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Are Islam And Democracy Compatible?

By Rahil Yasin

21 March, 2009

LAHORE: It is in the interest of the world, capitalists and the poor to invest time and money in nurturing democracies. It is an investment in lasting peace and security, which brings prosperity to one and all.

A considerable amount of research and analysis has been undertaken on the issue of political Islam. This has helped to correct some simplistic and alarmist assumptions previously held in the West about the nature of Islamic values and intentions. It has been established that political Islam is like a changing landscape, deeply affected by a range of circumstances. But a debate on this topic often gets stuck on the simplistic question of, “Are Muslims democratic?”

Western scholars have tried to present Islam as anti-democratic and inherently authoritarian. By misrepresenting Islam in this way they seek to prove that Islam has a set of values inferior to Western liberalism and is a barrier in the way of progress of civilizations. While Turkey and Malaysia set a fantastic example for nations around the world to see that democracy coexists with a great religion like Islam. The experience of both the above-mentioned countries reflects the fact that many Muslims, whether living in secular or formally Islamic states, see democracy as their main hope.

Vali Nasr, a professor at America’s Tufts University, terms “Muslim democracy” as a potentially decisive force in the non-Arab parts of the Muslim world. In his view, the recent experience of Turkey, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Malaysia and Indonesia point to a single truth: Wherever they are given the chance, Muslim democratic parties can prevail over the violent varieties of political Islam. Millions of the world’s 1.4 billion Muslims live under democratic rule. This is an ample proof that there is no discord between the two ideas.

Islam, like other faiths, is spiritual and is a code of conduct for over 1.4 billion people. The political aspects of Islam are derived from the Holy Quran and Sunnah, Muslim history and, sometimes, from elements of political movements outside Islam. The political concepts in Islam also emanate from the leadership by successors of the Prophet Mohammad (PBUH) known as Caliphs, Islamic law, the duty of rulers to seek shura or consultation from their subjects and the importance of rebuking unjust rulers.

Islam, like other religions, can be interpreted in different ways. Some interpretations, rather misinterpretations, are favoured by al Qaeda and radical Islamists. Such interpretations clash with democratic ideals. There is one exception is the shape of Iran since the revolution in 1979 and the other is the Taliban in Afghanistan. For the preceding 1500 years since the advent of Islam, secular political elites have controlled political power. The Christian tradition, for example, provided a conceptual foundation for the divine right of the monarchy. In contemporary times, it fosters the concept that Christianity and democracy are truly compatible. Similarly, some Muslim scholars agree that Islamic values are compatible with democracy. According to them, the principle of shura (consultative decision-making) is the source of democratic ethics in Islam.

It is based on three basic teachings. First, that all persons in any given society are equal. Second, public issues are best decided by the majority view. And third, the three other principles of justice, equality and human dignity, which constitute Islam’s moral core, are best realized in personal as well as public life under governance by a shura. Ijma (consensus) that is acceptance of a matter by a specified group of people is another source that relates to democracy. All the Muslims of all the times, according to some Muslim scholars, may be involved in the process of building consensus.

Finally, the model set by Prophet Mohammad (PBUH) reveals how democratic practices and theories are attuned to an Islamic state. The first Islamic state based on a social contract was constitutional in character and had a ruler who ruled with the written consent of all citizens of the state. Demonstrating democratic spirit, Prophet Mohammad (PBUH) chose to prepare a historically specific constitution based on the eternal and transcendent principles revealed to him but he also sought the consent of all who would be affected by its implementation. This means that in a democracy, Muslims and non-Muslims are equal citizens of an Islamic state.

According to many religious scholars, the Constitution of Madinah established a pluralistic state, a community of communities. The principles of equality, consensual governance and pluralism were central to that concept and practice.

There are many reasons that democracy prevails in only few Muslim nations. In the Arab world, for example, oil has been a factor, entrenching the elites and slowing the development of market economies and political freedoms that accompany them. Political manipulation of the Arab-Israeli conflict in which Muslim leaders covered the domestic unrest under the criticism of Israel and the West is also a factor. In Pakistan, political involvement of army demoralizes the development of strong democratic institutions due to tenuous social cohesion, a fragmented class structure, a weak middle class, the lack of common symbols to facilitate political and social mobilization, the weakness and inefficiency of the political parties, and mediocre political personnel.

One of main reasons of the West fearing political Islam is that most of the leaders in Arab nations are Islamists — groups that embrace a political view of Islam and reject secular forms of government. The West also feels that these groups are anti-Western. But religious ideals within Islam always favour democracy. The holy Quran contains a number of ideas that support democratic ideals. In fact, sharia applies to all aspects of religious, political, social, and private life. So this leads us to agree that political Islam has all the democratic norms.

The West believes that in Islam God is the giver of laws while men have only limited autonomy to implement and enforce those laws. Many activists, using broad and sometimes crude notions of secularism and sovereignty, consider democracy to be the rule of humans as opposed to Islam, which is rule of God. The West argues that rule by the people cannot reconcile with the sovereignty of God. While sovereignty belongs to God, it has been delegated in the form of human agency.

The political task is to reflect on how this God-given agency can be best employed in creating a society that will bring welfare to the people. God cannot become an excuse for installing and legitimizing governments that are not accountable to their citizens and responsive to their needs.

The reasons of human rights abuses in the Muslim world come not from Islam but from economic, political, and educational forces. The struggle for human rights in the Muslim world will be lost or won on the national level, not on the international level. It is up to Muslims to decide how much respect to accord to human rights.

Those countries that have weak civil society structures and authoritarian regimes are fertile grounds for terrorism. The biggest question is how to adopt new ideas and policies while maintaining religious and cultural integrity. To maintain such a balance, the Muslim world’s elites, scholars, and activists must explain Islamic values and social norms in a manner consistent with modern and internationally recognized principles of human rights.

The Western world must treat Muslims as partners in their struggle against human rights abuses and help to empower reformist voices and civil society. If the Western countries want to suppress terror they have to support those movements that express dissenting voices within repressive political systems. Western countries should apply economic and political pressure on authoritarian regimes to encourage change.

The West generally, and the US particularly, should change their policies with regard to the repressive regimes in Muslim nations to prevent political Islam from growing as a threat to the West. To promote democracy in the Muslim world, the US and the West should increase the amount of foreign assistance; provide governments and key interest groups in Muslim societies with incentives to engage in democratic reforms. Still, basic responsibility lies with Muslim scholars who should reinterpret Islamic laws in the light of the changing needs of a modern society.

The writer is a freelance columnist based in Lahore, Pakistan. He can be reached at [email protected]

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