Analysing The Compatibility Of Islam And Democracy Politics Essay

This chapter presents the arguments for and against the compatibility of Islam and democracy, not to Islamic states specifically per se but more to Muslim-majority states as a whole. By doing so, it encompasses the wide range of arguments that scholars have made on the issue and shows clearly what makes it possible for Islam and democracy to be compatible and what does not. Taking these arguments into consideration, this chapter then puts it into context for Islamic states and analyzes if it is possible for them to be democratic without essentially loosing what makes it an Islamic state.

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The relationship between Islam and democracy, its compatibility and the issue of the democratic deficit in the Muslim world is one that has been put in the spotlight especially after the catastrophe and repercussions of September 11 (Hasan 2007: 10) as well as the sustained potency of Islamic revivalism and the rise in involvement of Islamic movements in electoral politics (Esposito & Piscatori 1991: 428). Although not all hope is lost for the Muslim world as there are Muslim-majority states such as Indonesia and Turkey that are recognized as democracies, there is still the problem of the non-existence of democratic Islamic states and that the majority of the Muslim world remains undemocratic.

The relationship that Islam and democracy have in the contemporary world and modern-day politics is one that is rather complicated (Esposito & Voll 2001). There are many perspectives regarding the coexistence of Islam and democracy. On the one hand, “many prominent Islamic intellectuals and groups argue that Islam and democracy are compatible” (Esposito & Voll 2001). On the other hand, there are others who see the democratization of Islam as a threat, that it may promote an even more “virulent anti-Westernism” view or others who see the two as “inherently antithetical” due to the different beliefs that the two promote (Espositio & Piscatori 1991: 428). Esposito and Voll present the idea that “the Muslim world is not ideological monolithic” and therefore “presents a broad spectrum of perspectives ranging from the extremes of those who deny a connection between Islam and democracy to those who argue that Islam requires a democratic system” (2001). In addition to this, they argue that there are perspectives that lie in between the two extremes that consist of Muslims in Muslim-majority states who believe that “Islam is a support for democracy” despite the fact that their political system and governance is not overtly recognized as democratic (Esposito & Voll 2001).

Having laid out the range of different opinions and stances on the compatibility of Islam and democracy, it is important to note that this chapter will not deal with every single argument present in the ongoing debate of the relationship between Islam and democracy but rather focus on the main substantial points. Khan, in his book Islamic Democratic Discourse, identifies two main schools of thought of Islamic political theory. First there are the political Islamists who “advocate the establishment of an Islamic state, an authoritarian and ideological entity whose central concepts are ‘al-Hakimiyyah’ (the sovereignty of God) and ‘Sharia’ (the law of God)” (Khan 2006: 160). The second school of thought is that of liberal Muslims who “advocate an Islamic democracy whose central themes are ‘Shura’ (consultation) and ‘Sahifat al Madinah’ (Constitutionalism a la the Compact of Medina)” (Khan 2006: 160). It is significant to note that political Islamists do conceive the concept of Shura as a vital component of their Islamic state, but for them “consultative governance is not necessary for legitimacy, since legitimacy comes from the enforcement of the Sharia, regardless of the will of the people” (Khan 2006: 160). For liberal Muslim scholars, on the other hand, “Shura is a paramount and Sharia too must be arrived at through consultative processes and not taken as given” (Khan 2006: 160).

Therefore, it can be seen that political Islamists, according to Khan, do not see the need for democracy as the legitimacy democracy is meant to give to a state’s governance and politics is done through the implementation of the Sharia laws. El Fadl argues that for democracy to work inside the framework of Islam and its ideals, it must understand the centrality of God’s sovereignty in Islam and cannot eliminate the element of the Sharia laws as a whole but rather show how it respects and compliments it. However, El Fadl’s argument is not feasible as it is not possible to enforce Sharia without taking into consideration the will of the people because that already is considered undemocratic. Khan argues that the only way El Fadl’s Islamic state can be democratic is if the authority of those who interpret the Sharia are dismantled and interpreted by the people themselves (2006: 161). This in turn may jeopardize the quality of Islamic democracy within the state but according to Khan, it is a risk that should be taken for the sake of implementing democracy (2006: 161).

