Islam and Democracy
The synergy between Islam and democracy exists save for the interference from egalitarian Arabian cultures that need authoritative regimes to exist. Indonesia, Turkey, and some Muslim Majority states in Sub-Saharan Africa are proof that Islam and democracy can synergize. However, majority of the people in the world have made Islam and Arabs synonymous, which makes the two inseparable. Consequently, the non-Muslim world often characterize geopolitical events in the Middle East, the Arabian Peninsula, North Africa, Southern Asia, and to a smaller extent, Central Asia, as representing the dichotomy that exist between Islam and democracy. Recent political and military upheavals including the Arab Spring Revolution in the societies found in these regions have not helped the misconceptions about Islam and democracy at all. In fact, the proliferations of terrorist organizations like the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) and the fragmentation of the Libyan society along tribal and ethnic sects, demonstrate the elusiveness of democracy in the Muslim Majority countries.However, the history of Islam in the context of secularism, modernity, and democracy reveals a far deeper problem than religion. Authority necessary to contain egalitarian cultures, rather than religion, is the primary cause of the antagonism that exists between Islam and democracy. This essay argues that Islam and democracy have a synergy that faces opposition from egalitarian cultures that predominate a large number of the Arabic societies that practice Islam. These societies incorporate their cultures into the interpretation of Islam, which is covertly silent on the relationship that exists between religion and politics. Evidently, the egalitarian societies create chaos that needs an authoritative regime to maintain order. These regimes appropriate interpretations of the Quran that favor their right to stifle secularism and democracy.
Religion and democracy are belief systems that share particular values that complement each other. However, democracy as governance system that focuses on an individual’s rights is relatively modern in its conception. Despite the absence of an accurate definition, elements of democracy include participatory governance, equality, periodic elections, individual rights that perpetuate pluralism, and the existence of the law and due process.All these elements of democracy are protected according to legal jurisprudences and interpretations of the law, all of which revolve around the concept of justice. Democracy in Muslim Majority Countries (MMCs) has been accepted and rejected in varying degrees. Currently, a few MMCs such as Indonesia and Turkey can claim to have genuine democratic societies. A significant number of MMCs have limited democratic societies while others have authoritarian regimes that have entirely blocked democracy. Examination of Islamic texts such as the Quran in the secular context (here, secular implies mundane instead of sacred) reveals a lot of similarities in the ideals of democracy and Islamic laws (Anonymous, 2011). Many political scholars claim that Islamic legal thinking is preoccupied with the law as an expression of the commandments and prohibitions of God. There is the misconception that Islam dictates that humans cannot rationally determine what is right unless given directions from God. However, the history of Islam reveals a pattern in its Prophetic traditions and the interpretation of the Quran that oscillates between the description of thelaw as an exclusive divine sphere and human matter. Consequently, the debate over Islam and democracy centers on three particular choices that face all Muslims (Ajami, 2012). First, there are those who believe that legal rulings must derive from the five “main goals” of the sharia that relate to religion, reason, the right to life, the right to property, and the family institution.Secondly, some Muslims believe that everything should be based on the dialog between humans and Islamic scriptures. Thirdly, there are Muslims who believe and propose that governance in MMCs should be based on the modern hermeneutics of Islamic Scriptures. Before further discussions, a distinction between democracy and secularism in the context of religion and politics needs to be made. The index of state-religion regimes classifies countries into four types according to their relationship with religion (Kuru, 2009). The first grouping includes those countries whose legal and judicial systems are instituted by religious laws. Saudi Arabia, Iran, and the Philippines are examples. The second grouping includes those countries that that have established religions that they recognize, but do not form the center of the legal and judicial system. Examples include England, Greece, and Denmark. Countries in the third grouping have legal and judicial institutions that are secular. These countries do not recognize any religion though they tolerate and appreciate their roles in their societies. Examples include the United States of America (USA), France, and Turkey. The last grouping includes those countries in which atheism dominates, and there is an apparent official hostility toward religion. Examples include China, Russia, and Cuba.
