Islamists and illiberal democracy

If you would like to read a book these days that would help you grasp the political dynamics of post-Arab Spring societies, I would wholeheartedly recommend a new title: “Temptations of Power: Islamists and Illiberal Democracy in a New Middle East.” Penned by Shadi Hamid, an American scholar of Arab origin, the book shows how the tension in the Muslim world is not only between dictatorship and democracy; it is also between the conflicting views of democracy.

When Westerners use the term “democracy,” what they really refer to is “liberal democracy.” This is a political system where free elections decide who will rule, but individual liberties – such as freedom of speech, religion, lifestyle, etc. – are protected regardless of whoever is in power. When you lack those liberties, and merely have elections, you can end up with “illiberal democracy,” where the majority rules, but does so by suppressing the rights of the minorities and dissenting individuals.

It was Fareed Zakaria who coined the term “illiberal democracy” and brought it to public attention with his seminal book, “The Future of Freedom.” What Hamid does is he borrows the concept and demonstrates how it works within the framework of Islamist parties, such as the Muslim Brotherhood.

There is a more challenging type compared to other illiberal democracies, he explains, because: “Illiberal democracies exist all over the world, but, whether of the leftist or right-wing varieties, their illiberalism is usually negotiable. Restricting personal rights or freedoms is a product of the desire to consolidate power, rather than stemming from any particular ideological conviction. Yet, illiberalism is central to the...

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