There are few current questions about international developments as important as the ones concerning the future of what, rather optimistically, has been called the Arab Spring. Will this series of popular uprisings indeed lead to a new era of democracy and progress in the Middle East? Or will it rather lead to an era of violence and totalitarianism inspired by a Jihadist version of Islam? Obviously either outcome will be affected by a variety of factors, many of them with little if any relation to religion. I would like to suggest that a controversy which preoccupied Islamic philosophers a thousand years ago may have a surprising relevance to this alternative.
The recently published 12th volume of Current Trends in Islamist Ideology, a helpful series put out by the Hudson Institute, revolves around the same alternative. The ongoing election in Egypt has brought the matter into urgent attention. While the election process is dragging on, and while the role of the military remains unclear, there has been the alarming success at the polls of the Muslim Brotherhood, which of late has been making liberal noises, and the various groupings of radical Salafist movements who have made very few such concessions. At this time of writing the two groupings appear to have gathered about 60% of the votes. The political party set up by the Brotherhood has deliberately defined itself in terms of the so-called “Turkish model”—supposedly a liberal democracy inspired by “Islamic values”, but definitely not based on shariah law. Recent domestic and international behavior by the Erdogan government in Turkey is beginning to put some question marks behind this definition of the “model”. Still, at least in aspiration this “model” has more liberal potential than anything the Salafists would like to put in place.