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Islam and Democracy

Shahrough Akhavi

The theme of Islam and democracy continues to receive a great deal of attention from policy makers, scholars, the media, and even the general population of many countries in the world. Democracy is an idea and a set of practices that emerged in ancient Athens millennia ago, vanished around 320 BCE, and only reappeared in Europe around the seventeenth century, principally in the works of writers such as John Locke (1632–1704). The essential idea, that the people (demos) are sovereign and therefore entitled to depose a tyrannical ruler, may even be traced to the works of certain medieval schoolmen, such as John of Salisbury (d. 1176), though these early treatments seem to justify such actions more on grounds of the ruler's religious impiety. Locke, and his fellow Englishman the poet John Milton (1608–1674), broadened the grounds for the removal of rulers to include general despotism and based their argument on doctrines of natural law and hence the natural rights of the people. In the eighteenth century, other social contract theorists, including Rousseau (1712–1778), Adam Ferguson (1723–1815), and Immanuel Kant (1724–1804), further elaborated on the points made by their illustrious predecessors.

While doctrines of democracy have become ever more sophisticated, democracy as a Western institution—despite its ancient Greek pedigree—is really not more than four centuries old. Accordingly, when Muslims are considered in the context of discussions about democracy, the fact that it is relatively new in the West is sometimes forgotten. It is worth noting that, at least since the French Revolution of 1789, democracy has been considered in terms not just of individual freedom and liberty, but also in terms of the equality of the people. A moment's reflection will suffice to understand that liberty may actually conflict with equality. Considerations of individual liberty demand that the state and its government not interfere in the ability of the citizen to optimize his or her opportunities in life. In contrast to this, equality may even mandate the state's interference to equalize opportunities or even redistribute wealth and other scarce resources, in the interests of achieving an egalitarian society. So, which model of democracy is more “authentic”?

The common Western understanding supposes that “Islam” is antithetical to democracy and even valorizes authoritarianism, regardless of how the concept of democracy and this set of values and practices is defined. The legacy of this approach reverts to the eighteenth century, when leaders of Muslim majority societies, such as the sultans of the Ottoman empire or the shahs of Iran, were depicted as exemplars of Oriental despotism. Although the roots of this term, ironically, appear to extend back to ancient Greece and its application by Aristotle to Alexander the Great (d. 330 BCE), its modern formulation can be found in Montesquieu's (1689–1755) The Spirit of the Laws, not to mention Marx and Engels's nineteenth-century utilizations of the concept to characterize the “mode of production” of “Asiatic political systems.”

In the modern era it has been the custom in certain quarters to maintain that Islamic political culture valorizes authoritarianism and rejects democratic values. Voltaire (1694–1778) greatly admired English political culture, advocating its values for monarchical France. Seen in that light, his polemical drama, Fanaticism, or Mahomet the Prophet (1742) was his way of attacking the “infamy”—as he saw it—and hypocrisy of the French first estate, the clergy. Fanaticism is obviously incompatible with democracy. Although Thomas Carlyle (1795–1881) considered the Prophet of Islam a hero, the prevalent view seemed to be that he was the leader of a (false) religion that could only establish itself by means of physical force.

These seventeenth- to nineteenth-century views of Islam as a religion of coercion were the predecessors to the generalizations of the twentieth-century Harvard scholar, Samuel P. Huntington. Using anecdotal evidence, such as the flying of airplanes into the twin towers of the World Trade Center in Manhattan by radical Muslims in September 2001, scholars such as Huntington and others influenced by him have claimed vindication for the view that not only is “Islam” a violent religion but that “Islamic civilization” is on a determined course to “clash” with “Western civilization” in the name of authoritarian politics.1 Reifying “Islam,” rather than talking about Muslims, Huntington himself became a prophet of the view that “Islam” hates freedom and would take advantage of any opportunity provided it by democracy to establish itself in power and then proceed to dismantle any and all democratic institutions to prevent others from rising to power. There are many problems with the Huntingtonian “clash of civilizations” thesis. Trenchant critiques have been made of its argument on both theoretical and empirical grounds.2 One of the theoretical problems of Huntington's argument is the idea that civilizations—which are his unit of analysis—can act. Similarly, one cannot speak of “Islam” as an actor, only of “Islams,” or, preferably, Muslims. An empirical shortcoming of his argument is the premise that religion, used to promote violent ends, is unique to Islamic societies; it is not, rather religion has been used to justify violence in non-Muslim areas of the world, such as Northern Ireland, India, Sri Lanka, and even the United States (consider the Oklahoma City terrorist attack). Additionally, many Muslim states and governments have pursued accommodationist, not conflictual, policies toward the West. Moreover, the broad generalization that “Islam” opposes democracy flies in the face of empirical evidence, such as that provided by Freedom House's World Values Surveys (1981–2001). Researchers found that when polled to express their views of democracy, Muslims gave responses that were virtually indistinguishable from answers given by those in the West. Norris and Inglehart maintain that “when political attitudes are compared (including evaluations of how well democracy works in practice, support for democratic ideals, and disapproval of strong leaders), far from a clash of values, there is minimal difference between the Muslim world and the West.” 3

It is true that important Muslim leaders have spoken derisively about democracy. Sometimes this contempt is directed at Westerners who emphasize the virtues of this model of politics but who tend to ignore derelictions. Egypt under British rule (1882–1952) experimented with parliamentary democracy; however, the British manipulated the Egyptian political system so that outcomes were frequently authoritarian, not democratic. Moreover, many of those elected to parliament during those years actually subverted its workings. Many members of parliament were large landowners who, through a combination of threats and bribes, gained the votes of the peasant farmers on their land. This gave the landowners free reign to do as they pleased, until the next election cycle. On other occasions, Muslim leaders have criticized democracy because embracing it seemed to be an implicit criticism of belief in Islamic truths. Hence, Ayatollah Khomeini often expressed unhappiness with the desire of those who advocated the creation of a democratic Islamic order, as though, as he saw it, there could be such a thing as a non-democratic Islamic order. Some Muslim spokespersons, moreover, have decried democracy as being a prelude to secularism and the separation of religion and politics; they believe the two cannot be separated. Finally, some Muslim leaders have denounced democracy because they fear the application of its principles would lead to their loss of power.

