Gerecht: Islamic Concept of Justice Feeds Democracy
In a New York Times piece, former CIA Middle Eastern specialist Reuel Marc Gerecht reflects on Egypt and the democracy movement in the Middle East.
A revulsion against the Iraq war and a distaste for President Bush helped to blind people to the spread of democratic sentiments in the region. It blinded them to the fact that among Middle Easterners, democracy, not dictatorship, was now seen as a better vehicle for economic growth and social justice.
Most important, Mr. Bush’s distastefulness helped to blind Westerners to the momentous marriage of Islamism and democratic ideas. Men and women of devout faith, who cherish (if not always rigorously follow) Shariah law increasingly embraced the convulsive idea that only elected political leadership was legitimate. Islam puts extraordinary emphasis upon the idea of justice — the earthbound quid pro quo that a man can expect in a righteous life.
This sense of justice, which Iraq’s Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani expressed so forcefully in 2004 against an American occupation fearful of letting Iraqis vote, has been irreversibly welded to the ballot box. Democracy for the faithful has become a means for society to affirm its most cherished Islamic values.
As for Egypt:
What we are likely to see in Egypt is not a repeat of Iran, where fundamentalists took undisputed power, but a repeat of Iraq, where Sunni religious parties did well initially but started to fade, divide and evolve as the powerful Sunni preference for laymen of no particular religious distinction comes to the foreground. Sunni Islam has no clerical hierarchy of the holy — it’s tailor-made for nasty arguments among men who dispute one another’s authority to know the righteous path. If the Brotherhood can be corralled by a democratic system, the global effect may not be insignificant.
Given what is going on in Iran today, Gerecht’s thoughts on that country seem prescient:
One of the great under-reported stories of the end of the 20th century was the enormous penetration of the West’s better political ideas — democracy and individual liberty — into the Muslim consciousness. For those of us who speak and read Persian, the startling evolution was easier to see. Theocracy-versus-democracy has been a defining theme of the Islamic Republic of Iran since the revolution, which harnessed both Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini’s religious charisma and the secular intelligentsia’s democratic aspirations. Over the last three decades, clerical Iran has nurtured an intense intellectual discourse about the duties that man owes to God.
When the legitimacy of theocracy started to unravel amid the regime’s corruption and brutality in the late 1980s, democratic ideas, including powerful democratic interpretations of the Islamic faith, roared forth. The explosion on the streets after the fraudulent presidential elections of June 2009 was just the most visible eruption of the enormous democratic pressures that had built up underneath the republic’s autocracy. More regime-threatening moments are surely coming.
I’ve left a lot out; it’s worth reading the whole thing.