Why Democracy and Why Now?

“Why Democracy and Why Now?”

Address by Abdulaziz Sachedina
University of Virginia
CSID Board Member

Center for the Study of Islam and Democracy, Fourth Annual Conference
Washington, DC
May 16, 2003

Distinguished guests, ladies and gentlemen. It is indeed an honor for me to share my views about religion and democracy tonight. There has not been any other time in the history of the Muslim peoples when they were required to evaluate their political heritage critically in the context of modern political developments. Although it has not reached the level of obsession, the developments in the political culture today are challenging Muslim thinkers to deliberate relentlessly in order to increase political consciousness among Muslim peoples. I am aware of the hurdles that are in place to obstruct dissemination of democratic ideas connected with civil society and civic responsibility among Muslim citizenry. Undoubtedly, these ideas empower the people to demand the minimum from their leaders, whether political or religious - that is, accountability of those who hold public offices. And, yet, not to take a stance in such matters in public has made the Muslim intellectual irrelevant to the ongoing struggle to self-empowerment among Muslim peoples.

Our secure academic position in the Ivory Tower has made us oblivious of our moral responsibility to the people. Ironically, it is this indifference to the political empowerment of the average people on the streets of Cairo, Tehran, or Karachi that has provided the religious leadership - the Ulama - an opening to become the sole spokesperson for the contents of people’s political and social education. It is worth keeping in mind that our academic discourse is least accessible to the average educated reader in the Muslim world. In contrast, the ulama communicate in the language of the people, reinforcing the traditional and sometime conformist attitudes towards the governments in power. It is this latter sociological fact that needs our undivided attention today. The response to “Why Democracy, why now?” must be sought in the prevailing moral numbness and political unconsciousness in the Muslim world.

It is the moral indifference to political and social injustices that grips our people around the world. And, although I shall argue that the revival of democratic ideals of Islam are dependent upon intellectual-cum-religious discourse that is constructed in the universities in the Islamic world, the dissemination of this discourse cannot come about without taking religious factor seriously in Muslim collective conscience. I do not want to convey that Muslim public is religiously oriented and, therefore, we need to make democracy appealing to them by fictitiously “Islamizing” this discourse. Rather, my major concern is to show to the learned and the lay in Muslim societies that democratic ideals are very much part of the Islamic ethical culture that speaks about human responsibility and accountability in this and the next world. Instead of prescribing a shortcut to secularism as a guarantor of liberal democracy, our intellectual endeavors need to be geared towards demonstrating that at the core of Islamic belief system is relationship at all levels of human existence. Since Islam is existentially to be preserved in nurturing and maintaining relationships, then it is to be expected that Islam will grant humanity its basic freedom in negotiating as well as maintaining all social relationships with a sense of equality of human dignity and freedom of human conscience. This is the area where one can show the overlapping consensus between secularity and a religious ideology. Without falling into the trap of all out support for secularization, which appears unacceptable to the traditional religious leaders, one can seek the consensus that is operative in forging ordinary human relationships between peoples of diverse cultures and religious affiliations based on a practical sense of justice and fairness. To achieve that end, a question might arise as to: Why do we need to care for the ulama and their obscurantist approach to every day issues in the social and political realms?

Why now? This question is very much connected with the assessment of the situation that is being perpetrated by the religious establishment in the Muslim world. We need to take seriously the impact that seminaries are having on the political consciousness of Muslim peoples. It is well known historical fact that without the endorsement of some of the “court appointed preachers”(wu’aaz al-salatin) Muslim autocrats and dictators have always faced a charge of being illegitimate rulers (salatin al-jawr or faqid al-mashru’iyya). Inasmuch as the rulers have needed the ulama to continue their autocratic rule, the ulama have needed the rulers, at least in the Sunni world, to support their religious institutions. The role of the seminaries in the public education cannot be underestimated.

Whether it is women’s rights or the rights of the non-Muslim minorities, the ulama are involved in formulating and disseminating longstanding attitudes that are contrary to the democratic ideals today. Although many of us in the academia speak about the ulama in pejorative terms, describing them as obscurantist, fundamentalists, and so on, as intellectual elitists we have, ironically, facilitated their emergence as the sole spokesperson for the Muslim umma. Moreover, our neglect of adequate preparation in meeting the religious establishment on its own terms, has allowed the ulama to discredit us as “outsiders” to the tradition. So while our colleagues in the western universities applaud us for our critical scholarship in sociology and anthropology of Islam, the community at large, and even the one living in the West, continues to read Sayyid Qutb and Maulana Maududi. They actually shun Fazlur Rahman and the likes of him.

