Dr Usama Hasan and Charlie Cooper examine the complex relationship between Islamism – a modern politicised interpretation of Islam – and democracy, and the implications of this relationship, and a more general democratic malaise, for European societies.

It is important to note that Islamism, in any of its forms, is not the dominant political orientation among the European Muslim population. Indeed, of Europe’s twenty million or so Muslims (excluding Turkey), only a tiny minority have turned away from liberal democratic values towards pursuing an Islamist mode of politics. Yes, there are more European Islamists with anti-democratic values today than ever before, but at the same time, there are more pro-democracy Muslim activists than ever too.

Islamism’s conflict with democracy

The Islamists’ conflict with democracy is no new thing: they have long disagreed with democratic principles and struggled to reconcile their beliefs with concepts such as universal human rights, freedom of religion, speech and expression, and gender equality. For decades now, the most infamous groups have followed a strict, inflexible ideology in which democracy is deemed to be ‘as a form of government, bankrupt.’ Further, extreme Islamists regard it as an improper form of politicking that supposedly engenders irreparable arrogance and materialism: any system of electoral politics is inherently kufr (infidelity) because it wrongly bestows sovereignty to man (and not God), going against what is a central tenet to any Islamist ideology. For Islamists, the caliphate is the only ideal political model, the only one that would allow for full implementation and state enforcement of the shari’a code of law, something that is ‘incompatible with the fundamental principles of democracy’ according to the European Court of Human Rights.

In recent years, though, there has been a rhetorical shift away from the emphasis on this theological paradigm of anti-democratic Islamist thought. Indeed, more and more, contemporary Islamist groups seem to be distancing themselves from outright rejection of democracy, instead preferring to criticise it from within. Taking inspiration from their counterparts in the Middle East, some European Islamists are even integrating with and operating from within the system, something that signals either a liberalising trend in Muslim politics, or an entrenchment of European communalism, depending on how one interprets it.

That said, is the notion that more Muslims are radicalising because of dissatisfaction with democracy at all relevant? Below, it is shown that while democratic malaise is on the rise, this is not why the ranks of Islamists have swelled of late. In Islamist propaganda, though, disillusionment with democracy does play a central role: socioeconomic issues that generate a sense of vulnerability among Muslims are at once exaggerated and explained as inevitable outcomes of democracy, creating something of an excuse for Islamist activism. Disillusionment, though, is not the real culprit here.

A cynical exploitation of a Europe-wide disillusionment with democracy

Islamists’ conceptual treatment of democracy has altered of late. On one level, there has been a shift into the mainstream for the anti-democratic critique. On another, Islamists have begun to work from within the electoral system. Whatever the case, no more is it something that only the Islamist intellectual elite deals with. Nowadays, many more choose to justify their allegiance to the Islamist cause on grounds of what they deem to be failings of the democratic system. Indeed, Muslim sensitivities regarding the democratic system have taken the spotlight as the principle means by which Islamist groups justify their existence in the West.

Putting its questionable validity to one side, the Islamist case against democracy has certainly been strengthened of late by the upheaval of the “Arab Spring” that began in December 2010. Its consequences have fed further the Islamist critique on democracy, bolstering the perception that Muslims need to rally behind the Islamist cause because that is the only political ideology that is sound in a country with a Muslim majority. Events in Egypt, Libya, Syria, even Tunisia, are all cited as evidence that democracy just does not work in a Muslim context.

“Democracy is hypocrisy”

In a sense, though, there has been a generational shift among Islamists. Mottos like “democracy is hypocrisy” now take precedence over “Islam is the solution” and the idea that democracy is repugnant because only God may be sovereign has evolved into one in which democracy is repugnant simply because it is unjust. The latter argument has proven to be far more popular with young Muslims (theology does not have the same appeal that common social grievances do) and fits well into the accepted media discourse; however, it does not reflect accurately the reasons for which Islamist groups actually gain adherents.

One of the principal conditions that facilitate radicalisation to Islamism is a sense of vulnerability. Vulnerability engenders identity crises, and it is these that lay the foundations for radicalisation, because they leave some Muslims exploitable. Inasmuch as that is the case, it is a perceived disillusionment with democracy that fuels Islamism. It is democracy – as opposed to anything else – that is blamed for cultural segregation and economic inequality.

As mentioned above, besides this clear-cut blame-game in which democracy always loses, more moderate Islamists have taken a different track, with some embracing the electoral system as a means of upholding communalism and isolationism (see box). This method of working from within democracy is inherently un-democratic, though, involving as it does Muslims ‘forsak[ing] their individual opinions in favour of the opinion of the collective,’ allowing their vote to be determined by an organisation.

That democracy is doomed to inevitable failure is not the orthodox view among European Muslims, though, and it is important to recognise this as such. While recent events have played into the hands of the anti-democrats, they have not engendered a general ideological shift among European Muslims away from the mainstream perception that democracy works, and works well. The same people who would have been radicalised before are the ones that are being radicalised now so, in that sense, little has changed. The difference now is that disillusionment with democracy is being used as an excuse for Islamist activism more than it was in the past.

A necessary reaction – European Muslim democrats

Until fairly recently, the most vocal European Muslims have been, without a doubt, the Islamists. This has meant that the overall visibility of Muslims has been defined by a small fringe of individuals, something that has fed into damaging rightist narratives.

