The relationship between Islam and democracy has been a source of controversy in the contemporary world since time immemorial. The origin of complexities in this issue is due to the fact that the Muslim world is not ideologically monolithic per se and for this reason, there exists numerous varying perspectives on the existence of a connection between Islam and democracy. While some people feel that Islam requires a democratic kind of system, others are for the opinion that democracy which reflects the will of man goes against the will of Allah.
These extremists perceptions which are mostly present in countries where Muslims form the majority population have made Muslims to believe that the Islam religion is for democracy despite the fact that the political systems of such countries is not entirely based on the Islamic religion (Esposito and Voll, 2001: 189).
The predicament of democracy in the Muslim world
According to Kubba (1996: p. 86), democracy remains a uphill struggle for most Muslim dominated countries. The process of liberalizing societies and developing the necessary politically democratic infrastructures in such countries remains slow and limited. Most of these countries which are corrupt, repressive and quite dysfunctional find it hard to accept reforms leading to apathy which breeds radicalism.
Efforts by world political trends to transform the authoritarian trends in the political culture of these Muslim countries have been futile and this is particularly evident in the political violence, terrorism, corruption, abuse of public office and violation of human rights experienced in the Muslim world. Just like all other countries in the developing world, Muslim countries are primarily driven by an ultimate desire for modernity, industrialization and dignity (Kubba, 2008: 37).
Islam as a religion is open to diverse interpretations to all and has thus been dragged into the political arena where it is used by rulers and opposition governments alike (Smock, 2002: pp. 1-12). The vision of a central state governed by a top-bottom kind of reform approach has in the past dominated most political systems in the Muslim countries as an alternative to democracy which seems to be a very complex system based on individualism as well as some liberal democratic values.
However, failure of secular politics to meet the increasing societal demands has led to the search for alternatives and this collapse of secular politics in the Muslim countries has yielded political Islam which has been on a rise since 1991. This has led to the evolution of the word Islamist which is describes a particular political perspective which is based on various religious interpretations and commitments. This word is applied indiscriminately to describe violent terrorists as well as peacefully elected Muslim legislators (Wittes, 2008: pp. 7-12).
Following this evolution of political Islam, many Islamic groups have overwhelmingly expressed support for the Islamic politics over secular politics but their perceptions concerning democracy differ widely. With the failure of the communist development of both secular and Islamic politics over the past two decades, intellectuals in the Muslim dominated countries have now started advocating for democracy and proper consideration of the basic human rights as the only solution to a fulfillment of the increasing social and economic needs of the people. This is meant to ensure modernity, dignity, economic development and a better practice of Islam in these countries (Smock, 2002).
According to Kubba (2008: pp. 37-42), a clear understanding of the major cause of the current predicament concerning democracy in Muslim countries does not lie in the Islam tradition but it is rather present in the wider context of modernity and the political culture developed by the Muslim leaders in these countries. In this case, the use of the word Islam to describe people, states and regions has caused a lot of confusion in the issue of democracy. It fails to recognize that the issue of democracy is not about Islam but about Muslims, not about religion but about people.
In addition, Islam touches only one element of the culture which is religion of close to 50 Muslim nations spread across over eight different regions in the world. The cultures of all these nations are influenced at varying degrees by the values, beliefs and traditions of Islam which make one nation different from the other.
Despite this rather complex situation, Kubba (1996) notes that there is a grim of hope of democracy in the Muslim dominated nations. This is due to the effects of education as well as the continued pressure for liberalization through the media. Moreover, states in the Muslim world have reached a point where they can not function without some fundamental political structural reforms which will facilitate a partnership between the governments and the governed. This is bound to bring about democracy and stop the violation of human rights in this countries as shown by some Islamist parties in the middle East and parts of North Africa.
How Islam and democracy can co-exist
The debate on whether Islam and democracy are compatible has been in top gear in the past two decades. Khan (2005) has noted that it would be wrong to claim that there is no democracy in the Muslim world because close to 800 million Muslims live in societies which have different forms of democracy. This includes Muslims in Indonesia, Turkey, Israel, India, Bangladesh, parts of Europe and even in Iran.