Last year an article on “Islamic Studies’ Young Turks,” by Danny Postel appeared in The Chronicle for Higher Education (September 13, 2002). I wrote a response to it, which could not be published because the issue of Islamic studies was closed. Let me share some of that response with you tonight. In my response I asked the following question: What’s the real challenge for the Muslim `dissident’ scholars in the West, and, I shall hasten to add, in the Muslim world?

After eight months in Iran during 2002, with intense conversations and interactions with both scholars at the Islamic seminaries and at the universities, it is evident to me that without the translations and dissemination of the `dissident’ scholarship produced in the West, it is impossible to see how the rethinking and the awaited reform among Muslims will ever take off. Whatever self-critical and intelligent research we, as Muslim scholars, undertake in the American and European universities, it is going to remain strictly academic, circulated among our colleagues, if these interest them, without any influence over the way our counterparts in the Islamic world think and teach. We are not only faced with irrelevance in the Muslim world. Our influence here in Muslim communities in the North American situation is stifled and confined to the academia. This is even more dangerous for our groundbreaking work, because if it cannot find readers except among non-Muslims, and that also among academicians who applaud and support our work, the situation must be regarded even more critical right in our back yard. The level of irrelevance of the new `dissident’ language that has evolved to speak about Islam and human rights, democracy, and women’s rights can be observed in the kinds of people invited to speak in the Muslim conventions and organizations throughout the Western world.

The narrow-minded attitude regarding this refreshingly new scholarship can be observed even among highly educated and professional Muslims in this country. One would have thought that the “enlightened” Muslims would be the first ones to understand and appreciate the value of research that is being conducted by this new generation of believing Muslims. Not so, when it comes to preserving the false sense of security generated by ignorance in the matter of Islam. The greater need to learn about the basic civic virtues and responsibilities cannot be overemphasized in the context of North America. In the aftermath of September 11, we discovered to our horror the kind of antagonistic worldview that was preached in a number of Muslim organizations that depended for their knowledge on Islam as taught by the imported “native” preachers from the Middle East. With all due respect to their breadth of traditional Islamic knowledge, they engaged in teaching their communities ways to protect their ‘pure’ religion that was threatened by the so-called Muslim academicians and the `enemies’ of Islam in universities.

It is under these circumstances that one can appreciate the work that is being done by some dissident scholars in Iran and Egypt. Their work is in the native languages of the people who are searching for relevance of their religion in the modern times. Undoubtedly, their lives are made extremely difficult by the autocratic regimes in the region. But, what they write, even if it be an article on the need to challenge religious absolutist power of the obscurantist establishment, it does the work of thousands of books that we produce away from places where people are thirsty to read or hear something that generates hope for men and women, youth and children, faced with oppression and suppression. There is much evidence to show that Muslim `dissident’ scholarship in Western languages has not reached the people who can rethink Islamic theology, and reinterpret Islamic juridical tradition by applying the modern methodologies in the study of religion. Our self-importance as reform-minded Muslim scholars in the West is no more than an illusion about our ability to reach out the Muslim public. This situation reminds me of the interfaith dialogue that takes place under the auspices of the Vatican and Muslim government agencies. It never reaches the public who need to inform themselves about the principles of coexistence and the need to increase better relations with all peoples of different faith. It is too academic in its goals and least connected with the communities of faith who need to learn the inclusiveness of God’s mercy and compassion.

