With Islamic democracy often positioned between pseudo-liberal militarist parties on the economic right and revolutionary, radical Salafism on the economic far-left — and all on the social right to varying degrees — it is important to understand the motivations, activities and ideological details of the competing political options. This site has devoted extensive analysis to the militarists of Egypt and Libya, as well as to the Islamic democrats of Turkey and Tunisia.
But the Islamic democrats across the Middle East North Africa are often confused in the West with the dramatically different radical factions in the Salafist corner. A historical analogy would be the difference between radical communists who opposed liberal elective democracy in principle (and generally boycotted elections or ran but refused to take their seats or govern) and the democratic socialists who accepted liberal democracy as the vehicle to achieve their (milder) policy end-goals.
Libya’s Ansar al-Sharia provides a good lens for seeing the distinctions very clearly between radical Islamic factions and Islamic democratic parties. The eastern Libyan terrorist group was unofficially involved in the impromptu attack on the US Consulate in Benghazi in 2012, but it is also a very complicated group that doesn’t fit into easy boxes, as a new research paper from the conservative Hudson Institute explores. Nonetheless, despite its complexities, the faction contrasts very sharply with Islamic democratic parties such as western Libya’s Justice and Construction Party (JCP).
Ansar al-Sharia are undeniably violent global jihadists and extremely opposed to democracy in principle, unlike the JCP, and they wouldn’t disagree with those characterizations. But beyond their anti-democratic terrorism, they also devoted perhaps more effort than any other such group anywhere in the world toward (mostly illegal) humanitarian activities and sophisticated state-building activities until they began losing support to rival ISIS. Their humanitarian (and bribery) reach extended into Syria, Gaza, and Sudan, as well as their home turf in Libya, until the start of General Hifter’s war against them in early 2014, at which point it rapidly dried up and all energy was re-applied to domestic militancy.
Unlike Hamas or Hezbollah, groups like Ansar al-Sharia are so firmly opposed to democracy — and all its principles and forms — that they reject all party politics and refuse to exist as an organized party. Interestingly, they also sound a lot like fringe American “sovereign citizens,” who reject virtually all governing authority except very select and archaic or common-law authorities (such as sheriffs!); debating the fundamental legitimacy of a police stop with the officer, for example, was an encouraged Ansar al-Sharia activity. Also similar is a penchant for assassinating government officials solely by virtue of their position as government officials, regardless of individual performance or politics.
The group’s anti-American ideology is well-developed, citing not only unilateral US military operations across the Muslim world, but also its history of slavery and Native genocide.
They do not believe in any government not directly ruled at all levels by religious officials answering to textual literalism. Even the Islamic Republic of Iran would be unaccepted (beyond its sectarian religious affiliations with Shia Islam) because it allows extensive roles for non-clerics.
This worldview, not Islamic democracy, is a political threat to the region and to the United States. It refuses to engage with the real, 21st century world in any sense. That is not the case for parties interested in seeking to govern via ballot elections on behalf of the people they represent.