Friday, March 28, 2008

Islam and Democracy - Free Essay -

Analyse the complex relationship between Islam and Democracy

The end of the Cold War and the demise of the Soviet communist empire have shown the dominance of liberal democracy and capitalism over all other possible alternatives. The emerging ``New World Order`` has been characterized by the collapse of communism and the global demand for democracy. Fukuyama even went as far as declaring the ``end of history``: `what we may be witnessing is not the end of the Cold War, or the passing of a particular period of postwar history, but the end of history as such: that is, the end point of mankind's ideological evolution and the universalisation of Western liberal democracy as the final form of human government.` (Fukuyama, 1989: 50) However, after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, and indeed before that, the attention of many scholars and government officials has been directed towards the lack of democracy in the Islamic states and the reasons for it. Many scholars while trying to explain the rationale why the Muslim world is not successful in the development of pluralism, liberalism and other democratic values `have concluded that it must have something to do with culture, and more particularly with Islam.` (Kramer, 1993: 2) The results of the Freedom House report in 2005 identified three Muslim countries as free, 20 states as partly free and 23 as not free at all. (Freedom in the world 2006) The table on Islam and democracy shows that democracy has not found a home in the region and the authoritarianism continues to be a strong force in Muslim domains. Here states with an Islamic majority comprise one in two of the world's authoritarian regimes.
Is the government           Countries with an          Non-Islamic
elected by Islamic majority countries
democratic means?

Yes 11 110
No 36 35
Total 47 145
(Adapted from Hague and Harrop, 2004: 62)
The increasing level of interest towards democracy within the Muslim world is growing dramatically. People are no longer willing to support dictatorships. `... Muslims have recognized that democratic revolution may be the only way to deliver them from the hands of the dictators and despots that rule their states.` (Milton-Edwards, 2004: 116) Nevertheless the incompatibility of Islam with the notions of liberal democracy has been stressed by many scholars, although it is strongly argued by the majority that Islam and democracy can co-exist and allow the societies to prosper. This essay will try to analyze the complex relationship between Islam and democracy. The essay will identify trends within Islam that can be related towards democratic governance, as well as trends that underline Islam's irreconcilability with the liberal values of democracy. Also, some of the views of the Islamic intellectuals within the Muslim community and their relationship to the processes and experiences of democratization will be analyzed.

Islam and Democracy.

`In Islamic history, there are a number of very important concepts and images that shape the contemporary visions of what a just human society should be.` (Esposito and Voll, 1996: 23) However, the interpretations of such concepts and images vary and there are some considerable discrepancies about the definition of a just society in the Muslim countries. Just like in Christianity, the various elucidations of Islamic customs can lead to the support for authoritarianism as well as liberal democracy. This essay will try to analyse the relationship from both perspectives. First some concepts that clearly challenge democracy will be identified. In this context Abu al-Ala al-Mawdudi stated that the `political system of Islam has been based in three principles, viz: Tawheed (Unity of God), Risalat (Prophethood) and Khilafat (Caliphate).` (Mawdudi, 1967: 40) While Risalat is not particularly important to this study and will be mentioned briefly, the other two may dramatically contradict each other, depending on interpretation.

The first principle emphasizes that the unity and sovereignty of Allah is foundation of the Islamic system. There can be only one sovereign and that is God who delegates His authority to umma. Here the first contradiction with democracy arises as the Tawheed principle raises the question whether the shari'a limits the freedom of people. According to the scholar al-Turabi `it does not since all the people believe in the principles and details of shari'a law, and apply them wholeheartedly as an expression of their free will.` (in El-Solh, 1993: 60) However democratic, secular values are based on the principle of popular sovereignty, power of the people and the separation between religion and politics. But how can there be democracy in the Islamic society if the concept of sovereignty of the people conflicts with the sovereignty of God? How can secular principles be adopted if there is no separation between the state and the mosque, public and private, religion and politics? For Mawdudi a perfect Islamic state is the one governed by Shari`a, while the single ruler is only selected to represent God and Muslims. The concept of Risalat may come in here as Prophet Mohammad combined religious leadership as well as being a political ruler of his people. Mawdudi sees that as the only way to rule an Islamic state, `the kingdom of God`. (Mawdudi, 1976: 159) This view was supported by Ayatollah Khomeini who underlined the fact that the Islamic state is not a dictatorship because the leader rules according to Divine law, not his own will. He later explains that the Islamic state cannot be a democracy where people make their own rules because: `It is the rule of the Divine law as interpreted and applied by the Just Faqih - the duty of the people is to obey in accordance to the Koran.` (in Zubaida, 1993: 17) Also, it is important to note the notion of fatalism in Islam, as described by Voigt (2005). The concept of ultimate sovereignty of God implies fate as the determination of any person's future. From this perspective the liberal democratic traditions of representation are not valid as the people are not the masters of their own future but fate and the will of God govern the outcome of every action. For democracy to be successful `relevant parts of the population need to be convinced that to a considerable degree their individual actions, not fate, determine their lot.` (Voigt, 2005: 68)

