Islam and Democracy Essay

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Is Contemporary Islamist Thought Compatible With Democracy? Far from the predicted end of history following the end of the Cold War, global politics at the turn of the 21st century was and continues to be marked by two key dynamics the diffusion of democracy as the principle normative system for political organisation, and the forceful reappearance of ethnic and religiously-defined identity issues in public affairs. This is particularly true in the Muslim world, which in the latter half of the 2
  Is Contemporary Islamist Thought Compatible With Democracy? Far from the predicted end of history following the end of the Cold War, global politics atthe turn of the 21 st century was and continues to be marked by two key dynamics  the diffusion of democracy as the principle normative system for political organisation, and the forcefulreappearance of ethnic and religiously-defined identity issues in public affairs. This is particularlytrue in the Muslim world, which in the latter half of the 20 th century saw the emergence of a newstyle of Islamic organisation, operating within the broader context of Islamic resurgence, promotingpolitical structures that could embrace modernity within an authentic Islamic framework. As aresult, the relationship between these forces of Islamic resurgence and the development of democratic political systems has become one of the crucial issues defining the political future of anumber of Muslim states. However, all too often, analysis of this relationship betweencontemporary Islamist thought and democracy is caught up in a web of simplification 1 , with journalists, policy-makers, academics and even a number of Islamist thinkers describing a simpledichotomy between good and bad, democrats and authoritarians, and a mutually exclusive Islamismand democracy.In fact, both democracy and Islamism describe vastly differentiated and highly contesteddefinitions, meanings and political systems. On the one hand, some Islamists describe Islamism asthe very antithesis of secular Western democracy 2 as a result of the Islamic injunction that there isno deity except Allah, with Islamisms detractors continuing on to pass judgements such as[Islamisms] victory...will herald a bloody dictatorship crushing all those who oppose its message. 3  On the other hand, another Islamist noted that democracy is not only thoroughly consistent withthe spirit of Islam, but has also become a necessity in the view of the new forces that are set free inthe world of Islam. 4 Although these two interpretations are obviously conflicting, this essay willargue that the difference between the two concepts is relative, and not one of absolute oppositionas suggested by some.The structure of this essay is as follows. First, the contested nature of both democracy andIslamism will be discussed. The essay will then move on to examine the evidence pointing towardsIslamisms supposedly anti-democratic nature, particularly noting the writing of Abul Ala Mawdudiand Sayyid Qutb. Third, the essay will examine the countervailing point of view, held by writers suchas Rachid Ghannouchi, outlining Islams pluralist traditions and Islamisms compatibility withdemocracy. The essay will conclude by arguing that the relationship between contemporary Islamistthought and democracy is inherently complex and that the question of their compatibility is,ultimately, not conclusively answerable, at least not without reference to specific local contexts. Itwill also be argued that, counter to commentators who describe particular Islamist support fordemocracy as a diversionary strategy, or as tactics of circumstance, genuine democratisationrequires the inclusion of Islamist trends, given Islamisms intrinsic importance to politics, culture andsociety in many Muslim societies. 1 Francois Burgat, Face to Face With Political Islam, p.137 2 Abul Ala Mawdudi, quoted in John Esposito & John Voll (eds.), Islam and Democracy, p.23 3 Sami Nair, quoted in Burgat, opcit.., p.124 4 Muhammad Iqbal, quoted in John Esposito & John Voll (eds.), opcit., p.29  The twin trends of a resurgent Islam and widespread desire for democratisation coexist in adynamic global context. Today, democracy has become the dominant discourse in most societies,with very few movements explicitly describing themselves as anti-democratic. Although broadlyspeaking democracy is understood to mean a system of governance in which rulers are heldaccountable for their actions by their constituents, in both theory and practice democracy is acontested concept. A cursory survey of Western democracy reveals not just a wide range of organising principles, but more or less constant efforts to develop more effective democraticstructures. Comparing, for instance, the political structures of the UK, the US and Israel clearly showsthat there is no universally accepted or clearly defined model of democracy, much less one that cansimply be exported. The contested nature of democracy is, however, not widely recognised bypolicy-makers, a point illustrated by Dan Quayle, who when commenting on official US support fordemocratic government, noted that there is no single model of democracy...Presidential systems,parliamentary systems, proportional representation, and single member districts  we can respectall of these. 