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Democractic Governance And Separation of Religion & Politics
Theoreticians of democracy have insisted that without secularization of the political space there can be no democracy. Recent history of reformation in the Muslim world has insisted on the inseparability of religious from politics. In fact, religious reformation in the past century has always meant political reform requiring the Muslim autocrats to relinquish absolute claim to power either thro
Saturday, June 3,2006 00:00
by Abdulaziz Sachedina, University of Virginia

Theoreticians of democracy have insisted that without secularization of the political space there can be no democracy. Recent history of reformation in the Muslim world has insisted on the inseparability of religious from politics. In fact, religious reformation in the past century has always meant political reform requiring the Muslim autocrats to relinquish absolute claim to power either through constitutionalism or through the implementation of the Shari’a which has traditionally endeavored to rein the absolute powers of the rulers in order for justice to prevail. In the wake of the failure of various forms of secular ideologies like nationalism, socialism, and secularism to deliver just governance, Muslim societies are intensely looking for a native alternative paradigm that seeks democratization without submitting to liberal democratic paradigm of the West and its moral-cultural perils that threaten the very fabric of interpersonal human relationships in the Mid dle East. The paper will examine the search for religious secularity in the recent constitutional developments in the Middle East.


Separation of Religion & Politics
CAN THERE BE DEMOCRATIC GOVERNANCE WITHOUT THE SEPARATION OF RELIGION AND POLITICS? *


Abstract: Theoreticians of democracy have insisted that without secularization of the political space there can be no democracy. Recent history of reformation in the Muslim world has insisted on the inseparability of religious from politics. In fact, religious reformation in the past century has always meant political reform requiring the Muslim autocrats to relinquish absolute claim to power either through constitutionalism or through the implementation of the Shari’a which has traditionally endeavored to rein the absolute powers of the rulers in order for justice to prevail. In the wake of the failure of various forms of secular ideologies like nationalism, socialism, and secularism to deliver just governance, Muslim societies are intensely looking for a native alternative paradigm that seeks democratization without submitting to liberal democratic paradigm of the West and its moral-cultural perils that threaten the very fabric of interpersonal human relationships in the Mid dle East. The paper will examine the search for religious secularity in the recent constitutional developments in the Middle East.

The socio-political realities that make religious and political inseparable in Muslim societies call for some rethinking regarding the precondition set by the theoreticians of liberal democracy for the establishment of democratic governance in the Muslim world. According to these theoreticians, without the separation between religious and political through secularization Muslim states will not succeed in developing constitutional democracy. The working presumption in this project of democratization through the secularization of the public space is the modern assessment about religion: religion must be privatized and limited to the domain of individual lives and religious institutions. Of all the world religions, Islam with its comprehensive doctrine claims to govern comprehensive human life in all its manifestations in this and the next world. This political phenomenon connected with Islam has been identified by the Western social scientists as “political Islam.” By definition, “political Islam” is an activist, even militant, response to the internal decadence in Muslim societies and an attempt to press for political reforms in order to make them compatible with Islamic teachings about the Muslim public order and the implementation of the divinely ordained Shari’a in it.

Looking at the political agenda of this activist religiosity, it would appear that “political Islam” is faced with the problem of making its religion-based ideology compatible to the demand for democratic politics in the context of modern nation-state. Since “political Islam” treats the two spheres of religion and politics integrated it is assumed that it is least prepared to be inclusive and tolerant of religious diversity prevalent in most countries in the Muslim world.

It is worth keeping in mind that the problem of mixing religion and politics is not limited to the ideologues of political Islam. Muslim culture, in general, regards religion as an essential part of its mundane activities, including its politics. There is hardly anything political in the strict sense of the separation of temporal from spiritual in Islamic culture. In fact, the tendency among Muslims is to regard the religious and the cultural as one and the same. There is much evidence in the call for internal reform by prominent Muslim thinkers in the late 19th and 20th centuries to separate religious from cultural in the areas that affect, for instance, the rights of women and minorities adversely. Such an attempt, as the reformers had argued, would restore the purely religious rights of the women which had been downplayed or suppressed by the predominant patriarchal cultural norms.

