Does the Road to Democracy Run through Islamist Parties?

by Mario Loyola

This week, Reuel Marc Gerecht wrote an arresting op-ed in the Wall Street Journal, arguing that the Muslim world may not be able to get to democracy except through the rise of Islamist parties. The op-ed was arresting not just because of its argument, but also because of its source: Gerecht is a hawk and a realist. That’s why I, for one, would love to know what my friend Andy McCarthy, inveterate realist and a hawk’s hawk, might have to say in response.  

Gerecht argues that Islamist parties have already absorbed many ethics of democratic governance, including suffrage for women. The give-and-take factionalism of representative assemblies, he says, will give these Islamist parties an increasing stake in democratic institutions.  

It’s a challenging argument. One reason to doubt it is that authoritarian, anti-democratic governments have often come to power through the ballot box, and have almost as often established dictatorships with broad-based popular support. That indeed is how the Nasser regime became established in Egypt in the 1950s. Maybe I’m missing something, but I fail to see why the same thing couldn’t easily happen again now. In fact, I see a big reason why it could happen again, namely that much of the Muslim world retains a cultural vision of dependency on government, rather than the vision of self-reliance and self-government that a society must absorb for democracy to flourish. (Incidentally, that’s why so many conservatives worry about the prospects for our own democracy if Obama succeeds in his project of creating a government-centered middle-class entitlement state). 

As the brilliant former assistant secretary of defense Mary Beth Long pointed out in a speech to the Herzliya conference last year, “Democracy is about values, and about institutions, and about the rule of law.” The tyranny of the majority doesn’t count, even if it comes about by the ballot box. Hence, argued Ms. Long, “The democratic stirrings in Egypt and elsewhere may bring about profoundly undemocratic results.”  

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