New shoes for an old debate —Rafia Zakaria

While indigenous democracy activists have done much to reinitiate democratic rule, they remain beset with problems of militancy, institutional devolution and corruption that require resources and not simply rhetoric for solutions

At the recent Istanbul Seminars held by Reset Dialogues on Civilisations June this year, Benjamin Barber, a noted political theorist and Professor of Civil Society at the University of Maryland, took on the question: Can Islam accommodate democracy or democracy accommodate Islam? Calling the premise of incompatibility between Islam and Democracy “absurd”, Barber made the following points.

First, he said “it is not Islam per se but religion in general that stands in some tension with secularism and with democracy”, a tension that Barber appreciates as healthy and generative rather than undermining of political vigour. Categorising the tension as representative of the inherent and infinite number of dualisms whose oppositions initiate an ultimate balancing, Barber rejects the idea that existing tensions can undermine compatibility.

Second, he reminds us, as many theorists have done in recent years, that the healthiest democracies have been “constructed on a religious foundation that lends them stability and affords them the luxury of political disagreement”. Religion is particularly needed in democracies, he insists, because faith is a source of social capital, the presence of which makes democratic society less antagonistic since the glue of civic faith holds society together despite the expression of dissent inherent in democratic political life.

Barber’s third point with regard to the relationship between Islam and democracy relates to the incipient plurality within all faiths, including Islam. Reminding his audience of the proliferation of sects within Christianity, he cautions against the appraisal of Islam as a vast monolith of unitary beliefs saying “only 15 percent of the world’s 1.3 billion Muslims are Arabs but its hard to tell how many westerners know that”.

Fourth Barber recounts the Puritanical roots of Christianity, going even so far as to quote a seventeenth century Puritanical text cautioning against moral profligacy brought on by “listening to music, curling and cutting of hair, wanton fashions, face painting and the like”. Barber’s point, belaboured through the quote, is that all religions have the capacity to produce positive laws that aim to regulate public behaviour…as he says in the follow up to the quote: “such were the Taliban of the Puritan’s early years”.

Barber’s remaining argument proceeds thus: fundamentalism is not unique to Islam and has recently manifested itself in various other faiths and in its deepest sense represents “religion under siege”, where religious people believe themselves and their faith-determined way of life to be threatened by exogenous forces that “endanger their values, seduce their children and destroy their communities”.

Finally, Barber concludes: those that insist on the incompatibility of Islam and democracy rely on both an incomplete understanding of Islam but also an incomplete understanding of democracy…specifically the particularly “American” belief that democracy requires “helping” others to achieve liberty and the fallacy that overthrowing tyranny with the use of outside forces will automatically produce democracy instead of disorder anarchy and civil war.

Reiterating the point now made repeatedly by democracy activists around the world, Barber suggests the slow route to democracy based on building a strong civil society as well as political infrastructure on top of it.

In conclusion, staying true to his ideological predilections as a deliberative democracy theorist, Barber reminds us that “that the road to democracy comes not from imitation but from excavation and invention” and that “every society has democratic tendencies, proto democratic habits, institutions that foster deliberation, debate and equality”.

Not much of what Barber has to say is new. In recent years and months the taming of the public image of Islam, and the realisation that the faith is not as monstrous, monolithic or given to death and destruction as the neo-conservative cabal ruling Washington would have the world believe, has become in vogue, especially at international conferences meant to accomplish the trendy task of furthering “dialogue between the civilisations”.

It is also difficult indeed, to have patience with the applause rendered to truths such as ones spoken by Barber, which have been belaboured for centuries by scholars and intellectuals living in the Muslim world, but which somehow seem more apt and trenchant and ascend to a higher level of intellectual truth when emanating from the mouths of eminent scholars in the West. Despite the acridity of this reality, Barber is to be commended for his public relations efforts on behalf of Islam and Muslims, even if he does (as in the example with the Puritans) fall into the trap of arguing the West as “prior” in history to the Muslim world still struggling with what it already dealt with in the 17th century. Even the Taliban, it seems, are a reincarnation of the early Puritans.

Also worthy of discussion is Barber’s concluding assessment that all societies have within them some proto-typical seeds of democracy. If the condescending contention that democracy must be “taught” to societies by benevolent Americans has been proven wrong, one wonders whether this new premise, seeing in every society the potential for democracy can be a better alternative. While admittedly, there is much value to championing local efforts within countries like Pakistan that allow the flourishing of “indigenous” democracy, the turn in this direction assumes that the prior premise was a sincere ideological project.

Unlike Barber, I am loathe to believe that the US administration’s policies in Iraq and Afghanistan with the “teaching democracy” rhetoric were ever more than political spin that was insistently designed to curtail strategic objectives that had little or nothing to do with democracy.

Given this, it is timely to ask from the vantage point of Pakistan where a fledgling democracy is flailing in its bid to survive, whether the whole debate on Islam and democracy has become little more than a theoretical preoccupation for theoretical discussion at international conferences where it is possible to still believe in the beauty of deliberation and the possibility of equality. While indigenous democracy activists have done much to reinitiate democratic rule, they remain beset with problems of militancy, institutional devolution and corruption that require resources and not simply rhetoric for solutions.

Rafia Zakaria is an attorney living in the United States where she teaches courses on Constitutional Law and Political Philosophy. She can be contacted at

Daily Times, 26/7/2008

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