Global Opinions

The promise of reconciling political Islam and democracy

(Brian Stauffer for The Washington Post)

Ezzedine C. Fishere is the author of The Egyptian Assassin” and a visiting professor at Dartmouth College.

Jamal Khashoggi and I disagreed on almost all political issues, but we agreed on one thing: that the Arab world had profoundly changed in ways that rendered the old regimes incapable of governing. We agreed that democratization was the only way forward but disagreed on what it meant. I accused him of embracing an “Islamist majoritarian” version of democracy, in which electoral victories justify the repression of minorities and the erosion of individual rights. He accused me of embracing a “secularist authoritarian” version of democracy, in which liberalism justifies repressing Islamist majorities.

In 2012, Egypt’s Islamist president, Mohamed Morsi, declared his decisions above judicial review and pushed through a referendum on a constitution that violated his earlier commitments to inclusiveness. For Jamal, Morsi was an elected president facing the old regime’s entrenchment in the judiciary. These actions would, Jamal hoped, prove temporary and open the way for a genuine democratization. For me, this was nothing short of a constitutional coup that removed the last obstacles to Islamization à la Iran. We disagreed bitterly.

In 2013, Egyptian military chief Abdel Fatah al-Sissi overthrew Morsi and installed an interim government in which he retained his post as defense minister. For me, ousting Morsi, much like removing Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak in 2011, was a response to millions of protesters' calls for regime change. Although carried out by the military, this intervention would, I hoped, begin a new transition toward genuine democracy. For Jamal, this was nothing short of a military coup that used democratization as cover for returning to authoritarianism. Again, we disagreed bitterly.

Since then, the Arab world — Egypt included — has sunk into deeper failures. At best, conservative authoritarian regimes have survived and managed to sideline demands for change. At worst, civil wars have ravaged countries with unspeakable violence. In the middle, fragile stalemates have taken place.

Given a choice between chaotic violence and authoritarianism, most Arabs — and outside players — have opted for the latter. Jamal and I were appalled. We kept writing about the pitfalls of returning to authoritarianism, warning that these seemingly stable regimes were sitting on powder kegs. Only democratization could defuse this explosive situation and allow the Arab world to inch toward normalcy. Although we continued to disagree on what democracy actually meant, we managed to communicate. The thing about Jamal was that he truly listened and reflected when faced with opposing views. Across the divide that separated us, we managed to discuss, not just debate, and find common ground.

By the time Jamal moved to the Washington area, I had already settled at Dartmouth. It was ironic, and telling, that both of us ended up in the United States. The rulers of the Arab world had become intolerant of democracy of any form. Yet we didn’t dismiss our disagreements. On the contrary, we realized that bridging our different understandings of democracy was vital for the future. Unless Islamists and liberals are able to agree on the relationship between majority rule and individual rights, we will never be able to coexist peacefully — and ultimately will achieve neither majority rule nor individual rights. Dictators will be able to continue justifying their authoritarianism by arguing it is needed to maintain peace between two camps who can’t agree on the fundamentals of peaceful coexistence. And they will be right.

So Jamal and I suggested to an Arabic-language television station based in Washington that we could co-host a show where liberals and Islamists would discuss these issues, with the aim of finding common ground. But we both got busy with our lives: He was considering building a pro-democracy think tank, while I was teaching Middle East misery. The next thing I heard was a message from a friend telling me that Jamal had gone into a Saudi Consulate a few hours earlier and had not emerged yet.

This is not a requiem for Jamal Khashoggi. This piece is not about his decency, his integrity or his chilling murder. It is simply a reminder of the promise that Jamal offered: the chance to reconcile political Islam and liberal democracy. The work needed to fulfill this promise still lies ahead of us. Those who advocate democratizing the Arab world have not yet agreed among themselves on how to achieve the productive coexistence of democracy and Islamism. But unless those of us who haven’t yet been murdered fulfill this promise, many more Arabs will need requiems.

Read more about Jamal Khashoggi:

A missing voice, a growing chorus

Asli Aydintasbas: The liberal world order crumbled a year ago. We’re still reeling.

Iyad el-Baghdadi: Saudi Arabia is suffocating the Arabic public sphere. We must fight back.

Tawakkol Karman: We need justice for Yemen — and justice for Khashoggi

David Von Drehle: Hollywood loves triumphant journalism stories. This isn’t one of them.

Hala Al-Dosari: Saudi Arabia’s monarchy has left the country fragile and unbalanced

We noticed you’re blocking ads!

Keep supporting great journalism by turning off your ad blocker. Or purchase a subscription for unlimited access to real news you can count on.
Unblock ads
Questions about why you are seeing this? Contact us