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Arab youth want democracy, not theocracy

By John L. Esposito, Special to CNN
  • John Esposito says Islamic organizations have not led protests in the Arab world
  • He says protesters want democracy, with its greater freedoms and opportunities
  • In Tunisia, Syria and Libya, mainstream Islamists are part of the political landscape, he says
  • In open democracies Islamist movements will be just one of many parties, he says

John L. Esposito is professor of Religion and International Affairs and director of Prince Alwaleed Bin Talal center for Muslim-Christian understanding at Georgetown University. His most recent book is "The Future of Islam."

(CNN) -- Hosni Mubarak's resignation resurrected a tsunami wave of articles and commentaries on whether Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood would now come to power. And yet, few have asked why the primary leaders of grassroots revolt in Egypt and across the Arab world curiously have not been Islamic organizations.

Authoritarian rulers in the Arab world, like Egypt's Hosni Mubarak, Tunisia's Zine El Abidine Ben Ali and Libya's Moammar Gadhafi, have long justified their repressive governments by warning the United States and Europe that the alternative to their governments was "chaos" and an Islamist takeover.

The new generation of Arab youth and their supporters, however diverse and different, is united in its desire to topple entrenched autocrats and corrupt governments.

Having witnessed the failures of Islamist authoritarian regimes in Sudan, Iran, the Taliban's Afghanistan, and Saudi Arabia, and the terror of the Bin Laden's of the world, they are not interested in theocracy but democracy with its greater equality, pluralism, freedoms and opportunities.

But what about the Islamists, where are they?

The Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamic groups neither initiated nor have led pro-democracy protest movements. The uprisings have revealed a broad-based pro-democracy movement that is not driven by a single ideology or by religious extremists.

What has occurred is not an attempt at an Islamist takeover but a broad-based call for reforms.
--John L. Esposito

What has occurred is not an attempt at an Islamist takeover but a broad-based call for reforms.

People from every walk of life were united in a common cause: professionals and laborers, young and old, women and men, Muslim and Christian, the poor, middle and upper classes.

As their signs, placards, statements, demands and the waving of flags not Islamist placards indicated, protesters want to reclaim their dignity, control of their lives and the right to determine their government; they demand government accountability and transparency, rule of law, an end to widespread corruption, and respect for human rights.

This common platform has been evolving over the past decade in several Arab countries and has been endorsed by major political actors, including Islamists.

In Tunisia, Syria and Libya, mainstream Islamists responding to the political realities of their societies have become part of the broader landscape. They reject an extremist vision of imposing an Islamic state and have embraced a democratic electoral process and political pluralism, often forming alliances and working with other sectors in society.

Since the late 20th century Islamist parties have been an integral part of the social and political fabric of their respective societies.

Islamically-oriented candidates and political parties in Algeria, Tunisia, Morocco, Egypt, Lebanon, Turkey, Jordan, Kuwait, Bahrain, Pakistan, Malaysia, and Indonesia have opted for reform through ballots, not bullets.

They have successfully contested and won municipal and parliamentary seats, held cabinet positions, and served in senior positions, such as prime minister of Turkey, Malaysia and Iraq, and president of Indonesia.

But what about the danger of an Islamist takeover?

Mainstream Islamists have a good grasp of the intricate socio-economic and political problems facing their societies.
--John L. Esposito

In contrast to radical extremists who want to seize power and impose their brand of an Islamic state, mainstream Islamic groups have competed and done well in elections and remained non-violent despite government limitations, harassment, repression, and rigged elections.

They have created effective NGOs that respond to the social and educational needs of their societies. They have come to appreciate diversity and pluralism in society and the need for democracy as the best system to manage this diversity.

They have also been advocating many of the values of democracy, such as citizenship, rule of law, constitutionalism, separation of power, good governance and accountability.

Mainstream Islamists have a good grasp of the intricate socio-economic and political problems facing their societies and know quite well that these problems can only be resolved through cooperation and by sharing power and responsibility with other political forces, and not through monopolizing power.

Islamic movements, like all other groups and parties in their countries, have a right to participate in elections and be represented in government and will continue to have an influential role.

In past elections, Islamic groups and parties, absent other viable political choices, were the only alternative game in town. They garnered the votes not only of their members and supporters but also of those who wanted to express their opposition to, or disfavor with, the government.

However, in a new, more open and pluralistic political climate, they will be but one of many potential political players and parties.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of John L. Esposito.

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