As Muslim scholars, who wish to make intellectual contribution to the culture of tolerance and acceptance of the Other in the Muslim world, we require not only cultural legitimacy in order to reach out the intelligent audience in the Middle East; but also the means to transmit our research in the language that conveys ideas to a wider, receptive Muslim audience. We need to move our scholarly endeavors to bring about the necessary transformation in Muslim political culture. Both September 11, 2001 and the war to depose Saddam makes it imperative that we work closely with the major agents of change in Muslim societies: the military and the ulama. We cannot cry out “Democracy now, democracy now,” without committing our intellectual and religious resources to make the case for the cooperation of the ulama, and to make them our allies in the struggle to build democratic institutions that would dismantle any form of political or religious authoritarianism. The experiment with reform since 19th century has demonstrated, time and again, that the seminarian discourse on political Islam has failed to generate political participation of the people in Muslim countries. The ulama in general have remained oblivious of the necessity to include all citizens in the civil society, regardless of their religious or ethnic affiliation. And unless academically trained Muslim scholars come forward to lead the young educated men and women through intelligent exposition of Islam and their personal commitment to it, it will be difficult, if not impossible, to share the platform of change with the ulama in the foreseeable future. We simply cannot afford to dismiss them outright and expect average Muslim to believe in what we are saying. Remember the secret of the Prophet’s political society: consultation (shura) and consensus building (ijma`) even with those who disagree with us.

I believe that there are a number of scholars in the U.S. whose scholarship could foster better interfaith and inter-communal relations to further a religiously pluralistic and democratic society. If this new Islamic rethinking that is taking place in our midst here can find proper platform for its dissemination, then it could lead to a badly needed reform in the Muslim communities to see themselves as others see them. I am under no illusion that such an acceptance of the `dissident’ scholarship in the North American Muslim communities is distant. The influence of narrow-minded and stultified Islamic tradition funded by the petrodollars for over a quarter century will take much longer to dismantle. In the meantime, as Muslim scholars, we need to think of ways to reach out the community that needs to reform the way it conceptualizes the world of disbelief and acts upon the intolerance and bigotry that is preached and taught in the religious institutions in America and Europe. This is the challenge that confronts those of us in the West and invites us to think seriously. Intolerance and bigotry are there in the field, and, we can no longer afford to remain indifferent in the sheltered arena of the academia.

The time has come for the CSID to enter the serious business of building the bridge between Muslim academicians and the Ulama. It is the cooperation of these two groups that will make it possible for democracy in its most limited sense, that is, the accountability of the public officials and the scrutiny of their performance by the public, to take roots. This internal dialogue is a precondition to disseminate democratic pluralistic ideology in the Muslim world. In a recent conference organized by “Women Waging Peace” I learnt from a number of Muslim women representatives from Iraq and the U.S., who are actively striving to get women included in the governance of the post-war Iraq. Their focus is on restoring the God-given dignity of a Muslim woman as a human person by actually forging pragmatic alliances with some of the ulama who, for some moral or religious reasons, are supportive of the efforts of Muslim women activists. According to these women, some of whom have directed and manged humanitarian aid all over the world, their strategy to secure the endorsement of the ulama has actually benefited the women’s cause in Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bosnia, and now Iraq.

So why democracy and why now? Let me conclude my remarks by relating pertinent observations made by some leading and broadly educated ulama: Today working for the good of all people requires to keep in mind that such a goal is impossible to achieve without first building an alliance between forces of modernity and tradition. Whether in Muslim society or in general, these forces are identified with two major institutions for their preservation: universities and seminaries. In the Muslim world, the institutional function attributed to the church in the West is actually performed by the Muslim seminary. Seminaries - the madarasa or hawza illmiyya - represent what Islam teaches about itself as interpreted by the ulama. Universities represent what the moderns teach about any and all subjects that human beings want or need to learn. Hence, both universities and seminaries as the repositories of human knowledge become the centers of power, in constant competition with each other and the state, to control the people’s minds so as to make them agree with what they uphold to be of epistemic value. And although there is a difference in their approach to knowledge, they build upon one another, to provide solutions to the pressing problems of social ethics for the people today. As a result, they cannot afford to work in isolation. They need to build bridges of understanding so that they can contribute to the well being of the entire society. The Muslim world is still searching for ways to make Islamic studies an academic discipline that can be studied critically and without confining it to end-oriented research in modern universities. The dialogue has already occurred. But it has not reached the level of dia-action. This dia-action is a prelude to the process of democratization in Muslim societies. The success of CSID, as I see it, is intimately tied to forging the working relationship between the two centers of influence and power in the Muslim world. The key is to work towards an inclusive epistemology, without any claim to absolutism about the past heritage. Will it happen? That depends on all of us, men and women, Muslim and non-Muslim, working together to make the ideal attain reality.

Thank you very much!


Originally published on the CSID website at http://www.islam-democracy.org/4th_Annual_Conference-Sachedina_address.asp and reprinted in TAM with permission of the author.


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