Muslims & Democracy: A Précis

Muslims & Democracy: A Précis

Historically, an Islamic rhetorical idiom has legitimated many a manner of governance: from the despotic to the benign. And the bountiful intellectual fruits of Islamic traditions—philosophical, theological, jurisprudential, mystical—are capable of justifying a wide array of political models and forms of political behavior, including models and forms of democratic provenance. Professors, pundits, policy makers, and the public in their wake, have argued or assumed that Islam and democracy are inherently incompatible, that cultural and political properties intrinsic to Islamic civilization preclude the birth of anything remotely resembling “Islamic democracy.” Yet empirical studies conclude that such culturalist explanations “have little relevance for the emergence and durability of democracies” (Przeworski, et al., in Dahl, Shapiro, Cheibub, eds.).


Today a clarion call from Muslims around the world is heard on behalf of the virtues of democratic values and principles, methods and processes. The overwhelming preference of the “Arab street” and the majority of non-Arabic Muslims is for ballots (‘paper stones’) not bullets, as militant, jihadist Muslims prove the exception to the rule. In short, Islamic democracy is not an oxymoron.


Minimalist or thin theories of democracy focus on the electoral components of the democratic process, the desiderata being free and fair, multiparty elections by secret and universal ballot. An electoral democracy is a constitutional order in which the (chief) executive and legislative offices are filled through regular and competitive elections. In Przeworski’s words, “In the end, the miracle of democracy is that conflicting political forces obey the results of voting.” By these standards, for example, Turkey, Bangladesh, and Indonesia are democratic, as are several states of the former Soviet Union; Egypt and Malaysia are quasi- or semi-democratic; Jordan and Morocco democratic by fits and starts; Algeria has democratic pretensions, as does Kuwait and Bahrain; interestingly, Iran also scores high on this electoral scorecard. Even Saudi Arabia is unable to resist the reformist clamor for electoral democracy: the Kingdom’s cabinet has announced that it will hold its first elections for municipal councils. As various fora of dialogue or “talking shops” are essential forms of democratic participation, the fact that the Saudi leaders (in particular, the Crown Prince Abdallah, de facto ruler of the kingdom), are talking about reform with “reform groups” perhaps portends changes on the desert horizon, however distant.


Problems persist: executive offices are often uncontested; opposition parties face unwarranted if not unreasonable government restrictions (and not a few parties are ‘banned’ for this or that reason), with often limited access to media. In addition to voting fraud, authoritarian elites do not hesitate to resort to insidious forms of “electoral engineering” to achieve favorable electoral outcomes. In this case, the maxim “something is better than nothing” holds. Perchance international election monitoring can play a more effective part in preventing or discouraging attempts at electoral manipulation.


As a consequence of electoral participation, some of the more militant Salafi Islamists have formed alliances and coalitions with both Islamic and “secularist” parties and movements, often renouncing the methods of violence in ending the campaign for an “Islamic revolution.” Denying Islamists participation in electoral politics can have deleterious results: as in Algeria, when the Islamic Salvation Front (FIS) resorted to rebellion and violence; other times it simply compels Islamist to engage in the politics of civil society, as with the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt. Islamist parties demonstrating a commitment to democratic principles and procedures—i.e., to play by the “rules of the game”—are found, for example, in Tunisia, Algeria, Morocco, Egypt, Palestine, Jordan, Lebanon, Turkey, Malaysia, and Indonesia, as well in most of the republics of the former Soviet Union. Indeed, both Hamas and Hezbollah have evidenced a substantial preference for and appreciation of the value of democratic political participation


The growth and consolidation of democracy in the Islamic world faces enormous obstacles: authoritarian political traditions and communalist orientations (including recalcitrant ‘ulamā’ with medievalist responses to the conditions of modernity); histories of colonialist rule and imperialist interference; the need to implement economic reforms by way of integration into the global economy; by-products of nationalist struggles that lacked democratic priorities; economically bloated and inefficient States with excessive military expenditures; to list the more egregious difficulties. Fortunately, the level of economic development provides little information about the chances of transition to democracy, although per capita income does correlate with the sustainability of democratic regimes. And political economists and democratic theorists alike well know that rentier states pose peculiar problems for democratic development. Of course “thick,” more substantive participatory and deliberative democratic theories elaborate a motley of social and institutional conditions that serve as prerequisites of, or that are at least conducive to, full-fledged democratic consolidation and flourishing. When or if the variegated potential forms of Islamic democracy do develop, the corresponding criteria of assessment will be more stringent, and the eudaimonistic consequences more satisfying, than the “thin” electoral variety.

One of the foremost students of civil society, John Keane, suggested in his book, Reflections on Violence (1996), “that Islam, the most socially conscious of world religions, can partly overcome the transition-to-democracy dilemma by concentrating the considerable sum of its energies on the nooks and crannies of civil society.” Both prescriptive and prescient, the prescriptive part was belied by the fact that, descriptively, Muslims from many walks of life had, for some time already, been actively engaged in the arena of civil society, carving out a social space for a “politics of identity” that strove to be at once moral/religious, nonviolent, egalitarian, welfarist, justice-seeking, and democratic. Keane’s remark remains prescient insofar as few observers outside the Islamic world had yet to acknowledge the presence of a vigorous civil society in many of the Muslim majority countries.

