Islamists and Illiberal Democracy in a New Middle East – A Review

By Ariel Murray, Juris Doctor Candidate (2015), Northwestern University School of Law

On April 22, 2014, Northwestern University welcomed Shadi Hamid to the Evanston Buffett Center to discuss his recently published book, Temptations of Power: Islamists and Illiberal Democracy in a New Middle East. Hamid is a fellow with the Project on U.S. Relations with the Islamic Word in the Saban Center for Middle East Policy. He also served as a director of research at the Doha Center.

Hamid’s book discusses and analyzes the progression of Islamist movements in Arab states such as Egypt, Tunisia, and Jordan, with a specific focus on the Muslim Brotherhood. Hamid argues that the progression of the Muslim Brotherhood essentially occurs in two, non-linear phases in these regions. In the first phase, which Hamid labels the “oppressive phase,” Islamist groups, such as the Muslim Brotherhood, are forced into moderation, as opposed to radicalization. This period of oppression is marked by a minimization of calls for the implementation of the sharia, democratization of internal group structures, cross-collaboration with leftist and secularist groups, and finally, the embracing of democratic tenets.

While the Islamists’ movement towards moderation during times of repression seems, at first glance, counterintuitive, Hamid argues that this shift occurs for two reasons. First, Islamists become more liberal-minded during these periods as they become more appreciative of democracy in its absence. Without a basic modicum of freedom, it becomes impossible to focus on Islamist goals, such as the implementation of sharia and sexual segregation. Second, Islamists seek leftist ideological collaboration due to the simple notion that Islamist groups don’t want to be alone in the face of repression. Essentially, cross collaboration can serve as a buffer against repression as it becomes more difficult for the state to legitimize such actions when Islamists no longer seem as fanatical when supported by moderate liberal groups.

The second phase of Islamist movements Hamid characterizes under the label of “democratic openings.” During these periods, Hamid argues, Islamist groups tend to become more radicalized. When faced with “democratic openings,” Islamists will “double-down” on conservatism, emphasizing further the necessity for sharia law. This observation runs counter to modern discourse surrounding Islamist patterns, which hypothesizes that as Islamists are allowed to become more involved in the democratic process, their ideologies and practices will liberalize. In countering this argument, Hamid referred specifically to the mid-1980s in Egypt and the period between 1989-1993 in Jordan. In Jordan in 1991, for example, the Muslim Brotherhood proposed three laws—an alcohol ban, a ban on interest, and a ban on co-education. In Egypt in the mid-1980s, the Muslim Brotherhood focused heavily on efforts to implement Islamic law through parliament.

Hamid argues that the Islamists’ conservative shift during democratic openings occurs due to a number of factors. First, in conservative societies like Egypt and Jordan, popular sentiment supports the implementation of a more traditionalist legal system. For example, in a 2011 Gallup poll, 65% of Egyptian respondents believed that religious leaders should advise those in authority on drafting national legislation. In March 2012, a YouGov poll demonstrated that only 18% of Egyptian respondents would support a female candidate for president. In short, Hamid argues that political parties have to respond to popular sentiment during periods of “democratic openings.” Thus, it seems logical that Islamists would vocalize a more conservative platform given popular sentiment.

Second, Hamid reasons that Islamist groups grow more conservative due to the simple fact that Islamists are deeply and honestly committed to a distinctive worldview that has at its core illiberal elements. While Islamist groups are committed to the democratic process, this process inevitably is used to pursue what liberals would label “illiberal ends.” To this end, Hamid argues that perhaps conceptions of liberal democracy and Islamism are “diametrically opposed,” as Islamism at its core promotes an illiberal democracy, or at the very least a society quite different from that imagined by secularists and liberals. For example, from a liberal perspective, certain rights and freedoms are considered non-negotiable. From an Islamist perspective, government and religious officials should be involved in the private lives of citizens. Hamid illustrates this point by examining the example of Tunisia. While Tunisia is widely considered the “lone bright spot” of the Arab Spring, Hamid points to a “dark undercurrent.” During the constitutional design process in Tunisia, Islamists compromised such that there is no mention of the word sharia in the constitution. From an Islamist perspective, sharia law is a central tenet in their worldview. However, the liberal opposition still labeled the constitution as too fundamental. Thus, even between the “most moderate Islamists” and liberal groups, a fundamental ideological gap persists.

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