There is however very little history of Islam politics since secular politics have mostly dominated power in the Muslim countries with the exception of Iran and Afghanistan. Some scholars in the Western countries have argued that Islam politics are inherently authoritarian and have no chance of democracy. This assumption further explains that the values set by Islam are inferior to those set by the Western liberalism and for this reason, they serve as key inhibitors of global civilization with the exception of Israel which is claimed to be the only democratic country in the whole of Middle East region.
Far from the West, some activists in the Muslim world have also come up with crude perceptions regarding secularism and sovereignty which consider democracy to be a rule of human beings as opposed to Islam which they claim to be the rule of Allah (God). This is because with democracy, it is the people who get to decide what is good or bad, lawful or unlawful, halal or haraam instead of leaving such sovereignty to Allah. The Muslim activists further assume that democracy and secularism are in a way connected though they add that secularism is not a prerequisite for democracy.
According to Khan (2005), the principle of shura is the basic foundation of democracy in Islam. This shura principle is one of the four major cardinal principles which describe the Islamic view of social-political structures in the Muslim world. This principle as applied in Islam parallels the democratic principle as viewed by the Western politics (Diamond, 2008: 18).
Shura is rooted in the Quran where it is presented as a principle and not as a way of governance. In this case, there are some significant differences between the shura principles and democracy. Different scholars have different perceptions on the obligatory or the desirable views of shura on democracy. Those who dwell on the Quranic verse which states that “. . . and consult with them on the matter” (3:159) consider shura to be an ultimate obligation while those who choose to dwell on verse 43:38 which states “. . . who conduct affairs by counsel” consider shura to be merely desirable.
Shura and the other three cardinal principles form the basis of all Islamic decision making processes and more Muslim intellects are now agreeing to the fact that consultative type of government is better than an authoritative government. According to Tibi (2002: pp. 34-67), the rise of political Islam and Islamist parties has uplifted the concept of Islamic sovereignty and this has served as a barrier to any form of democracy in the Muslim world.
Islamist parties and democracy
Over the last 20 years or so, some major Islamic political movements have sought to become legitimate political parties and the breakthrough achieved by this parties has shown that democracy can actually co-exists with Islam (Zeghal, 2008: 31). Some of these movements have already been authorized to participate in elections and examples of these include the Justice and Development Party of Turkey (AKP), the Party of Justice and Development in Morocco (PJD) and the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt (MB) among others.
Though most Islamist parties are perennially confined in the opposition, their primary objective is aimed at achieving liberal democracy for all. They view democracy in different forms and seek to move away from the tradition and notion of democracy being the will of man which is against Allah. The fact that sovereignty belongs to God alone has been the basis of anti-democracy proposed by many Muslim activists who claim that a democratic system provides a platform on which the human whim acts as the sole source of law. What such activists fail to understand however is the fact that democratic systems occur in many forms and are not only concerned with law.
There is a need to understand that sovereignty is always human whether in an Islamic state or in a democratic political system. For this reason, the question of democracy is not about God or human sovereignty but is about putting limits to the human sovereignty de facto in order to prevent tyranny. Khan (2005: 118) has argued that the Muslim world which has for a long time been plagued by dictators, despots and selfish monarchism is in dire need for limitation of the human sovereign power.
The notion that Islam is not compatible with democracy according to al-Farabi who is was a great Muslim thinker is a notion of the ignorant people who dwell on authenticity in order to exclude other people when making selfish decisions (Tibi, 2008: 47). Some Islamist parties have geared their efforts against such authentic decisions with the aim of ensuring democracy novelty in the world of Islam.
The liberal democracy of these political parties has however been questioned as some critics argue that the parties are bound to use the force once their interests are not reflected at the ballot box. The democracy of the Muslim Brotherhood party of Egypt has especially been doubted due to its former violence history (Masoud, 2008: 21). A good example of a democratic Islamist party is the AKP in Turkey.