Furthermore, even if some—especially the latter—of these points are true, this point does not mean that Islam and democracy are incompatible. It merely means that some leaders want to rule without resort to transparency and accountability—two critical ingredients of democratic politics. It seems far more accurate to account for the lag of democracy in a number of Muslim-majority societies by referring not to scriptural texts that putatively discourage democratic values (since one can also refer to texts that apparently encourage such values), but rather to certain structural attributes of these societies. Among these must be included the enduring legacy of patrimonial forms of rule. Without arguing that historical patterns determine contemporary arrangements, it is worth pointing out that feudal models (which characterized most of the Western European experience) featured reciprocity of rights and obligations, whereas patrimonialism—the model applicable to non-European systems—entitled the ruler, at least in theory, full rights over all the resources of his patrimony.

If explanations by reference to sacred texts are inadequate, and the implementation of democratic values is historically contingent, then the development of democracy in Muslim-majority societies that currently are not characterized by democratic politics is certainly possible. But this begs the question of what one means by democracy. As noted earlier, democracy can be viewed, just as validly, by giving primacy to equality over individual liberty. If the democratic model in question is that which Macpherson once called the “political theory of possessive individualism,”4 few Muslims would accept it. This variant of liberalism treats the individual

as essentially the proprietor of his own person or capacities, owing nothing to society for them. The individual was seen neither as a moral whole, nor as part of a larger social whole, but as an owner of himself. The relation of ownership, having become for more and more men the critically important relation determining their actual freedom and actual prospect of realizing their full potentialities, was read back into the nature of the individual. The individual, it was thought, is free inasmuch as he is proprietor of his person and his capacities. The human essence is freedom from dependence on the wills of others, and freedom is a function of possession. Society becomes a lot of free equal individuals related to each other as proprietors of their own capacities and of what they have acquired by their exercise. Society consists of relations of exchange between proprietors. Political society becomes a calculated device for the protection of this property and for the maintenance of an orderly relation of exchange.5

Because the teachings of the faith, if not necessarily the practice of rule by Muslim leaders, stress the importance of the interests of the community (ummah), few Muslims would accept this version of liberalism—which is the foundation for many understandings of democracy. However, social or communitarian democracy would appear to be compatible with Islamic teachings.

A final thought: Iranian presidential elections were held in June 2009. The overwhelming consensus is that the regime rigged these elections in favor of the incumbent, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who was sworn in for his second term as president on 5 August 2009. Clearly this is a blatantly undemocratic maneuver for the purposes of holding on to power, but it should also be noted that the incumbent's rival, former Prime Minister Mir Husayn Musavi, was not necessarily democratic during the period he was in office (1981–1989). However, it is always possible for people to modify their views, and this may well be the case with him. If the elections themselves were an anti-democratic charade, the demonstrations that broke out in their aftermath, and have not been totally suppressed at the time of this writing, reveal the appeal of democracy to the broad masses of Iran. It is important to stress that these people apparently feel deeply that their belief in Islamic values is a major part of their motivations to protest what has happened. It is therefore critical not to attribute the authoritarian behavior of the officials in charge of the Khomeinist state to “Islam.” Islam is not an actor that acts, or constrains, or proposes. This is all about Muslims, whose differences in beliefs and actions are to be explained by their ideal and material interests. If we bear this in mind, then certainly this faith is compatible with democratic values.

1Huntington, “The Clash of Civilizations,” Foreign Affairs 72, no. 3 (Summer 1993), pp. 22–49; Huntington, The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of the Modern World Order (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1996).

2Among the most stimulating is Roy P. Mottahedeh, “Clash of Civilizations: An Islamicist's Critique,” Harvard Middle Eastern and Islamic Review 2, no. 2 (1995), pp. 1–26.

3Pippa Norris and Ronald Inglehart, Sacred and Secular: Religion and Politics Worldwide (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2004), p. 154.

4Crawford Brough Macpherson, The Political Theory of Possessive Individualism: Hobbes to Locke (New York: Oxford University Press, 1964).

5Macpherson, p. 3.

Selected Bibliography

  • Akhavi, Shahrough. The Middle East: The Politics of the Sacred and Secular. London: Zed Books, 2009.
  • Ansari, Ali M. Iran, Islam and Democracy. Washington, D.C.: Brookings Institution, 2006.
  • Binder, Leonard. Islamic Liberalism. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1988.
  • Esposito, John. Islam and Democracy. New York: Oxford University Press, 1996.
  • Moaddel, Mansoor, ed. Values and Perceptions of the Islamic and Middle Eastern Publics. London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2007.
  • Tessler, Mark. “Islam and Democracy in the Middle East: The Impact of Religious Orientations on Attitudes Toward Democracy in Four Arab Countries.” Comparative Politics 34, no. 3 (April 2002). See pp. 337–354.

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