From the July 2008 Journal of Democracy
July 16, 2008
, Hillel Fradkin
How should we understand the emergence and the nature of Islamist parties? Can they reasonably be expected not just to participate in democratic politics but even to respect the norms of liberal democracy? These questions lie at the heart of the issues that we have been asked to address. In our view, any response that is historically and thus practically relevant must begin with the following observation: Until very recently, even the idea of an Islamist party (let alone a democratic Islamist party) would have seemed, from the perspective of Islamism itself, a paradox if not a contradiction in terms. Islamism's original conception of a healthy Islamic political life made no room for—indeed rejected—any role for parties of any sort. Islamist groups described themselves as the vanguard of Islamic revival, claiming that they represented the essence of Islam and reflected the aspiration of the global umma (community of believers) for an Islamic polity. Pluralism, which is a precondition for the operation of political parties, was rejected by most Islamist political thinkers as a foreign idea.
As should be more or less obvious, the novelty not only of actually existing Islamist parties but of the very idea of such parties makes it exceptionally difficult to assess their democratic bona fides. But this difficulty merely adds another level of complication to a problem that stems from the very origins of Islamism and its conception of the true meaning of Islam and of Islam's relationship to political life.
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Hillel Fradkin is a Senior Fellow and Director for the Center on Islam, Democracy, and the Future of the Muslim World at Hudson Institute.
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