POMED Notes: “Civil Rights in Muslim Democracies”
Georgetown University’s Berkley Center for Religion, Peace and World Affairs held a panel discussion entitled “Civil Rights in Muslim Democracies” with Jocelyne Cesari, Senior Research Fellow at the Berkley Center, Daniel Brumberg, Associate Professor of Government and Co-Director of Democracy and Governance Studies at Georgetown University, Jose Casanova, Professor of Sociology at Georgetown University, and Nader Hashemi, Assistant Professor of Middle East and Islamic Politics at the Josef Korbel School of International Studies, University of Denver. Jose Casanova moderated.
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Jose Casanova opened the panel discussion by briefly introducing and thanking the panelists and framing the discussion of civil rights in Muslim democracies around three main points on which the panelists would discuss further in their individual statements: 1) protection of minorities; 2) gender equality; and 3) freedom of expression.
Joselyne Cesari began by recognizing the transition in the Middle East from the “Arab Spring” to the “Arab Awakening” and the transition from popular uprisings to the organization of Islamist political parties. Stating the question “do Islamist movements remain a threat,” Cesari echoed the often-repeated fear that Islamists are not working within the political process to establish democracy but are instead using elections to impose theocracy – an unfounded sentiment we must abandon, she asserted. Rather than upholding this idea, Islamist parties in post-revolution Arab societies are developing a model for working within the nation state and within the political process, although it does mean that such experiments in democratic governance will lead to Western-style democracies. Noting that many Arab societies agree with the principle of Shari’a as a way of life, scholars are ill-equipped to discuss this dichotomy beyond European experiences with religion and governance, and the experience of Islamist parties in post-revolution societies opens a new way of viewing the relationship of Islam in politics.
Daniel Brumberg offered a way of viewing the transformations in the Arab world from authoritarianism by understanding how authoritarianism was originally established, noting that it existed not just through force but also through patronage to a number of minority groups within society, such as secular women’s groups, the intelligentsia – working middle class and business elites – and minority religious sects and ethnicities such as Berbers and Kurds. Successful transitions must include protections to society’s minorities, which mitigate the fears of losing protection rackets within any new regime by members of minorities and provide instruments by which they can negotiate within the political sphere. A real obstacle to the transition from authoritarianism to democracy is the lack of consensus and the subsequent rules by which groups come to agreement on governance. He noted Tunisia as one positive example of political consensus among secularists and Islamists to negotiate rules for transition from authoritarianism to democracy.
Nader Hashemi quoted his previous work on political Islam and noted that “Islamic democracy cannot avoid pushing through the gates of Islamic politics,” and stressed that assuming Western history is universal in understanding the process of democratization is analytically distorting the historical experiences of the Middle East. Rather, as Hashemi pointed out, a new framework of analysis is needed to understand the role of Islam within democracy, noting that there is danger in comparing the experiences of first and third world countries when using modernization as a tool of analysis. Similarly, the legacy of post-colonial state building – the legacy of distrust and political polarization within Arab societies – must be incorporated. Hashemi also warned against assuming that secularists are “the good guys” and Islamists are “the bad guys” in Arab civil societies. Finally, Hashemi stressed that “we must have a sense of history and realize there are no quick fixes,” that long-term processes of democracy and state building must play out.
Jose Casanova made the point that the ghost of Samuel Huntington’s “Clash of Civilizations” needlessly saturates the discourse on the role of democracy in Arab civil societies. He noted that Huntington’s idea was conceived as a Christian model of analytic investigation, which negates the history that many states experienced in transitioning from authoritarianism. He stressed that Huntington’s model for understanding this transition is biased by the fact that the majority of the examples he cited were Catholic states, which fails to take into account the unique trans-historical experiences of Islamic society. Similarly, reflecting on the experiences of Catholic political parties before and after transitions from authoritarianism, formerly religiously hegemonic societies such as those in modern Europe are now highly secular and diversified societies, a point that must be understood when analyzing the role of Islamists today.
Jose Casanova opened the discussion to a brief interchange between the panelists on their respective statements. Daniel Brumberg noted that the idea of post-Islamism becomes an essentialist one and problematic to a real discussion on the role of Islam in civil society, underscoring the example of the Ennahda party in Tunisia and its need to incorporate various Islamist political constituencies, including Salafists, to constitute its base. Jocelyne Cesari similarly warned against using the post-Islamist label to discuss Arab civil societies because it incorporates a broad spectrum of society with competing allegiances. Nader Hashemi agreed with Daniel Brumberg’s assessment of Tunisia’s positive future, but said he believed that Ennahda must reach out to broader constituencies beyond Islamists to continue being elected. Jose Casanova exemplified the competition between Salifists and the Muslim Brotherhood movements as a testament to the working political process in post-revolution states.
Jose Casanova opened the Q&A portion and opened the discussion to attendees. One attendee asked whether the Tunisian ruling troika of political parties constituted authoritarianism given the fact that it continues to delay elections on forming a constitutional body. Nader Hashemi answered by stating that constitutional construction is a process and warned against Tunisians moving too quickly as Egypt did to produce a working constitution. He further noted that Tunisia’s transition is considered a success so far because its transition is governed by consensus among political parties that are gradually moving towards a constitution. Daniel Brumberg added that constitution writing and democracy promotion are two separate and difference processes, which, whether fast or slow, must be respected, unlike in Egypt. In answering a question concerning the role of women in democracy promotion in Pakistan, Jocelyne Cesari stated that religion does not have a negative role on democracy – that states needn’t be purely secular – and that the interpretation of Islam is what is at stake, warning against women’s rights are endangered when states move from Muslim states to Islamic states. On whether the West’s historical experiences with democracy are compatible with the Arab world’s, Nader Hashemi pointed stressed that the West wasn’t always respectful of rights during transition. In response to the question of whether religion is incompatible with democracy, or whether democracy is incompatible with religion, Jocelyne Cesari states that individuals in the Arab world want political rights and for states to recognize that, adding that they should similarly have the right not to believe in anything.