Ever since the events of 9-11 the topic “Islam and Democracy” ranks first on the Western agenda that aims at reforming the Arab world. The question whether Islam is capable of adapting to democratic standards of the West is widely discussed by politicians, scholars and an interested public. Unfortunately, this debate often involves stereotypes that oversimplify a definition of democracy as well as Islam. Therefore, it usually is not very helpful finding solutions but rather brings back Huntington’s “Clash of Civilisations”.
Within the Arab world, a similar debate is led but it has a slightly different focus. Only few oppose democracy completely. On the other hand, even fewer call for a total implementation of Western standards. The focus is not on whether but rather on how and to which extend democratic values can be introduced to Arab societies. This implies the question which kind of democracy is desirable and how it can be adjusted to religious values and traditions. Some Arab scholars point out to traditions that might be comparable to the Western democratic evolution whereas others negate the validity of democracy by defining it as purely western.
Very often, those scholarly receptions are highly idealised and do not reflect the political reality. The Pakistani political scientist Kurshid Ahmads, for instance, describes the Islamic political system as follows:
“The Islamic political order is based on the concept of Tawhid and seeks its flowering in the form of vice regency operating through the mechanism of Consultation (Shura) supported by the principles of equality of human kind, rule of law, protection of human rights including those of minorities, accountability of rulers, transparency of political processes as an overriding concern for justice in all its dimensions: legal, political, social, economic, and international.”10
Ahmad and numerous others besides him explicitly point out to parallels that mark Western style democracy. However, the reality very often differs from those high ideals. The same author who praised some of the key elements of democracy also makes it clear that “it is intellectually unacceptable and culturally untenable to assume that a particular Western model of democracy must be accepted as an ideal form of polity for the entirety of mankind, particularly for Muslims, who have their own distinct moral and ideological identity and historic-cultural personality.”11
The appeal of this view for someone who wants Islam and democratic theory to cohere is that the community has tremendous discretion in interpreting Islam and enacting laws that embody its spirit. Democratic decision-making can extend to every area of life and of law. One limitation of this theory, though, is that it is apparently the Muslim community alone that is entrusted with the task of interpreting and applying God’s word. That is all well and good for Muslims, but it excludes non-Muslims. If self-rule consists of figuring out what God wants within the framework of Islam, then non-Muslims will not be full-fledged participants. The answer that minorities in any democracy are excluded when they do not share the fundamental values of the majority may be unsatisfying to someone who thinks that equality is a touchstone of democracy. But perhaps non-Muslims could be permitted to participate in the democratic discussion of God’s will, even if they are not full members of the community.
The essences of Islam and democracy can be seen as compatible because both are flexible mobile ideas. If democracy was restricted to requiring an absolute sovereignty of the people, it would lack the ability to appeal to people and to cultures that do not place humans at the centre of the universe. But democracy has flourished even where humanism was not the dominant mode of thinking. Modern Western democracy grew up among pious Christians, many of them staunch Calvinists who emphasized man’s sinful and fallen nature, and themselves grappled with the relationship between democracy and divine sovereignty.
Most Americans today probably believe that God, not man, is the measure of all things. It is doubtful whether the majority of Indians place humans at the centre of the universe, yet democracy thrives in India. The idea of the rule of the people has been flexible enough to place either the people or God or nature as supreme power of a society. On any of these views, the people still govern themselves within the area delineated by their capacities and right Islam has demonstrated a comparable degree of flexibility in its essence. The acknowledgement that God is sovereign turns out to mean different things to different people. It has encompassed the idea of free will for some people, while others have thought that a sovereign God must leave nothing to chance or choice. Rationalist Muslim philosophers thought that God was sovereign in the sense that he was the First Mover.
If the essences of Islam and democracy can be compatible, what about the practical institutional arrangements required by each? In particular, Islam, on most views, requires that the state does not exist in an entirely separate sphere from religion. But can a state that embraces religion be democratic? Britain has no separation of church and state. The Queen is Defender of the faith and head of the Church of England. Anglican bishops sit in the House of Lords, and anyone who wants to change the Book of Common Prayer must go through Parliament to do it. Yet Britain is the cradle of modern democracy.
To take another Western European example, in the German state of Bavaria, schools’ classrooms display a crucifix. Furthermore, the comprehensive financial relationship between the State and the Church by the means of church taxes arose another reason point out to a rather incomplete separation of Church and State. Nevertheless, no one seems to think that this makes modern Germany into something other than a democracy.
On the other hand, some people object vociferously to the suggestion that it might be possible to have democracy - especially liberal democracy - without a strict separation of Church and State. They argue that to be just to everyone, democracy cannot impose one vision of the good life. Liberal democracy requires government to remain neutral about what values matter most, and to leave that decision up to the individual. If religion and the state do not remain separate; the state will inevitably impose or at least encourage the version of the good life preferred by the official religion. The resolute laicism practiced in France is an excellent example illustrating this vision. It also shows how difficult a state’s religious neutrality can sometimes be.
It is necessary for a democracy worthy of the name to respect the individual’s right to worship as he chooses, and to provide religious liberty for all its inhabitants. But individual religious liberty does not necessarily mean that the government doesn't embrace, endorse, support or fund one religion in particular. The government can support one particular view of the good life. It can give money to synagogues or ashrams or mosques or all of the above. But so long as the government does not force anyone to adopt religious beliefs that he or she rejects, or perform religious actions that are anathema, it has not violated the basic right to religious liberty. Separation of church and state may be very helpful to maintaining religious liberty, as in the United States, but it is not always necessary to it.
With respect to equal political participation, there is no principled reason in Islam to suggest that anyone, Muslim or non-Muslim, man or woman, regardless of race or any other characteristic, should not be permitted to participate equally in collective decision-making. Some Muslims might argue for special participatory status for Muslims or for men. But aside from Kuwait, where the legislature refused to enact the Prince (emir’s) decree granting women the vote, women have the vote in every Muslim country where there are elections. That includes Iran, with its Islamism constitution; Arab states like Jordan, Egypt, Algeria, Tunisia, and Morocco; and now even Bahrain, a Gulf monarchy with traditional ways not unlike Saudi Arabia. Even there, it is not generally argued against women’s participation at the recent (and at the same time the first) elections on a municipal level. It were rather technical reasons that kept women away from the ballots (not enough truly separated voting rooms) and that are due to be overcome by the next time.
As for Muslim women leaders, Benazir Bhutto was twice elected Prime Minister of Pakistan; Tansu Ciller served as Prime Minister of Turkey; in Bangladesh the current Prime Minister, Khaleda Zia, and the past Prime Minister, now leader of the opposition, Sheikh Hasina Waged, are women; and Indonesia has a woman president in Megawati Sukarnoputri. These women have mixed records both in terms of effectiveness and honesty, but they have been neither better nor worse than male leaders in their countries, and the fact they were elected should dispel the stereotypes that unmitigated sexism prevails everywhere in the Muslim world. There is, admittedly, a saying attributed to the Prophet, according to which a nation that makes a woman its ruler will not succeed; and some Muslims have argued that this bars women from serving as heads of state. But this interpretation is not widespread, and has not stopped Muslim women from being elected.
10 Ahmad, Khurshid, Islam and Democracy: Some Conceptual and Contemporary Dimensions, In: Muslim World, Vol. 90/No. 1&2, 1 ff.
11 Ahmad, op.cit., 2.
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