The second important concept is Khilafah. The early theories of the caliphate identified the leader as the `caliph`, however the contemporary debates discovered a new meaning of the term. In this sense human beings are interpreted as God's agents, or His representatives on earth. This proposes equality among all of the people in the eyes of God, which according to Esposito and Voll (1996) makes any human hierarchy impossible and condemns a hierarchical, dictatorial system as non-Islamic. (This theory, however is argued by La Porta, Lopez-de-Silanes, Shleifer and Vishny (1997) And as His vicegerents people are `required to exercise Divine authority in this world within the limits prescribed by God.`, that is live according to Islamic system of rule. (Mawdudi, 1967: 42) The principle of Khilafah brings Islam closer to liberal democracy in two ways. First, just like in the democratic states, people are equal. Second, the identification of ``caliph`` with humanity as a whole, rather just with a single ruler encourages the caliphate to reach a certain level of self-governance which will be reflected in the process of mutual consultation (shura) and consensus (ijma). This is the political outcome of the theory of the caliphate of human beings. In this context Islam is believed to be superior to democracy in guaranteeing the unity of umma since it calls for a consensus rather than the rule of the majority.

The principle of shura is now presented by many as `the functional equivalent of Western parliamentary rule, and as the basis of authentic Islamic democracy` because it `demands open debate among both the `ulema and the community at large on issues that concern the public.` (Kramer, 1993: 7, Abootalebi, 1999: 16) The importance of consultation as part of an Islamic traditions is recognized extensively. Shura may be carried out formally, or through an assembly or council (majlis). This clearly shows Islam's compatibility with democracy. Supporters of democracy have tried to expand the idea of consultation during the nineteenth and twentieth century. Most scholars agree that the decisions affecting the life of umma have to be made by the community itself and this should now involve the development of an assembly of representatives. `Shura thus becomes a key operational element in the relationship between Islam and democracy.` (Esposito and Voll, 1996: 28) However, there are some controversies regarding the notion of shura. It does not define the process of consultation. Is it binding for the ruler to seek umma's advice and is he bound by the verdicts of those consulted? Such disagreements again allow for various interpretations and may support both authoritarianism and democracy. `Principles of shura manifest in relationships between ruler and ruled in modern-day states are highly restricted and are not inclusive of all in a society.` (Milton-Edwards, 2004: 116) The possibility of opposition and disagreement to the laws of the ruler is highly limited in such conditions. Any such disagreement may be interpreted as the cause of fitnah, another Islamic concept that strongly contradicts the freedoms of expression of liberal democracy. It requires total submission to the ruler. Muslims must listen to their leader, be passive and obey. Revolt is not tolerated in Islam and the umma cannot be divided. This concept can be used by the ruler to accuse the opposition in threats to Muslim faith and legitimize the persecutions because the Quran instructs the umma to actively oppose fitnah: `Kill them whenever you meet them, and expel them from anyplace from which they expelled you, because their fitnah is worse evil than the act of killing.` (The Holy al-Quran, 2: 189-190) Fitnah justifies the great reluctance of the rulers to allow for unlimited freedom of speech. It encourages the limited acceptance of pluralism within the framework of Islam only and recognizes that any kind of authority is better than anarchy. If someone disagrees with this framework they are labeled the enemies of Islam. `As long as there is no certainty as to who defines the `framework of Islam,` and where exactly power and interest come into play, pluralism and democracy remain in jeopardy.` (Kramer, 1993: 8) The concept provides much of the debate over the rights of opposition in democratizing Muslim societies.