Such an integration of religion and culture, on the one hand, and religion and politics, on the other, make it impossible to conceive of a democratic political culture in Muslim societies in which religion could be restricted to the private domain. In fact, from all that we know, even in thoroughly secularized Turkish paradigm of democratic governance, religion continues to guide and even lead political debates. Thus, democratic politics based on the ideas of equality of citizens in a modern nation-state that requires privatization of religion through secularization is not always an accepted solution in the Muslim context.

There is another dimension to the critical stance adopted against the “political Islam the Western social scientists. This is the unstated assumption that the secret of the success of Western democracies, namely, the separation of “church” and “state” is required by the Judeo-Christian traditions. Differently stated, unlike Islam, Judeo-Christian traditions religiously support the separation clause. In contrast, political history of Islam shows the religiously ordained interdependence between religious and political in Muslim polity – the fact that degenerated in discriminatory treatment of the non-Muslim populations living under Muslim domination. Consequently, the development of democratic politics in which religious is confined to the private domain is problematic in Muslim societies unless the public arena is secularized to allow equality of all citizens in the public domain.

To be sure, there is much evidence on the ground to support the observation that Muslims in general do not view the integration of religious and political negatively. In fact, politics is not devalued as “un-Islamic” that should be shunned by Muslims as part of their faith commitment. Islam, unlike Christianity, is a “world-embracing” faith, deeply steeped in managing the mundane while preparing its adherents for the future life in the Hereafter. Politics in the sense of active social engagement to improve the living conditions of the people is regarded as a form of piety that affords meaning to doctrines that teach human accountability for their performance on earth. More pertinently, the paradigm of the first Muslim polity under the founder of Islam makes it impossible to conceive religious as totally disentangled from political. Active submission to God meant active involvement with everyday mundane life in all its aspects. Islam’s emphasis on God-centered spirituality sought perfection in advancing justice and equity on earth. How could one be concerned about justice in the world and remain apolitical? This was the core of Islamic tradition. It is for reason that political reform in Muslim societies, whether leading to constitutional strictures to restrict the absolute power of the rulers or the development of democratic governance through the rule of law and accountability of public officials, has also meant religious reform that would seek a new interpretation or an extrapolation based on the scriptural sources that could provide religious legitimacy to the public order.

As Muslims seek political empowerment through democratic politics in the Muslim world, they cannot ignore the deeply held religious values about an ideal public order. It is important to underscore the fact that Islam does not provide a paradigm of the form of government Muslims need to further justice in the world. It simply emphasizes the justification for the existence of government, namely, “to institute the good and prevent the evil” in society. Historical institutions like the caliphate and the sultanate function as the means rather than the end of governance. The purpose of the governance is absolute, whereas its mode is relative to the time and place in which that purpose must be fulfilled. And yet, raising the historically contingent paradigm to the normative value spawns injustice to the purpose which requires humans to learn to live in peace and harmony with one another. Such a treatment of the historical as normative has also become the major source of liberal suspicion and assessment of the role religion can or cannot play in the constitutional democracy. The liberal prescription that without secularization of the public space through privatization of religion it is impossible for democratic governance to emerge is based on the ideologies of “political Islam” that treat the historical political institutions of Muslim civilization as normative. What is needed today is an intellectually honest evaluation of Islam and its “secular” underpinnings to demonstrate that it is possible to conceive a religious understanding of secularization that is needed to develop the critical notion of citizenship for constitutional democracy.

If one were to follow the social scientist thesis about the necessity of developing “secular Islam” in line with “secular Judeo-Christian” traditions for democracy to take roots in Muslim countries, then such a proposition would be rejected outright by the traditionalists and their supporters in Muslim societies. In addition, it would foreclose the possibility of engaging religious leaders, who are highly suspicious of the project of modernity with its emphasis on secularization and reason-based relative morality, in a dialogue about the role religion can and cannot play in a democratic state. In other words, we need to understand the newly coined term for democracy in the Islamic Republic of Iran: “Religiously Sanctioned Rule of People (mardum salari dini)” or “religious democracy.” Is this possible? Can there be a religiously conceived notion of equality, human rights, rule of law, public participation in political process, accountability of the elected officials to the people, and so on?