AKP which is the ruling party in Turkey is often cited as the perfect example of a Muslim party which has evolved from the Islamist roots and notions to become democratic in a modern sense (Haqqani and Fradklin, 2008: 16). It is quite unique in the Muslim world in that its commitment to democracy is quite evident in the government’s performance. Unlike most Islamist parties which serve as the opposition in the Muslim world, AKP has been in power since 2002 and its way of ruling has made Turkey to be recognized as one of the few democratic nations in the Muslim world.
The AKP party has so far overseen three free and fair national elections in which all citizens are given an opportunity to exercise their individual democratic rights in terms of voting, right of speech and so forth. It has managed to break away from the Islamic traditions and ideologies in this era of globalization by emphasizing on democracy, people’s will as well as economic growth and development (Dagi, 2008: 28). It reflects a major shift from political Islam to social Islam where all forms of democracy are represented.
AKP has further managed to refrain from ideological politicking which tends to favor a certain group of people over others and this has helped the party to keep in tune with the secularism spirit of voters in Turkey who are known to consider diverse motivations and future expectations when voting (Dagi, 2008: 30). The AKP party truly exemplifies the fact that politically motivated Islamic elites can regenerate themselves to embrace democracy and yield a globalist, pro-western, populist and market oriented political party.
What the sharia law and the Quran say about democracy
The Quranic view on sovereignty is non-territorial, inalienable, indivisible, absolute and goes beyond the human agency. According to Quran, Allah is the sovereign power who is the primary law maker to all the Islamic states. Some Quranic verses which stress on Allah as the sovereign power include “He maketh none to share in His government” (18:26) and “in whatever ye differ, the verdict therein belongeth to Allah” (42:10).
This however does not necessarily that Quran is anti-democratic. Though it recognizes that sovereignty solely belongs to God, this power has been delegated to the earthly states in form of human agents (H. Q. 2:30). In this case, Khalifa who are God’s agents on earth have been given the autonomy to enforce laws on behalf of Allah.
The greatest task given to this human agents is to utilize the power given to them in the best ways possible in order to ensure the well being of the entire human race now and in the future. In this case, the Quran is no excuse for anti-democracy in the Muslim states which seeks to legitimize governments which are not accountable and transparent to their citizens. Precepts from the Quran which talk about a well ordered life are highly compatible with liberal democracy for all (Kubba, 2008: 40).
The Sharia Law which is based on the Holy Quran has been claimed to be completely anti-democratic. Sharia consists of laws which penalize non-Muslim communities through heavy taxations, allow the execution of a Muslim who converts to any other religion, undermines women by regarding them as second class citizens, calls for the expulsion of Christians and Jews from the Arabian Peninsula and advocates for torture, body dismemberment, stoning and beheading as forms of punishment for sinners.
This Law as been criticized as it goes against democracy and more so, against the basic human rights. It is totally incompatible with the democratic legal frame-works and presents values which are unchangeable since they are claimed to be based on the perfect will of Allah. Sharia Law is the main weapon used by political Islam to exercise authoritative control in the Muslim world over its people. Though the Sharia Law is said to have been inspired by the Holy Quran, it has evolved over time through efforts of men in the political Islam. For this reason, most criticisms of political Islam are not against the Holy Quran but are against the Sharia Law as applied in the most Muslim states.
Despite the complexity of the concept of democracy in the Muslim world, the above discussion has shown that Islam is not inherently incompatible with with democracy. The case of AKP in Turkey is a good indicator that political Islam can at times be a program for religious democracy and not necessarily an agenda for holy war and terrorism as it is commonly perceived.
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- Wittes Cofman, Dagi Ihsan, Malika Zeghal, Laith Kubba et al. (2008). Islamist Parties and Democracy. The Journal of Democracy, 19 (3), pp. 7-54.