There are a number of shared assumptions at the core of contemporary writing about the relationship between Islam and democracy. Islam's traditions of the equality of people as God's agents, the sole sovereignty of God, the existence of government to ensure an Islamic life and enforce Islamic law and that the head of the state is a mere representative of the umma that can dispose of him at any time, each contribute to the debate of the compatibility of Islam and liberal democracy. All of these traditions, however, can be interpreted to support both liberal democracy and authoritarianism. There seems to be no immediate solution to the debate, except for the fact that Muslims are not willing simply to adopt Western democratic models. Such scholars as Huntington, Kedourie and Kramer argue that Islam is uniquely undemocratic and that the Muslim world can never democratize. They contend that Islam is simply lacking the institutions and structure for democracy to grow. They stress the reluctance of Islam to adopt Western values and question Islam's ability to deliver a representative and accountable regime. To quote Bernard Lewis:` in principle the (Islamic) state was God's state, ruling over God's people; the law was God's law; the army was God's army; and the enemy, of course, was God's enemy ... the history of Islamic states is one of almost unrelieved autocracy.` (Lewis, 1993: 6) Others, like Soroush, Milton-Edwards and Midlarsky name other reasons for the lack of democracy in Muslim domains and argue that `Islam and democracy are not only compatible, their association is inevitable. In a Muslim society, one without the other is not perfect.` (Soroush in Wright, 1996: 68) However, the critics of Islam are right about Muslims not willing to adopt the Western style of democracy. Instead Korany (1994) suggests that it should the other way around and democracy should employ and respect the principles of Islam if it is to be successful in Muslim states: `if Western democracy wants indeed to travel, it has to learn the language of the countries it visits. Such familiarity with non-Western contexts will help this latest Western product to indigenize, get universalized, and lose in the process some of its negative historical connotations.` (Korany, 1994: 512)


· Abootalebi, Ali R., `Islam, Islamists, and Democracy`, Middle East Review of International Affairs, Vol. 3, No. 1 (March 1999), pp. 14-24.

· El-Solh, Raghid, `Islamist Attitudes towards Democracy: A Review of the Ideas of al-Ghazali, al-Turabi and ‘Amara.`, British Journal of Middle Eastern Studies, Vol. 20, No. 1 (1993), pp. 57-63.

· Esposito, John L., and Voll, John O., (1996) Islam and Democracy, New York: Oxford University Press.

· Freedom of the World 2006, Selected Data from Freedom House’s Annual Global Survey of Political Rights and Civil Liberties.

· Fukuyama, Francis, `Entering Post-History`, New Perspectives Quarterly, Vol. 6, No. 3 (Fall 1989) p. 50.

· Hague, Rod, and Harrop, Martin, (2004) Comparative Government and Politics An Introduction, 6th Edition, New York: Palgrave.

· Korany, Bahdat, `Arab Democratization: A Poor Cousin?`, PS: Political Science and Politics, Vol. 27, No. 3, (Sep., 1994), pp. 511-513.

· Kramer, Gudrun, `Islamist Notions of Democracy`, Middle East Report, No. 183, Political Islam (Jul. – Aug., 1993), pp. 2-8.

· La Porta, Rafael, Lopez-de-Silanes, Florencio, Shleifer, Andrei, and Vishny, Robert W., `Trust in Large Organisations`, American Economic Review, Vol. 87, No. 2 (1997), pp. 333-338.

· Lewis, Bernard, (1993) Islam and the West, Oxford: Oxford University Press.

· Mawdudi, Sayyid Abul A’la, (1967) Islamic Way of Life, Dehli: Markazi Maktaba Islami.

· Mawdudi, Sayyid Abul A’la, (1976) `Political Theory of Islam`, in Khurshid Ahmad, ed., Islam: Its Meaning and Message, London: Islamic Council of Europe.

· Milton-Edwards, Beverley, (2004) Islam and Politics in the Contemporary World, Polity Press: Cambridge.

· The Meaning of the Holy Qur’an, Complete Translation with Selected Notes by ‘Abdullah Yusuf ‘Ali, (2003) Islamic Foundation: UK.

· Voigt, Stefan, `Islam and the Institutions of the Free Society`, The Independent Review, Vol. 10, No. 1 (Summer 2005), pp. 59-82.

· Wright, Robin, `Two Visions of Reformism`, Journal of Democracy, Vol. 7, No. 2 (April 1996), pp. 64-75.

· Zubaida, Sami, (1993) Islam: the People and the State, London: I. B. Tauris.

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