Recent events from the Middle East are no doubt providing further fodder for those concerned about the rise of Islamic sharia law: The leader of Libya’s transitional government said his country’s laws will be based on sharia, while in Tunisia an Islamist party, Ennahdha, won that country’s first free elections. Does this mean that the dark night of “Islamo-fascism” is descending across the Middle East? Probably not.
Saying a country’s legal system will be based on sharia law is about as descriptive as saying it will be based on the Ten Commandants or the teachings of Christ. Like Christianity, Judaism or any other religion, Islam is subject to countless interpretations. Sharia law has meant many different things in many different countries across the ages. Even Islamic fundamentalists are not all alike. Wahhabis rule in both Saudi Arabia and Bahrain, yet liquor is readily available in the latter but not the former.
Islamist parties do not necessarily take their inspiration from the Taliban, Hamas, or the Iranian mullahs. In fact, the failure of all three of those Islamist regimes–in Afghanistan, Gaza and Iran–to deliver economic or social progress has done much to discredit them in the Muslim world. That doesn’t mean most Muslims are ready to embrace a strictly secular regime; but then even in Europe, Christian Democratic parties are common, and in the United States many political candidates claim to take their marching orders from the Almighty.
There is a yearning in the Islamic world for a new type of governance that can combine some traditional Muslim precepts with democracy and economic development. Turkey’s AK party is probably the exemplar of these yearnings, and while the AK, and its leader, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, are highly problematic in many ways (not least for their militantly anti-Israel attitude), they are not a threat to the West in the same way that Hamas, Hezbollah, or Iran are.
Will Tunisia, Libya and other states manage to carve out their own “Islamic democratic” identity? That remains to be determined. Much depends on whether modernizing Islamist parties such as Ennahdha are sincere in their embrace of pluralism and minority rights, or whether their rhetoric along those lines has been designed to deceive.
Ennahadha, for one, will now be put to the test. As long as Tunisia and other states continue to hold regular elections, the will of the people will act as a sharp check on the Islamists’ possible extremism, as there is little evidence Tunisians or anyone else in the region wants to live in a Taliban-like state. (The Taliban, take note, did not come to power by the ballot box and even now remain extremely unpopular in Afghanistan notwithstanding all the shortcomings of the Karzai government.)
Future elections are not, of course, guaranteed. But to the extent the U.S. has any influence over the process, we should work to ensure democratic accountability; refusing to deal with the Islamist trend across the region isn’t an option–the best we can do is to try to moderate it and integrate it within a rule-of-law framework.