Exploring the Eclipse of Equality

Just what is Islamic Democracy? A discussion among emerging Muslim scholars

In Guest Blogger, Religious Conflict on June 3, 2010 at 10:36 am

Among the core challenges of our era is the need we have to reconcile (at least to the point of coexistence) Western notions of sovereignty and democracy with the indigenous theories and habits of political culture in the Muslim world. It takes little to recognize that we face this challenge as the now clichéd phrases war on terror and clash of civilizations will attest.

Raised in the context of a creaky democratic political culture with roots planted centuries ago, most Americans treat ideas like democracy at face value, as if there were a single face to be evaluated. Our institutions (party system, divisions of government, legal norms, points of participation etc.) are often taken as the very embodiment of democracy itself, but in practice, democracy takes myriad forms. In fact, comparisons in the degree to which a political system approximates a democratic ideal are quite difficult to make in practice.

Even so, we have examples of such comparative enterprises, such as Monty Marshall’s Polity IV project, and when we examine these data, the news is not particularly good for the Muslim world. Islamic states are disproportionately classified as autocracies, if they are not outright failed or occupied. What would it take to move toward a fourth wave of democratization in the Muslim world and what will Democracy look like there once we find it?

For historical and political reasons, much of this conversation must take place in dialogue with the United States, even though most Americans are not in a good position to engage the necessarily syncretic process through which to reach a rapprochement between Western models and Islamic ideals. In order to contribute to that process, I have asked a few of our local Muslim scholars to react to the question: Is there such a thing as a specifically Islamic Democracy, and how does this compare to the seemingly secular forms that are recognized in the West (if indeed these models can be thought of without reference to their origins in a Christian context)?

To anchor the conversation and to make it more explicit, I have asked Saira Yamin, a Pakistani scholar and advanced graduate student at ICAR, to answer in the context of an excerpt I came across on Meet the Press in which the new dictator Zia-ul-Haq introduced the concept of Islamic Democracy to an unsuspecting American audience (to my knowledge, this is the first use of the term on the show). General Zia is an important figure for many reasons, but I refer to him here, because this appearance on Meet the Press represents that moment when the Reagan administration became more involved in supporting the very religious insurgent groups that we now confront in the War on Terror, and Zia’s vision of a future with God as the sovereign may not have been what many in his American audience was hoping to get for their investment in their new Cold War allies.  Just days after a state dinner in which President Reagan and General Zia exchanged the pleasantries and pledges of mutual support, this meeting on the preeminent public affairs program seems to reveal, if not to inaugurate, one of the major ideological fault lines of our time, even as it passed with little fanfare.

December 12, 1982 Meet the Press

Mr. Kalb: But why should you speak for all of the people, sir? What I’m trying to get at—and perhaps you could explain it to an American audience—do you believe in democracy, for example?

President Zia: One Hundred percent.

Mr. Kalb: Why don’t you practice it?

President Zia: Because we believe in Islamic democracy, and there are some differences.

Mr. Kalb: Which are?

President Zia: Which are that the power lies with God. Sovereignty is God’s, not of the people. There must be responsibility along with representation. And there must be sanity when you are representing the people. You must have a character in order to project the people, and you must have the responsibility and the order to represent your people. It is these values that we are trying to bring. And we are only a 35-years old country, Mr. Kalb, and unfortunately we haven’t had a very stable political structure. I am trying to establish some of those principles.

Saira’s response follows below.