Civil society is located between the intimate/private spheres of familial life, and the various organs of the State: administrative, legislative, judicial, economic, etc. In large measure, it is beholden to those selfsame institutions, for the State serves to “frame” or structure social relations outside its immediate purview (e.g., the legal system). The nature, complexity and differentiation of power relations, nodes and networks account for the interdependence and feedback loops between the State and civil society. The institutions, associations, organizations, gathering places, and social movements on the terrain of civil society act as a Deweyan schoolhouse for democracy, or as a dress rehearsal for more traditional forms of political participation. While authoritarian regimes routinely attempt to “de-politicize” or “privatize” (‘atomize’) relations within society, the modern Leviathan finds it difficult to implement this divide-to-conquer strategy, that is, to be truly totalitarian, to manipulate and control the entire spectrum of activities and dialogue constitutive of the various “publics” in civil society.

The moral, political and cultural capacities of actors in civil society are based on norms of trust, reciprocity, friendship, commitment, and the like that are metaphorically termed “social capital.” The strength and circulation of this social capital signals both the desire and potential for democratization (i.e., as a variable in the transition from non-democratic to democratic rule) and may be the very locus of “democracy” in societies with governments that suffer from democracy deficits.

Delineating the lineaments of civil society involves (1) reconfiguring the boundaries of the political, e.g.: the samizdat, the Workers’ Defense Committee (KOR), the “Flying University” (TKN) in the former Soviet Union and East-Central Europe; CORE, the Highlander Folk School, Citizenship Schools, and SNCC of the civil rights era; the Free Speech movement, SDS, and countercultural communes, cooperatives, and clinics of the 1960s; the Beijing Spring of 1989; the United Democratic Front of South Africa; and the comunidades de base of Liberation Theology in Latin America—it entails (2)reconceptualizing the nature of power, e.g.: the intellectuals of the Velvet Revolutions (Vaclav Havel, Adam Michnik, et al.); Gandhian political theory; post-Gramscian Marxism (Carl Boggs); Michel Foucault; the late Fundi Green theorist Rudolf Bahro; and Johan Galutung—and, finally, it includes (3) an appreciation of the financial systems, capital flows, markets, and property rights essential for the material resources that sustain (as both cause and product) civil society (cf.: Henry and Springborg’s Globalization and the Politics of Development in the Middle East, 2001).

In the Middle East (keeping in mind that the vast majority of Muslims reside outside this region), civil society consists of “a mélange of associations, clubs, guilds, syndicates, federations, unions, parties and groups [that] come together to provide a buffer between state and citizen.” (Augustus R. Norton) Professional syndicates (niqabat) are particularly strong in Egypt, Tunisia, Morocco, Sudan, and among the Palestinians. These associations (of doctors, lawyers, engineers, teachers, etc.) are often the leading edge of civil society owing to the high level of education, political awareness, and financial resources of their members. In Egypt, Muslim Brothers are elected majorities on the boards of most of these associations.

Among the Arab Gulf States, Kuwait’s civil society deserves mention, with its fairly free press, professional associations and cultural clubs. In particular, the diwaniyyah function as a gathering place in citizens’ homes where men socialize while discussing a variety of topics, political and otherwise. Some women have started their own diwaniyyah, and it was the diwaniyyah that gave birth to the country’s pro-democracy movement. While Kuwait’s constitution provides the framework for its civil society, the State has never recognized independent voluntary organizations. Turkey, with its Kemalist/laicist state, has a yet more energetic civil society, much of it Islamic. Still, its Islamist members “possess contradictory motivations and goals and sometimes radically different interpretations of fundamental religious principles and political platforms” (Jenny B. White). When the Kemalist regime crushed the Left in the early 1980s, Muslim activists filled the void: charitable, welfarist, and educational projects persist against a backdrop of agitation for economic and social justice. The electoral success of the Islamic Justice and Development Party (‘AK’) provides evidence of the mobilizational and organizational skills of Muslims in civil society, apart from continuity with the legacy of the Welfare and Virtue Parties.

Finally, note should be made of the attraction of militant Islamist groups like Hezbollah and Hamas. These groups draw young recruits and galvanize popular support for several reasons, not the least of which is their “provision of substantial social services and charitable activities, from education to housing and financial support of the members of families killed, wounded, or detained by authorities” (John L. Esposito).




Further Reading:

Asef Bayat, Making Islam Democratic: Social Movements and the Post-Islamist Turn (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2007); Robert A. Dahl, Ian Shapiro and José Antonio Chiebub, eds., The Democracy Sourcebook (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2003); Khaled Abou El Fadl, “Islam and the Challenge of Democracy,” Boston Review (April/May 2003); John L. Esposito and Franςois Burgat, eds., Modernizing Islam: Religion in the Public Sphere in Europe and the Middle East (New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 2003); John L. Esposito and John O.Voll, Islam and Democracy (New York: Oxford University Press, 1996); Noah Feldman, After Jihad: America and the Struggle for Islamic Democracy (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2003); John Keane, Civil Society: Old Images, New Visions (Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1998); Augustus Richard Norton, ed., Civil Society in the Middle East, 2 Vols. (Leiden: E.J. Brill, 1995-96); James Piscatori, “Islam, Islamists, and the Electoral Principle in the Middle East” (Leiden, The Netherlands: International Institute for the Study of Islam in the Modern World [ISIM], 2000); Jenny B. White, Islamist Mobilization in Turkey: A Study in Vernacular Politics (Seattle, Wash.: University of Washington Press, 2002); and Carrie Rosefsky Wickham, Mobilizing Islam: Religious Activism and Political Change in Egypt (New York: Columbia University Press, 2002).


The Source