Therefore, secularism as it relates to Islam implies that legal concept that deals with the moral conduct toward others and the sustenance of social order. Well-known public institutions and their processes such as monarchies, marriages, divorces, power, loyalty to authority, and bills of sale among others predated Islam and other religions. It is no wonder that the Holy Quran claims that Prophet Muhammad did not come to challenge the ethical principles that were inherent in societies. Rather, Prophet Muhammad came to reinforce the already existing principles that guided the morality of humans toward each other (Ajami, 2012). Many Christian-based communities viewed their Monarchies as divinely endorsed. Therefore, sovereigns that include Kings, Princes, Dukes, and Counts dominated the control of political life in Christian-based societies. Philosophers such as Dante Alighieri and Thomas Aquinas reinforced the divine right of the sovereigns by claiming that nature favored princely rule. In fact, the Kings of the Biblical Old testament displayed little if any democratic principles. The Catholic Popes represent an institution that combined religion and politics for centuries in a very tight grip that no Muslim ruler has ever replicated. The domination of Christian-based societies by supposedly divine-ordained sovereigns only ended after philosophers and thinker such as Nicola Machiavelli, Francis Bacon, and ThomasHobbes advocated the transformation of divine monarchy to popular sovereignty (Malinova, 2012). This political system prevailing in the Christian-based societies contrasts sharply with the seemingly democratic institutions that the Quran was encouraging in predominantly Islamic regions. The Holy Quran was silent on any particular political systems that communities need to govern. However, the Holy Quran emphasized the responsibility of a Muslim devout to ensure that the society is just and egalitarian to ensure that all people, irrespective of their vulnerability, are treatedwith respect. In fact, the Holy Quran contains approximately five hundred verses that cover legal topic that are applicable toa Muslim in regards to one’s spirituality, ritual, and practical commitments (Nashashibi, 2013). The Quran, it seems, has no provisions for dictating the types of governments that societies should have.
Notably, the Holy Quran contains many principles that enshrine ideas that are akin to democratic values (Schneier, 2011). The first and most important principle is termed “Tauheed,” which relates to the concept of divine sovereignty. According to the tauheed, the Almighty Allah is the sovereign over the whole universe. Consequently, all human activities are to be within the limits set forth by the Allah. Critics of Islam often allude to the tauheed as proof that democracy cannot exist in predominantly Islamic societies because it sets the limits of what an individual can do. However, this misconception is disapproved when the tauheedis interpreted. Apparently, the sovereignty of Allah automatically makes man the deputy of divine authority. In other words, man is delegated authority. Subsequently, men elect a group of overseers (Caliphs) that will supervise the lives of man according to the divine power of Allah. These persons delegated the responsibility of representing Allah’s divine authority had to observe checks and balances lest they appropriate the divine power of Allah. The checks and balances allowed the annulment and removal of the Caliphs in case they violated the constitutionprescribing their limits. The second principle of the Holy Quran is the Shura, which denotes consultation. The shura mandates that Muslims should openly discuss and facilitate decision-making in order to prevent arbitrary rule. This obligation of the shuraderives from the Surat-al-Shura verse of the Quran that suggests that Allah “favors those who “conduct their affairs by mutual consultation.”In fact, the principles of tauheed and shura were evident in 644 AD when the Muslim faithful appointed six prominent natives of Mecca to elect the third caliph after the murder of Caliph Umar ibn al-Khattab.The third principle of the Quran relates to the Ijma, which suggests that Allah left his wisdom to the Muslim community that enables them to decide by consensus on whom will lead them. The perpetuation of Ijma is dependent on the appropriate implementation of the Shura. The fourth and last principle of the Holy Quran that relates to democratic principles is the ijtihad. The ijtihad denotes the power to decide an issue affecting the public through informed arguments and judgments. Therefore, the ijtihad recognizes the need to have differences in rational and logical opinions that are occasioned by the dynamism inherent in the society. Most scholars claim that the ijtihad is responsible for the confusion inherent in the interpretation of the Sharia laws in Islam. Apparently, the authoritative Ijma of the community have differing knowledge in the relationship between the Sharia and the complexities that plague the contemporary world. Therefore, the interpretation of the Sharia will be subject to how an individual member understands the relationship between the Sharia and the dynamics in the societies. The notion that Islam is not tolerant of the ideas of other religions is evident in several incidences in the Holy Quran where Prophet Muhammad defended the religious rights of others in addition to protecting them. For instance, the Prophet issued a decree to the Muslims in 628 C.E. that granted a charter privileges to Christian monks residing at the St. Catherine Monastery on Mt. Sinai. According to the decree, the Muslims were forbidden from the compulsion of the Christians. In addition, the Muslims were mandated to defend the lives and property of Christians (Schneier, 2011). Prophet Muhammad also demonstrates that he valued pluralism of the Muslim society when the Christians of Nijran Tribe visited Medina. The Chrsitian visitors had no place of worship. Therefore, the visitors were invited by Prophet Muhammad to the Masjid-iNabwi to offer their prayers. In summary, the core principles of the Holy Quran that include the Tauheed, Shura, Ijma, and the Ijtihad mirror some of the eight institutional guarantees of the democracy. Freedom of expression can be equated to Ijtihad. All these four legal principles of the Holy Quran relate to the most important factor that was and still predominates the majority of the Arabic communities – egalitarianism. Prophet Muhammad fused the four legal principles of the Holy Quran into the egalitarian nature of the Arabic communities to form a pluralistic Islamic society.
