POL201Y1 Lecture Notes - Lecture 7: Vali Nasr, Islamic Democracy, Iranian Revolution
Lecture 7: Religion and Politics (July 25)
The Rise of “Muslim Democracy”
•View political life with a pragmatic eye.
•Reject or at least discount the classic Islamist claim that Islam commands the pursuit of a
•Their main goal tends to be the more mundane one of crafting viable electoral platforms and
stable governing coalitions to serve individual and collective interests within a democratic
Islamists view democracy not as something deeply legitimate, but at best as a tool or tactic that may
be useful in gaining the power to build an Islamic state.
Muslim Democrats on the other hand, do not seek to enshrine Islam in politics, though they do wish
to harness its potential to help them win votes.
The rise of Muslim Democracy has resulted in traditional Muslim vales being integrated into
political platforms designed to win regular democratic elections.
As a result of this Muslim majority countries tend to dominate all other political parties.
In these Muslim societies, the “vital center” of politics is likely to belong neither to secularist and
leftist parties nor to Islamists.
Political parties that integrate Muslim values and moderate Islamic politics into broader right-of-
center platforms that go beyond exclusively religious concerns will rule the strategic middle. This can
appeal to a broad cross section of voters and create a stable ground between religious and secular
Muslim Democrats can begin from an Islamist point of departure, but may also form from non-
religious parties. Eg. Military run organizations
Muslim Democracy rests not on an abstract, carefully thought-out theological and ideological
accommodation between Islam and democracy, but rather on a practical synthesis that is emerging
in much of the Muslim world in response to the opportunities and demands created by the ballot box.
Muslim democracy somewhat resembles Christian democracy.
Liberalism and Consolidation
The depth of commitment to liberal and secular values that democratic consolidation requires is a
condition for Muslim Democracy’s final success. As was the case with Christian Democracy in
Europe, it is the imperative of competition inherent in democracy that will transform the unsecular
tendencies of Muslim Democracy into a long-term commitment to democratic values.
Muslim Democrats are in the streets looking for votes and in the process are changing Islam’s
relation to politics.
The rise of Muslim Democracy suggests that political change will come before religious change.
Islamist ideology, which has dominated political debates calls for the creation of a utopian Islamic
state that notionally vests all sovereignty in God. This call is based on a narrow interpretation of
Islamic law, and promotes an illiberal, authoritarian politics that leaves little room for civil liberties,
cultural pluralism, the rights of women and minorities, and democracy.
The Islamist surge since the Iranian Revolution of 1979 has led many to argue that well-organized
and determined Islamists will use democratic reforms in Muslim-majority societies to seize power
(probably through one-time elections) and impose theocracy (priests ruling in the name of God).
Democracy should therefore wait until liberalization via ideological and religious reform can blunt
the Islamist threat.
In each land, the Muslim Democratic experiment has proceeded more or less independently.
•In Turkey and Malaysia, Muslim Democracy is a winning electoral formula that has yet to
fully articulate a vision for governing.
•In Indonesia, Muslim Democracy is less a platform and more a space wherein a number of
parties are struggling to strike the right balance between secular politics and Muslim values.
•In Bangladesh, it is still only an ad hoc political alliance between right-of-center and Islamist
parties that has captured the middle but has yet to resolve its own internal political and
The Muslim Democratic movements could become more like one another, or they could begin to take
diverging paths. Muslim Democracy could prove an independent force for moderation within Islam,
or it could become a reflection rather than a shaper of society’s religious values.
The rise of Muslim Democracy has depended on the interplay of several factors:
•Muslim Democracy has surfaced in countries where democracy emerged after the military
formally withdrew from politics, but remained a powerful player de facto.
oMilitary involvement in politics had 3 effects
Limited the Islamists’ room to manoeuvre.
Gave all parties an incentive to avoid confronting the military while angling
for advantage within the democratic process.
Led to more elections, political realignments, and shifts in coalitions,
accelerating and intensifying experimentation with new political formulas.
•Muslim Democracy has emerged in societies where the private sector matters. The less state-
dependent and more integrated into the world economy a country’s private sector is, the
more likely the country is to see Muslim Democracy gain traction as a political force.
•The existence of strong competition over votes. With no one party being able to easily
dominate the process, all parties feel pressed to act pragmatically.
In Muslim-majority countries where the factors listed above do not exist or are weak, the prospects
that Muslim Democracy will emerge are much lower.
Limits and Potential
oThe military did full-bore Islamism a huge favour by yanking the PML (Pakistan
Muslim League) from power and stopping the country’s uncertain yet real progress
toward Muslim Democracy.
oThe AKP (Justice and Development Party) is popular in Istanbul and Ankara slums
where Islamists have become known for their efficient management of social services
such as law enforcement, sewage disposal, and trash pickup. The AKP “conservative
democracy” also appeals to the “Anatolian tigers”—the pious and prosperous Muslims
of the new private sector.
oTo keep those with more traditional Islamist leanings on board, the AKP is often
more enthusiastic on secular matters than on their purely religious concerns.
The Burdens and Limits of Power
Will the AKP (Justice and Development Party) prove itself able to establish a coherent definition of
Muslim Democracy that can channel the politics of Islamic concerns and aspirations into liberal-
The answers will come not from the realm of theory and ideology, but from that of pragmatism and
Competitions for power are promoting continual and far-reaching change, regardless of whatever the
AKP’s original intentions may have been.
Muslim Democracy offers the whole world its best hope for an effective barricade against radical and
violent Islamism. Muslim Democracy provides a model for pragmatic change. That change will in
turn be the forerunner, not the follower, of more liberal Islamic thought and practice.