Journalists working in dictatorial Muslim states often fear the “strongmen” who rule them. Syria’s Bashar al-Assad has let loose a reign of terror over the past six years, killing 162,000 Syrians, and rejecting peaceful dialogue with his Sunni opponents with the support of Russia. Similarly, Saddam Hussein arose in Iraq and challenged the world, as did Muammar Gaddafi in Libya. In Egypt, strongmen Gemal Abul Nasser and Anwar Sadat were followed by strongman Hosni Mubarak, who ruled Egypt with an iron fist till he was ousted and replaced with a democratic government, which was overturned by Abdel Fateh al-Sissi, yet another strongman. Conventional wisdom then holds: strongmen use tyranny to project political strength.
However, despite their numerous human rights abuses, all the “tyrants” named strived to prevent their states from being overrun by the religious right through democracy—a terrifying prospect for the West. Syria’s Assad will never seek compromise with the Sunni opposition battling his tyranny, because he believes a democratic Muslim state will soon turn on the Alawite minority to which he belongs, massacring entire cities that have prospered under secular rule. In fairness, he is speaking from precedence.
In Egypt, after the Muslim Brotherhood won an electoral majority, the country’s Christian Copts community was targeted with impunity. Had military chief Sissi allowed the Brotherhood to rule, covert jihad—mostly sectarian violence between Muslims—would likely have engulfed the Middle East. The same happened in Iran after the “strongman” Shah was ousted by the Iranian Revolution. With a religious state in place, Tehran took the lead in endangering Arabs across the Gulf, leaving little freedom of expression or assembly under its spiritual leader and “elected” parliament.
Unfortunately, many Muslim states become unviable the moment their trajectory tilts toward democracy at the expense of the strongmen who had managed to provide a degree of stability. The residents of such countries want democracy to oust their dictators, but have trouble differentiating it from shariah law. That, say some Muslim scholars, is untenable. According to Javed Ghamidi, the sharia law expounded by democratic Muslim states seeks nothing less than a subjugated world, united under a single caliphate.