Is Political Islam Compatible with Democracy?

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At the dawn of the so-called Arab Spring in 2011, diplomats, politicians, and intellectuals debated a fresh question: what role can Islamist political parties play in a fledgling democracy?

It wasn’t an esoteric or academic debating point. In the tumult that followed the collapse of dictatorial governments in Libya, Egypt, and Tunisia, groups of radical Islamists had organized themselves into political parties and attempting to use the ballot box to get them to where the cartridge box could never take them—control of national governments. This was a new strategy on the part of Islamists. Ever since their emergence in the 1940s and their public appearances in the 1960s, Islamists had ridiculed democracy as an effort to elevate man’s law over God’s law. They also faulted democracy for sowing confusion by changing its laws over time. How can the truth change?

When the street demonstrations began in 2010 and 2011, the Islamists initially played very little part. The clashes with police and soldiers were dangerous, and they feared a crackdown that would seize their offices and other assets while putting their leaders in prison. Once the demonstrations gathered sufficient strength and public support—and, crucially, the attitude of the rank-and-file police officers had shifted to cold understanding—the Islamists joined in. Their superior organization and ability to mobilize large numbers of followers through mobile and social media networks immediately gave them a leadership role in the very protests that they did not start or sustain during the early, dangerous days. Nevertheless, they ended up receiving a large measure of public credit for demonstrations and the toppling of dictators and reforming of monarchies. And, strangely, the Islamists were welcomed into political power by ameri