5 Certainly this list names a number of different adversarial democratic structures, but itdoes not include a wider spectrum of democratic styles including consensual or unitary models thatexist even in the West. Equally, Islamism can be defined broadly as an Islamic revivalist movement,including in it a central political-ideological element seeking to implement in some manner Islamicvalues in public life. However, again, it is a vast and varied movement, with an array of interpretations, aims and attitudes, not least with regard to democracy, and the interpretation of Islamism adhered to by a particular thinker or group cannot be understood without reference totheir particular local context. 6  Furthermore, As WB Gallie notes, many contested concepts involve disputes which,although not resolvable by argument of any kind, are nevertheless sustained by perfectlyrespectable arguments and evidence.  Importantly, he goes on to note that recognition of a givenconcept as essentially contested implies recognition of rival uses of it (such as oneself repudiates) asnot only logically possible and humanely likely, but as of permanent potential critical value to onesown use or interpretation of the concept in question. 7 Thus, as contested concepts, it is importantto understand local perceptions of both Islamism and democracy, and particularly to bear in mindthe negative connotations of Western terminology, associated as it is with a particular historicalexperience. In other words, in discussing the compatibility of Islamism and democracy, it is criticallyimportant to separate the values discussed from the vocabulary used to discuss them. 8  Clearly there are some precepts in the core of Islamic doctrine that explicitly forbid theexpression of democratic values, supposedly intangible expressions which cause some to viewIslamism as incapable of providing a political system compatible with liberal thought without losingits Islamic essence. As Burgat points out, the argument that Islamism and democracy areincompatible takes place on three levels. The first is the empirical experience of Islamist regimes inSudan and Iran. Both governments have practiced at times brutal repressionthat, even if  5 Dan Quayle, quoted in John Esposito, opcit., p.19 6 For instance, even when talking about a nominally global organisation such as the Muslim Brotherhood,distinctions are still essential between say the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and the Muslim Brotherhood inSyria. 7 WB Gallie, quoted in, ibid., p.19 8 Burgat, p.137  (favourably) comparable with some of the Wests secular allies, is enough to reinforce unprovenassertions with practical evidence. 9 The second level relies on the assertions of a number of Islamistthinkers. Whilst Mawdudi and al-Banna may not have been explicit in their rejection of democracy, 10  many of their successors are open and vocal about their distaste for the democratic principle. Forinstance, Ali Benhadj, leader of the Islamic Salvation Front (FIS) in Algeria spoke of the democraticpoison which provides that rules without a thought for faith, dignity, religion and honour. 11  However, these two levels are merely circumstantial, and whilst they are often cited by lazy analystsas conclusive proof of incompatibility, the essence of the debate lies the third level of argument the structural incompatibility between Islam and liberal political thought. This is to ask the questionof whether the primacy of divine law over the will of the community, or the sovereignty of Godabove the sovereignty of the people, as recognised by all    Islamists, can ever be reconciled with atruly democratic system.To answer this question, we need a deeper look into the meaning and understanding of Islam,Islamism and the fundamentals of an Islamic political system. The first thing to note is that there area number of core concepts that are central to the political positions of all Muslims and that the hugebreadth in Muslim thought stems from debate about the definitions of these concepts, and not theirexistence per se. 12 Indeed, Mawdudi writes that the political system of Islam has been based onthree principles: T  awhee d, unity of God, Ris ala t  Prophethood, and K  hal  if  a t.  13   The concept at thevery core of the Islamic faith, agreed upon by Muslims of all traditions, is the acceptance of  t  awh id,  simply defined as the conviction and witnessing that there is no God but God. 14 This furtherinvolves acceptance of the principle of  la- i  laha i  llallah    the unity of God with the knowledge thatGod alone is the possessor of all power, and that none besides Him can benefit or harm a person, orprovide for his needs, or give and take away life or wield authority. 15 As a religion,   Islam is thusdescribed by Mawdudi as complete submission and obedience to Allah, for belief in Him makespractical obedience to him incumbent. 