Egalitarian societies dominate the larger Arabian communities. One decade ago, it had become a familiar pattern for American or Western diplomats to visit their “friendly” authoritative regimes in the Middle East, where they would request the authoritativeleaders to embrace democracy and constitutional liberalism (Qurtuby, 2013). As predicted, some of the authoritarian leaders that included Hosni Mubarak, Saudi Princes, and to a small degree, Yasser Arafat, alleged that the alternatives to their ruling styles would be much worse. For instance, U.S.-Egyptianrelationsfeature American pleas to the Egyptian government to ease press freedom, political dissent, or the jailing of human rights activists. However, Hosni Mubarak often counteracted by claiming that doing so is an invitation for the Islamic fundamentalists to take over. Yasser Arafat had a similar answer that referred to the possible takeover of the Palestine by the military wing of the Hamas. The chances of getting the same answers from autocratic rulers or monarchies in the region was high in countries that included Libya, Oman, Bahrain, Tunisia, Jordan, Morocco, Qatar, Syria, and Pakistan. Unfortunately, all the answers and justifications from the dictators or pseudo-dictators were right. The aftermath of the Arabian Spring Revolution that started in Tunisia in 2010 is a testament that the concept of democracy is very elusive in predominantly Arabic Muslim Majority Countries. In fact, secularism and religious tolerance now seem to have been safer in the hands of the monarchs and dictators than the supposedly democratic parties that emerged after the 2011 revolution.Egalitarianism implies the situation in which equality among people is a requisite for the existence of order in a society (Anonymous, 2011). Therefore, no one could claim divine authority over other persons. Egalitarianism equates to pluralism. Pluralism can be defined as a state the societyis characterized by the autonomous participation of members withdiverse ethnic, racial, religious or social groups in matters that relate to the development of a traditional culture (Nashashibi, 2013). Egalitarian societies consider competition between persons as essential to the overall good of the society. It is common to hear incidences where brothers and cousins engagedeach other in bloody battles to obtain approval from the community. Unlike the hierarchicalsocieties that use divine right to endow Kingship to particular persons, egalitarian societies use the power of influence and consensus building to give a person particular leadership rights. In this regard, a person inspiring to be a leader had to possess specific characteristics that had to appeal to the community. For instance, a person had to be capable of holding grandiose parties that could feed whole villages. In addition, a person had to have warrior-like characteristics that would be helpful in the times of war. The other members of the community had to consult, debate, and even vote in order to endorse the person as a leader, albeit temporarily. Notably, the leader did not have the autonomy of dictating every aspect of the community. On the contrary, any member in the society that had objections against the leader could openly rebuke the leader and call for his ouster. Similarly, the authoritative privilege that the appointed leader enjoyed was under threat by any force that could challenge the leader successfully. The egalitarian nature of the Arabic tribes that is reinforced in the Holy Quran is evident in the sayings of Prophet Muhammad that are termed as the hadith. The hadith asserts that the obligations of a Muslim to the commands of the ruler are only as far as the ruler obeys the laws of Allah. Consequently, a leader that obeys God’s laws to the latter has the authority to command any Muslim without any objections. However, a disobedient ruler has no moral authority. Therefore, anyone can oppose or even oust the leader. This provision in the Holy Quran combined with the absence of a religious establishment (like the Papacy in Christianity) to declare if an interpretation of the religious scriptures is correct or wrong makes the rulers of MMCs wary of democracies in their jurisdictions. Therefore, anyone from the Taxi driver in the streets of Kabul to the leaders of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) can issue fatwas against any ruler that supposedly breaks Islamic laws (Malinova, 2012).
