Monday, May 23, 2005

Islamist Democracy

Saad Eddin Ibrahim’s piece in the NYTimes on Mid East democratisation and the role of Islamic groups reminded me of a comment made by Dr Charles Tripp, from London’s SOAS, at a conference last year on the role of the clergy in post-war Iraq. I paraphrase of course, but he said something along the lines of “I don’t think that the current resurgence in religious sentiment will survive a couple of years of watching Islamic groups arguing about taxes”.

I think I agree with him – the problem is that the ‘one man, one vote, once’ trope has been firmly established in the popular consciousness: people sincerely believe that political groupings based on religious belief are simply entryists hiding their true colours. The general pragmatism of the Islamist Turkish government doesn’t really seem to bear that fear out. Put simply, no government, Islamic or secular, is going to last very long if it doesn’t deal with the pressing economic problems that are pervasive in the region, so I think it’ll be very difficult for an Islamic government to avoid contact with reality for very long. Just look at Iran – most young people are a little sick of the regime, and they make up, oh, 70% of the population? Change isn’t very far away (though the likelihood of it being change that people in the West aren’t scared of for one reason or another is slim).


Though on reflection I think it's important to add a little nuance to that. The persistence of the Islamic Republic in Iran seems to me to have much more to do with the regime's stranglehold on the economy and unchallengeable political position that it does with its Islamic character. I'd point at Egypt, another large predominantly Muslim country with a history stretching back millennia and a heavily centralised, autocratic government whose traditional policy orientation has been left-leaning central planning in economic terms and a heady mix of conservatism and nationalism in social issues. Only in Egypt the autocracy is secular. In both, any gradual social opening seems to be linked with a gradual economic opening - in both, the elite's believes that jobs are crucial to maintaining stability, and they are using whatever bargaining chips they have to attract FDI. Anyway, it's possible to push the comparison too far, but I felt the point needed clarification.


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