Saturday, January 11, 2020

Muslims, Islam and Liberal Democracy | Dr Reza Pankhurst

(The following is a section reproduced from an article originally published in the academic journal Political Theology 11.6 (2010) 826-845)

Research supported by the United States Department of Homeland Security conducted in 2007  found that an average of 71 percent of those interviewed across four Muslim countries (Egypt, Morocco, Indonesia and Pakistan) agreed with the goal of requiring “strict application of Shari’a law in every Islamic country”, with 39% agreeing strongly, while 65% agreed with the goal of unifying “all Islamic countries into a single state or Caliphate” in line with classical orthodox Islamic position that holds that there should be a single ruler for the Muslim community. The same research found that 74% wanted “to keep Western values out of Islamic countries”, and yet 75% held positive views of globalization while 67% believed that “a democratic political system” was a good thing[1].  Other research in 2006 which covered 10 Muslim countries found that 79% wanted Shari’a incorporatedas a source of legislation, while majorities in Egypt, Pakistan, Jordan, and Bangladesh wanted it as the “only source” of legislation.  Yet at the same time, results also show that majorities also admire the West for its democracy and the overwhelming majority would include provisions for freedom of speech or “allowing all citizens to express their opinion on the political, social, and economic issues of the day” if they were drafting a new constitution[2].

Can it be that Muslims really want a democratic state with the Shari’a as its basis? Could such a model work within the existing nation-state framework, and how would it correspond to the aspiration of unifying Islamic countries under a single Caliphate? Dalia Mogahed and John Esposito write that though those surveyed showed they admired aspects of Western democracy, they did not want “wholesale adoption of Western models of democracy”, and suggest instead that they seem to want “their own democratic model that incorporates Sharia[3]. This is reflected in a lot of thinking in the Middle East by Islamic scholars and intellectuals, termed “New Islamists” by Raymond Baker, with their belief that “democracy in modern times affords the best means to justice”[4]. Not only in the Middle East, Muslim intellectuals in the Western tradition have also formulated their own ideas about how polity in the Islamic world should be organised. There are those who talk about a separation between religion and the state, though not politics, with Islamic values informing the views of the Muslim part of the population, such as Heba Ezza[5], Abdullah Naim[6] and Mohammad Ashmawi[7]. Abdelwahab El-Affendi talks about the “self-evident advantages of democracy”[8], while Asma Afsaruddin thinks that many in the Islamic world want to live as observant Muslims at the same time as living in democratic societies[9]. Muqtedar Khan firmly states that “Muslims must widely and unambiguously accept that Islam and democracy are compatible”; those who do so are approvingly referred to as “Muslim democrats” whereas others are scolded as “Muslim isolationists”[10]. Others such as Khaled Abou el Fadl make the case for liberal democracy as the most effective form of government to protect and promote Islamic values, while part of the premise of Naim’s work is to prove that “Muslims can be liberal in their own right, from an Islamic perspective”[11] . But as mentioned by Saba Mahmood in her response to Abou el Fadl, rather than ask how Muslims could become better liberals, can we not ask whether the world could be lived differently, with alternative visions being explored rather than succumbing to the hegemony of Western political ideals[12]. It is this hegemony that needs to be taken into account if the positions of Muslims, whether intellectuals, politicians or otherwise, are to be understood correctly.

This hegemony of the superiority and universality of democracy has underlain much of the approach to analysing the politics of Islamic individuals and groups across the Middle East and general Muslim world. Briefly, analysts normally fall into two broad camps, widely known as the Orientalists on one side and their detractors on the other, alternatively named ‘essentialists’ and ‘contingencists’[13] or ‘internalists’ and ‘externalists’[14].  The common narrative is that the Orientalists hold a limited set of conceptual categories derived from the classical texts of Islam that are applied universally in their analysis of political Islam[15], whereas their opponents view such an approach as reductionist and rather argue that the various social movements and developments should be understood as the product of particular local socioeconomic and political woes[16]. The first approach generally holds that the incompatibility of Islam and ‘modernity’ as the trigger for regional discontent and the support for various Islamic movements, whereas the second contends that factors such as the failure of secular nationalist movements to resolve the societal problems of poverty and denial of political representation are the main causes of the backlash. While some Orientalists consider that any calls for democracy by Islamic parties are purely utilitarian in nature[17], their opponents consider that any reference back to Islamic tradition by such parties are in fact a tactical instrument or simply a call for participation and better governance articulated in a more authentic form[18]. However, for all their differences and arguments, since the end of the Cold War both sides implicitly make liberal democracy as the ultimate reference in their approach to analysis, such that Michael Salla notes that “the relationship between liberal democracy and political Islam is unidirectional: Political Islam either responds to liberal democratic norms by demonstrating their consistency with the Islamic heritage; or reacts to them as contrary to the Islamic heritage”[19]. As such, the two schools of thought could also be categorised as those who believe in the incompatibility of Islam and liberal democracy, and those who argue its compatibility, with both sides implicitly accepting the assumption of the universality of liberal democratic norms.