The absence of an authority in the approval or disapproval of Islamic scriptures is a double-edged sword. On one hand, the egalitarian nature of the Arabian tribes makes leadership open to anyone that can demonstrate capability. However, this openness leads to an eternity of bloody battles that only end after a dominant force has established order through the subjugation of competing forces. Over time, the predominantly Arabic MMCs preferred authoritarianism because it provided an environment of peace. Interestingly, the last five decades of the Middle East prior to the Arab Spring Revolution have witnessed the hailing of one dictator after another one. GamalAbdelNasser was the Egyptian favorite, Saddam Hussein the Iraq favorite, while Muammar Kaddafi was the Libyan favorite. On the other hand, endorsing leaders based on their ability to subjugate competing forces implies that these leaders had to employ some tactics to minimize the chances that they will be replaced by equally strong forces. Therefore, the leaders have to either collaborate with the radical Ulama or stifle democracies in their countries. The Saudi Kingdom represents leaders that have typically collaborated with the Ulama to retain a stronghold in the country. In fact, the Saudi Kingdom combines both strategies of collaboration with the Ulama and the stifling democratic opportunities. It is widely known that the Saudi Kingdom is responsible for the funding of the many radical schools of Islamists fundamentalism that perpetuate terror across many MMCs territories. Islamists fundamentalist often exploit the ijtehad concept of the Holy Quran to interpret the Holy Quran according to their interests. The supposedly strict version of the Sharia is just a political tool that intends to curtail the expression of freedom in the MMCs (Ajami, 2012).
Notably, a close relationship exists between economic growth, autocratic rule, and fundamentalism (Nashashibi, 2013). Although, some scholars have linked the growth of fundamentalism to poverty, the truth is contrary. An authoritative leadership amidst an egalitarian society will depend on various means that include charm, warrior-like skills, or wealth to maintain long-lasting support among the community. Charm and warrior-like skills are essential for capturing the leadership position amidst competition. However, wealth provides the most appropriate channel that can maintain the influence of the authoritative regimes. The Middle East is a region blessed with an abundance of natural resources in the form of oil. However, anthropologists and historians have proven that rich regimes that perpetuate their leadership using the distribution of natural resources rarely develop, modernize, or have legitimacy. Majority of the countries in the Middle East are the poster child for the theory postulated by the anthropologists and historians. The countries include Jordan, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Qatar, Bahrain, and a few others. Consequently, the easy money flowing from the oil exports implies that there will be little economic or political developments initiated by the indigenous population. The easy money that the rich natural resources provide the autocratic governments eliminates the need for taxation. Subsequently, the governments have no obligations to provide its citizens something in return that may include accountability, transparency, and even political representation. History has proven that the taxation of the people by the government often leads the people to become responsive to the way in which the government operates (Nashashibi, 2013). In this case, the authoritative regimes that dominate the egalitarian societies depend on money to silence the calls for democracy. Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States are the major culprits of this strategy. In addition, the easy money provides the regimes with more resources to oppress the dissenting voices. Although the oil-richgovernments attempt to modernize, the efforts are not genuine because they are characterized by the importation of Western goods and select cultures. The hallmarks of real modernization that include political parties, accountability, and the application of the rule of law to everyone are lacking. These hallmarks of modernity imply the embrace of democracy, which is a threat to the autocratic rulers.
