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The Center for the Study of Islam Democracy

Islamism, Democratization and Arab Intellectuals

Islamism, Democratization and Arab Intellectuals

This paper was presented during a Two-day conference, held on 4-5 December 2008, and organized by the Centre for the Study of Democracy at the University of Westminster, and co-sponsored by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and the Center for the Study of Islam and Democracy, Washington, DC.

We need democrats and leaders who know how to strategize (and not only theorize) and how to build an agenda and a vision for democracy that can motivate and engage the large majority of people, especially the youth who are longing for a vision).

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Islamists – started as defenders of identity (Islam itself was in danger in the 60’s or 70’s).  The Islamic movement has been extremely successful in defending and strengthening the Islamic identity of Arab and Muslim societies. That is no longer an issue – Huge majorities of people now pray regularly, mosques are full everywhere, and huge majorities of women wear the hijab.  So this issue is not a priority anymore and people are not really interested or attracted to it.  So many Islamists are fighting the battle of yesterday.

So, the Islamic movements and reformers need aNEW AGENDA:

  1. Democracy as a priority – defending human rights, accountabilty, rule of law, and fighting corruption and poverty
  2. Ijtihad – Developing a modern interpretation of Islam and even of Shariah (the old interpretations are frankly frightening esp. the way they have been implemented in Iran, Sudan, Saudi Arabia, or Afghanistan).  Ijtihad – not only by religious leaders but also by secular leaders (even non-Muslims) and scientists, scholars, etc..

Secularists – Need to understand the important role of religion in society and to respect that, otherwise, they will become more and more irrelevant.
They need to come up with a new definition of secularism (or rationalism) that is not against religion, but that can accommodate religious values.
BOTH Islamists and Secularists –  need to work with others and build coalitions, not only on objectives, but also on ideology (vision for the future).  Fighting dictatorships is not enough (what will come afterwards).


ARAB DEMOCRATS – BOTH Islamists and Secularists need to find a way to put pressure on existing regimes but without confrontation.  They must work within the existing political system and with existing regimes.  Confrontations and violence are simply not an option.  Staying outside the political system (and for many even outside the country) is not a good option.

Long term success of Democracy needs two things:
1- Pressure from inside, and
2- Pressure from outside.

139All governments and regimes (by their very nature) will always resist democracy and resist change because they want to maintain the status-quo.  They will do whatever it takes to squash any serious democratic movement (whether secularists or Islamists).  External Pressure is therefore absolutely necessary to prevent the regimes from destroying these democratic movements and aspirations,

In the US, there are two camps:

  1. One calls for supporting existing regimes, defending US interests (only) and not “imposing” democracy on others,
  2. One calls for promoting democracy and human rights, because US values are the best way to promote US interests (along with peace, dialogue, and cooperation between civilizations).

More recently, the second camp has been split into two groups

  1. one that wants to promotes democracy even if Islamists are going to benefit from this process,
  2. the other wants genuine “democrats” (by which they mean secularists) to win, and therefore is having second thoughts about democracy.

We need to find ways to engage people in dialogue, build an internal “coalition for democracy” as well as find as many friends as possible in other countries, and convince Western countries that it is in their interest to promote real and genuine democracy in the Arab world.

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