Why more Islam not less is good for the Middle East (and democracy)

islam democracy

Religion has played an important part in the Arab Spring, either as a ideological influence behind calls for change or, more recently, as a major force in elections. Islamic parties already dominate the political scene in Tunisia and Egypt, and will likely do so anywhere else democracy allows a free vote.

Most Westerners assume that that these trends can only end up hurting the region.  For them, religion is a major cause of the problems that plague the Middle East, and greater secularism is essential for democracy and progress. But such notions show just how little outsiders understand the region, its dominant faith, and the political dynamics driving change from Morocco to Iran.

One of the few Western writers to understand why Islam and Islamic groups are the keys to progress in these countries is Reuel Marc Gerecht. His The Wave: Man, God, and the Ballot Box in the Middle East (completed in October 2010–two months before the start of the Arab Spring) is the best book on democracy and Islam that I have read, with sharp insights into why Muslim groups are driving the democratization process forward, and why “the path to political stability and basic human decency runs through the Holy Law and not . . . around it.”

His interpretations are worth quoting:

When democracy arrives in the Arab Middle East, it will arrive via Shiite clerics and Sunni fundamentalists, and not via Westernized liberal Muslims or Westernized dictators . . . Legitimacy in the Arab Middle East now springs from both God and the common man . . . . The Middle East’s great drama . . . involves this collision and mixing of Islamism and democracy . . . which so many in the West don’t seem to know is taking place. . . . What needs to be better appreciated are the historical forces and philosophical ideas–from the earliest days of Islam–that make Islamic democracy the likely wave of the future. . . .

[Many important Islamic leaders] are religiously and politically evolving, marrying as best they can, sometimes in a highly contradictory manner, Islam and the West. They are trying to figure out how to take the best of the latter . . . without betraying the former. This evolution isn’t pretty, but these Muslims are trying to answer a need among the faithful, felt long and widely, to integrate the two civilizations and hence revivify their own. . . . For an increasing number of devout Arab Muslims, democracy is seen as the only means for returning Muslim Society to a more virtuous state.

The book is full of insights from a person deeply immersed in the region and empathetic to its existing reality. Unlike most commentators, he understands that progress depends on building on what the region has (societies and values highly dependent on religion) instead of importing something the region has not (secularism and Western ideas of state legitimacy).

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Seth Kaplan

About Seth Kaplan

Seth Kaplan is a Professorial Lecturer in the Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS) at Johns Hopkins University. He teaches, writes, and consults on issues related to fragile states, governance, and development. He is the author of Fixing Fragile States: A New Paradigm for Development (Praeger Security International, 2008) and Betrayed: Politics, Power, and Prosperity (Palgrave Macmillan, 2013). A Wharton MBA and Palmer scholar, Seth has worked for several large multinationals and founded four companies. He speaks fluent Mandarin Chinese and Japanese.