- January 13, 2008
Islam and democracy The practice—and the theory
“TURKEY sets a fantastic example for nations around the world to see where it”s possible to have a democracy coexist with a great religion like Islam.” Those were George Bush”s words of welcome, this week, to Turkey”s President Abdullah Gul.
In decades past, a Turkish leader might have been received at the White House with cordial remarks about his country”s growing prosperity or its contribution to NATO. But it would have been strange, perhaps, not to mention religion when hosting a head of state who had just set a precedent that was watched with fascination by politically active Muslims in many parts of the world. When he became president, Mr Gul proved that it was possible for a pious Muslim with a headscarved wife to be made head of state, by a perfectly democratic procedure, in a country where the army is an ever-vigilant guardian against theocracy. For those who insist (whether their arguments are theological, or empirical, or both) that Islam and liberal democracy are quite compatible, Mr Gul”s election (and Mr Bush”s exuberant reaction to it) was a badly needed nugget of hope in a year when that cause has seen quite a lot of setbacks.
Among American officialdom, confidence in the prospects for democracy in Muslim (and in particular, Arab) lands has fluctuated under the Bush administration. It reached a high point, arguably, in mid-2005, when Condoleezza Rice, the secretary of state, declared in Cairo that the bad old days of favouring stability over democracy were over—and then it plunged again the following January when the Islamist Hamas movement swept to victory in Palestine.
For political scientists, especially those who have studied the phenomenon of “Muslim Democracy” in the belief that the Turkish case could be a precedent for others, the recent turmoil in Pakistan and the assassination of Benazir Bhutto have been a great tragedy in a pivotal country that had the potential to develop a new concordat between Islam and open politics.
Vali Nasr, a professor at America”s Tufts University, terms “Muslim Democracy” a newish and 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 all points to a single truth: wherever they are given the chance, Muslim Democratic parties (which are responsive to public opinion and thrive in an open political contest) can prevail over harder-line and more violent varieties of political Islam.
Among the parties Mr Nasr identifies as Muslim Democratic are the faction of the Pakistani Muslim League that held sway until the military takeover in 1999; the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (in power till last year”s coup); Malaysia”s ruling UMNO party; and a cluster of mildly Islamic parties that share power in Indonesia (see article). Exhibit A for Muslim Democracy is Turkey”s Justice and Development (AK) party, which won its democratic spurs after several decades of sparring between generals and pious politicians. As with several other Muslim Democratic parties, the AK”s rise reflected economic growth and the advent of a devout but non-fanatical middle class which resents the older elites of bureaucrats and generals.
But what if any is the intellectual ground for Muslim Democracy? Roman Catholic thinking had to tread a long path before it reconciled its belief in human sinfulness with popular sovereignty; Christian Democracy, an important force in post-1945 Europe, was the result.
Abdal-Hakim Murad, a British Muslim scholar, argues that Muslim Democrats have an easier road to travel because Islam”s view of human nature is a less pessimistic one. But several factors have helped to make the Muslim debate about democracy difficult and inconclusive. Most of the schools of Muslim thought that have emerged over the past century have been intensely interested in political theory, and also intensely concerned with precedents set at the dawn of the Muslim era. But the precedents are not clear: some caliphs took power by inheritance, others through consensus, others by force.
Khaled Abou El Fadl, an Egyptian-born law professor, has pointed to a passage from the Koran which seems to endow human beings with a special mandate to look after their own affairs.
When your Lord said to the angels: “I have to place a vice-regent on earth,” they said: “Will you place one there who will create disorder and shed blood, while we intone Your litanies and sanctify Your name?” And God said: “I know what you do not know.”
That verse, Mr Fadl has argued, seems to imply that far from sitting back and letting God do everything, human beings must organise their own society.
Another relevant text is the story of Ali, the fourth Muslim caliph, whose leadership was challenged by a rival. To the fury of his zealous supporters, Ali agreed that conflicting claims should be submitted to arbitration. Posterity found Ali right and his critics wrong: human institutions do have a place in settling issues of state.
From Cairo to California
For anyone who looks to Islam”s foundational texts as the ultimate arbiter of truth, these are resonant allusions. But arguments in favour of Islam”s compatibility with democracy are in perpetual danger of being drowned out by a mixture of depressing news from Muslim lands and zealous ideologues on both sides of a looming civilisational divide.
Whether or not they condone violence, many of the most strident advocates of “political Islam” still take their cue from Sayyid Qutb, an Egyptian thinker, executed in 1966, who regarded secular democracy (and all other secular forms of government, including socialism) as blasphemy pure and simple. In places ranging from British campuses to the jails and torture chambers of Uzbekistan, there are zealous ideologues who follow the Qutbist line that all human agencies of power are a violation of the sovereignty of God. Neatly converging with the anti-democratic zeal of these malcontents is an increasingly respectable argument, among sceptical Western observers of Islam, which holds that the Muslim faith, by its very nature, cannot be other than theocratic. If that is true, then encouraging moderate—in the sense of apolitical—versions of Islam can only be a waste of time.
In the United States, in particular, an“essentialist” mistrust of Islam in all its forms has been gaining ground. One recent sign of this mood: when Keith Ellison from Minnesota became the first Muslim congressman, he was challenged, during his first television interview, to prove that he was not “working for our enemies”.
But in America”s free-ranging debates, where the spectrum of views on Islam is probably wider than in any Muslim land or even in Europe, there are also many voices on the other side. Mr Fadl makes his case for the compatibility of democracy and Islam from the University of California at Los Angeles, probably a more secure setting than his native Cairo.
Meanwhile Firas Ahmad, a columnist who co-edits a glossy Muslim monthly from his home in Boston, maintains that a lot of Islamic history—as well as the dilemmas of modern times—should be reconsidered in the light of the robust separation between religion and state which (on his reading, at least), Muslims have quite frequently, and cheerfully, maintained. In modern America, Muslims can make a big contribution to debates about greed and social justice, while fully respecting the country”s secular constitution. And his favourite passages in history are the bits where believers (often courageous Sufi mystics) spoke truth to power, not the instances when pliant greybeards did favours to the sultan.
There are, in short, many interesting things to say about Islam and democracy. The pity is that they are mostly being said in the West, not in Islam”s heartland.