With the collapse of the Soviet Empire, the apparent Socialist threat to Western democratic and capitalist ideologies appears to have diminished significantly.  The Cold War represented a state of military, political and economic tensions between: the erstwhile Soviet Union, its satellite states; and the United States and its Western and non-Western allies. The super-powers never clashed directly, owing to the relative conventional balance of power and the nuclear equation, although they did fight by proxy.  The use of between 900 to 1,200 US anti-aircraft Stinger missiles delivered to the Afghan Mujahideen through Pakistan, during the decade long (1979-1989) Soviet Afghan war, is believed to have hastened the fall of the Soviet Union.  During the same period, not too far away in the great Asian continent, raged the Iran-Iraq war (1980-1988).  The Iran-Iraq conflict provided another battleground of direct interest to the US, during which Iraq was provided billions of dollars in US economic aid, dual use technology, arms, intelligence, and other forms of assistance, in addition to direct—although limited US military engagement with Iran.   Pre-revolution, Iran had been the United States key ally in the Middle East, but the overthrow of the Reza Shah Pehlavi in 1979, the Iranian hostage crisis, and the resistance of American influence in a transformed Iranian political culture, had brought about a U-turn in US-Iran relations.

Against this backdrop, it may seem ironic, that not too long thereafter, the US got embroiled in a Global War on Terror on the same turf, against actors that had been its allies in the 1980s.  For many in the United States, the Islamic world appears to have replaced the Soviet empire, as the main protagonist in a new world order.   Is it an ideological clash of civilizations, between Islam and the West, as Huntington has argued? Do the seeds of incompatibility lie in Islamic political ideology? What do democracy and sovereignty mean in an Islamic context.  Below, I try to provide some insights to some of these questions raised by Professor Solon Simmons.

The tendency to view Islamic states as vastly autocratic provides the salient Western misdiagnosis of Islamic political culture as monolithic, based perhaps on the tendency to view the Arab world as representative of the Islamic Ummah.   But the Arab community merely represents 20% percent of the world’s Muslim population.  In reality, the Islamic community of states is much more vast and its political culture is highly diverse.  Consider for instance, the examples of non-Arab countries like Turkey, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Indonesia, Iran, Nigeria, and Sierra Leone, all in different stages of democracy, some struggling harder than others, but all democratic in the sense that public representation is based on direct elections or through parliamentary sovereignty.  The Arab world, a sub-region of the Muslim world, is still more entrenched in autocratic patterns of governance than others, although it is not entirely homogeneous, with countries such as Algeria, Tunisia, Yemen and Lebanon having embraced democracy.

Many autocratic regimes in the Middle East such as Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and the UAE are close allies of the United States, instances where the lack of democracy has not provided reason for political conflict.  On the contrary, the US has played a pivotal role in bolstering autocratic rule in these countries, despite popular resistance – particularly in the case of Egypt.   Egypt’s President Mubarak, one of the world’s longest surviving dictators, remains the second largest beneficiary of US aid after Israel. The US is wary of democratic change in Egypt owing to apprehensions that a change in regime may bring hostile Islamic political parties to power.  Similarly, the orthodox Islamic Saudi monarchy draws much of its strength from the supply of US military technology.  The quid pro quo in this case is oil, with Saudi Arabia as the second largest source of US imports. The UAE, another close non-democratic ally, provides the US its largest export market in the Arab world, having made purchases of over US$14 billion in 2008.  In the same year, reports the Congressional Research Service, the UAE was the top buyer of arms from the US in the developing world.

The lack of, or flawed democratic statehood, is not an Islamic dysfunction and should be seen in the context of development and history, rather than linking it with religion.  Consider the examples of non-Muslim countries like Nepal, only recently emerging from centuries old monarchy, or Myanmar where sovereignty still rests with a military regime.  Non-Muslim countries in Africa such as Zimbabwe, which is a postconflict state and where democratization has been delayed due to Western policies of colonization in addition to endogenous factors, is another case in point.  South Africa, also demonstrates that European colonist rule, and particularly the policies of Apartheid, had interfered with the growth of a democracy in the country while it lasted, and for many years to come.  Muhammad Ayoob’s thesis on state-making is particularly persuasive in making the case that the Western world’s impatience with the evolution of democracy in the Third World is undue.  Ayoob reminds one of the Western European experience where the transition to democracy took several centuries to bear fruit.  Even Americans, whom Huntington argues are born equal, cannot take democracy for granted.  Despite the Constitutional Bill of Rights, the political system in the US had for a long time discriminated against people on the basis of color and gender.  African-Americans in the US have struggled long and hard for their civil rights.  Women in the US as well, have fought for their rights, and still lag behind what women in many regions around the world have achieved politically and economically.

