Recently, Egyptians voted in what seems to be perhaps their first free and fair elections. Voter turnout was a historic 62 percent. It seems likely that there were some election day rule violations, but on the whole, the vote seems to have been a remarkably free and fair success. It is now widely expected that the political wing of the Muslim Brotherhood, Egypt’s long-banned and just recently legalized, most famous Islamist party, will take the majority. This, coupled with the victory of the Moderate Islamists of the An Nahda party in Tunisia’s first post-Ben Ali elections, has caused a good deal of anxiety to pro-democrats who expected the instantaneous transformation of the Middle East into secular democracy with Western mores and values.
Now, I am certainly no fan of Islamism. And I think church and state should be kept entirely separate. But this fear of Islamism is out of touch with reality. In fact, that Islamism is getting the first chance to rule in these new democracies is probably better for secularists in the long run.
History, philosophy, and common sense all show that the pull of an ideology is strongest not when it is in power, but when it is not. It is not the quagmires of governance that attract new members or support, as America’s quick flip-flops between Republican and Democratic majorities show. Instead, the insulation of the Muslim Brotherhood from the realities of governance, due to their long-term ban, has allowed them to preach a message of political Islam similarly insulated from reality, self-contained and theoretical. Their position as the largest outspoken (if illegal) opposition to the Mubarak regime in all its years has only added to its heroic, yet unrealistic, image.
When the Muslim Brotherhood and other various Islamist political groups achieve power, they will be forced to respond to the real problems of governance. They will need to work with other ideologies and nations, and thus will be forced to moderate. We have already seen this. It is important not to forget that the most important bases of support for Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in Palestine are not their opposition to Israel or stockpiles of weapons, but rather their work in the social domains. Though these organizations certainly maintain military force, they have made their priorities social issue — the supply of power, water, and utilities to areas not served by the government, the distribution of welfare, and generally focusing on the domestic well-being of the populace — and it is this that earns them their support.
The militancy that some Islamist parties maintain tends to disappear when they achieve positions of power in democratic or even mildly representative contexts. Turkey, of course, is the prime example. That is not to say that Islamist parties are not conservative, even religious in their ideology, but so are the foundations of the Republican base in the United States. If it is the intensity that worries the West, well, nothing disillusions grand ideologies more than the profane minutiae of rule.
It is true that there is a caveat; many might be quick to point to Iran as an example of Islamism run amok, where religious rule means belligerence to the world and repression to the interior. Yet Iran is not a democratic state; it is a theocracy. The clerics, revolutionary guard, and conservative interests wield (for the most part) unchallenged military and political power, and thus need not compromise or respect minority rights. But if the principles of democracy are guarded and enshrined in the constitution — if the rights of free speech and minorities are protected — Islamism will take the peaceful civil trajectory that is compatible with democracy. Importantly, the interests of the Islamists, who were long oppressed and persecuted, are for free speech and tolerance to prevail, at least in the short run.
The fight is far from over, of course, but if this short run is long enough — as it seems likely to be, given the enormous fervor and support of dignity and freedom in the Middle East we have seen so far — these newly-free societies will cement these ideals to the point that they are, to a great degree, untouchable.