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Journal of Democracy 13.3 (2002) 109-115

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Middle East Studies After 9/11

Islamists and the Politics of Consensus

Daniel Brumberg

One of the greatest barriers to illuminating political Islam is the belief that Islam demands a specific form of politics. Although some might think this idea long dead, it has lately reappeared in the guise of cultural relativism. Thus two scholars of Islam argue, "In Islamic history, there are a number of very important concepts and images. . . . These are the foundations for the Islamic perception of democracy . . . [based on] core concepts . . . central to the political position of virtually all Muslims." 1 While defining these concepts in different ways, most Muslims are said to aspire to a culturally authentic "Islamic democracy" whose core trait is a consensual rather than a win-or-lose, majoritarian vision of politics. 2

This is a dubious thesis. To say that someone is Muslim tells us little regarding that person's views on politics. The supposition that there is one Muslim identity that trumps all others is erroneous. Muslims may be secular, traditional, or orthodox; they may also think of themselves as belonging to ethnic groups—Kurds in Iraq, Turkey, Iran, and Syria; or Berbers in Morocco and Algeria—whose customs and values can take precedence over Islamic identity. Nor is political identity shaped strictly by religion. While Islamists invariably speak in the language of "authenticity," their Islam is a political construct that borrows from both Western and Islamic political thought. Because the resulting amalgam of ideas and symbols points in many and even contradictory directions, in no sense can it be said that the Islamic faith itself requires consensual politics.

This does not mean that some form of consensual politics would be inappropriate. Indeed, democracy in the Islamic world might well fare best where political institutions, rules, and procedures allow all (or most) [End Page 109] voices to be represented. But this has little to do with Islam. Indeed, if Islam guaranteed a high level of consensus, it would in fact provide an ideal basis for majoritarian democracy, that is, one in which those who lose elections sit in opposition while those who win exercise legitimate political power. It is precisely the absence of unity that requires political institutions emphasizing agreement and cooperation. Power-sharing is necessary not only because Muslims differ as to the most beneficial relationship of mosque and state but also because such divisions often provoke concerns that election victors will impose their particular vision of Islam on others. By promising inclusion, power-sharing could allay such fears in ways that promote accommodation. Hence the key questions: Will Islamists share power with groups that espouse alternative notions of political community? What conditions will help or hinder consensus-based politics?

Autocracy with Democrats

Writing in 1972, when Arab nationalism still overshadowed Islamism, Ilya Harik remarked that the central problem in the Arab world is "the imposition of uniformity on a pluralistic social reality, with nationalism as the mold and reality as the mosaic." 3 In their efforts to press the cause of unity, Islamists have a clear advantage over Arab nationalists: Islamists speak for a monotheistic faith that inspires the loyalty of most Muslims. Inasmuch as Islam evokes the ideal of one umma or community, it offers an array of symbols that Islamists can use to legitimate unitary—or what I call harmonic—ideologies and programs.

Some hold that this quest for unity is so intrinsic to Islamism that it virtually precludes the forging of pluralistic power-sharing pacts. Thus John Waterbury writes that Algeria's Islamic Salvation Front (FIS) "in no way resembles [Poland's] Solidarity." The latter struck an agreement with General Jaruzelski because Solidarity's aims focused on the pragmatics of economic and political power rather than existential issues such as religious identity. But unlike Solidarity, Islamists "do not oppose, or wish to replace, incumbent power blocs because they are undemocratic but because they have no sense of mission." 4 This crusade to ensure that the state's primary mission is to guarantee one overarching ideology has invariably alarmed women's...