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Practice and Theory

A response to “Islam and the Challenge of Democracy”

John L. Esposito

8Many people charge that both the religion of Islam and realities of Muslim politics demonstrate that Islam is incompatible with democracy. Across the political and ideological spectrum, the Muslim experience has been one of kings, military, and ex-military rulers possessing tenuous legitimacy and propped up by military and security forces. In Syria, the president’s son recently succeeded his father; and some believe the rulers of Libya, Egypt, and Iraq now entertain such a possibility. Some “Islamic governments”—the Taliban’s Afghanistan, Saudi Arabia, Iran, Sudan—have projected a religiously-based authoritarianism that parallels secular authoritarianism. And since 9/11, many Muslim governments have used the threat of global terrorism as an excuse or a green light for increasing their authoritarian rule.

At the same time, while much of the world has focused on the threat from extremist Islamic organizations, mainstream Islamic candidates and parties have continued to participate in the political process, performing impressively in 2002 elections in Morocco, Bahrain, Pakistan, and Turkey, where the Justice and Development Party (AK) came to power.

Questions about the compatibility of Islam and democracy have, then, been contentious issues in recent decades among rulers, policymakers, religious scholars (‘ulama), Islamic activists (Islamists or fundamentalists) and intellectuals in the Muslim world and the West. And these questions have grown in importance in recent decades, as diverse sectors of society—secular and religious, leftist and rightist, educated and uneducated—have increasingly used democratization as a basis for judging the legitimacy of governments and political movements. In the late 1980s and 1990s, responding to failed economies and public unrest (“food riots” in Egypt, Algeria, Tunisia, Jordan) and to calls for democratization that accompanied the breakup of the Soviet Union, governments hesitantly opened up their systems and held limited elections. Islamic activists and parties emerged as the leading opposition and were poised to come to power in Algeria (1991-1992) after sweeping parliamentary elections. Stunned, many governments and experts in the Muslim world and the West, after a decade of charging that Islamic movements did not enjoy significant popular support and would be turned away in elections, were quick to warn that Islamic movements threatened to hijack democracy.

Closer to home, many conservatives—who during the Cold War promoted relations with authoritarian regimes in Latin America, Africa or the Middle East in the name of America’s national interest—have also questioned Islam’s compatibility with democracy. But even here, things are complicated. Secretary of State Colin Powell, speaking for the Bush administration in spring 2003, embraced democratization in the Muslim world as part of America’s agenda in the war against global terrorism. In an interview, Powell went out of his way not to rule out U.S. support for Islamic parties. At the time of Turkey’s election and the AK Party victory he noted: “The fact that the party has an Islamic base to it in and of itself does not mean that it will be anti-American in any way. In fact, the initial indication we get is that the new party, which forms the new government, understands the importance of a good relationship with the United States.’’

So, are Islam and democracy compatible?

In addressing this question, we need to start with a general observation: religious traditions are a combination of text and context—revelation and human interpretation within a specific socio-historical context. All religious traditions demonstrate dynamism and diversity, which is why there are conservative as well as modernist or progressive elements in all religions. Judaism and Christianity, the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament, have been used to legitimize monarchies and feudalism in the past, and democracy and capitalism, as well as socialism in the present. The Gospels and Christianity have been used to legitimize the accumulation of wealth and market capitalism as well as religio-social movements like those of Francis of Assisi and in the twentieth century Dorothy Day’s Catholic Worker Movement and Liberation Theology in Latin and Central America. Moreover, democracy itself has meant different things to different peoples at different times, from ancient Greece to modern Europe, from direct to indirect democracy, from majority rule to majority vote. Can Islam travel a similar path?

Generally speaking, the answer seems to be “yes.” Islam throughout history has proven dynamic and diverse. It adapted to support the movement from the city-state of Medina to empires and sultanates, it was able to encompass diverse schools of theology, law, and philosophy as well as different Sunni and Shi‘i branches, and has been used to support both extremism and conservative orthodoxy. Islam continues today to lend itself to multiple interpretations of government; it is used to support limited democracy and dictatorship, republicanism and monarchy. Like other religions, Islam possesses intellectual and ideological resources that can provide the justification for a wide range of political models.

With respect to democracy in particular, a diversity of voices within the Islamic world are now debating issues of political participation. Secularists argue for the separation of religion and state. Rejectionists (both moderate and militant Muslims) maintain that Islam’s forms of governance do not conform to democracy. King Fahd of Saudi Arabia says that “the democratic system prevalent in the world is not appropriate in this region. . . . The election system has no place in the Islamic creed, which calls for a government of advice and consultation and for the shepherd’s openness to his flock, and holds the ruler fully responsible before his people.” Extremists agree, condemning any form of democracy as haram, forbidden, an idolatrous threat to God’s rule (divine sovereignty). Their unholy wars to topple governments aim to impose an authoritarian “Islamic” rule. Conservatives often argue that popular sovereignty contradicts the sovereignty of God, with the result that the alternative has often been some form of monarchy.

Modern reformers in the twentieth century began to reinterpret key traditional Islamic concepts and institutions: consultation (shura) of rulers with those ruled, consensus (ijma) of the community, reinterpretation (ijtihad), and legal principles such as the public welfare (maslaha) of society to develop Islamic forms of parliamentary governance, representative elections, and religious reform. Reformers in the twenty-first century, like Khaled Abou El Fadl, continue the process in diverse ways.

Some advocates of Islamic democracy argue that the doctrine of the Oneness of God (tawhid) or monotheism requires some form of democratic system. “No Muslim questions the sovereignty of God or the rule of Shari‘ah, Islamic law. However, most Muslims do (and did) have misgivings about any claims by one person that he is sovereign. The sovereignty of one man contradicts the sovereignty of God, for all men are equal in front of God. . . . Blind obedience to one-man rule is contrary to Islam.”