This assumption is standard fare, with undergraduate books on comparative politics dividing governments into “democratic” on the one hand, with various models and shades, and anything completely outside the democratic category generally considered “authoritarian”[20]. The promotion of democracy is considered to be an explicit objective of the West, and it could be argued that for any political discussion to be taken seriously requires the adoption of the slogans that aspire towards democracy and freedom. Alternatively it could be argued that the adoption of such slogans, whether by the general Muslim population or Islamic movements, obscures what is really being said by all sides involved. For example, as mentioned previously research has shown that some Muslims simultaneously believe in having Shari’a as the only source of legislation while believing that a democratic political system is a good thing. To highlight the issue further, while research shows that 94% of Egyptians polled would put freedom of speech in any new constitution they were charged with drafting[21], 71% from another poll believed that “the government should have the right to fine or imprison people who publicly criticize a religion, because such criticism could defame the religion”[22]. Just as the apparent belief in democracy must be qualified, the profession of belief in freedom of speech must also be qualified.

These differing conceptions extend to thinkers and activists. El-Affendi mentions 3 trends amongst Muslim thinkers – those who enthusiastically espouse the ideas of democracy and claim compatibility with Islam; those who accept democratic procedures, but voice philosophical objections to democracy and put limits to ensure conformity to Shari’a; and those who reject it[23]. If these three positions were unpacked the first position could be generally explained as those who claim compatibility between Islam and democracy, and by that mean the basic underlying idea that sovereignty for legislation lies with the people rather than with a monarch or an elite class (with or without reference to natural law). This group who could be referred to as the ‘Muslim secularists’, which includes some of those mentioned such as Naim and Ashmawi, believes that all decisions are subject to popular sovereignty, though the opinions of the people may be informed by their personal religious beliefs. They also generally consider that there is nothing called an “Islamic State”, which they view as an historical construct (although they will differ over when it was constructed, with some considering it a purely modernist phenomenon), that there are no clear political instructions in the original Islamic sources of the Quran and Sunnah (authenticated traditions of the Prophet Mohammad), and that those who believe in an Islamic State or Caliphate articulate a model where the ruler of such a State is a type of autocrat who derives his authority from God directly and therefore must be obeyed.

Members of the second group, such as the well known Egyptian scholar Yusuf al-Qaradawi, claim that there is a compatibility between Islam and democracy since the heart of democracy is that “the people choose who will rule them and manage their affairs”, while they should not “have a ruler or system they hate forced upon them”, that they have the “right to account the ruler” and “the ability to change or remove him if he goes astray”[24]. However, while these are some of the values of a democratic system, this conception says nothing about the sovereignty of the people to rule which is arguably the fundamental core of “rule by the people”. Qaradawi simultaneously holds that ruling must be by the law of God, and further claims that this principle is firmly established and uncontested in Islam, and, indeed, that it forms the basis for the Islamic State[25]. In other words, through his understanding of the values of Islamic and Democratic rule, Qaradawi thinks he has identified an overlap, and consequently sees no problem in talking about their ‘compatibility’. This group sees no specific Islamic ruling system beyond some general principles though they do assert that Shari’a should be implemented in its entirety, and so the shape and form of the Islamic State remains, for them, largely undefined, even though many (like Qaradawi) maintain the principle of a single, unified leadership or Caliphate state for all Muslims.
The third group, which includes scholars like Taqiudeen an-Nabhani who founded the Islamic political party Hizb ut-Tahrir, denies the compatibility of democracy with Islam in origin. At the same time, they believe that the ruler of the State should be elected, that the people have the right or even duty to account their rulers, and that the ruler can be removed. In other words, they believe in the values that Qaradawi has claimed as being “democratic”, but they reject democracy because they consider that it is the idea of popular sovereignty that contradicts the foundation of the Islamic State, where, they argue, sovereignty lies with God or the Shari’a[26]. In effect, there is no real difference between the second and third group on their view of the commonly held philosophical underpinning of democracy, other than the use of terminology. Though between the two groups there are different conceptions of how detailed the Islamic system of ruling is and to what extent institutions can be “borrowed”, this is inconsequential to their understanding of democracy as a set of values.
In conclusion, for the sake of this particular discussion if democracy is understood to mean popular sovereignty then there appear to be in effect only 2 schools of thought regarding it: the ‘Muslim Secularists’ who deny Islamic government while affirming politics being informed by general notions of Islam and that sovereignty lies with the people, and those who believe in Islamic government based upon the principle that sovereignty lies with God, or more precisely the Law of God, the Shari’a.

