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The Place of Tolerance in Islam by Khaled Abou El Fadl (Beacon Press)

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Islam Isn’t the Problem

A response to “Islam and the Challenge of Democracy”

William B. Quandt

8The Bush administration, as it proceeds with its grand strategy for reordering the Middle East, talks optimistically of bringing democracy and peace to a region that has known little of either. One wonders if those who put forward this vision really believe in it, or whether they hope it will convince Americans that the war against Iraq is moral. It’s puzzling that many of the intellectuals who have been most influential in instructing the Bush crowd on the Middle East have actually maintained that there is something in Arab and Islamic culture that is profoundly hostile to democracy.

The issue of Islam and democracy, so thoughtfully explored by Khaled Abou El Fadl, is both timely and important; especially significant is his focus on the doctrinal/philosophical compatibility of Islam with notions of popular sovereignty. It is worth noting that many Islamic activists would agree that Islam and democracy are incompatible–-the point in Islam, they would argue, is that a just ruler should uphold God’s law, not that he (or she) should be popularly chosen. Indeed, insofar as there is a substantial body of Islamic political theory, it focuses on the moral dimensions of governance, not institutions and procedures, which are at the heart of modern democratic theory.

Muslim scholars like Abou El Fadl and, from a Shi’ite perspective, Aziz Sachedina, are impressive in demonstrating that the Qur’an and traditions can be understood in ways that are compatible with democracy—that God’s sovereignty does not preclude human agency. The key issue, in their view, is that God’s law involving matters of faith should not be subject to the state’s intervention. This is a matter between God and each believer. No human being should intervene between God and a believer or pretend to judge in God’s place whether the believer is sincere or not. The Qur’an specifically says that there should be no compulsion in matters of religion.

The state, however, does have a role in ordering relations among human beings so that there can be order and justice. These man-made laws should be consistent with principles of Islam, but they are understood to be products of human deliberation, hence they are fallible, and therefore changeable. Nothing in Islam, according to the modernist interpretation goes against these laws being made in accordance with the notion of popular sovereignty.

These views, it should be noted, are not universally shared by Muslims, and many traditionalists would not be convinced. They fear that if too much weight is given to public opinion, then division, innovation, and disorder will result. They take seriously the Qur’anic injunction for a good Muslim to command the good and prohibit the forbidden. For centuries, Muslim rulers, and the clergy on their payrolls, have warned that the great danger to the community was disorder, or fitna, and that a strong government, provided it upheld Islamic law, was needed to prevent it. That argument is still heard in many capitals of the Arab and Islamic world today. It is a convenient justification for dictatorship.

My own view of Islam and democracy starts from a different angle—not surprisingly, since I am not a Muslim. I agree with Abou El Fadl that Islamic doctrine and philosophy —I would broadenthat to Islamic culture—do not preclude democracy. Every religious tradition has struggled with issues of faith and governance, and democracy has been able to take root in a remarkable variety of milieus that might seem poorly suited to nurture it. The Qur’an per se is not an impediment to democracy, but something does seem to stand in the way of democratization in much of the Muslim world.

If Islam as a religion does not account for the dearth of democracies in the Muslim world, what does? To answer this we have to look at a number of simple facts. Until about two hundred and fifty years ago, nowhere in the world had we seen anything resembling modern liberal democracy. Until then, one might argue, no culture or religion had shown itself to be compatible with the dictates of democracy. Even early American democracy would get low marks by contemporary standards since there was no enfranchisement for the majority of the population. Still, something happened in the West that made it possible for a liberal form of democracy to become the prevailing political norm today, and it is a truly remarkable phenomenon. Can it be replicated in the world of Islam?

We should note that the picture in the Islamic world with respect to democracy is not entirely bleak. Turkey, once the heart of Islamic orthodoxy, is today a recognizable, if imperfect, democracy. Other examples of partial democratization, including relatively free elections, can also be noted–-especially in Bangladesh and Indonesia, two of the largest Muslim countries. And Muslims in India regularly participate in democratic politics. Even in Jordan, Morocco, Yemen, and Algeria there are embryonic democratic experiments underway. Iran, the most avowedly “Islamic” of the Middle East states, shows signs of democratization from the bottom up. So the landscape is not as grim as the “What Went Wrong?” school maintains. Still, there is a democratic deficit in the Islamic world compared to, say, Latin America.

As a political scientist, I would suggest three strong hypotheses for the lack of democracy in the region. One has to do with the persistence of ruling monarchies in the region. Nowhere else are so many kings still wielding real power. When leadership comes by inheritance, a core principle of democracy is sacrificed. Some of the monarchies have been overthrown—Egypt in 1952, Libya in 1969, and the Shah of Iran in 1979. But a remarkable number remain intact—Morocco, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and all the small Gulf countries. These systems are, by their nature, resistant to full democratization, although some measures of liberalization are now taking place.

Second, many of the states of the Middle East gained their independence from colonial rule after World War II and quickly adopted a then-popular model for consolidating power–-the one-party populist state (with real power lodged in the military and the bureaucracy). This was supposed to provide a guarantee against instability and possible civil war, protection against the designs of neo-colonialism, and a means for controlling national wealth and channeling it toward the basic needs of the people. Egypt, Syria, Algeria, and Iraq all adopted one variant or another of this model. The result has been a very durable form of authoritarianism.

Third, and one of the reasons for the persistence of both monarchies and dictatorships, has been the existence of substantial oil revenues that flow directly into state coffers. This has given the state the chance to develop vast patronage networks and has given it the upper hand in bargaining over issues of “who gets what, when, and how,” the classic issues of politics. Rentier theory does not explain everything in the Middle East, but it would be a mistake to ignore the impact of oil rents on the persistence of the prevailing economic and political order.

In conclusion, let me return to the Bush advisers who may or may not be taking democracy seriously as they make their plans for the new Middle East. First, as Abou El Fadl and others have argued, there is no reason to believe that Muslims are doctrinally unsuited for democracy. Second, there is already a substantial constituency that favors democratic change in many Muslim countries and many experiments are underway that merit attention. Third, external intervention is an unlikely means for advancing democracy. American efforts to this end will be viewed with great suspicion, as were those of British and French colonialists of an earlier era. While we as Americans have every reason to hope for movement toward democracy in the Middle East, we should also be wary of those who tell us, with excessive optimism and no small dose of hubris, that democracy will readily be brought to the region by tanks and smart weapons. <

William B. Quandt is Edward R. Stettinius Professor of Politics at the University of Virginia and author of Peace Process and Between Ballots and Bullets.

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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