Take three non-Arab countries from the Muslim world and you will find them all in the throes of the long, messy and painful process towards full democratic governance.
For all her faults, Benazir Bhutto as arch symbol of South Asian liberal aristocracy represented the single most popular non-military democratic power base in Pakistan. Her assassination and the subsequent turmoil the country has been thrown into has shown the world that an unpopular military government, even when backed by the mighty Bush, is failing to hold the country together.
Twelve months ago Bangladeshâ€™s army intervened to halt the elections, temporarily they claimed, and turned the lights out on democracy overnight. For the previous fifteen years, power alternated between two venal, incompetent, but nonetheless elected, political dynasties. But the last 12 months have been a difficult and often humiliating crash course in civilian administration for the military Care Taker Government. Thanks to the implacability of the secular constitution and a drastically weakened judiciary to enforce it, the generals, unpopular and clearly out of their depth, would be glad for a way to hand back the power they grabbed.
When Turkey elected the Islamist AK (Justice and Development) Party to power last year, many observers saw it as a rebuke by voters to the army for intervening in politics. The Turkish army regards itself as the “bulwark of secularism” and threatened to interfere in the elections. The AK, led by Recep Tayyib Erdogan, trounced his weaker, largely secular competitors in the elections on the back of sensible, well articulated policies. Erdogan knows full well that his continuing political success and the underlying legitimacy of his party depends on listening to the desires of the voters, and this in turn means to moderate the sharia component of his partyâ€™s manifesto and abide by the rules of democracy. Erdogan has shown that even an Islamist party is capable of gaining the trust of the electorate.
From the Economist:
First, most people in most places still want democracy. This near-universal appetite is evident not only in what people say (even in conservative Muslim countries, where God-given sharia can be more popular than any law made by man, people tell opinion pollsters they want to elect their own governments). It is also reflected in what people do. Kenya’s voters turned out in droves and queued for hours under a scorching sun. So in recent years, and at huge risk to life and limb, have voters in Afghanistan and Iraq.
Growing strong pluralist democracies in Pakistan and Bangladesh cannot be achieved by talking democracy up while giving tacit support to military backed autocrats. If you were to start a wish list you would ask for the building of institutional competencies framed by a rock-solid secular constitution. The role of the military in politics would have to be checked and it would have to be conditionally bound not to enter politics. Finally, Islamist parties would need to accept the role of sharia to cover only certain aspects of law, ethics and morality that are congruent with civil law. Divine law would be divested of its paramount position in regard to legislature. The last point is already in place; it is the pervasive role of the military that has been the greatest impediment to deal with. Made trickier since they get so much support from other powerful democracies in the west.
Democracies are inclusive by definition. In muslim-majority countries, this means it is not correct to deny the validity of Islamist parties which should be welcomed to operate as long as they demonstrate their willingness to play by the rules of the democratic process. Many of the mainstream Islamist parties already do: the AK in Turkey and Jamaati Islam in Bangladesh are adept political manouverers, playing the game as well the next secular party.
A friend of mine has a useful cricket metaphor when discussing democracy in muslim-majority countries: “People should be allowed to make messy and conflicting choices, noting that the process of building a liberal society is a long drawn out affair like building a test innings, not the wham-bam stuff of 20/20″. Quite.
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Filed in: Current affairs,South Asia