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Op-Ed: Islamists Can Adopt Democracy


And now, The Opinion Page. Today, Egyptians began the long process of electing a new parliament. Millions turned out to vote in the first meaningful election in that country's history. There are close to 50 political parties competing, among them several Islamist parties, including the Muslim Brotherhood, which many regard as the best organized and likely to emerge as one of the big winners. Some regard Islamism as incompatible with democracy.

In an op-ed that ran yesterday in The Boston Globe, former CIA intelligence officer Emile Nakhleh disagrees. As we await results in Egypt, can Islamism and democracy coexist? Give us a call, 800-989-8255. Email, talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our website. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION. Emile Nakhleh served as director of the CIA's Political Islam Strategic Analysis Program. He's now a consultant and joins us from his home in Albuquerque. Nice to have you with us today.


CONAN: There are many Islamist parties in this election. How do they differ?

NAKHLEH: They differ basically in their approach to sharing power with other parties. For the most part, they are not all that much different. There are personality differences. But for the most part, the mainstream parties are similar. The different parties are those Salafis, radical extremists who do not believe in joining forces with other parties. But the mainstream parties are for the most part pretty similar.

CONAN: So pretty similar along the lines of the Muslim Brotherhood?


CONAN: And they, of course, were in parliament before but not under that name.

NAKHLEH: That's right because in the last two elections, they were not allowed to run as a religious party, so they ran as independent. Before the last two elections, they formed alliances with existing parties, but everybody knew in Egyptian elections - in the last two elections, that those independents really represented the Muslim Brotherhood.

CONAN: And as you look ahead, you think it's conceivable that Islamists, including the Muslim Brotherhood, could form a majority on their own?

NAKHLEH: Not on their own. They would have to form a coalition government because the assumption is like Ennahda in Tunisia and the Justice and Development Party in Morocco, which just got a hefty plurality, about 37 percent of the vote, they know that to form a government, they would have to coalesce with other parties, secular parties and mainstream parties. So they cannot form a party on their own, unless, of course, they receive a majority of the vote.

CONAN: And it's going to be some time before we know the results in Egypt, but you point to Tunisia as a possible model.

NAKHLEH: Yes. And the Ennahda, which was banned in Tunisia for all these years, they ended up receiving about 40, 41 percent of the vote. And then, the head of Ennahda, Rachid Ghannouchi, has already indicated that he would have to form a coalition government with other parties in the country, and basically, the other party is a secular party.

CONAN: And are there Salafist parties in Tunisia, and if there are, do they regard this agreement to form a coalition as a sellout?

NAKHLEH: As a sellout? No. The radicals don't accept, in any case, the so-called manmade democracy. So we are talking about mainstream Islamic parties. So Ennahda then was elected as a mainstream Islamic party and knowing full well that they would have to form a coalition government with a secular party and other parties in Tunisia.

CONAN: In your op-ed, you point out that Islamist parties have been parts of governments in Indonesia, Malaysia, Morocco, Turkey and elsewhere that have not threatened their countries' security and stability. On the contrary, you wrote they have been credible and legitimate defenders of good government and the rule of law and strong proponents of tolerance and pluralism.


CONAN: Can you tell us how more - how this has played out, for example, in Turkey, where the government in power for, well, quite some years now has been an Islamist party?

NAKHLEH: Yes. And they have emerged - it's very interesting in Turkey. They have emerged as the guardians of Turkish secularism and as guardians of the Turkish state. Of course, they have some bad record with the Kurds, but that precedes their time in government, the violation of Kurdish human rights. And the AKP party in Turkey is now working in order to put an end to those types of discriminations against the Turks. But in Turkey, in Malaysia, in Indonesia, these Islamic parties have been part of the system and have really worked hard to protect those states. And they also know that they have to provide for their constituencies on bread and butter issues. And if they don't, they are not going to be re-elected or they are not going to get pluralities as they have gotten in previous elections.

