Despite stalled Arab Spring, Muslim nations grasp for democracy

Elections in Pakistan and Malaysia show step-by-step progress to reconcile Islam with secular values of elected government.

AP Photo
Roads in Pakistan's capital of Islamabad are decorated with posters of candidates taking part in the May 11 election. Candidates restricted their campaigns to corner meetings and social media due to ongoing attacks by Taliban on the offices and rallies of various political parties.

Two years on, the Arab Spring has stalled. Only four countries in the Middle EastTunisia, Egypt, Libya, and Yemen – have advanced from despotic rule toward democracy, even if slowly.

Yet among the world’s Muslim countries that are already democratic, a similar struggle continues, one to reconcile the world’s second largest religion with secular democracy. Two elections show how this struggle is faring:

On May 11, voters in Pakistan go to the polls in what could be a historic transition – the first democratic transfer of civilian power. Yet while this would signify how the military’s role has lessened in Pakistan, Muslim radicals who denounce democracy as “un-Islamic” have given the secular political parties a hard time – with bombs and guns. Hundreds of people have been killed during the campaign by the Taliban and other militants in an attempt to thwart the elections and create an Islamic state.

Faith in democracy remains weak in Pakistan, especially given the level of government corruption. The country is also home to one of the most violent clashes between Islam’s two major groups, Sunnis and Shiites. Fewer than 1 in 3 voters prefers an elected government to solve the country’s problems, according to a Pew Research Center global survey. A majority want a “strong leader.” Thus it would be a milestone if Pakistan can rely on a fair (but violent) election for its first transfer of power between elected civilian leaders. The world should cheer this progress in one of the most troubled Muslim nations.

Pakistan’s woes contrast sharply with the May 5 election in Malaysia. This Southeast Asian nation, which is two-thirds Muslim, has had to worry little about Islamic radicalism in its politics. The Pew polls find an overwhelming faith in elected government – 67 percent – nearly as high as that in Turkey, a country seen as a model for reconciling Islam with democracy.

Malaysia’s election has focused mainly on whether to unseat the world’s longest continually elected governing coalition, the Barisan Nasional. Much of politics in Malaysia revolves around ethnic tensions far more than religious ones.

Democracy has helped this resource-rich nation become one of the “Asian tiger” economies. In the election campaign, Muslims mostly debated which party would best continue this progress.

In its survey of 39 countries with Muslim populations, the Pew survey found most Muslims favor democracy over authoritarian rule. They reject attacks on civilians, such as suicide bombings.

Yet even in long-democratic nations like Malaysia, the poll found strong minorities want Islamic leaders to have a “large” role in politics. In newly liberated Tunisia and Egypt, a slight majority of Muslims say Islamic parties are better than other political parties.

The Arab Spring is really a major example of Islam’s continuing struggle to reconcile its theology and practices with the democratic practices of civil liberties, free and fair elections, and secular rule of law. The spirit of the Arab Spring is just searching for directions. Its grander meaning is being played out in any Muslim country with a history of democracy.

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