The Arab Spring of 2010 captured the global social imagination and took many by surprise. The turns and turbulences the Arab world has seen since then demonstrate that the path from popular uprisings to a sustained political movement and regime change is neither inevitable nor immediate.

The tumultuous nature of the developments has led to strong opinions about religion and politics in general and Islam and democracy in particular. With the purported failure of the Arab Spring and dashed hopes, there is a penchant among many for reviving the hypothesis that Islam is a formidable and insurmountable impediment in the process of democratization. This revival is a throwback to the one propounded by the political scientist Samuel Huntington that Muslim societies would not have their own ‘wave' of democracy that other societies have had because of the inherent contradictions between Islam and democracy. The analytical purchase this hypothesis carries today in political and media networks is hard to deny. The 2014 Tunisian constitution and the aftermath political atmosphere in Tunisia of compromise and bargain, on the other hand, show how Islam and democracy work in tandem albeit with its share of troubles and encumbrances.

Islam and Democracy

For many, ranging from political scientists to analysts, the Arab Spring of 2010 was a surprise. The surprise registered can be broadly traced to two sources. Firstly, the explanatory clout modernization and secularization theories that predicted the demise of religion with conviction began to dissipate with religion acquiring increasing importance across the world. Secondly, the uprisings blew holes in the less than watertight assumption that authoritarianism was the default mode of governance in the Arab world. Passivity and resilience in the face of iniquities were the stock responses of most of its citizens, assumed many. This assumption conveniently swept under the blanket the long-held grievances against authoritarian regimes and a century-long fight for good governance and popular sovereignty in the Arab world.

A common political idiom that many subscribe to is that some religions and religious communities are inherently conducive to democracy. Thus, western Christianity and Protestantism are conducive for the practice of democracy and in nurturing democratic aspirations. Of course, most predominant Protestant and Roman Catholic countries in the world are liberal democracies. For many on the other hand, Islam is incompatible with democracy in addition to harboring an inhospitable atmosphere for any democratic processes.

It is, however, fallacious to assume that religion and religious institutions affect politics everywhere always in similar ways. The assumption that Western Christianity is more conducive to liberal democracy than Islam is based on an experience that emanates out of Western Europe and North America- at a particular place and time.

Within Western Christianity, which is a rubric of various denominations, some have been more supportive of liberal democratic ideas than others. For example, the Roman Catholic Church was supportive of liberal democratic ideas in Brazil in 1980's than the same church in Argentina during the same period which was in cahoots with a repressive state apparatus and which till today carries a negative baggage among the general populace. There is also evidence to argue that Pentecostalism and Pentecostal churches in countries such as Guatemala and Nigeria have discouraged attitudes toward liberal democracy as much as they encourage these ideas in other countries.

Likewise, the Roman Catholic Church as an institution governed from the Vatican City condemned democracy and liberty before the Second Vatican Council (1962-1966) only to accept and promote them after.

Islam too offers a polyvalence of attitudes towards democracy in Muslim-majority countries such as Bosnia and Indonesia where it has been far more conducive to democratic ideas than in countries such as Saudi Arabia. Attitudes differ within countries as well. We cannot even reasonably conclude that all Shia and all Sunni communities apply religion to politics in the same vein. Schismatic debates show that there is a large variation of how religion's relationship to politics is envisaged. With such variety, it is quite difficult to link religious traditions and political culture without taking into account the context which encompasses the social, political, economic and religious realms.

If a religious tradition impedes democratic ideals and fundamental freedoms at a particular place, in particular, time, it does not behoove us to assume or presume that it does so always in all places at all times. While scriptures certainly do guide many religious leaders, they are not necessarily confining. As the instances mentioned within a broad temporal and geographical frame demonstrate, no religion per se holds a monopoly over democratic credentials. As such, religious traditions have ideational resources that can hamper or harbor a democratic political ethos.

It is entirely possible that Islam is an impediment to liberal democracy in the Middle East. There is, without a doubt, a deficit of democracy in most Arab countries. It is equally true that many undemocratic countries strewn across the globe with distinct local, cultural and historical antecedents have nothing in common except for Islam. However, it does not quite follow that it has always been so and will be so in future.

The Tunisian Bargain

Tunisia, where the uprisings initially began offers a case of Islam and democracy coming together without devolving into political exclusion, discrimination or religious persecution. The bargain between groups of various persuasion in Tunisia is a testament to a moment of religious and non-religious political actors negotiating over consensus building in the backdrop of Islam as a state religion. Contextualizing this bargain is important to comprehend truly its tenor as well as the historical and conceptual breath it seeks to traverse.

While Europe's unsavory experience with religion over a course of centuries warranted that it be excluded from public and be confined to private, it gained a notorious normativity whereby which every society is measured against this standard. Thus, as a society democratizes and modernizes, it has to secularize invariably. The presence of religion in public is assumed as directly inimical to the process of democratization and a pursuit of pluralism.

But the pervasiveness of a discourse embedded in religion and religiosity is neither absent from Europe nor the United States where a predominant religion reigns explicitly or at a subtle level. In other parts of the world, especially the Middle East where the experience with religion has been far different, Islamists have been at the epicenter of contesting authoritarian regimes with resources drawn from Islam. With a loss of trust in secular authoritarians and secular nationalism, secularism, especially in its Western model of demarcation, is riddled with doubt and betrayal for its association with colonial and secular authoritarian regimes.

Thus, for many, religion provides an alternative locus for political dispensation, maintenance of social fabric and resources for political association. The rejection of secular principles here is not tantamount to a rejection of religious pluralism and diversity per se but shows a compromise of novel value carefully calibrated for the societies concerned as evident in Tunisia.

Tunisia offers a glimmer of hope in the socio-political morass haunting the contemporary Middle East. Its constitution from 2014 and consequent politics shows that a consensus model based on political inclusion rather than exclusion can pave the way for considerable stability though riddled with encumbrances. Islam is the state religion of Tunisia, but the constitution guarantees freedom without discrimination and accords equal rights to all. This variety of political dispensation is premised upon the idea that Islam calls for a demarcation of state and religious authority but not separation of religion and state which thinkers such as Abdolkarim Soroush and Rachid Ghannouchi, the President of the Ennahda party in Tunisia believe is against the very spirit of Islam.

The bargain and compromises forged in the Tunisian case moreover show that political theologies emanating out of Islam are fluid working in contravention of the commonly held assumption that they are etched in stone. As such, all religions are capable of generating political theologies that are helpful as well as unhelpful in the pursuance of a democratic ethos contingent upon the temporal and geographical atmosphere.

Although the Arab Spring of 2010 did not end in the demise of authoritarianism, it is important to note that democratization process and demand for popular sovereignty in the Arab world did not begin with the Arab Spring and will long continue to survive after the failure. What novel forms the democratic governance in this part of the world will take is the question to look for in the future.

(The writer has an MPhil in West Asian Studies from JNU, New Delhi and is currently with the Central European University, Budapest).