The Compatibility Question in American Classrooms

I've studied Middle East affairs for the better part of my college years -- both in the U.S. and in Jordan -- and after so many political science classes I feel I've pinpointed the most recurring discussion: "Can Islam and democracy coexist?" This is the infamous compatibility question, and while I've seen it at home and abroad, its prevalence is much more American than Arab.

The Arab Spring is over and with it, both Tunisia and Egypt have seen a cyclical rise and fall of Islamist leadership. Despite two massively different outcomes, fashionable discourse in the West is now reevaluating whether traditional Koranic principles can ever accommodate a democratic system, or if they naturally clash. Religiosity is high in the Muslim world, and Islamic social organizations have shown to be effective political mobilizers; it is impossible not to place these realities alongside the Middle East's abysmal authoritarian track record.

The perennial resurfacing of the compatibility question is certainly understandable, particularly for Americans that consider the separation of church and state a democratic prerequisite. But a recurring question does not make a relevant one. If we learn anything from the Islamist experiments in Tunisia and Egypt, it should be that Muslim politics vary in practice even more than in theory. In making sense of the complex landscapes that emerged out of each nation's Arab Spring movement, this compatibility question is at best a detail and at worst a disruption.

It is disruptive not for what it asks, but for the contexts in which we ask it. Its debate is a classroom favorite -- a sort of initiation rite for students of Middle East politics -- and its wealth of academic commentary replenishes with each interaction between Islam and government. The Koran's essentialist relationship with democracy has become a super-narrative that dominates analysis forums wherever Political Islam is relevant. This creates a lopsided focus on Islam the religion, rather than Political Islam or Islamism, the political ideology.

This distinction is too crucial to gloss over; it is the difference between a classical text and the way parties promote that text in the modern era. The importance of separating Islam from Islamism is akin to separating Marxism from the Chinese Communist Party, and given the many different forms that Political Islam has taken in order to survive within post-Arab Spring governments, tracking its case-by-case development is more necessary than ever.

Take Tunisia: international praise for its new Constitution was as much for the document's progressivism as it was for the unusual politics that preceded it. Al-Nahda, the formerly banned Islamist party, had relinquished its elected parliamentary dominance for the sake of a bipartisan convention. This showcased an inspiring degree of Islamist-secularist cooperation, although what is striking is how readily both optimists and skeptics resorted to the compatibility question. Is Tunisia, as French President Hollande claims, "not an exception but an example" of Islamic democracy, or did Islam simply lose without admitting as much, allowing for certain gender rights and religious tolerance that some critics don't attribute to the Koran? Tunisia soon became the vehicle for a dead-horse philosophical debate.

Compare al-Nahda to the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, whose brief reign showed no democratic commitment and ended in their political banishment. The two cases are markedly different: The Brotherhood is a fundamentalist party whereas al-Nahda is moderate; al-Nahda was politically savvy enough to reach across the aisle and The Brotherhood was not; Egypt's history of militarism made democratization more daunting than in Tunisia, where civic and human rights institutions have long existed. Unfortunately, at a passing glance, the conditions that created Islamist rule in either country appear similar: a non-violent coup ousts a secular dictator and a previously suppressed Islamist party wins an electoral victory. Where Islamism shows patterns, perhaps Islam holds a blueprint.

But to measure the Brotherhood's failure and al-Nahda's success on basic philosophical harmony is the wrong conversation. Egypt and Tunisia are polar representatives of Islamism's democratic potential, and in neither case did success hinge on core religious tenets. Islam's values in relation to sovereignty have been evolving for centuries, dating back to the first Islamic state, which Mohammed established not under the Koran, but with the Constitution of Medina -- a compact signed by tribes of all three Abrahamic religions. It is time for the questions asked about Political Islam to similarly evolve.

My argument is mainly for people like me -- students and amateur observers -- because hasty conclusions are the most vulnerable to distortion. One does not have to willfully misunderstand Islam to get distracted by the intellectual sexiness of the compatibility question. The idea that a definitive interpretation of scriptures can predict the political fate of the world's second largest religion carries a neatness that geopolitics inherently lacks.

Just as I would not use an apple's core to study its skin, I would not rely solely on the Bible to understand America's Christian Right. It isn't fair to put on trial an Islamic text that is not authentically represented or agreed upon by its politicized constituents. The Muslim world is rife with obstacles to democracy and the most threatening ones have little to do with dogma. If Tunisia is indeed a template for successful democratization, then we should expect a more visible, diverse and cooperative Islamist influence in nations that follow suit. Large pockets of democratic advocacy already exist across Muslim communities. As to whether support can translate into compatibility, that answer is anything but written.