CONAN: But as you say, the record of the government in Turkey regarding the Kurds raises a lot of questions that people worry about in Egypt and elsewhere in North Africa about minority rights.

NAKHLEH: Yes. Well, they would have to be committed to minority rights. That's why AKP in Turkey is kind of working, trying to settle this issue because this issue, unfortunately, against the Kurds way, way preceded them, before even AKP or before the - its predecessor, Refah Party, came to power in Turkey in the early '90s. So this is an issue that is a Turkish issue beyond any one particular party.

CONAN: And...

NAKHLEH: But I argued that, in the long run, these parties, if they want to remain viable political actors in their societies, they've got to be committed to pluralism and human rights, including women's rights and minority rights.

CONAN: And there are some who worry about the application of Shariah law, if that becomes the basis of the legal system in the new Egypt. Yet, of course, their justice, there are many interpretations of Islam. There are many interpretations of Shariah.

NAKHLEH: Well, exactly. This is a very good point you just made. That people need to keep in mind the diversity of narratives and ideological interpretations even within in Islam, even within the Muslim Brotherhood when you consider the generational divide between the older leaders and the rising youthful party, which is now contesting the election. And so they would have to be, of course, considerate of other minorities and other groups in those countries.

The argument I have made is that not one party, whether in Turkey or Malaysia or Indonesia or Morocco, and also in Egypt, has called for the establishment of Shariah as the basis of legislation in those societies.

CONAN: And we'll get to calls in just a moment. But the example - another example that people point to is the example of Algeria...


CONAN: ...some years ago, where there were concerns by the secular military government there that if there was the election of an Islamic government that there would only be one election, that that would be the last measure of democracy. Of course, they quashed that election, and many bloody years of civil war followed.

NAKHLEH: Right. And that was - in my view, that's a separate story and unfortunate event because since the early '90s, since the Algerian case in '91, '92, that we have seen many of these parties has the passed the litmus test of one man, one vote, one time. That these parties have run through several elections, whether in Malaysia, Indonesia, Morocco, Turkey, and have lost some and won some. So the - that test of one man, one vote, one time is really - the argument has become passe, really.

CONAN: Let's get some callers in on the conversation. Our guest is Emile Nakhleh, who - former founder and former director of the Political Islam Strategic Analysis Program at the Central Intelligence Agency, author of "A Necessary Engagement: Reinventing American's Relations with the Muslim World." We'll begin with Amal(ph), Amal begins us - calls us from Cincinnati.

AMAL, CALLER: Hi. Thank you for taking my call. I do worry about an Islamic party taking over in Egypt. I am an Egyptian. I am an Egyptian Christian. To be specific, Coptic Egyptian Christian. And the - I do worry that once an Islamic party takes over, there will be no place for the Egyptian Christian Copts in the ruling parties or to - even be nominated to places of power. And also, I worry about women's rights.

CONAN: Emile Nakhleh, there has, of course, already been some very worrisome violence against the Copts.

NAKHLEH: Yes. That is true. And that, in fact, is a worrisome issue. The point that one needs to make, one, is that even if the Muslim Brotherhood, let's say, gets a plurality, 40 percent or 35 percent of the vote, they would have to form a coalition government with other parties, secular parties. And the second point is that if they are not committed to civil rights, human rights, women's rights, minority rights, then they are to be rejected by the new, rising pro-democracy and pro-reform generation in Egypt. That is these Islamic parties can no longer just depend on them being the opposition party to a dictatorial regime. Now, in a multi-party system, they have to be - to uphold those other principles, otherwise they will not be re-elected.

CONAN: Amal, you were trying to get in there. I'm sorry.

CALLER: Yes. I wanted to say that there is a saying in Egypt that says, the religion is for God, but the country is for all. And there is no reason for religion to be within democracy. There is reason for democracy to be open for everyone to express their opinion and to live together, not under laws imposed by one party or another. And the fear is that - the Islamic movement, not only from the Islamic brotherhood, but the Salafeyeen who are extreme Muslims and others. And unless we take religion out of the constitution, Egypt will not be a democracy.

