Where are the Arab-Muslim liberals?
Politics and the Prophet
The New Republic
Can Islam and democracy be reconciled? The vexed old question has enjoyed
a revival since January of last year, when Algeria's ruling party voided
the results of that country's first free parliamentary election. The election
gave an overwhelming mandate to the party of Islamic fundamentalism, whose
most outspoken leader affirmed that "it is Islam which has been the
victor, as always, not democracy. We did not go to the ballot boxes for
There are some in the West who have tried to sweep such fundamentalist disavowals
of democracy under the rug. They include not only apologists for Islam,
but also engineers in the democracy foundations, for whom no job is too
big. The masses vote for Islam, they admit, but really they want democracy;
the leaders talk revival, but really they mean reform. Yet the fundamentalists
continue to spin their indictments of dimuqratiyya as a foreign and
superfluous innovation. "One does not vote for God," declared
the same Algerian fundamentalist. "One obeys Him."
Unlike many of the West's democracy doctors, Fatima Mernissi entertains
no illusions about the fundamentalists. Mernissi, a feminist who teaches
sociology at the Université Mohammed V in the Moroccan capital of
Rabat, has seen them up close. And they have seen more of her than they
would like — "an educated woman, unveiled, agitating in the street in
the name of the Charter of the United Nations and against the shari'a,"
the revealed law of Islam. At times they have tried to smother her voice.
Her earlier book, The Veil and the Male Elite, was banned in Morocco
after its publication in France. In this newest statement from the front
line of the cultural war, Mernissi has ventured beyond women's rights into
human rights. Yet now that a generational surge of Islamic fundamentalism
threatens to stuff the ballot boxes of the Arab world, this courage is
also quite useless as a realistic guide to what should be done.
Mernissi's point of departure is a dissenting interpretation of Islam's
historical legacy. It is currently fashionable to argue that an Islamic
civil society, born with the faith, survived and even thrived despite a
rapid turnover of absolute rulers; that, under the tumultuous surface of
politics, Islamic society maintained an inner harmony that lasted for a
millennium, until the rude intrusion of the West. Mernissi will have nothing
to do with this anodyne reading of history. She sees an Arab past marked
by "incessant bloodbaths," and a present haunted by "the
phantom ship of those who were decapitated for refusing to obey":
Opposition forces have constantly rebelled and tried to kill
the leader, and he has always tried to obliterate them. This dance of death
between authority and individuality is for the Muslim repressed, for it
is soaked in the blood and violence that no civilization lets float to the
surface. . . The West is frightening because it obliges the Muslims to exhume
the bodies of all the opponents, both religious and profane, intellectuals
and obscure artisans, who were massacred by the caliphs.
Such an utterance would incur general censure in many a university center
for Islamic or Middle Eastern studies. It is all that more courageous to
pronounce such truths from within a society where every schoolchild knows
these caliphs as heroes of a golden age, and where every history textbook
fixes the blame for the modern Arab malaise solely on foreign intruders.
And there is personal risk in drawing too close a parallel between past
and present, as Mernissi does when she avers that today's Arab politicians,
in power and opposition, "continue to succeed in gutting one of the
most promising religions in human history of its substance."
No eastern Arab land would long suffer such a voice, whose allusions to
the despotism of the Damascus and Baghdad caliphates are too contemporary.
These are countries where the earliest disputes of Islam still simmer, especially
over the flame of the persistent dissent of Shiites. But North Africa, the
far west of the Arab world, and as much Berber as Arab, is sufficiently
removed from the early events that compromised Islam to see them with an
altogether clear eye. So it was in the time of Ibn Khaldun, and so it remains
today. Mernissi's voice is not a lone one; it echoes those of other North
African intellectuals, such as the Tunisian Moncef Marzouki, whose book
of a decade ago caused an uproar. "Our past has been a series of plots
and wars," he wrote. "We are almost completely ignorant about
those who were oppressed, crucified and murdered to keep the face of truth
from being revealed."
Historical Islam may have been dominated by despots and rebels, but Mernissi
believes there has always been another Islam yearning to be free. This Islam
had its origins in the egalitarian message of the Prophet, but also, and
far more importantly, in the teachings of the ninth- and tenth-century rationalist
philosophers, known as the Mu'taliza. They placed reason on the same plane
as revelation and borrowed liberally from extra-Islamic sources, especially
Greek philosophy. Mernissi compares them to the Enlightenment philosophers
of the West, and makes them champions of humanism and individualism, whose
doctrines so menaced rulers that they severed them with the sword. The stump
has been "an infected wound that the East has been carrying for centuries."
