Book Review: Islam and Democracy: A Foundation for Ending Extremism and Preventing Conflict (Rash)

The book “Islam and Democracy” is a timely myth-breaker for an era where Islam is often mis-perceived as intolerant, extreme and inherently undemocratic while chauvenistic assertions of the superiority of Western democracy are made too often and too unreflexively by European and North-American ideologues. The author of this book J.E. Rash is both an experienced Muslim religious leader and educator as well as a committed democratic thinker, giving this work a depth of understanding and commitment seldom found in other texts dealing with these issues.

This book provides a critical reading of the position of democracy in the Islamic tradition from a sincere, committed, democratic Muslim perspective while also offering a critique of current democratic practice, such as it is, in the U.S., where the author resides, framed against the high principles of the U.S. founding fathers. The text explores the core principles and values common to both liberal democracy and Islam to reveal a convincing democratic discourse embedded within essential Islamic beliefs and practices.
Recognising the value of pluralism and the right for societies to develop according to their own historical experience and cultural traditions, “Islam and Democracy” refreshingly manages to avoid the arrogance and implicit cultural chauvinism that dominates much of the current literature dealing with Islam and democracy that assert the hegemony of the historically-derived Western European/North American model of liberal, parliamentary democracy as the only possible model for democratic development. This book takes the more genuinely and sincerely democratic approach of acknowledging that there are many paths to democracy and that all societies must discover the deep, universal values that sustain popular sovereignty and self-government in their own native traditions.

The fresh approach contained in this book to both the essential values and principles of both Islam and democracy, which are all-too-often either taken for granted or totally overlooked by partisans and detractors alike, on its own makes this a valuable and thought-provoking text. The fact that it is the product of an insightful, critically-minded Western Muslim gives it the added dimension of being a manifesto and call to action for Muslim democrats to find the basis of an Islamic democracy, not in externally imposed models but in the very core of Muslim tradition itself.

A visionary text by a true practitioner of Sufic Islam. Part of this book’s power comes from the simple fact that its author is either already putting into practice or actively working towards realizing the complementary ideals of both democracy and Islam his book describes, and uses Islam and Sufism as a means of benefiting all people, regardless of religion.

For those interested in obtaining tools for dealing with one of the seeming conundrums of today’s world, Rash’s book provides invaluable insights through a constructive approach that builds bridges of understanding. He provides a conceptual framework with which the shared ideals of both democracy and Islam (to which we may add Christianity and Judaism) can be realized within fallible human societies. It is an enlightening process to compare statements made by the founders of American democracy in the Eighteenth century with references to the Qu’ran, sunnah, and the long tradition of Islamic scholarly literature–including today’s–which Rash brings together in one collection of essays.

The very sufic idea of `Pre-emptive peace’ and Rash’s analysis of the `hard’ versus `soft’ aspects of culture are particularly worthwhile. Rash underscores the need for peace to be an active and consolidating approach to mutual understanding, not simply the absence of conflict. Ailments of contemporary Muslim societies (including the difficulty of establishing democracy) are ascribed not to religion, rather to the after-effects of colonialism and Western hegemonies, as well as cultural overlays which, from the outside, may be seen as symbols of Islam but which in fact are only deep-seated (in some cases pre-Islamic) societal norms. Addressed in some detail are so-called `Islamic’ extremists, who are distinguished sharply from the broader, very moderate Islamic mainstream.

One of Rash’s most important points is that if democracy is going to gain a greater hold in predominantly Muslim nations, it cannot be imposed from outside: “Changes will only happen with cultural sensitivity.” Remarks quoted by Thomas Jefferson and others make clear that the best way to preserve spiritual freedom in a society (required by Islam) is to maintain separation between religious and secular powers. In an Islamic historical context, too, the theocracies of Iran and the Taliban are seen as aberrations. But in finding the roots of democracy in Islam, the author suggests a powerful and democratic model from which to refer to from within Muslim societies themselves, a central and culturally endemic, peaceful, moderate guide, whose principles can be progressively applied in moving towards more tolerant, diverse, open-minded and culturally sensitive 21st century societies.

We hope that the book “Islam and Democracy” will be a source of light and inspiration for moderate and progressive muslims who seek to build genuinely Islamic democracies as well as a source of information about the peaceful essence of Islamic teachings for Westerners. This is a truly important book.