In Islam, the roots of democracy can be traced to its early days.  Prophet Muhammad introduced the concept to his followers 1,500 years ago through Bay’ah (voting).  Thus, when he passed away in 632 AD, the election of his successor was conducted through a contest between the nominees of three parties whose candidacy was debated amongst the Sahaba (close companions of the Prophet).  After intense consultation, the Sahaba chose Abu Bakr, who was then voted upon by the masses through the Bay’ah, in the final stage of the election process.  It would be worth mentioning that Prophet Muhammad’s daughter Fatima and others, campaigned for the election of her husband Prophet Ali to be Prophet Muhammad’s successor and the first Caliph of Islam.  Prophet Muhammad’s sons had died in their childhood, and Ali, as his first cousin and son-in-law was considered by many his rightful successor.   Regardless, the election of the first caliph was based not on kinship with Prophet Muhammad but through a democratic process.   The election of Abu Bakr also marks the origin of the Sunni and Shia division in Islam, a disagreement rooted in the Shia belief that Ali’s succession was a divine order.

In addition to the Quran and Sunnah i.e. the deeds and sayings of Prophet Muhammad, serving as the primary sources of Sharia (Islamic law), Islam provides the democratic principals of Shura (consultation), Ijma (consensus) and Ijtihad (legal independent interpretation of problems not precisely covered in the Quran), as secondary sources of elucidating Shariah.  President Zia’s assertion that “power lies with God. Sovereignty is God’s not of the people,” is theoretically not in contradiction with Islam, but this does not take away people’s fundamental right to elect a representative who would dispense the divine ideals of justice in serving the public.  General Zia, a self-styled custodian of Islam, presented to an American audience, his personal brand of Islamic democracy, projecting himself as a theocrat, like he did at home.   But he was an unpopular dictator who held his ground for so long because of his control of the military—Pakistan’s strongest institution, and close alliance with the US and Saudi Arabia during the Soviet Afghan war.  Regrettably, Zia introduced regressive legislation to oppress women and minorities, under the garb of Islamization, empowering the chauvinistic mullah—an important ally in promoting his political agenda.

More recently, a Gallup poll conducted in 35 predominantly Islamic countries between 2001 and 2007, found that Muslims do not view democracy to be incompatible with Islam.[1] The research reveals that substantial majorities in nearly all Muslim countries agreed that if drafting a constitution for a new country, they would guarantee freedom of speech, described as “allowing all citizens to express their opinion on the political, social, and economic issues of the day.”  While, the survey found that the majority in the Muslim countries wanted Sharia to be at least a source of legislation, significant majorities in many Muslim countries, expressed that “religious leaders should play no direct role in drafting a country’s constitution, writing national legislation, drafting new laws, determining foreign policy and international relations, or deciding how women dress in public or what is televised or published in newspapers.”

Another important finding of the Gallup Poll was that the majorities “in Jordan, Egypt, Iran, Pakistan, Turkey, and Morocco disagree that the United States is serious about spreading democracy in their region of the world”, and a majority do not wish to adopt Western democratic models.   Yet, the fourth wave of democratization may have already swept in, as we observe in Islamic countries like Indonesia, Pakistan, and Bangladesh, the largest Muslim countries by population, but also other developing countries in Africa including Algeria, Liberia and Sierra Leone who have Muslim and non-Muslim populations.  But the West will need to watch with patience by supporting democracy where there is a local demand for it, as in Pakistan’s case, but resisting the desire to be that change.  Thus, the US may consider taking the lead in fostering a culture of democratic global governance by supporting but not pushing transitioning countries.   While the inspiration for political change is often drawn from external sources, political transformation is best accomplished when it is locally owned and rooted in internally driven processes.


[1] The documentary “Inside Islam: What a Billion Muslims Really Think” is based on the Gallup Poll, claimed to be the largest and most comprehensive research on the topic.

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