Democratization and the Islamist Challenge in the Arab World

By Battah, Abdalla M. | The Middle East Journal, Summer 1998 | Go to article overview
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Democratization and the Islamist Challenge in the Arab World


Battah, Abdalla M., The Middle East Journal


Democratization and the Islamist Challenge in the Arab World, by Najib Ghadbian. Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1997. xv + 150 pages. Bibl. to p. 159. About the Book and Author to p. 161. Index to p. 171. $50.

This volume is a welcome addition and a valuable contribution to the burgeoning literature on the relationship between political Islam and democracy. Democratization and the Islamist Challenge consists of seven short chapters organized into four parts. Part one addresses conceptual, theoretical and historical matters pertaining to democracy, democratization and the question of national identity, while part two covers the rise of Islamic movements, their views on democracy, and their political agendas in the democratization process. The third part of the book examines the cases of Egypt and Jordan, with Egypt serving as an example of aborted democratization and Jordan as an example of a relatively successful experiment. The last part of this study outlines conclusions and discusses prospects for democratization in the Arab world.

The book is about the process of democratization and the growing power of Islamic political groups (or Islamists) in the Arab world. Najib Ghadbian maintains that the wave of democratization that spread throughout the Arab world in the last two decades has waned drastically in the past few years. While democratization is precariously moving forward in Jordan and Yemen, in the rest of the Arab world it has been either aborted (as in Egypt) or even reversed (as in Algeria).

The role of Islamist groups in the political process is complex. Most, if not all, such groups were harshly repressed and banned from political activity by secular, authoritarian Arab governments. At the early stages of the democratization wave, however, some countries, such as Egypt, allowed Islamist parties to participate indirectly in elections; others, including Jordan and Algeria, actually legalized Islamist parties and permitted their direct participation in multiparty elections. That changed when substantial electoral successes by the Islamists, in Egypt and Algeria, for instance, alarmed the regimes, prompting them to resort to repressive measures and violence. The conflict between the regimes and their Islamist challengers is not just over political power; it is also a conflict of ideas, values, concepts of identity, the place of religion in politics, and attitudes towards peacemaking with Israel. Regardless of their legal status, the Islamists have emerged as the primary political opposition to the secularists and to governmental elites throughout the region. While this confrontation is likely to continue for some time, there is ample reason, as Ghadbian points out in his concluding chapter, for optimism about the future of democracy in the Arab world.

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