Moving on to the second school of thought, liberal Muslims, who believe in an Islamic democracy centred on the ideals of Shura and the Constitution of Medina. Esposito and Picastori argue that “Muslim interpretations of democracy build on the well-established concept of ‘Shura’ (consultation), but place varying emphases on the extent to which “the people” are able to exercise this duty” (1991: 434). They identify a perspective that claims that it is not only the notion of consultation that makes Islam intrinsically democratic, but it is also due to the “concepts of ‘ijthihad’ (independent reasoning) and ‘ijma’ (consensus)” (Esposito & Picastori 1991: 434). The Constitution of Medina “establishes the importance of consent and cooperation for governance” and “according to this compact Muslims and non-Muslims are equal citizens of the Islamic state, with identical rights and duties” (Khan 2001). Khan argues that according to this constitution, which was the interpretation of the Qur’an by Prophet Muhammad, “the principles of equality, consensual governance and pluralism” are integrated into the Islamic state (2001). He then goes on to point out the difference between Muhammad’s democratic and tolerant Islamic state to contemporary Muslims such as the Taliban, who interpret the Qur’an in a completely different and radical way (Khan 2001).

Choudry backs up the liberal Muslim perspective by asserting that “the fundamentals of democracy are present in Islam: Islam recognizes popular sovereignty, government is based on rule of law, political leaders are elected and accountable to the people and equality of citizens is ensure in the Quran itself” (Choudry in Ehteshami 2004: 96). But if this were the case in all Muslim-majority countries, why are there so few democracies in the Muslim world? The answer is simple. Using Khan’s argument regarding the interpretation of the Quran, it can be argued that the compatibility of Islam and democracy depends on the interpretation of Islamic spiritual scriptures of the Qur’an by Muslims themselves. Khan argues along identical lines stating that “all arguments that advocate Islamic democracies or the compatibility of Islam and democracy take the Qur’an as a revealed document, whose text is absolute but meanings are open to interpretations” (2006: 158). This is a very important piece of information as it highlights the fact that when the Qur’an is interpreted differently by different Muslims it would result in different understandings of what the Qur’an encompasses. This would explain why not all Muslim-majority states, Islamic states in particular, are similar in the extent to which Sharia law is implemented in aspects of governance, economics and everyday life.

Additionally, Khan uses the theologian perspective to back up liberal Muslim scholars as theologians “go to Islamic roots and identify and exemplify those elements that correspond to liberal democratic principles” (2006: 158) thus specifically looking for democratic ideals present in Islam. In his book, The Islamic Roots of Democratic Pluralism, theologian Sachedina relies solely on “Quranic sources and eschewing other socially constructed discourses, how Islam strongly advocates pluralism” (Khan 2006: 158). However, just because Islam promotes pluralism, does not instantly make it democratic. Liberal Muslims and theologians make the mistake of being complacent with the fact that just one or two aspects of democracy are found in Islam, namely Shura and aspects of pluralism, hence automatically making Islam and democracy compatible. If this were the case, democracy would be more prevalent in the Muslim world.

Maududi uses the theologian perspective when studying Islam as he also argues that “whatever aspect of the Islamic ideology one may like to study, he must, first of all, go to the roots and look at the fundamental principles” (1977: 119-120) emphasizing the importance of having to study Islam from the inside out and not just take it at face value. However, Maududi takes a step further than theologians and coins the idea of a “theo-democracy”, the mixture of theocracy and democracy in Islamic states (1977: 133). According to ‘theo-democracy’, “God is equally sovereign as the people represented by an elected assembly that is controlled by religious leaders” (Maududi in Lane & Redissi 2004: 171). Nevertheless, this concept of theo-democracy, as argued by Lane and Redissi, does not fulfil the essential requirement of democracy “as the legitimacy of the Mullahs is not derived from the people but from their insight into the Qur’an” (2004: 171). Maududi himself points out that a democratic Islamic state would be a fallacy as “the sovereignty of God and sovereignty of the people are mutually exclusive” and that “an Islamic democracy would be the antithesis of secular Western democracy” (Maududi in Bukay 2007). The issue of sovereignty of God and the people is what distinguishes Islam and democracy. The two are completely different sets of ideals that cannot be combined together as only one can take precedence over the other, and when this is done, a country either is a democracy or an Islamic state.

Going back to the concept of Shura, many scholars use this concept to show that Islam has similar values to those of democracy. Shura can be defined as the obligation “for Muslims in managing their political affairs to engage in mutual consultation” (Esposito & Voll 2001). Lane and Redissi argue that “the effort to find the missing link between Islam and modern democracy is focused upon the possibility of finding a link between the concept of consultation – Shura – and the key institutions of modern democracy – the vote and the participation of the people in relation to the religious elite including the caliph” (2004: 170). Ahmad uses the Islamist perspective to argue that the Qur’an allows Muslims to use Shura and the opportunity of God’s vicegerency to select a Muslim ruler “based on the free will of the Muslim masses” (2002) pointing out the democratic aspects of the Qur’an when it comes to choosing a ruler. However, it seems that despite the fact that Shura is the so-called democratic component of Islam, majority of the Muslim world are not democratic thus proving that it is easy to correlate the two (Shura and democracy) as similar entities in theory but in practice, it is not enough to ensure a democratic Muslim-majority state, let alone an Islamic state. As Khan puts it: “a democratic theory cannot just emerge by itself from a part of a verse” (2006: 158).

