April 14, 2004

Islam and Democracy.

Anyone thinking about the prospects for pluralism and democracy in Iraq should study closely the lessons of Algeria:

Algeria's initial attempt at multiparty elections in December 1991 ended in disaster. The problem, Algerian officials say, was that the country picked the wrong moment to open the doors to pluralism and then opened them too wide. Algeria had slogged away for decades under a military-backed, single-party socialism that left the country's imams as the only credible opposition. By the late 1980's, the economy was in shambles - brought down by the oil-price collapse of 1986 - and the public was still angry about an incident in 1988 in which the military opened fire on antigovernment rioters and killed hundreds. Trying to address the discontent, the government began steps to liberalize in 1989 and held parliamentary elections in 1991.

"At that moment, we opened the doors to pluralism and the volcano blew," Ahmed Ouyahia, the country's prime minister, said of the parliamentary elections.

In a country that had not had any opposition political parties, fundamentalist Islamists had the popularity and organization to capitalize on the moment. They swept the first round of parliamentary elections and were almost certain to emerge from the second with the two-thirds parliamentary majority needed for the constitutional reforms that would have turned Algeria into an Islamic state. Among their stated goals: basing the country's justice system on the strict dictates of the Shariah, or Islamic law.
Now, as far as I can tell, there are two broad strategies for making a predominantly Islamic state amenable to democracy (as we know it). First, a benevolent dictator can ban all Islamic parties for a period of time, allowing other, secular parties to organize themselves into credible alternatives. This is exactly what the Algerian military did, stepping in after the 1991 elections and prohibiting all political parties based on religious belief. Of course, that process has taken over 13 years, and even today, Islamic parties need to be strong-armed, and the military elite still dominates politics.

The second strategy is for intellectual leaders to create and promote a popular doctrine that reconciles the central Islamic tenets (especially shari'ah law) with democratic ideals. Khaled Abou el Fadl has explored this topic thoroughly in Boston Review. Among other things, Islamic society needs to develop a theory or understanding of individual human rights, and well as a mature practice of legal interpretation. Obviously, this also takes much, much longer than the Algerian method-- Christianity took 1700 painstaking years to reach that point. But it's also a more permanent solution.

Notice, of course, that neither of this approaches would really work for Iraq. We simply can't ban Islamic parties-- whatever the CPA looks like, it will have to have a highly religious Shiite component. But neither can we force Iraqis to "evolve" into ultra-democratic Muslims overnight. So that leaves us with our current 'strategy': hoping all our chaotic planning will just, er, jumble itself into place.
-- Brad Plumer 12:47 PM || ||