The Islamist Muslim Brotherhood is gaining undeniable popularity. It's doing so by exploiting democratic methods. That poses an existential problem for the future of democracy in the Arab world.
To legitimize the movement – the main representative of political Islam – runs the risk of succumbing to fanatics opposed to democracy. To outlaw it may lead to its further radicalization. But there's a way Muslim governments can avoid this Catch-22: They can contain the Islamist threat without harming budding democracies by undermining the Brotherhood with educational, social, and economic reforms.
The Brotherhood now holds 88 of 444 seats in the Egyptian parliament. In 2006, the Islamic Action Front, the political wing of the Brotherhood, won 23 out of 80 seats in the Jordanian parliament. Islamists are making similar gains in Morocco, Bahrain, and Kuwait. With additional gains, the Brotherhood could seize majority power – and that could mean the end of free elections in these countries.
Believing that Islamists are actually committed to democracy based on their participation in elections is like judging Adolf Hitler in 1933 based on his acceptance of the ballot box, not on what he wrote in "Mein Kampf."
The writings of the Muslim Brotherhood's founder, Hasan al Banna, were clear on the movement's main objective of implementing God's rule on earth. His view leaves no room for democratic decisions based on majority vote.
The use of violence was justified in unequivocal terms by Banna when he addressed the movement's fifth congress in 1939. And Islamist use of violence throughout the past three decades proves that Banna's teachings did not fall on deaf ears.
Yet, despite this violent pedigree, some observers insist that the movement is the exception and not the rule. Leading Arab democracy advocate Saad Eddin Ibrahim, for example, claims only in three cases (Taliban, Sudan, radicals in Iran) did Islamists come to power through violent coups, not peaceful democratic means.
The exceptions Dr. Ibrahim cites don't suggest that the Brotherhood is generally committed to democracy. Instead they show that the movement will adopt whatever means are necessary to advance its fundamentalist idelogy. Why stage a violent coup if a ballot box achieves the same result? Indeed, the violent seizure of the Gaza Strip in 2006 by Hamas – the Gaza branch of the Brotherhood that had just been democratically elected – shows that the movement's commitment to democracy is shallow.
The Arab Islamist movements' main obsession nowadays seems to be to oppose democratic values. The Muslim Brotherhood's agenda, recently posted on the Internet, was clear in this respect when it stated that both the president and the elected legislative council should be advised by a "supreme council of clerics" whose decisions "will be final." And to add insult to injury, non-Muslims and women are barred from the presidency.
It is worth noting that Islamist success in places like Egypt and the Palestinian territories was enhanced mainly by the failure of governments to provide schooling and health services to the needy. But the ability of an opposition movement to provide services to the poor doesn't say much about its ability to deliver once in power. The Shiite network in Iran was effective in managing charitable networks under the Shah. Once in power, however, the clerics failed miserably in managing the economy.
With these fascistic features of "Islamic democracy," no wonder the Islamists resort to bloody means to grab power. And no wonder they fail to deliver when faced with real-world challenges.
As the Islamists gain popularity and threaten democracy throughout the Arab world, lessons from a handful of Muslim countries show that repression isn't the solution.
In Tunisia, a large middle class and secular nongovernmental organizations made sure that there was no reversal of social modernization during the past five decades. They also constituted a buffer against the kind of Islamist violence that rocked its neighbor, Algeria. In Turkey, the electoral vote provided the ruling party with the needed credibility to amend laws regarding the rights of women and minorities, consistent with the membership requirements of the European Union.
And in Malaysia, better economic opportunities as well as a coalition between the predominant political party of Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi, the Malaysian Chinese Association, and the Malaysian Indian Congress enhanced racial harmony. Hence, the government didn't have to ban Islamists from participating in elections, once it thwarted their appeal.
A new lesson came from the Muslim world's largest country, Indonesia, which shifted recently from being terror-ridden to a role model. About two fifths of local elections in Indonesia have been won by coalitions between moderate religious and secular parties. And in last week's legislative election, the top three parties belong to the secular middle, while Islamists were the main loser and the violent Jemaah Islamiah, which was responsible for the Bali bombings in 2002, has been completely marginalized. Current governments should not oppress Islamists. Rather, they should undermine their appeal and out-compete them in socioeconomic spheres as well as in free elections.
For Washington, and the international community, the lesson is clear: Instead of supporting failed autocracies in the Middle East, resources should be provided to support groups struggling for modernization, secularism, and human rights. These groups are well-placed to carry out much needed educational, social, and economic reforms. That's what Turkey, Tunisia, and Malaysia did on their own, throughout the past five decades, with noticeable success. That's what Arab and Islamic countries should do now with Western help.
Abu Khawla is a human rights activist and writer.