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Democracy

Democracy is government by the people, usually through elected representatives. In general, the spread of democracy throughout the world, which accelerated in the late 1800s and 1900s, has been associated with modern Western values. Muslims disagree about the proper role of democracy in Islamic countries, few of which have representative governments. Some argue that Islam is entirely compatible with democratic rule, while others insist that democracy is contradictory to Islam.

Perspectives on Democracy.

Those who believe that Muslim societies should embrace democracy follow the basic philosophy of Egyptian reformer Muhammad Abduh (died 1905 ). According to Abduh, Islam encourages Muslims to form their governments on the basis of modern reasoning and by learning from the experiences of nations that have built successful systems.

Advocates of the liberal Islamic view argue that the Qur'an and hadith clearly support the basic democratic principles of popular election, justice, and tolerance. The Qur'an, for example, states that God instructed the Prophet to consult with his advisers, even those whose counsel had led to defeat in battle. Islamic teaching also indicates that good Muslims should confer with one another about business and other matters. Some Muslims point to these principles as a basis for the election of representative leaders and government institutions, as in the case of Western democracies.

The concept of maslahah—seeking the public good—urges Muslim societies to do what is best for the people and avoid actions that may harm them. This concept establishes justice as a foundation of the political system. The Qur'an also forbids compulsion in religion, which is interpreted to mean a tolerance of religious and political diversity and the equality of Muslims and non-Muslims in civic rights and duties.

Conservative Muslim scholars maintain that Islam as traditionally taught should be the only basis of government. Sayyid Qutb, a leading Egyptian activist during the first half of the 1900s, also represented this view. For Qutb, many aspects of modern life, including Western institutions and beliefs, were evil and therefore inconsistent with Islam. He taught that the Islamic political system has three essential components: just leaders, obedient followers, and dialogue between the two groups. The shari'ah, he argued, is the source of all laws, both spiritual and worldly. For Qutb, the political system must enforce the shari'ah because the primary goal of Islam is the establishment of an Islamic state.

Hasan al-Turabi, an influential Sudanese political leader and follower of Qutb, argues that Western-style democracy is flawed because it grants ultimate authority to the people. The Qur'an, by contrast, declares that God has ultimate sovereignty. Furthermore, democratic systems are based on imperfect human reasoning and factional interests that prevent them from promoting real political equality, unity, and freedom.

Egyptian thinker Muhammad Imarah , by contrast, concludes that Islam and democracy are compatible. He argues that Islam distinguishes between religious and worldly matters. Therefore, religious and political authority should co-exist, but they should not be unified in one structure. In Imarah's view, a theocracy is un-Islamic and oppressive, because it deprives people of their right to be involved in politics.

Historical Experience.

The proportion of free democratic governments in Muslim countries is low compared to the rest of the world. A recent survey of government sources revealed that 121 (63 percent) of the world's 192 governments were electoral democracies. In the 45 countries with a significant or majority Muslim population, however, only 23 (about 51 percent) had democratically elected governments. Authoritarian regimes—led by kings, military officers, or former military officers—rule most Islamic nations. In these societies, security forces ensure the power of the state, and freedoms of assembly, speech, and the press are restricted.

The scarcity of democracy in Islamic countries may derive from historical experience. European nations controlled the region for several centuries. Even after the end of colonial rule in the 1950s and 1960s, these nations played an important role in the formation of many modern Muslim states. In the Middle East, for example, the British determined the political boundaries of Iraq and Kuwait, and they created the new country of Jordan. Such artificial borders caused ethnic, regional, and religious conflicts, and provided a weak basis for the legitimacy of rulers. As a result, repressive governments came to power in some emerging Muslim countries.

After achieving independence, many Muslim states imposed limits on the role of Islam in public life. Some governments, such as those of Egyptian president Gamal Abdel Nasser and Algeria's FLN party, adopted a modern, socialist agenda. In the 1970s and 1980s, unrest generated by war and civil strife, discontent with growing state power, and poor economic conditions led to the rise of political movements based on strict adherence to Islamic principles. Generally, the Islamists oppose any attempts to secularize society.

Governments in largely Muslim countries took various approaches to the Islamists' opposition. In some countries, such as Jordan, Islamist groups were permitted to participate in parliamentary elections. Other governments, such as those of Tunisia and Algeria, enforced rigid controls on the fundamentalists, fearing that their desire to combine politics and religion would compromise individual rights and might win popular support. Indeed, when religious revolutionaries overthrew the government of Iran in 1979 and created an Islamic republic, many people were executed or imprisoned because they did not meet Muslim codes of modesty or morality. In 1989 Islamists organized a coup that seized control of Sudan with the promise of creating an Islamic democracy. Their treatment of non-Muslim minorities and Muslim opposition groups, however, has been deplorable. The non-Islamist regimes that had been replaced in Iran and Sudan also had poor records in terms of their treatment of minorities and in upholding basic human rights.

Future Trends.

Issues that divide liberals and fundamentalists are likely to continue to affect the future of democracy in the Muslim world. Islamist parties have recently won electoral victories in Morocco, Bahrain, and Pakistan, and religious groups are gaining political strength in Egypt, Jordan, and Kuwait.

In some countries, support for a form of democracy that incorporates Islamic principles is growing. Turkey, one of the most secular Muslim countries, promoted the separation of religion and politics so vigorously that it banned religious-based political parties and even jailed their leaders. In November 2002 , however, the Islamically-oriented Justice and Development Party won a parliamentary majority. Unlike fundamentalist groups elsewhere, the Justice and Development Party campaigned on a platform of economic reform rather than religious issues. This suggests that the party may retain a secular approach to government while incorporating Islamic principles. See also Algeria; Egypt; Fundamentalism; Government; Iran; Qutb, Sayyid; Turkey.

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