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SwedAlex brought reflections about Islam and democracy to the political week in Almedalen, Visby, Sweden. In a dialogue between three young Muslims from Algeria, Tunisia and Sweden and the Head of MENA department of the Swedish Ministry for Foreign Affairs, the panel elaborated on the lack of democratic development after the Arab spring, the difficult democratic record of political Islam in the region and the role of Europe to support a more hopeful development.

Ten years ago, Turkey was described as the example how political Islam can became for the Arab world what Christian Democracy became for Europe. But the development in recent years has raised doubts on a sustainable democratic path. Today, Tunisia is the most discussed example for democratic expectations, with the Tunisian dialogue and the decision of the Ennahda party to make a clear separation between the religious movement and the political party and leave the label of political Islam behind.

In order to have a fruitful dialogue on Islam and democracy it is important to make a clear distinction between Islam, which is a religion, and political Islam, which is a political ideology inspired by Islam. But equally important is to clearly distinguish between legitimate and pragmatic expression of political Islam, as in Turkey and Tunisia, and criminal groups how have captured Islam to justify acts of terrorism, like Daish.

Not making these distinctions would in a western context be like claiming all Christians to be affiliated to Klu Klux Klan.

To understand the nuances and to promote democracy in the context of Islam, we have to be ready to dialogue, to bring back the conversation, with of course the exception of dialoguing with or legitimizing criminals. Closing the doors for dialogue is doing away with the political tools needed to promote co-existence and prevent violence and extremism.

The history, teaching and tradition of Islam are not different from Christianity or any other world religion in its relation to democracy. The difference between Europe and the MENA Region has to be found in other factors – trust in the state functions, modernization, experience in the culture of compromise, popular education or role of media. Hence there are a great number of concrete political topics which needs dialogue to understand and promote democracy in Islamic contexts.

We should also not hesitate to dialogue on the role of Islam itself. There might be an understanding that dialogue with people of faith is difficult, that they are reluctant or hesitant to change.

Our experience is the opposite. People of faith are basing their views related to ideas, not only interest. Their conviction might be strong, but they are able to look at society outside of themselves, which is a very good basis for dialogue.

However, such a dialogue can only be successful if it is done in respect to the adversary’s religion, identity and culture. Rightly performed, dialogue can make us see the nuances and strengthen the common ground for co-existence, pluralism and democracy.

Sweden is currently, through its program for development cooperation, investing substantially in the civil society in the MENA region – in particular in youth, women and also religious leaders. This is an investment in democracy.

SwedAlex is a platform for dialogue between Europe and the MENA Region – an instrument to promote values like democracy, human rights and social developments. But also to give space for better mutual understanding between cultures, contexts and countries north and south of the Mediterranean Basin.

Bringing this dialogue to the political week in Almedalen is a contribution to a better understanding in Sweden and Europe on the challenges, obstacles and possibilities for democracy in the Arab world and Muslim contexts.