However, reformist efforts toward political liberalization, electoral politics, and democratization in the Muslim world do not imply uncritical acceptance of Western democratic forms. Many Muslims observe that legitimate democracy can take many forms. President Mohammad Khatami, in a television interview in June 2001 before the Iranian presidential elections, noted that “the existing democracies do not necessarily follow one formula or aspect. It is possible that a democracy may lead to a liberal system. . .[or] to a socialist system. Or it may be a democracy with the inclusion of religious norms in the government. We have accepted the third option.” According to Khatami, “world democracies are suffering from a . . . vacuum of spirituality,” and Islam can provide the framework for combining democracy with spirituality and religious government.

Like changes in other faiths, shifts in Islamic religious thought will be a slow process as the meaning of sacred texts, doctrines and traditions are examined and debated. The players continue to differ on many of the critical questions and issues: the relationship of divine sovereignty to human sovereignty, the nature of Islamic government, the relationship of ruler and ruled, the role of law, individual rights, and pluralism. Perhaps the most critical and explosive issue has been the Shari‘ah, and associated issues of divine vs. human sovereignty and divine law vs. human legislation. The implementation of the Shari‘ah—or perhaps more accurately, claims to have implemented Shari‘ah law—have wrought havoc and grave injustices in some Muslim countries in matters affecting women and non-Muslims as well as Muslims. Too often Shari‘ah is simply (and incorrectly) equated by Muslims and non-Muslims alike with Islamic law, the body of laws developed by Muslim jurists in the past and/or implemented by some governments.

Khaled Abou El Fadl’s “Islam and the Challenge of Democracy” addresses the heart of this issue. He notes that Shari‘ah, “for the most part, is not explicitly dictated by God. Rather, Shari‘ah relies on the interpretive act of the human agent for its production and execution.” He makes the critical distinction between Shari‘ah, with its normative revealed principles, values and legal rules, and fiqh, its human interpretation, production and application that are historically and socially conditioned. This distinction underscores the relative, fallible human dimension of Islamic law as well as its dynamic nature, which enables it to respond to multiple and diverse situations. Many reformers since the late nineteenth century expressed the divine-human, immutable-mutable dimensions of Islamic law by distinguishing duties to God (ibadat, worship, unchanging religious observances such as prayer five times a day, the fast of Ramadan, pilgrimage to Mecca) from duties to others (muamalat, social transactions or relations). But the distinction between Shari‘ah (divine law) and fiqh (human interpretation and application) is the more fundamental. It underscores the extent to which much of Islamic law—from forms of government, notions of governance, to individual and collective rights, and gender relations—may be seen as reflecting time-bound, human interpretations that are open to adaptation and change.

A cross section of Muslim thinkers, religious leaders and mainstream Islamic movements from Egypt to Indonesia, Europe to America, engage in this kind of reformist interpretation of Islam and its relationship to democracy, pluralism and human rights. They include such religious scholars (‘ulama) as Sheikh Yusuf Qaradawi, lay scholars—Indonesia’s Nurcholish Madjid, America’s Abdulaziz Sachedina, and Khaled Abou El Fadl—and leaders of Islamic movements and political parties—Tunisia’s Rashid Ghannoushi and Abdullah Gul, the recent Prime Minister of Turkey. Abdurrahman Wahid, former leader of Indonesia’s Nahdatul Ulama (with some 30 million members, perhaps the largest Islamic organization in the world) and the first democratically elected president of Indonesia is a noteworthy example.

Wahid has argued that Muslims face two choices or paths: to pursue a traditional, static legal-formalistic Islam or to fashion a more dynamic cosmopolitan, universal, pluralistic worldview. In contrast to many “fundamentalists,” he rejects the notion that Islam should form the basis for the nation-state’s political or legal system, which he characterizes as a Middle Eastern tradition, alien to Indonesia. Indonesian Muslims should apply a moderate, tolerant brand of Islam to their daily lives in a society where “a Muslim and a non-Muslim are the same”—a state in which religion and politics are separate. Rejecting legal-formalism or fundamentalism as an aberration and a major obstacle to contemporary Islamic reform, Wahid has spent his life promoting the development of a multifaceted Muslim identity and a dynamic Islamic tradition capable of responding to the realities of modern life. Its cornerstones are free will and the right of all Muslims, both laity and religious scholars (‘‘ulama), to “perpetual reinterpretation” (ijtihad) of the Qur’an and tradition of the Prophet in light of “ever changing human situations.”

As in the case of other traditions—and certainly in the modern history of Roman Catholicism—reformers are often initially perceived and received as a threat by religious institutions and more conservative religious leaders and believers. In Roman Catholicism in the twentieth century, theologians were silenced or removed from their teaching positions, their careers and livelihoods threatened. Muslim reformers often find themselves in similar or worse situations—stuck between authoritarian regimes that imprison and repress and religious extremists who kill to silence voices of reform.

However, the most important challenge for Islamic reformers will be the transfer of their reformulations from the elite few to the institutions and peoples of Islam. How to train the next generation of religious scholars and leaders and the laity? This requires institutional change, in particular curricular reforms in seminaries (madrasas), universities and schools. As in all faiths, the religious understanding of the vast majority of believers is initially learned at home and the local mosque, from parents and local religious leaders and teachers. Thus the importance of training those who preach and teach. <

John L. Esposito, University Professor and professor of religion and international affairs, Georgetown University, is author of Unholy War and Islam and Democracy (with John Voll).

Click here to return to the New Democracy Forum, “Islam and the Challenge of Democracy” with Khaled Abou El Fadl and respondents.

Originally published in the April/May 2003 issue of Boston Review

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