Is Islam antithetical to democracy and vice versa is a question that seems to have generated a lot of debate inside and outside the Muslim world.
On this issue opinions are clearly divided between some of the western scholars and media gurus and their counterparts in the Muslim world. In fact, the entire debate has become so confusing that it has blurred reality.
American neo-conservatives such as Daniel Pipes, for instance, argue that Islam and democracy do not fit in together. Such a notion is based on the empirical evidence that most Muslim countries have monarchies or some kind of authoritarian rule. In fact a set of scholars — Bernard Lewis, Daniel Pipes, Martin Indyk and Samuel Huntington — has been categorised as essentialists. These scholars argue that Islam offers a set of symbols and slogans, which is meant to muster support within the community, but then is also the cause of problems that the Muslim world is then accused of.
In other words, the lack of democracy or hostility towards the West is part of Islam’s value system. This argument is countered by what Michael Salla classifies in his Third World Quarterly article as the ‘contingencists’; such as John Espisito, who argue that it is not fair to bracket all Muslim countries in an ‘Islamic world’.
Obviously, numerous scholars from the Muslim world go into an overdrive arguing the opposite. Their argument is that majority of citizens of the Islamic world are actually as fond of democracy as anyone else in the Muslim world. Such a statement is at best reactive, which does not appreciate the evolution of the concept of governance in Islamic history.
The other day, I had a chance to watch a debate on one of the Pakistani channels organised by the Pakistan Institute for Legislative Development and Training (Pildat). The four speakers seemed to say different things but were making a similar point — democracy as a principle is acceptable in the Muslim world.
Unfortunately, the debate went on for an hour without really defining democracy which is not just about holding elections or a matter of one-man-one-vote, but it is about a political system where both the majority and minority have sufficient space to negotiate their interests. The electoral process, like accountability and the rule of law, is a component of the democratic philosophy or process. Elections, in fact, are one of the essential tools of such a system and nothing more.
One of the speakers in the programme tried his best to argue that Muslims all over the world were keen on democracy and that there was no difference between the West and the East in its peculiar conceptualising of the concept. Such an argument is indeed false. It is true that Muslims like their views to be reflected in policies. But what is also a fact is that the conceptualising of liberal democracy, which is based on the notion of constitutional government, majority rule, freedom of key institutions such as media and a free market economy, and a multiparty system, are part of a tradition that can at best be associated with the historical experience of the West.
Liberal democracy grew in the West as a result of certain historical experiences which allowed a set of countries to arrive on carving a social contract between the state and society that depended on the primacy of the individual in the socio-political system and de-linking of religion from politics.
Islamic political philosophy cannot claim such an historical experience. The social contract between the citizen and the state in the Muslim world is still undergoing an evolutionary process. A glance at the Islamic political philosophy shows that most political scientists have encouraged an acceptance of authoritarian rule to avoid societal crisis and conflict. It was not until the 20th century philosophers such as Syed Qutb and Ali Shariati began to talk about affirmative action against authoritarian regimes and systems that we hear anything about challenging the monarch. Of course, both scholars are distinct due to their philosophies.
Muslim philosophers such as Ghazali or those before him advocated an acceptance of authoritarian leadership for avoiding chaos in the state and society. This argument is understandable considering the chaos in the early years of Islamic history, especially the period of the four Caliphs. This is not to argue that Muslim political philosophy supports authoritarian rule, hence, Islam is antithetical to democratic principles. But what is a fact is that the evolution of the concept of governance has followed a different trajectory. In fact, the concept is still evolving. The fact of the matter is that people in the Muslim world want good governance which includes accountability and rule of law. In fact, the growing significance of militant force in different Muslim countries or the focus of political Islam in the eyes of the common Muslim is driven by his/her desire for justice, equitable distribution of resources and better opportunities for upward mobility.
Another important fact is that most of the Muslim world is still recovering from the historical experience of colonisation which is the main cause for authoritarian rule in these countries. Thus, what the common people protest against is not necessarily western civilisation but the nexus between the West and their authoritarian elite which is the source of the overall dictatorial environment. Since the existing elite is an agent of the old colonial system, people tend to support equally authoritarian militant structures which should not be construed as a fondness for dictatorial systems.
This is one dimension. The other is that a social contract carved on modern lines to fit the needs of the present times is missing mainly due to the scant debate on organising governance structures. The temptation of many to refer to the historical experience of 1400 years ago is driven by the desire for justice and fair play in state-society relations. So, while it is true that Muslims are no different from the rest of the world in their desire for good governance, improved political structures, which might resemble the democracy of the western world, are missing precisely because of the absence of a structured discourse on a new social contract.
The caliphate, which circulated around the leader of the Muslim ummah’s accountability towards the people via the tribal system, was workable in a city-state kind of a structure. However, it might not be possible today to have a small shura or a group of elders deliver governance. Hence, a new social contract is required for which a dialogue within the Islamic world, especially amongst the philosophers, is a dire need of the present times.
The writer is an independent strategic and political analyst.