Islamic revivalism and its role in bringing democracy to center stage

With the possibility of democracy in the Middle East becoming a major international political issue over the last ten years, it is often easy to overlook the historical context that has led to the potential for Islamic democracy. A 1995 article by political scientist S.V.R. Nasr provides a broad historical overview of the issue, focusing on the role that Islamic revivalism has played in bringing democracy center stage, and the influence it continues to have on policy makers who are concerned about the role the Muslim religion would have in a new political system.

Islamic revivalism focuses on a literal interpretation of the Quran and the laws within it, and advocate for a strict, and some might say draconian, adherence to some of the most controversial aspects of Islam. Unlike many other fundamentalist religious movements, however, Islamic revivalist leaders encouraged political takeovers to establish an Islamic state, with Nasr noting the possibility that “democratization will sow the seeds of its own demise by giving Islamic revivalism a handle to monopolize the political discourse and possibly take over power.” He argues that fears of this eventuality have caused some to question not only the viability, but the benefits of introducing democracy to the Arab world. But he also provides some historical examples as to how pluralism may be able to overcome the revivalist goals, in particular the history of the Jama’at in Pakistan, noting how “despite five decades of indefatigable activism it has not been able to translate its power into control of the state and the political process.”

By studying the impact that groups like the Jama’at has had on the political process in the past, groups advocating for true democracy can learn to utilize the “open political process” democracy offers to ensure that the democratic process is not overtaken by fundamentalist groups, rather than eschewing democracy entirely in fear of supplanting one fundamentalist authoritarian regime with another.


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