“The age of Islamism and democracy has just arrived,” says a leading analyst, even if “the interplay may be long, arduous and ugly.”
Islamist groups have been the principal beneficiaries of the pro-democracy revolts of the Arab Awakening, taking power in Tunisia and Egypt, while exercising growing leverage elsewhere in the region to the alarm of liberal and secular democrats.
“Yet if Western history is any guide, the growth of democracy slowly diminishes religious imperatives,” writes Reuel March Gerecht, a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies:
Representative government demystifies politics and ethics, as the here-and-now takes precedence over abstract aspirations. It makes the mundane transcendent. It promotes healthy division because it puts competing visions, even competing fundamentalist visions, to the vote. It localizes ambitions and focuses people’s passions on the national purse… Although they are running against Islamic history, Arab secular democrats have some hope. Religious authoritarianism secularizes societies pretty quickly.
“In 1979, religious millenarianism was a mass movement in Iran,” he writes for the Wall Street Journal:
But the hollowing of revolutionary fervor set in motion a popular re-evaluation of the Islamic Republic’s hatred of the United States and Israel. In 2009, Iranian youths protesting for democracy pointedly mocked the Palestinian cause as not their own.
For the first time in the history of the Islamic Republic, state TV stopped broadcasting the 2009 annual anti-Israeli Quds demonstrations after the regime’s leaders were heckled. Despite the heavy presence of plainclothes and uniformed security forces, protesters consistently subverted the regime’s slogans and rejected solidarity with Iran’s foreign proxies, shouting “death to the dictator”.
“Neither Gaza, nor Lebanon, I give my life only for Iran,” was another frequent chant.
“A similar process is likely among the Arabs, where democracy will probably produce majoritarian governments ruled by authoritarian Islamists,” argues Gerecht, the author of “The Wave: Man, God, and the Ballot Box in the Middle East” (Hoover Institution Press, 2011):
Their attempts to enforce certain Islamic values through legislation will inevitably produce faction and fatigue. Secularists will grow stronger. And unlike their great liberal forbearers of the 19th and early-20th centuries, Muslim secularists who win at the ballot box will be much less inclined to kowtow to orthodox Islamic sentiments.