Islam’s Compatibility with Democracy

Published Wednesday April 11, 2001

Two extremely different groups, one from the West and one from the Muslim World, have been arguing vehemently that Islam and Democracy are incompatible. On one hand, some western scholars and ideologues have tried to present Islam as an anti-democratic and inherently authoritarian ethos that precludes democratization in the Muslims World.

By misrepresenting Islam in this way they are seeking to prove that Islam as a set of values is inferior to Western liberalism and is indeed a barrier to the global progress of civilization. This argument is also helpful to Israel, which, regardless of its egregious human rights violations against Palestinians, continues to enjoy the reputation as the sole democracy in the Middle East.  As a so-called democratic nation,  Israel with its horrible record is preferred over Islam, which has an exemplary history of tolerance and freedom.

On the other hand many Islamic activists, using extremely broad, simple and sometimes crude notions of secularism and sovereignty, reject democracy as rule of Man as opposed to Islam which is rule of God.  Islamists who reject democracy falsely assume that secularism and democracy are necessarily connected. Secularism is a liberal tradition not a prerequisite for democracy.  Religion does play a significant role in democratic politics.

The contemporary US is a case in point. These Islamists also do not make a distinction between dejure sovereignty and defacto sovereignty.  For example, even though God is supposedly sovereign in Afghanistan, in fact it is the Taliban who are sovereign there.  Those who think that Allah is sovereign in Taliban’s Afghanistan perhaps worship Mulla Omar. In order to understand the situation better one has to recognize the difference between sovereignty in principle and sovereignty in fact. Sovereignty, in fact, is always man’s whether in a democracy or an Islamic State. Rejecting democracy because man is sovereign is a big mistake. What we really need to worry about is how to limit the defacto sovereignty of man.

Democracy with its principles of limited government, public accountability, checks and balances, separation of powers and transparency in governance does succeed in limiting man’s sovereignty.  The Muslim world plagued by despots, dictators and self-regarding monarchs badly needs the limitation of man’s sovereignty. The Center for the Study of Islam and Democracy and its scholars have been working on these issues. They are not only exposing the politics behind the arguments made by those westerners who hold malice against Islam, but are also exposing the fallacies in the assumptions of those Muslims who misunderstand democracy and Islam.

Is Islam Responsible?

Secular fundamentalists believe that Islam and democracy are incompatible argue that in order to democratize, the Muslim world needs to either discard the project of Islamization and liberalize or essentially reform Islam itself to accommodate democracy. This argument is based on one theoretical assumption that democracy and shura (Islam) are not compatible and one empirical assumption that Muslims strongly adhere to Islamic principles. But in order to argue that democracy is missing from the Islamic world because of Islam, it must be demonstrated that Muslims indeed practice Islam.

One of the primary motivations for the contemporary Islamic revival is the widespread belief, even consensus, among Muslims that their societies have strayed far away from Islam.  A brief survey of adherence to the personal and public obligatory aspects of Islam such as establishment of prayer, fasting and charity, and establishment of justice, crime and corruption free virtuous societies; will reveal that Muslim societies are not only undemocratic but also un-Islamic. So why blame Islam if un-Islamic societies are also undemocratic? There are more nations in the Muslim world that claim to be democratic – Bangladesh, Kuwait, Jordan, Turkey, Iran, Pakistan, Malaysia, Egypt, Indonesia, Tunisia, Algeria, Nigeria—than Islamic – Iran, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Malaysia and Sudan. 

Half of the self proclaimed Islamic states also claim to be democracies. The point is simple; contrary to the claims otherwise, the democratic ideal is quite widely upheld in the Muslim world. Even prominent Islamic revivalists of the twentieth century like Maulana Maududi and Imam Khomeni have advocated the cause of democracy. Maulana Maududi was the first to write about the concept of a Theo democracy – a God centered democratic polity.  And Imam Khomeini established separation of powers, a parliaments, elections and public accountability along with the institution of Vilayat-e-faqi after the Islamic revolution of Iran. Indeed, there is nothing in Islam and in Muslim practices that is fundamentally opposed to democracy—justice, freedom, fairness, equality or tolerance.

There are a few Muslims who reject democracy, but only do so because they falsely allow the modern West the ownership of a universal value.  They reject democracy only because they reject the West.  The large number of Muslims who came out to vote in the Presidential elections in the US and those Muslims who vote in hundreds of millions in Pakistan, Bangladesh, Iran, Malaysia, Indonesia, Turkey, Egypt and elsewhere testify to their comfort with democracy. 

In the minds of these nearly one billion Muslims who practice some form of democracy there is no dispute between Islam and democracy. It is time we moved onto a more fruitful line of inquiry. If not Islam what has precluded the democratization of the Muslim world? There are structural failures in the Muslim societies due to the legacy of colonialism and the debilitating corruption that preceded and made the Muslim world colonizable. Can we find a way to remove these seeds of underdevelopment? If we can pinpoint the structural problems that prevent the political and economic development of the Muslim World it will accomplish a great task. Policy solutions sensitive to local conditions can then emerge to tackle the prevalence of underdevelopment.  I invite all American Muslims to join us in this monumental endeavor. I also invite those Islamists who are opposed to democracy to rise above ideological posturing and work with us to develop a vibrant, open, prosperous and healthy Muslim World.

Once we create this open, Muslim society that has room for all visions of Islam, then we cane return to debating with each other about whose understanding of Islam is better. Until then let’s join forces to build a free Muslim society. Free from tyranny, poverty, corruption, illiteracy, injustice and also, we must not forget, from the humiliating domination of the West. We need to emancipate the Muslim world, from the self as well as the other.

Visit Muqtedar Khan’s excellent website at http://www.ijtihad.org/

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