But Mernissi, following her metaphor of mutilation to the end, avers that
"having an arm amputated is not the same as being born with an arm
missing." A sense of the severed limb persists. By this logic, democracy
is not foreign to Islam, and Muslims are wrong to fear that its spread might
compromise the integrity of Islam. On the contrary, it would heal the injury
inflicted by "despotic politicians" long ago.
The credibility of such an argument is probably not for an unbeliever to
weigh. Islam is what Muslims make of it, and if Mernissi's polemic is to
succeed, it must defeat the opposing view of the fundamentalists. They argue
that God revealed his sacred law, the shari'a, obviating all need
for human legislation or legislators. The present secular rulers are tyrants
not because they govern absolutely, but because they govern without reference
to Islamic law. Implementation of this law is the primary duty of government;
and if an authoritarian state enforces the law, then its legitimacy is indisputable.
Indeed, just government should be authoritarian, because it rests upon the
unquestionable authority of the law. The wise ruler should consult the leaders
of society for their advice. But democracy, the perpetual plebiscite, is
the very essence of arbitrary government, since it turns on popular whim.
Participation in elections is admissible, perhaps, as a way to acquire power
for Islam. But once that power is established, any means are permissible
for its preservation.
Now to believe Mernissi, the masses have already chosen democracy over shari'a.
As evidence, she offers (of all things) the massive demonstrations against
the Gulf war, in which she herself participated. This outpouring, described
in her book with an enthusiasm that evokes accounts of Eastern Europe's
revolutions, supposedly protested the absence of democracy and the waste
of resources — both epitomized by Saudi Arabia, at that time flooded by foreign
troops. The Western media portrayed these demonstrations as groundswells
of fundamentalist xenophobia, but Mernissi claims otherwise, invoking the
demonstration that she joined. "Fundamentalists were among the demonstrators,"
she allows, "but many other groups were present, including all the
branches of the Moroccan Left and thousands of independents like me, of
all persuasions, from university students and professors to shopkeepers."
But this evidence is equivocal at best. A better argument could be made
that those demonstrations were neither about democracy nor Islam. If anything
ran through the chanting crowds that filled the streets, it was anti-imperialism, a desire to see West's nose bloodied just once — and an admiration for
Saddam, who proved himself a man of honor by defying America and keeping
his promise to attack Israel. It is one of the paradoxes of Mernissi's quixotic
vision that she sees so clearly across centuries but cannot make out the
pattern of a crowd. The grim truth is that there have been no massive demonstrations
for democracy in the Arab world, whereas the demand for an Islamic state
has managed to fill boulevards, and not just during the Gulf war. The problem
is not that the pro-democracy liberals fear coming out into the street.
It is their fear that they would not fill it.
For, despite the efforts of Mernissi and others, the reading of democracy
into Islam seems forced for most Muslims. It too closely resembles the strained
attempt of a generation ago to read socialism into Islam. Those many dusty
tomes on Islamic socialism are an embarrassment today, and caused some Muslim
grumbling even when they were de rigueur. ("There is no God and Karl
Marx is his Prophet," ran a comic play on the Islamic profession of
faith.) As Muslims have watched ideology supersede ideology among the unbelievers,
they have stopped trying to reconcile Islam with the current vogue. Instead,
they have rallied around a literalist reading of Islam's sources as an anchor
against successive waves of Western thought. The demagogues of contemporary
Islam have worked this into a simple message of salvation through Islamic
law, with which Mernissi's intellectualized juggling of the sources cannot
possibly compete. Fundamentalism's leading spokesman, the Sudan's Hasan
al-Turabi, has put it bluntly: movements like those in Iran and Algeria
"are without elitism or obsession with quality. They represent quantity
and the people." The aim is power, by packing the ballot boxes or the
streets, and the fundamentalists have been unbeatable at both.
If democracy is to have any chance in the Arab world, its outnumbered friends,
Mernissi among them, will have to forge alliances of convenience. They have
two choices. They can negotiate with existing regimes, in the hope that
the nudging of the West might ultimately produce a gradual transformation,
or they can march with the fundamentalists and pray against all odds that
they survive militant Islam's excesses to emerge as equal partners. The
starkness of this choice has been brought home by the events in Algeria,
where a civil war may be brewing. The Arab world now stands poised on the
brink of a great contest between an increasingly pan-Islamic fundamentalism
and a region-wide alliance of threatened regimes. Wherever the gale strikes,
the brave friends of democracy will have to scatter for shelter under one
roof or the other.
