy have yet to take hold. Therefore, seldom has Islam been in the same institutional predicament that gradually forced Christian churches to adapt to, and compromise with, new circumstances.
And, in what has to be one of modern histories most ironic twists, in rare instances when institutional arrangements have timidly begun to take shape and adapt to such circumstances, powerful nations have done all they could to undermine these processes.
In 2006, for example, Palestinians voted in what were universally considered to be free and fair elections. But when in the Gaza Strip most of the votes went to the Islamist Hamas organization, the United States and the European Union rewarded Palestinian democracy by slapping punishing sanctions on Gazans. In that way they reinforced Hamas’s intransigence and its remaining outside institutions.
More recently, when the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood’s candidate Mohammed Morsi won the presidency, through what was admittedly a flawed and contested electoral process, the world stood by as the Egyptian military interfered in politics and removed Morsi from office. In what has to be one of its most cowardly and duplicitous acts to date, the Obama administration refused to classify the Egyptian military’s political interference as a coup. This exempted Egypt from Washington’s own legal rules in similar cases, which require the U.S. government to cut off aid in the event of a coup.
Both instances were rare contemporary examples where political Islam had a chance, and a choice, to adapt to democratic rules of the game in order to retain relevance. The West’s reaction to the Palestinian and Egyptian cases sent completely the wrong message to Muslims around the world, and especially in the Middle East where Islam remains deeply compelling both religiously and politically.
Coming to terms with political Islam necessitates that we welcome and nurture democracy in Muslim lands and not stand idly by, or worse yet become willing or unintentional accomplices, when fragile democracies are smashed by those who don’t like the results.
Not all hope is lost, however. A number of Muslim-majority countries, from Indonesia and Malaysia on one side to Pakistan and Turkey on the other, are starting to find their own democratic footing while adapting political Islam to parliamentary and electoral politics. Even Iran’s fundamentally authoritarian system contains institutional mechanisms that force political Islamists into making compromises and spur internal contestation.
Wishing political Islam away from the ballot box only forces it back into the trenches, back alleys and underground cells where Islamists are more likely to take up arms than engage in dialogue and debate.
There, political Islam’s message will remain absolutist rather than embrace compromise and consensus.
The West’s own embrace of democracy was messy and painful – a history fraught with wars and reversals. In the end, however, democracy prevailed and Christianity endured. We can ill afford to forget these lessons in relation to Islam’s tormented tangle with politics today.
Mehran Kamrava is a professor and director of the Center for International and Regional Studies at Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service in Qatar. The third edition of his latest book, “The Modern Middle East: A Political History since the First World War,” is due out later this summer. This commentary was written for THE DAILY STAR.