Apart from Khan’s two main schools of thought, there is another perspective where in which scholars believe that Islam and democracy are intrinsically incompatible. Sivan suggests that “Islam has very little to offer in the realm of politics” as “after Muhammad’s death, political history was shaped by circumstances … Islamic law had little to no say on constitutional matters” (Sivan in Ehteshami 2004: 96). According to Sivan, Sharia does not stand a chance of being the superior law of the land when democracy is implemented thus implying that Islamic fundamentals of politics and democracy cannot coexist without one being more superior to the other thus determining whether a state is either Islamic or democratic, they cannot be both. Furthermore, Maududi’s argument supports that of Sivan’s as he claims that “an Islamic democracy would be the antithesis of secular Western democracy” (Maududi in Bukay 2007).

Despite the fact that numerous Muslim activists have rejected the concept of democracy as a “western import designed to destroy Islam and the Sharia”, there are Muslim and non-Muslim scholars alike that strongly argue that “there is no contradiction between Islam and democracy” (Ehteshami 2004: 94). Ehteshami claims that “Muslim teachings and practices of collective debate, consensus, accountability and transparency, if followed properly, will produce Muslim versions of democratic rule” (2004: 94). Nevertheless, he argues that if Islam and democracy were to be seen as two different systems, one of the main differences between an Islamic state and a democracy is the sphere of sovereignty, where in a democratic society sovereignty lies with the people, and in an Islamic state it resides in God (2004: 94). Ahmad argues along the same lines as Ehteshami but uses the Islamist approach claiming that “a fundamental difference between the Western and Islamist concept of democracy: the sovereignty of the people vs. the sovereignty of God or the Shariah” (2002). That being said, it is not possible to remove the sovereignty of God and the Sharia and move them to the sidelines of politics within an Islamic state with democracy at the top, because when that happens, an Islamic state is no longer an Islamic state for the reason that the core essence of it has been removed and replaced. When put in this context, it is not feasible for an Islamic state to be democratic.

Bukay brings up an interesting argument in relation to the compatibility of Islam and democracy. He claims that some Western scholars maintain the Islamist argument that not only are parliamentary democracy and representative elections congruent with Sharia, but that “Islam actually encourages democracy” (Bukay 2007). Bukay identifies two ways in which these scholars maintain the above claims: “either they twist definitions to make them fit the apparatuses of Islamic government – terms such as democracy become relative – or they bend the reality in Muslim countries to fit their theories” (2007). He points out the phrases used by Esposito and his different co-authors such as “democracy has many and varied meanings”; “every culture will mold an independent model of democratic government”; and “there can develop a religious democracy” (Bukay 2007) proving his above statement true.

Having exhausted all the prominent arguments in the general sphere of democracy and Muslim-majority countries, this chapter will now put these arguments into the context of Islamic states specifically. The arguments of political Islamists is one of the few realistic argument that keeps what essentially makes Islamic states Islamic as it does not disregard Sharia as unimportant or unnecessary when it comes to the governance of a Muslim country. Rather it argues the point that for democracy to work within an Islamic state, it is the responsibility of democracy to show that it encompasses Islamic ideals rather than the other way around. The liberal Muslim school of thought is also useful in finding the possibility of Islamic states being democratic as they argue from the point of view that the interpretation of the Qur’an is what is essential. However, no matter how evident it is in theory that there are possibilities of Islamic states becoming democratic, there is no denying that in practice, not a single Islamic state exists.

The non-existence of democratic Islamic states raises a number of important questions: Why are there no democratic Islamic states? Why is it possible for Indonesia and Turkey to be democratic but not Pakistan, Iran or Bahrain? Is Islam the sole, main reason why there are no democratic Islamic states? These questions will be answered in the next two chapters as the next chapter focus primarily on specific case studies of Islamic states, namely Pakistan, Iran, Yemen and Bahrain, where as the fourth chapter deals with democratic and semi-democratic Muslim-majority states, such as Indonesia, Turkey, Malaysia and Bangladesh.