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FP: The New Islamists

Author: Olivier Roy
April 16, 2012

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The most extreme adherents of radical Islam are getting with the times, writes Olivier Roy in this excerpt from his upcoming book.

The longstanding debate over whether Islam and democracy can coexist has reached a stunning turning point. Since the Arab uprisings began in late 2010, political Islam and democracy have become increasingly interdependent. The debate over whether they are compatible is now virtually obsolete. Neither can now survive without the other.

In Middle Eastern countries undergoing political transitions, the only way for Islamists to maintain their legitimacy is through elections. Their own political culture may still not be democratic, but they are now defined by the new political landscape and forced in turn to redefine themselves -- much as the Roman Catholic Church ended up accepting democratic institutions even as its own practices remained oligarchic.

At the same time, democracy will not set down roots in Arab countries in transition without including mainstream Islamist groups, such as the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, Ennahda in Tunisia, or Islah in Yemen. The so-called Arab Spring cleared the way for the Islamists. And even if many Islamists do not share the democratic culture of the demonstrators, the Islamists have to take into account the new playing field the demonstrations created.

The debate over Islam and democracy used to be a chicken-and-egg issue: Which came first? Democracy has certainly not been at the core of Islamist ideology. Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood has historically been strictly centralized and obedient to a supreme guide, who rules for life. And Islam has certainly not been factored into promotion of secular democracy. Indeed, skeptics long argued that the two forces were even anathema to each other.

But the outside world wrongly assumed that Islam would first have to experience a religious reformation before its followers could embark on political democratization -- replicating the Christian experience when the Protestant Reformation gave birth to the Enlightenment and then modern democracy. In fact, however, liberal Muslim intellectuals had little impact in either inspiring or directing the Arab uprisings. The original protesters in Cairo's Tahrir Square referred to democracy as a universal concept, not to any sort of Islamic democracy.

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