To counteract this, many have been outspoken in working to counter the overwhelming perception that Muslims, as a religio-political bloc, do not agree with or support democratic values. They seek to limit and reverse the damage that these vocal, intolerant few have caused to Europe’s Muslim population by lending credence to the misconception that all Muslims want to do is ‘control the state without being a subject of the state.’ And with far-right (and, indeed, not-so-far-right) groups now criticising the EU for its policy of “naive tolerance” towards the Muslim population, the stakes are higher than ever.

At the more conservative end of this spectrum of pro-democracy Muslim activism are those such as Tariq Ramadan and Rached Ghannouchi. Ramadan, a “post-Islamist” who, despite an occasional tendency to obstruct progress in reformist Islam, has made substantial contributions to the debate, holds that ‘non-Muslim governments in which Muslims are able to participate democratically are more Islamic than authoritarian governments run by Muslims.’ This radical-sounding position is shared by many, among others, Ghannouchi, leader of Tunisia’s Ennahda Party and one of the last century’s most important Islamist thinkers. He recently said that Britain embodied the values of his ideal Islamic state better than most Muslim-majority states, because a state is ‘more Muslim, more Islamic, the more it has justice in it.’ Figures like these, though, are not going far enough. Another important contributor to this debate – and someone who does go further – is Dilwar Hussain, former president of the Islamic Society of Britain. He has rigorously questioned some of the fundamental assumptions of the Islamist ideology, particularly in the context of the Arab Spring.

More important is the role played by those such as Sheikh Manwar Ali, former jihadist and director of Salafist group JIMAS. Whilst remaining a leading ideologue in Britain’s Salafist movement, Sheikh Ali advocates for secular democracy, affirming and reaffirming that Islam as a religion welcomes pluralism and that democracy is theologically sound, even optimal, within Islam. Working with organisations like British Muslims for Secular Democracy, the likes of Sheikh Ali hope to show that there is no irreconcilability between modern-day Salafism and democratic values, let alone any civilizational clash between Muslims and non-Muslims. We at Quilliam have developed this idea extensively; indeed, advancing this debate is a central principle of our organisation.

It is former proponents of an anti-democratic agenda who are leading the way in bucking the mainstream discourse on Muslims. Other ex-radicals like Rashad Ali, Ed Husain, and Munir Zamir champion a pro-democracy agenda and present a strong counter-narrative to that of current radical trends. Central to this particular line of discourse is that, while Islam ‘has no specific prescriptions for modes of governance’, Islamism – on account of the centrality of establishing the caliphate and implementing the shari’a – does. Thus, it is ultimately incompatible with democracy. This means that moderate or hard-line Islamism can never and will never truly gel with liberal, secular, democratic principles.

Focusing on the fact that it is Islamism and not Islam that is irreconcilable with democracy is the first step in easing tensions between Muslim and non-Muslim communities. It falls to reforming individuals and groups like those mentioned above to dispel the myth that fringe groups have long disseminated, something that is already well under way in the United Kingdom.

So, while some commentators determined in 2006 that the ‘secular effort is faltering against the vibrancy and energy of the Islamists’, we would argue that, now, this is not the case. Europe’s under-represented Muslim majority is once again finding its voice. And, while certain Islamist groups are claiming that ‘disaffection and disillusionment with the political process are widespread throughout society with voters asking whether their vote really matters’, there is substantial, striking evidence to suggest that this is significantly more the case with non-Muslims than Muslims.

Beyond the vocal minority

In the current climate of economic stagnation and social polarisation, democratic malaise is setting in for all Europeans. But to view this as something affecting Muslims exclusively, or even just Muslims in particular, is incorrect. It is a Europe-wide, cross-religion phenomenon, and to blame any surge in Islamist radicalisation on it is a mistake.

Radicalisation is not a function of democratic malaise. Saying so just plays into the Islamist narrative. Muslims do not join fundamentalist political movements simply because of expenses scandals or foreign policy decisions; it is not as simple as that. Nonetheless, grievances that may arise as part of a perceived disillusionment with democracy do play a role in generating appeal for Islamist movements, for they have the potential to alienate and stigmatize ordinary Muslims with the possible result of making them susceptible to extremist propaganda. They are not, though, the sole or even primary cause of radicalisation.

An explanation of what is beyond the scope of this paper. Briefly, though, the primary reason for which Muslims join Islamist organisations is to be found in the Muslim identity crisis in Europe and its subsequent misrepresentation by charismatic recruiters. By Islamists, any dissociation with citizenship or uncertainty regarding identity are exacerbated, explained and understood through a lens of “democratic failure”, and as such Islamists can justify their ideology, referring to a fabricated narrative and fuelling their argument that human sovereignty is fundamentally flawed.

The way forward is littered with obstacles, but the persuasive and pervasive Islamist discourse may be overcome. Until recently, fringe groups have muffled the voice of the European Muslim majority – now it is being reclaimed. Now, it falls to all pro-democracy Muslims – and not just those prominent ex-extremists and reformers – to guide European Muslims into greater assimilation with their nations and re-address questions of citizenship and identity. After all, that is where the true causes of recruitment to Islamist extremist ideologies lie, as do the roots of the constructive message of European Muslim democrats that is thankfully on the rise, despite formidable challenges. The next decade will be very interesting for Islam, extremism and democracy in Europe.

Click here to read this article in Queries magazine online.