I am aware of the total rejection of such an idea among the theoreticians of democracy today. It is contradiction in terms when one juxtaposes “religion” which is exclusionary and “democracy” that is inclusive in its formulation of human relationships under a constitution. This is particularly true in view of the traditional Islam not being conducive to the idea of all people’s political participation in the political processes regardless of their religious or ethnic affiliation. According to this essentialist view, Islamic heritage is an obstruction to the development of democracy. Hence, the possibility of democracy taking roots in the countries like Iran, for instance, is ruled out mainly because Islam has no clause resembling the liberal understanding of separation of religion and politics. Such a judgment has overlooked the possibility of not only a different paradigm of democracy to emerge in the Muslim world; it has also insisted that it is only liberal democracy as understood in the Western hemisphere that can serve as a lead for such a development in Muslim societies.

If democracy can be taken is its most basic signification of the empowerment of the people to participate in all political processes, including electing and critically evaluating their representatives in the administration, then it is necessary to conceive a native paradigm responsive to the values and culture of a particular society. Today, the search in Muslim societies is for a responsible to the people governance. Moreover, Muslims are seeking to see a government that can be challenged for its performance and removed from power if found corrupt. In this particular goal, is Islamic heritage a hindrance to people’s empowerment or not, is the core question that needs to be raised and responded.

My observation of the recent Iranian elections in the context of Iranian democratic culture of the last three decades leads me to strike an optimistic note. Even in the so-called atmosphere of “theocratic” politics of that country, Islam, with its deep-seated suspicion of any absolutist claims to power by any fallible human governance, has emboldened the people and highlighted their demand that public officials must be held answerable to the public and must be removed from power if they abuse that divine trust of exercising authority with justice.

My proposal to seek native paradigm in democratic governance is not unrealistic. Islam has offered a fait accompli solution to the separate jurisdictions of human-God and human-human affairs – a kind of functional secularity – to deal with complex issues connected with intercommunal relations. Human-God relationships were and remain beyond the jurisdiction of the state administration. No human institutions could intervene in regulating human-God relationships. The state ought to maintain neutrality in matters of faith, leaving it to individuals and their faith community institutions to regulate them. But inter-human relationships were and remain under the jurisdiction of human institutions that are created to regulate them in fairness and justice. Islam had acknowledged this principle of secularity (sifa madaniyya) within its juridical system by clearly demarcating the human-divine jurisdiction under the ‘ibadat from the human-human jurisdiction under the mu’amalat. The former remains, as it has always been, under God’s judgment; whereas the latter remains under the socially structured institutions for advancing the instituting of good and preventing of evil.

It is for this reason that I do not need to reconcile Islam with secularism in order for democratic governance to emerge. Rather, my proposition is based on Islamic teachings preserved in the classical heritage that negates any human claim to represent God’s interest and function like a “church” does in Christianity. In fact, Islam rejected the idea of creating a “church” so as to demand uniformity and conformity at the threat of excommunication. This absence of the “church” representing God’s rights on earth has served as the foundation of both a civil society and a civil religion that function as the foundation for democratic governance.

My proposition is to work on developing a “native” paradigm for democracy in Muslim societies by keeping a watchful eye over the militant project of depriving people to process non-interventionist religiosity that can guarantee Muslim authenticity and identity as “Muslim” and as a “citizen” of a modern nation-state. No Muslim can hope to work toward democratic politics without first developing respect for all human beings, regardless of their gender, race or creed. The key to democracy in the Muslim world is to recognize the freedom of religion and conscience as an inalienable right of all citizens in a nation-state. This right can be guaranteed by engaging religion of Islam and politics in a healthy partnership rather than antagonistic rivals engaged in outstripping and discrediting the other. Muslims are faced with the challenge of developing religious democracy that emphasizes the natural role of Islam in guiding rather than ruling humanity to develop ethical politics with the good of all humans and not just Muslims at heart. As long as Muslims abuse their religion as a source of power and politics and propel the power struggle that exists between the state and the seminary (not the mosque), it will be deprived of its God-given mandate to do justice and work for peace by recognizing and treating all humans as equally endowed with dignity and accruing inalienable rights.

Abdulaziz Sachedina
University of Virginia
Charlottesville, Virginia, USA

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(*) Paper presented to the Seventh Annual Conference of the Center for the Study of Islam and Democracy (CSID), Washington DC, on May 6, 2007.
 
Related Topics:

The Challenge of Democracy In the Muslim World
Ikhwanweb, London-UK


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