Which Is Stronger, Democracy or Islam?

by Robert Wolfe (May 2013)


For a long time now I have been saying that the long term survival and growth of Israel depends in large measure on the gradual democratization of the political culture of the Arab and Muslim world. As if to confound me there have been a series of pro-democracy uprisings in the Arab world - the so-called “Arab Spring” - whose main result has been to greatly enhance the power and prestige of the manifestly anti-democratic and anti-Semitic Muslim Brotherhood. In particular there now appears a strong possibility that the overthrow of the Mubarak regime in Egypt will lead to the establishment of an even more repressive Islamist dictatorship supported by the majority of the Egyptian people. Having come to power through a pro-democracy uprising leading to democratic elections, the Muslim Brotherhood now seems poised to perpetuate its rule for a long time to come.

How did this situation come about? Neither in Egypt nor in Tunisia were the Islamists the guiding force behind the uprisings. Avowedly secular elements also played a role, and the majority of the youthful demonstrators certainly wanted free elections and an end to dictatorial rule but seem to have lacked a clear idea of precisely what sort of system they wished to establish in place of the dictatorship. It was only after the uprisings had succeeded that the Islamists surged to the fore, and the reason for this is above all that they were the only ones with an already formed mass organization. Even though the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt had been subjected to numerous repressive measures by the Mubarak regime, it was nonetheless still able to operate much more freely under that regime than the democratic and secular forces. It could always take shelter behind the facade of religion, which had an established place in Egyptian society, while secular democracy was viewed as a profoundly subversive force by the Islamists and the Mubarak regime alike.

Islamist doctrine has consistently denigrated democracy as a misguided attempt to substitute man made law for the eternal law vouchsafed by Allah to Mohammed. However the pro-democracy uprisings created a climate in which it was convenient for the Islamists to seek to come to power through the electoral process. To do so they had at least to pay lip service to the idea of free elections, and to this extent they were forced to somewhat moderate their hostility to democracy as a political system. For this reason the pro-democracy uprisings must be seen as having brought about a more general acceptance of democracy in the Arab world than was previously the case. But this acceptance extends only to the concept of free elections and does not necessarily also include an acceptance of a secular and pluralist political culture. Moreover it remains to be seen whether any Islamist government would voluntarily surrender power after losing an election. What is much more likely is that such a government would make sure that the only elections it held were those it was assured of winning. 

All the same it must be recognized that for the time being, democracy in the Arab world means Islamist rule. This will most likely be the case in Syria following the overthrow of the Assad regime and it is difficult to think of an Arab country where the democratic process would not result in an Islamist victory. On the other hand, the long term prognosis for Islamist governments in the Arab world is not good. The Islamists lack a realistic program for economic development, and it was the lack of economic opportunity for the great majority of Arabs which was the driving force behind the uprisings of the “Arab spring.” There is every reason to expect that the economic situation under Islamist rule in the Arab world will get worse rather than better as time goes on, and eventually this dynamic must lead to a clash between the Islamists and advocates of a more secular path to economic development. And given the probable reluctance of the Islamists to yield power, this clash is likely to be a violent one.

It is here that the role of anti-Semitism in the Aab world enters the picture. Anyone looking for a realistic democratic and secular path to economic development in the Middle East could do no better than to look to Israel as a model. Without oil, without valuable natural resources, without really good soil or good rainfall, Israel has nonetheless managed to build a viable modern economy that guarantees a better standard of living for all Israelis, including Arab Israelis, than that available anywhere else in the Middle East apart from the oil rich sheikdoms of the Persian Gulf. One key to the Israeli success is a good balance between secular and religious elements in Israeli society. Israel is secular enough to maintain a position on the cutting edge of modern technology yet also religious enough to hold in check the rampant individualism characteristic of most Western societies. It would be only natural for the democratic and secular forces in Arab society to see Israel as a source of inspiration, but of course they are at present prevented from doing so by the enormous weight of Arab and Muslim anti-Semitism. 

From the start the Islamists were always the main proponents of hatred of Jews in general and Israel in particular in the Middle East, and from the start their main motive for adopting this stance was to stigmatize the democratic and secular forces in Arab society as Zionist agents. And so long as those forces continue to accept Islamist anti-Semitism as a legitimate point of view, they will never be able to present an effective alternative to the Islamists. Moreover, the sharper and more violent the clash between Islamists and secularists becomes, the more likely will it become for the Islamists to attempt to redirect the energies of Arab society into an assault on Israel. To what extent the secular and democratic forces in the Arab world will be able to resist this pressure is hard to say, but what is certain is that their own future is inextricably bound up with the future of Israel. 

After all, it is not possible to advocate a democratic way of life in the Middle East without noticing that Israel is already following this way of life. Did not the example of Israel play a certain role in inspiring the pro-democracy uprisings in the Arab world? It probably did, but you would never know this from the public stance of the pro-democracy demonstrators. Until they are able to transcend their fear of being associated with the dreaded Jews they will always be nothing more than critics of one or another form of Islamist dictatorship. In order to take power as an alternate source of authority, they would have to grapple with the same socio-economic issues that Israel has so successfuly dealt with. A bigoted attitude towrds Israel such as the Islamists demand and a realistic program for economic and social development such as the democratic forces need cannot be effectively combined.

Did they but wish to do so, the democratic states of the West could play a key role in fostering a more positive attitude towards Israel on the part of the democratic and secular forces in the Arab world. Unfortunately the Western democracies are far more concerned with safeguarding their access to Middle Eastern oil than they are with promoting the cause of democracy in the Middle East. Fear of an oil embargo leads them to hold Israel at arm’s length and adopt the stance of an “honest broker” between a tiny Israel that simply wants to survive and a vast Arab and Muslim world that, in its majority, wants Israel to be destroyed. Instead of viewing Israel as the vanguard of democracy in the Middle East, they treat her as a problem that needs to be solved. But in the real world, the problem is the refusal of the Islamists to accept the existence of Israel. In real terms the Western democracies are far stronger than the Islamists, but their dependence on Middle Eastern oil makes them afraid to use their strength to defeat the Islamists once and for all.

Moreover, it is not only Israel they hold at arm’s length, but also the democratic and secular forces in the Arab world. Western policy is guided by the “realists” who see no alternative to “engagement” with the Islamists in the hope of somehow moderating their dictatorial tendencies. This policy has never succeeded yet and will not succeed in the future. Economic and military aid to the Islamist regime in Egypt will only strengthen it without providing a way out of the mounting economic crisis in which Egypt now finds herself. If you want democracy to triumph you must support democracy and oppose autocracy. In practical terms this means support for the secular and democratic forces in the Arab world and support for Israel. The more this support is forthcoming, the clearer will it become that democracy is stronger than Islam because it alone can provide the basis for a peaceful and prosperous way of life.

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