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Moderate Islamists and peaceful democracy

By Louay Abdulbaki - posted Monday, 10 December 2007

It has become widely acknowledged that political exclusion and oppression fosters extremism, whereas democratic participation encourages moderation and compromise. While the former is evident in the experiences of many Islamic groups with authoritarian regimes in the Middle East, the latter can be observed through the political stances of Islamic political parties in post-Suharto Indonesia.

Can we have an Indonesian kind of inclusive Muslim democracy in the Middle East?

One of the most contentious issues in relation to the promotion of democracy is whether or not the political process in newly emerging democracies should be unreservedly open to all political forces for free and fair contestation. Should “un-democratic” forces, for example, be isolated and suppressed in order for the democratisation process to proceed steadily? Although there is some logic in this argument, in actuality it only provides autocratic rulers with the justification to hamper democratic reform and curtail civil liberties.


Many Western governments that have prioritised the promotion of democracy in their foreign agenda, particularly the current US administration, often join human rights organisations in criticising human rights violations and undemocratic elections in authoritarian states. However, when it comes to the repression and persecution of Islamic political movements and activists, Western governments’ criticism of these regimes tends to be very quiet and gentle.

The reluctance and inconsistency of many Western and international players in their promotion of democracy in Muslim countries is largely due to recent rise of Islamist electoral gains and popularity in some Muslim countries. Egypt is a notable example, where the Muslim Brotherhood achieved an unprecedented success in the 2005 legislative elections winning 88 seats in parliament (20 per cent of total seats). These concerns are indeed exaggerated and skillfully exploited by authoritarian regimes that still rely on US support to perpetuate the status quo.

It would be very short sighted to think that the exclusion and suppression of Islamic political actors would weaken their social and popular support. While this may temporary weaken the political influence of the moderate Islamists who adopt peaceful democratic means, it only strengthens violent groups and fosters underground activism, which appears as the only viable alternative to open and transparent action on the face of uncompromising despots.

Western support of authoritarian rulers, especially with regards to US’s alliances with the so-called “moderate regimes” in the Middle East, sends a wrong message to the people in these countries. This is one of the reasons why the West has been increasingly associated in the eyes of the oppressed with their oppressors and, thus, being held responsible for their long sufferings.

We cannot promote democracy and side with the oppressors, and there is no wisdom in taking an autonomous stance in this struggle for freedom. It is in the interests of the whole world to minimise the sufferings of the unfortunate and to eliminate all kinds of oppression. Otherwise, the unscrupulous despots who pretend to offer their help to fight terrorism, while they oppress their own people, will continue to provide an inexorable source of extremism.

The only way to combat extremism is through the elimination of oppression and authoritarianism and the promotion of democracy and freedom throughout the world. However, it is not possible to advance democracy without the inclusion of all political forces, particularly the popular Islamic groups that are willing to abide by democratic rules and reject violence.


Political participation and engagement encourages all political groups that aspire to be elected to moderate their stance and focus on practical rather than ideological issues. Islamic groups are not exceptional cases.

Indonesia’s fully inclusive democratisation process clearly shows what Islamists are really about and how they would behave in a free and unimpeded political atmosphere. Since the fall of Suharto’s authoritarian regime in 1998, all Indonesian political forces, including Islamists, have been allowed to freely organise and participate in democratic, free and fair elections.

Initially, the proliferation of Islamic parties in post-Suharto Indonesia prompted many sceptics to express their concerns about the future and stability of the democratisation process.

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About the Author

Mr. Louay Abdulbaki is a PhD Candidate at Asia Institute, The University of Melbourne, and he intends to submit his thesis shortly. He is the author of two (Arabic) books: The Roots of the Islamic Political Thought and the Stages of its Development and Modernist Arabic Discourse between Abstraction and Concrete Connotations. Mr Abdulbaki is interested in Islamic and modern thought, Islamic politics and globalisation. He also writes regularly on Arab and Syrian politics.

Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

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