16 Thus, all Islamists agree, Islam is Gods final word tomankind, constituting a comprehensive way of life with Gods law, the s har  i  a , serving as a set of divine guidelines for the regulation of life in the best interests of man. Within this framework it isalso argued that any human hierarchy is impossible, that there is no authority of one man overanother since before God all humans are equal and as the authority in all respects belongs toGod. 17  It is a particular interpretation of  t  awh id  that leads some conservative Muslims, and otherobservers, to say that the principle of the sovereignty of God conflicts with sovereignty of thepeople, implied by democracy. For instance, Sayyid Qutb contrasts the true Islamic community with  j  ah i  l  iyy  ah  , a community which takes the form of claiming that the right to create values, to legislate 9 Burgat, p.123 10 Al-Banna, for instance, viewed political parties and partyism as a source of disunity within the Muslimcommunity and thus a party system ran counter to the duty of every Muslim to live in loving brotherhoodwith his fellow Muslims. See Mitchell, p.215 11 Ali Benhadj, quoted in Burgat, p.125 12 Esposito & Voll, p.22 13 Mawdudi, quoted in ibid., p.22 14   Ibid., p.23 15 Mawdudi, The Articles of Faith, in opcit.   16 Mawdudi, The Meaning of Islam in To war  ds Und  er  st  a nding Is lam  , 1960 17 Sayyid Qutb, Milestones,  rules of collective behaviour, and to choose any way of life rests with men, without regard to whatGod has prescribed. 18 Such man-made rights to create values constitute a denial of the dignity of man given to him by God. Qutb concluded Any system in which the final decisions are referred tohuman beings, and in which the sources of all authority are human, deifies human beings bydesignating others than God as lords over men. 19 Similarly, Mawdudi notes that Islam altogetherrepudiates the philosophy of popular sovereignty and rears its polity on the foundations of thesovereignty of God and vicegerency ( K  hal  if  ah)   of man. 20 Thus, described by Mawdudi as theKingdom of God, an Islamic polity would be a theocracy in the sense that no one, not even thewhole Muslim community united, has the right to change an explicit command of God  the s har  i  a   as the constitution cannot be amended and the fundamentals of the political community altered,even at the behest of overwhelming popular will.Yet even in the vision of someone who wrote that Islam is the very antithesis of secularWestern democracy, there are democratic elements in the sense rulers, the executive, are in somesense directly accountable to the community as a whole. One of these elements is through a moderninterpretation of the k  hal  if  a t, one of the three core principles outlined by Mawdudi. The k  hal  if  ah   isprimarily related to the issue of defining political leadership for the community. Although it istraditionally often associated with some sort of Islamic monarchy, it is often now understood in thesense that man is Gods agent or vicegerent on earth, granted stewardship over Gods earthlycreations. Blessed equally by God, man is thus expected to defend their God-given rights. Mawdudiwrites thus: the authority of the caliphate is bestowed on the entire group of people, thecommunity as a whole, which is ready to fulfil the conditions of representation after subscribing tothe principles of tawheed...this is the point where democracy begins in Islam. Every person in anIslamic society enjoys the rights and powers of the caliphate of God. 21 Here is one basis for adistinction between Western and Islamic democracy - as opposed to the formers post-Enlightenment principle of the sovereignty of man, Islam believes in the sovereignty of God and theviceregency of man.Like all major religions and ideologies, there can be found in Islam a full range of symbols,concepts and traditions for supporting authoritarian hierarchy, as well as the foundations for libertyand equality. We have seen here that even among the thought of explicitly anti-democratic thinkers,the concepts of  t  awh id  and k  hal  if  a   provide a framework in which distinctive Islamist politicaltheories have been developed, containing some v  alue s analogous to Western democratic traditions,even if they are not expressed through familiar vocabulary or conceptual frameworks. For instance,there is still present the recognition of popular sovereignty, albeit with a different meaning thantraditional Western conceptions, along with a more familiar emphasis on equality and obligations onthe government as bearers of the trust of the people.Yet other Islamist thinkers bring the democracy and Islamism obviously and explicitly closertogether, with much attention being paid to specific aspects of social and political operation withinIslam. Specifically, thinkers draw upon the concepts of  s hura  , ijti  ha d  and iji  ma , in addition to a longhistory of pluralism within Islam. Shura  , or consultation, is based on the idea that every sane adult 18   Ibid    19   Ibid.   20 Mawdudi, quoted in Esposito & Voll, p.23 21   Ibid., p.26
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