Pro-democracy demonstrations across the Arab world remind us that Islam and democracy are not only compatible, but, as we are increasingly seeing, Muslims across the world yearn for freedom and self-determination. Reuel Marc Gerecht, Senior Fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies observes in today’s New York Times that “the idea of democracy had become a potent force among Muslims, and authoritarianism had become the midwife to Islamic extremism,” phenomena brilliantly explained by Pakistan’s former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto in her final book, Reconciliation: Islam, Democracy, and the West.
Benazir Bhutto posited that there are two elements primarily responsible for the lack of democratization in Muslim-majority countries: The battle within Islamic factions for “raw political and economic power” and “a long colonial period that drained developing countries of both natural and human resources.”
Despite these obstacles, Pakistan has a democratically elected government going into its third year; Tunisia’s dictator for a quarter-century has been forced from power; Egypt’s Tahrir square is overflowing with Muslims demanding the right to choose their own leaders. These developments have received mixed reactions in the West. Too many continue to fear that elections in Muslim-majority country will result in the “wrong” people gaining power and voters will not wake up in liberal democracies promoting post-enlightenment values. This is the wrong lens through which to view the rise of democracy in the Muslim world. As Benazir Bhutto wisely observed, “Democracies do not spring up fully developed overnight.”
It is here that Pakistan can serve as a valuable guide along the path of democratization in the Muslim world. Having gained freedom from the dictatorship of Pervez Musharraf in 2008, Pakistanis have been strengthening democratic governance, learning to balance political and national priorities, and creating an inclusive process that represents the aspirations of all Pakistanis.
That is not to say that there have been no mistakes, no set backs. But this is the nature of democracy. The difference this time is that mistakes and set backs are Pakistani in nature and not imposed by an outside power or an authoritarian dictator. As such, they can be learned from and reformed, and negative impacts will lack the permanence that they would otherwise. Benazir Bhutto described this process eloquently in Reconciliation:
We must think of a new democracy like a seedling that must be nourished, watered, fed, and given time to develop into a mighty tree. Thus, when democratic experiments are prematurely interrupted or disrupted, the effects can be, if not permanent, certainly long-lasting. Internal or external interruptions of democracy (both elections and governance) can have effects that ripple and linger over generations.
As we wrote on Friday, the US needs to give Pakistan’s democracy space to grow. This applies, of course, to all burgeoning democracies in the Muslim-majority nations. Islam and democracy are not incompatible, but will peacefully co-exist if allowed to grow and flourish naturally.
The political situation in Pakistan may appear volatile, and indeed the path of democracy, as our own history illustrates, is wrought with missteps. But there are no short cuts to democracy, and attempts to trade progress for stability will produce neither. Given nurturing and support, however, Pakistan can continue to serve as a guide to Muslims across the world who are struggling themselves for the ability to determine their own future.