Dr. Reza Pankhurst is the author of The Inevitable Caliphate (Oxford University Press, 2012) and The Untold History of the Liberation Party (C Hurst & Co, 2016)

[1], “Muslim Public Opinion on Us Policy, Attacks on Civilians and Al-Qaeda ” (The Center for International and Security Studies at Maryland, 2007).
[2] Dalia Mogahed, “Special Report: Muslim World – Islam and Democracy,” (Washington D.C.: The Gallup Center for Muslim Studies, 2006).
[3] John L. Esposito and Dalia Mogahed, Who Speaks for Islam? : What a Billion Muslims Really Think : Based on Gallup’s World Poll–the Largest Study of Its Kind (New York, NY: Gallup Press, 2007), pp.48.
[4] Raymond William Baker, Islam without Fear: Egypt and the New Islamists (Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 2003), pp.171.
[5] Heba Raouf Ezza and Ahmed Mohammed Abdalla, “Towards an Islamically Democractic Solution,” in Faith and Secularism, ed. Valérie Amiraux and Rosemary Bechler (London: British Council, 2004).
[6] Abd Allah Ahmad Naïm, Islam and the Secular State : Negotiating the Future of Sharia (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2008).
[7] Mohammad Said Ashmawi, Al-Islam Wal-Siyasa (Beirut: Al-intishar al-Arabi, 2004).
[8] Abdelwahab El-Affendi, Who Needs an Islamic State? (London: Malaysia Think Tank London, 2008), pp.34.
[9] Asma Afsaruddin, “The “Islamic State”: Genealogy, Facts, and Myths,” J. of Church and State 48, no. 1 (2006).
[10] M. A. Muqtedar Khan, “The Politics, Theory and Philosophy of Islamic Democracy,” in Islamic Democratic Discourse : Theory, Debates, and Philosophical Perspectives, ed. M. A. Muqtedar Khan (Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2006).
[11] Naïm, Islam and the Secular State : Negotiating the Future of Sharia, pp. 269.
[12] Khaled Abou El-Fadl and et al., Islam and the Challenge of Democracy (New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 2004).
[13] Fred Halliday, “The Politics of ‘Islam’ – a Second Look,” British Journal of Political Science 25, no. 3 (1995): pp.400-1.
[14] Peter R. Demant, Islam Vs. Islamism : The Dilemma of the Muslim World (Westport, CT: Praeger, 2006), pp.181-200.
[15] Michael E. Salla, “Political Islam and the West: A New Cold War or Convergence?,” Third World Quarterly 18, no. 4 (1997): pp.730.
[16] Elizabeth Shakman Hurd, “Political Islam and Foreign Policy in Europe and the United States,” Foreign Policy Analysis 3(2007).
[17] David Brumberg, “Rhetoric and Strategy: Islamic Movements and Democracy in the Middle East,” in The Islamism Debate, ed. Martin Kramer (New York: Syracuse University Press, 1997), pp.15.
[18] John L. Esposito, Unholy War (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002), pp.54.
[19] Salla, “Political Islam,” pp.737.
[20] As an example – Rod Hague and Martin Harrop, Comparative Government and Politics: An Introduction, 6th ed. (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2004).
[21] Mogahed, “Special Report: Muslim World – Islam and Democracy.”
[22], “Defamation of Religion,” (The Center for International and Security Studies at Maryland, 2009).
[23] Abdelwahab El-Affendi, “On the State, Democracy and Pluralism,” in Islamic Thought in the 20th Century, ed. Basheer M. Nafi and Suha Taji-Farouki (London: I.B.Taurus, 2004), pp.189.
[24] Yusuf al-Qaradawi, Min Fiqh Al-Dawla Fil-Islam (Cairo: Dar al-Sharouq, 1997), pp.132.
[25] Ibid., pp.102.
[26] See for example Abdul Qadeem az-Zalloom, Nitham Al-Hukm Fil-Islam (Beirut: Dar al-Ummah, 1996), pp.31.


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