Revolutions have already begun before you’ve noticed they have. The downfall of dictators in Tunisia and Egypt can be the onset of a new era in the entire Arabic Islamic world: the desert’s domino theory. As yet, we’re dealing with a predominantly secular middle class revolution: the urban bourgeoisie acts as the driving force of resistance.
Not driven by religious motives, but in despair about the ongoing social and economic malaise, the corruption in all levels of society and the oppressive regime of police and security forces. One is almost tempted to give credit to Karl Marx’s theory of historic materialism: the bourgeoisie is rising against the feudal class and is throwing of the chains of repression.
The urban masses and the Islamists follow in the wake of middle class citizens, students and intellectuals. They are moving in the wild current of demonstrations and eager to claim their share when the moment comes of redistribution of political power. The religious fellow travelers of Egypt’s uprising, the Muslim Brethren, sense their chances, strengthened by the example of the Iranian revolution that was swiftly hijacked in the 1980’s by the ayatollahs and their Islamist thugs.
But danger is lurking everywhere. The awakening democratic impetus might be smothered in an early stage by radical Islam’s repressive tentacles. The fact is there is little room for democracy in Islamist thinking. Another fact is that the Establishment has shown to have little patience for religious radicalism. The Muslim Brethren have always been dealt with harshly by the Egyptian regime. The creation of an Islamic state in Egypt has been a definite no go for the dynasty of Nasser, Sadat and Mubarak. Massive employment of police and security forces took place to contain the activities of the Muslim Brotherhood. Cairo was not to be a second Teheran or Gaza.
The clan of Mubarak and his many-branched military and police system – however much anti-democratic and despicable it may have been – have served as an effective buffer against religious extremism. To put it in Marxist terms: the repressive system was the last defense against the power of pauperized proletarian masses under the influence of the opium of the people: religion.
This reality prompts a vital question: is the emerging democratic revolution able to cope with radical religious forces? To answer this question, let’s look at the characteristics of modern democracy. I propose to discuss some essential traits of democratic society: the right to vote for every man and woman, freedom of assembly and association, freedom of speech, separation of church and state, separation of administrative powers, equality of men and women before for the law and protection of the rights of minorities. How do radical Islam and the Muslim Brethren score on these points?
No democracy can exist without universal suffrage. Almost everyone will agree with that. All citizens should be able to cast their votes on candidates for representative bodies and should have the right to be elected themselves. With the former, the right to vote for every adult citizen, the Islamist will have no trouble. Off course, every vote for Islam counts. With the latter, the right of every citizen to be elected, the Islamist will not, at least not totally agree as far as it concerns women. The female representative has to do her work in the public domain among men, which is a sensitive, not to say prohibitive issue for the Islamist. He thinks basically the rightful place of women is in the seclusion of their homes and families, not in the public domain. Maybe women will not be explicitly forbidden to candidate, but they will undoubtedly be discouraged. And it is known how far this discouragement can go.
Closely related to the right to vote and to be elected is the freedom of assembly and association. This is about the right to convene meetings and assemblies and about the right to set up political parties, without prior consent of the authorities. In a democracy generally spoken everyone should be able to convene meetings and to set up a political party. It is a matter of fact that the Muslim Brethren are not known to be avid supporters of these democratic phenomena. The conduct of Hamas, their spiritual offspring in Gaza, is living proof. Hamas have banned every political party that does not conform to their strict religious and political standards. Moreover, Hamas have a policy of intimidating of terrorizing political foes. Members of Al-Fatah and the Palestinian Authority know all about it.
The freedom of speech simply cannot be exercised in an Islamistic context. It can only be practiced as long as it stays within religious and political boundaries set by Islamists. But the right to express oneself freely through any preferred channel, without precensorship or fear of repressive actions, is not acknowledged by Islamists. This goes for instance for Islamists in Pakistan, Iran, Sudan and Saudi-Arabia. And also for the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt. Islamists have a tendency to punish free expressions of thought harshly, ranging between corporeal punishment and execution. Too many poignant examples of sanctions imposed on free speech are available.
Separation of church and state is a non-entity in the Islamist world. The state is considered to be the public instrument that supports and upholds Islam vigorously with all necessary measures. Religious law, sharia, is integrated in the law system. The state is responsible for the appointment of imams, the building of mosques and the curriculum in the madrassas. Conversely, Islamist clergymen fill administrative and representative bodies. State and mosque overlap and cannot be disentangled. This also means that there is basically no clear separation of administrative powers within the state. In Islamist states the clergy usually has seats in the legislative, the executive and the judicial branches, mostly on the basis of legally set quota.
The Islamist has little understanding for the principle of equality of men and women before the law, nor for minority rights. Women have much less civil and social rights than men. In all Islamist regimes women are generally under tutelage of their husbands. For many legal acts women need permission of their husbands. Protection of ethnic and religious minorities is not high on the radical Islam’s agenda. At best, minorities are ignored. The worst case scenario is bullying and persecution. Gays’ rights are not respected at all. In Islamist states gays are persecuted consistently and actively.
The conclusion of this short test: the democratic content of Islamist beliefs is very low. We must not expect much from the Muslim Brotherhood on the path of democracy in Egypt. We can only hope that the protesting citizens will be able to control the radical religious forces that appear on the streets of Cairo. If not, Mubarak’s secular dictatorship will eventually be replaced by the Muslim Brotherhood’s religious dictatorship. Islamism and democracy aren’t best friends.