CONAN: Amal, are you eligible to vote?

CALLER: Yes. And this is another important point. I am an expat here and we have had extreme difficulties. I have registered myself and my family to vote, but they would not accept our vote today because they said the votes were closed. We could not mail our votes over the weekend, over Thanksgiving weekend. And now we've banned from voting. And that's another call I want to make, that since the election is already happening, Monday and Tuesday, that they should be accepting our votes today. They've also put stumbling stones, which are that everyone should this national number, whereas many, many - the majority of people outside of Egypt do not have that raqam qawmi or national number. They could have accepted our votes by a passport number, by a birth certificate, Egyptian, anything that proves that. But to have a raqam qawmi you would have to be present, in person at the consulate. And, of course, you know, America is wide, so is the - a lot of the Western world. And you can't always get to a...

CONAN: I'm not sure there's a consulate in Cincinnati. Well, thank you very much.

CALLER: There is not, there is not a consulate in Cincinnati.

CONAN: Thank you very much for the call. Appreciate it.

CALLER: Thank you.

CONAN: We're talking about democracy and Islamism. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

Here's an email from Joshua in South Bend. I believe they can co-exist. I think a lot of Westerners have a distorted view of Islam. In reality, Islam in the Middle East is like Christianity in West. There are more radical portions of Islam rule that may or may not present themselves like Shariah law. But it is just as possible for a new democracy to be build on religious tolerance, even if it largely Islamic. Such a government could allow for free religious beliefs, allow religions of all types to participate in government, keeping the more radical sects of Islam in the balance.

Let's go next to - this is Brin(ph). Brin with us from Philadelphia.

BRIN: Oh, thank you. My wife and I were Peace Corps volunteers in Tunisia in 1980, '81, and we revisited it in 1990. And I was in the agriculture minister - ministry. And a close co-worker of mine spent most of the '80s in jail as an Islamic extremist under Bourguiba, I believe, that continued that kind of jailing under Ben Ali. And I think in many countries, including, unfortunately, in Iran, the Islamic opposition was the only non-corrupt opposition. In Iran, we've seen now an Islamic dictatorship. But in many other countries, as your guest has said, Islamic parties have waxed and waned in popular support and have accepted democratic voting.

And I would also remind Americans that we have some Christian groups that would like to impose Christian Shariah in our country on all kinds of issues, from the United States' position on abortion, to homosexual equality and other rights. So it's the - we should be very familiar with the play between the conservative religious forces.

CONAN: Brin, thanks very much for the call. He raised the example of Iran. Of course, Iran is, well, not a Sunni nation, but a Shia nation...


CONAN: ...very different political culture.

NAKHLEH: Right. Yes, that is true. I mean, the - but one of the important points that the caller made is that under those autocratic regimes, authoritarian regimes, all kinds of oppositionists were in jail. In Tunisia, there were thousands of secular oppositionists were also in jail, plus Islamic oppositionists as well. So the idea is that to - once we get rid of these authoritarian regimes, there will be a period of instability, if you will, as they transition to democracy. But the elections, whether Indonesia or in Egypt or in Morocco or, hopefully in the future, in Iran, would be a good first step. But it doesn't mean that it is the only step or the most perfect step. But it's a step along the way towards normalization and normalcy, if you will, in a post-autocratic regime.

CONAN: And...

NAKHLEH: In Iran, of course, they had the opposition movement in June 2009, after the elections were perceived to have been stolen. But unfortunately, the regime has struck the opposition very severely and...

CONAN: And, Emile, not - I'm afraid we're going to have to end it there. But we thank you very much for your time today. First word from the State Department, by the way, election is going well in Egypt with few, if any, irregularities and no violence. Emile Nakhleh served as director of the CIA's Political Islam Strategic Analysis Program. He joined us from his home in Albuquerque.

Tomorrow, after Black Friday at Cyber Monday, a roundup for the holiday retail season. Plus, Alan Rickman will join us. I'm Neal Conan, TALK OF THE NATION, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.