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April 14, 2011

Revolutions in the Arab world: The question of Islam and democracy

Prof. Dr. Mohamed Elmasry

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Is there a relationship between Islam and democracy?

If you ask me, this is a very strange question, yet one that has been debated long and vigorously by Muslim and non-Muslim intellectuals, activists and politicians for a long time.

Why is it so strange? -- because it has not been posed today in the context of any other mainstream religion.

And it gets even stranger; for if democracy is proven to be politically and socially better for the common good than other systems of governance, then like any other religion Islam not only accepts, but encourages, its practice and sustenance.

But I suspect that life is not that simple; or at least, there are people who do not wish to make it so.

Two high-profile groups maintain that Islam and democracy are incompatible.

One is represented by western-hemisphere writers like Bernard Lewis and Daniel Pipes.

In their view, since Islam is considered anti-democratic and since western-based experience correlates democracy with world peace, the only conclusion to be drawn is that most of the world's 1.3 billion Muslims are therefore a liability, an impediment to peace.

If the Lewis and Pipes group were to ask me -- an unlikely scenario -- I would have to respond that theirs is a racist and dangerous ideology, based on twisted dogma and chopped logic.

Another group whose ideology is equally off the mark emerges from within Islam itself. Certain Muslim politicians and self-styled spiritual leaders try to appeal to the masses with slogans such as "al-islam-howa-al-hal," which roughly translated means, "Islam is the solution for everything."

This group believes, on similarly thin evidence, that Islam is far superior to democracy. Its leaders trash all that is western and blame democracy for every ill that has befallen humanity for the past century and more.

If the supporters of this group were to ask me -- another unlikely scenario – I would say that theirs is another dangerous dogma that exploits and distorts the love of Muslims for their faith.

Both groups are guilty of politicizing the question around Islam's supposed non-relationship with democracy in order to advance their particular warped agendas.

Ironically, the first group (Lewis, Pipes, et al) likes to use the arguments offered by the second, saying in effect, "Look! We told you so. Islam is not compatible with democracy. Even these Muslim leaders are saying so."

Interesting, eh? So where does the real truth lie?

The Qur'an does not offer a specific prescription or recipe for an ideal political system. But it does recommend and praise the value of collective decision-making for the common good (42:38). And elsewhere, it elevates collective decision-making from the category of recommended processes to that of obligatory ones (3:159).

Thus if modern democracy offers a practical methodology for achieving collective decision-making for the common good, it is not only compatible with Islam, but is virtually an Islamic political system with a Greek name.

Good Muslim politicians who apply sound Qur'anic teaching to their theories should therefore call themselves Muslim democrats.

In fact, this was the primary thesis of Muslim reformers during the nineteenth and early twentieth century’s, the most important of whom were Jamal al-Din al-Afghani, Muhammad Abdu, and Rashid Rida (an Afghani, an Egyptian, and a Syrian, respectively).

Each asserted that the values of freedom and democracy in the west are exactly what traditional Islamic teaching defines as justice (adl), right(haqq), collective decision-making (shura) and equality (musawat).

These Islamic values relate to the rule of freedom and democracy, which consists of imparting justice and rights to the people, and affirming the nation's participation in determining its own destiny.

Basically, they reframed and reformulated western democratic principles using Islamic terms, harmonizing Islamic teachings with western political, social and economic concepts.

Other Muslim intellectuals, however, rejected the three western concepts of democracy, secularization, and the nation-state, saying they represented three direct contradictions of Islamic religious and political thought, and relying "for their authority on human rather than divine legislation ... formulated through secular rather than God-given laws."

This group believed that no one can reconcile the conflicting ideologies of global Islam and western democracy without accepting the latter system's perceived drawbacks of intellectual dishonesty, spiritual blasphemy, and moral cowardice.

This separationist point of view can be seen in the writings of Sayyid Qutb, a major figure of the Muslim Brotherhood who was executed by Egyptian authorities in 1966.

Many Muslims thinkers agree with Sayyid Qutb. Among them is Abu'ala al-Mawdudi, a prominent Pakistani scholar.

Both Qutb and al-Mawdudi reject the idealization of the three western values of democracy, secularization, and the nation-state, finding them corrupting to the human soul and to society.

But if you ask me -- and I hope you will -- I am proud to be a Muslim democrat. And that is that.

First published on January 17, 2004.

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