The assertion that Islam represents authoritarianism might have origins from the perceptions of the Ottoman Empire. An Umma of Muslims within the Caliphate that were in millions labored docilely under the Sultan located in Constantinople, singing of his magnificent powers before Friday prayers. Nevertheless, other societies in the region that include Russia and Japan treated their Czar and Emperors as gods respectively, which removes the uniqueness of the Muslim Umma in the veneration of the Ottoman. Most scholars attribute three factors as contributing to the decline of the democratic ideals in MMCs – colonial rule, post-colonial authoritative rule, and the proliferation of Fascism in the Middle East (Ajami, 2012). First, colonial rule transferred the concept Monarchial rule from other regions of the world into the Arabian hemisphere. A single person, usually a governor, characterized this colonial rule by issuing orders from a distant imperial power that might have included France, Britain, or Italy. Imperatively, the egalitarian nature of the Arabic tribes had made it impossible to govern these regions. Therefore, the colonialist preferred the use of imperialistic methods of governance to have a level of control. Secondly, the leaders that had spearheaded the liberation movements that leading to the independence of the Arabian countries realized that the imposition of authoritative rules guaranteed them protection from the highly unpredictable egalitarian Arabic societies. Even those leaders who initially came into power with the promise of democratic principles eventually changed to autocratic rule. For instance, the Iranian Revolution led by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini promised reforms in the sphere of freedom of expression and religion. However, the dissent inherent in the egalitarian Arabic communities that were a model for the neighboring communities such the Persians provoked the Iranian leadership to crush any opposition. Third, the Nazis had established Fascist centers in the Middle East in the 1930s. These Fascist centers exploited the Ijtehad principle of the Holy Quran to promote the concept of “heroic death as a political art form.” Consequently, this ideology is responsible for the militant Islamist cultures that exist in the predominantly Arabic MMCs. Two notable centers that have been influential up to modern times include the one in Egypt and the one around the Syria-Lebanon region. The Fascist center in Egypt gave rise to the now infamous Muslim Brotherhood that played a crucial role in the Egyptian overthrow of the Hosni Mubarak government. The Fascist center in the Syria-Lebanon region birthed the Baath Party that was responsible for the totalitarian reign of terror over Middle East region (Ajami, 2012).The recent political upheavals happening in the Middle-East region provide critics of Islam with the fodder to launch attacks of how the religion cannot accommodate democracy. Apparently, all the political parties that inherited the void left by the overthrow of the influential men in the predominantly Arabic MMCs have become worse in the embrace of modernity, secularism, or democracy. For a start, these parties welcomed democracies in the elections as long as they could win them. However, the overthrow and the defeat of strongmen like Hosni Mubarak, Muammar Gadhafi, and the continuing attempt to depose Syria’s Bashar al-Assad have only led to the emergence of highly radicalized Islamists parties. For instance, the Muslim Brotherhood preached water before the elections by promising to uphold democracy after the ouster of the regime of Hosni Mubarak. However, the party violated its stance on assuming power by being authoritative and oppressive of dissenting voices. The turnaround of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt led to another round of the Arab Spring Revolution that resulted in the ouster of the party by the Egyptian Military. Ironically, Egypt’s new ruler that the people are comfortable with is cut from the same cloth of Hosni Mubarak’s autocratic rule. In fact, Egypt’s Sisi is a retired military general. This trend of supposedly democratic organizations violating their pledge to promote and defend democracy is repeated in other predominantly MMCs that had their strong autocratic leaders ousted. Terrorism linked parties have emerged in post-Gadhafi Libya that are offshoots of the Al Qaeda network. In Syria, the parties and militants that were supposedly to herald democratic rule have morphed into an organization that is now known as the ISIS. All these emergent organizations adopt Islamists conceptions of the state and the position of democracy in the state. According to Nashashibi (2013), the traditional scholars of the Islamic text such as the Ulama lost their monopoly because of their alleged alliance with the autocratic rulers. Consequently, the Muslims adhering to fundamentalism grabbed the opportunities that resulted from the attempted modernization of the Arabian Peninsula by the dictatorialregimes using half-baked importation of Western goods and cultures. Unlike the authoritarian rulers that depended on oppressive and wealth to make their citizens spectators to the changing world, the fundamentalist have provided the people with a sense of meaning in the participating in politics. However, this participation is only an attempt of the Islamists fundamentalists to obtain power in an egalitarian society. Egalitarian societies are characteristically democratic but in a violent manner because anyone can interpret the Holy Quran to claim legitimacy. Consequently, the fundamentalist parties that have the newly acquired power prevent the promotion of democracy because it can threaten their legitimacy.
In conclusion, Islam and democracy have a synergy that has roots in the Holy Quran. The legal principles in the Holy Quran such as the Tauheed, Shura, Ijma, and the Ijtihad mirror some of the ideas of democracy such as freedom of expression, the right to an election, and the right to debate important societal issues.The hadiths of Prophet Muhammad also provide appropriate examples that demonstrate that pluralism in the society is acceptable in Islam. Indonesia and Turkey represent Muslim Majority Countries where democracy is defended and promoted. However, democracy and Islam lose thesynergy in predominantly Arabic MMCs because of the egalitarian societies that predominate these regions. The egalitarian are inherently competitive and aggressive in the assumption of leadership position in accordance with one’s capability at proving strength and direction. Consequently, only authoritative leadership can be able to contain the chaos occasioned by the egalitarian societies. However, the authoritative societies have to stifle democracy in order to decrease the chances that the egalitarian will challenge their leadership.