And yet Mernissi, in a disturbing show of naïvete that may afflict
the liberals as a whole, rejects all potential allies. The fundamentalists,
who openly preach against democracy and would consign women to servitude,
are hardly trustworthy partners. To her mind, however, neither are the regimes,
especially those that have been supported or bailed out by the West. All
of them have wasted the wealth of the Arabs on arms. One of them, Saudi
Arabia, is already fundamentalist, and is singled out by Mernissi as the
Arab regime "most contemptuous of human rights" — an odd determination,
which can only inspire admiration for Saddam's cover-up. Other regimes,
in a grab for legitimacy, are deemed likely to play the fundamentalist card
themselves, creating a "tele-petro-Islam" bounced off satellites
to the entire Arab world, demanding obedience and preaching obscurantism.
Mernissi still believes in the masses, but they have been duped, kept in
ignorance by relentless media manipulation.
And so in the end, she envisions only one salvation: the West. In an act
of supreme altruism, Mernissi concludes, the West should "use its power
to install democracy in the Arab world." It must support the demands
of "progressive forces" against both regimes and fundamentalists,
and even "promote the creation of a civil society." For the Arab
world, like it or not, has become a virtual ward of the West:
The American president has taken on ethical responsibility for
the region, and along with him François Mitterrand and Helmut Kohl
and the citizens who elected them in the representative democracies of the
West. Whoever consumes Arab oil is responsible.
If the West does nothing but back the status quo, argues Mernissi, it will
"in great part be responsible for the avalanche of violence which will
descend on all those who call for democracy, with women at the head of the
This amounts to an appeal that the West take direct responsibility for rearranging
the inner politics of the region — to build an empire of democracy. The petition
deserves a hearing, for its liberal authors stand alone in the Arab world
in their belief in democracy and in the West's mission to defend freedom.
True, there are some in the West, mesmerized by the sheer numbers of fundamentalists,
who have begun to dream wistfully of a mass conversion of Muslim zealots
into admirers of democracy and the West. But this is illusion. The fundamentalists,
even as they flood the polling places, hold democracy in utter contempt
and imagine the West to be on the verge of collapse, rotted away by unbelief
and materialism. Liberals like Mernissi are democracy's only true friends
in Arab lands, and they are right to ask whether "the West will be
a pioneer in establishing those universal values that it preaches and that
we have come to love."
But the West has other responsibilities too. It must assure the flow of
oil out of the region. It must block the flow of weapons of mass destruction
into the region. It must discourage aggression by ambitious states like
Iraq and Iran. It must work to reconcile Arabs and Israelis, lest they launch
an unimaginably destructive war upon one another. And the West must do all
this at a time when the peoples of the former Communist countries are also
in dire need of assistance if their own ventures in democracy are not to
For all these reasons, the West has balanced its commitment to democracy
with support of those Arab regimes that endorse its other objectives. They
include Egypt, Tunisia, Morocco, Jordan, Kuwait and, yes, Saudi Arabia.
The governments of these countries have been encouraged to make gradual
progress toward political pluralism, within the limits imposed by the struggle
against fundamentalist violence. The progress has been slow, and there have
been disappointments. There will be more progress, more setbacks. But the
alternative to this gradualism is a maelstrom of intervention and revolution,
in a region armed to its teeth and seething with hatreds of every imaginable
If Arab liberals reject gradualism and refuse to enter partnerships with
reforming regimes, the cause of democracy will be lost. They no doubt would
prefer that liberal democracy be established immediately, even through Western
intervention, so that they might inculcate its values through the apparatus
of the state. According to Mernissi, "The power of the modern West
has been built by state propagation, through public schools, of that humanism
that the Arab masses have never had the right to." In this view, an
Arab state governed by a liberal elite, controlling the media and education,
could transform society from above.
But the liberals' possession of the state, if conferred by the West, would
constitute a short-lived triumph. The Mu'taliza, Mernissi's heroes, also
enjoyed a moment of power, when they gained the ear of a sympathetic caliph
in the ninth century. They promptly instituted an inquisition, to make their
rationalism prevail. But caliphs came and went, and soon the tables turned.
If democracy is to stand on its own shaky feet, it has to evolve through
a process of compromises — an abbreviated process, for time is short, but
still a process that is itself proto-democratic, involving the establishment
of balances between competing interests. Only such a process can generate
the rudimentary values of pluralism, which owe nothing to state propagation
and everything to the friction of politics.
Mernissi and the Arab liberals, in short, cannot escape the need for politics.
Still, who cannot admire the pure flame of her own extraordinary humanism,
and her refusal to compromise principle? This is a rare book, written from
within the Arab world but without fear. It is dangerous to walk this path
without minding one's back, but it is also liberating.
© Martin Kramer
|Martin Kramer, "Politics and the Prophet," The New Republic, March 1, 1993.
The article is a review of Fatima Mernissi, Islam and Democracy: Fear of the Modern World, published by Addison-Wesley.