Sunday, January 13, 2008

Islam and democracy

Islam and democracy
The practice—and the theory
From The Economist print edition
Can rule by the people be reconciled with the sovereignty of Allah?

“TURKEY sets a fantastic example for nations around the world to see where it's possible to have a democracy coexist with a great religion like Islam.” Those were George Bush's words of welcome, this week, to Turkey's President Abdullah Gul. AP

In the name of God, let's throw the rascals out

In decades past, a Turkish leader might have been received at the White House with cordial remarks about his country's growing prosperity or its contribution to NATO. But it would have been strange, perhaps, not to mention religion when hosting a head of state who had just set a precedent that was watched with fascination by politically active Muslims in many parts of the world. When he became president, Mr Gul proved that it was possible for a pious Muslim with a headscarved wife to be made head of state, by a perfectly democratic procedure, in a country where the army is an ever-vigilant guardian against theocracy. For those who insist (whether their arguments are theological, or empirical, or both) that Islam and liberal democracy are quite compatible, Mr Gul's election (and Mr Bush's exuberant reaction to it) was a badly needed nugget of hope in a year when that cause has seen quite a lot of setbacks.

Among American officialdom, confidence in the prospects for democracy in Muslim (and in particular, Arab) lands has fluctuated under the Bush administration. It reached a high point, arguably, in mid-2005, when Condoleezza Rice, the secretary of state, declared in Cairo that the bad old days of favouring stability over democracy were over—and then it plunged again the following January when the Islamist Hamas movement swept to victory in Palestine.

For political scientists, especially those who have studied the phenomenon of “Muslim Democracy” in the belief that the Turkish case could be a precedent for others, the recent turmoil in Pakistan and the assassination of Benazir Bhutto have been a great tragedy in a pivotal country that had the potential to develop a new concordat between Islam and open politics.

Vali Nasr, a professor at America's Tufts University, terms “Muslim Democracy” a newish and potentially decisive force in the non-Arab parts of the Muslim world. In his view, the recent experience of Turkey, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Malaysia and Indonesia all points to a single truth: wherever they are given the chance, Muslim Democratic parties (which are responsive to public opinion and thrive in an open political contest) can prevail over harder-line and more violent varieties of political Islam.

Among the parties Mr Nasr identifies as Muslim Democratic are the faction of the Pakistani Muslim League that held sway until the military takeover in 1999; the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (in power till last year's coup); Malaysia's ruling UMNO party; and a cluster of mildly Islamic parties that share power in Indonesia (see article). Exhibit A for Muslim Democracy is Turkey's Justice and Development (AK) party, which won its democratic spurs after several decades of sparring between generals and pious politicians. As with several other Muslim Democratic parties, the AK's rise reflected economic growth and the advent of a devout but non-fanatical middle class which resents the older elites of bureaucrats and generals.

But what if any is the intellectual ground for Muslim Democracy? Roman Catholic thinking had to tread a long path before it reconciled its belief in human sinfulness with popular sovereignty; Christian Democracy, an important force in post-1945 Europe, was the result.

Abdal-Hakim Murad, a British Muslim scholar, argues that Muslim Democrats have an easier road to travel because Islam's view of human nature is a less pessimistic one. But several factors have helped to make the Muslim debate about democracy difficult and inconclusive. Most of the schools of Muslim thought that have emerged over the past century have been intensely interested in political theory, and also intensely concerned with precedents set at the dawn of the Muslim era. But the precedents are not clear: some caliphs took power by inheritance, others through consensus, others by force.
Khaled Abou El Fadl, an Egyptian-born law professor, has pointed to a passage from the Koran which seems to endow human beings with a special mandate to look after their own affairs.
When your Lord said to the angels: “I have to place a vice-regent on earth,” they said: “Will you place one there who will create disorder and shed blood, while we intone Your litanies and sanctify Your name?” And God said: “I know what you do not know.”
That verse, Mr Fadl has argued, seems to imply that far from sitting back and letting God do everything, human beings must organise their own society.
Another relevant text is the story of Ali, the fourth Muslim caliph, whose leadership was challenged by a rival. To the fury of his zealous supporters, Ali agreed that conflicting claims should be submitted to arbitration. Posterity found Ali right and his critics wrong: human institutions do have a place in settling issues of state.

From Cairo to California

For anyone who looks to Islam's foundational texts as the ultimate arbiter of truth, these are resonant allusions. But arguments in favour of Islam's compatibility with democracy are in perpetual danger of being drowned out by a mixture of depressing news from Muslim lands and zealous ideologues on both sides of a looming civilisational divide.

Whether or not they condone violence, many of the most strident advocates of “political Islam” still take their cue from Sayyid Qutb, an Egyptian thinker, executed in 1966, who regarded secular democracy (and all other secular forms of government, including socialism) as blasphemy pure and simple. In places ranging from British campuses to the jails and torture chambers of Uzbekistan, there are zealous ideologues who follow the Qutbist line that all human agencies of power are a violation of the sovereignty of God. Neatly converging with the anti-democratic zeal of these malcontents is an increasingly respectable argument, among sceptical Western observers of Islam, which holds that the Muslim faith, by its very nature, cannot be other than theocratic. If that is true, then encouraging moderate—in the sense of apolitical—versions of Islam can only be a waste of time.

In the United States, in particular, an“essentialist” mistrust of Islam in all its forms has been gaining ground. One recent sign of this mood: when Keith Ellison from Minnesota became the first Muslim congressman, he was challenged, during his first television interview, to prove that he was not “working for our enemies”.

But in America's free-ranging debates, where the spectrum of views on Islam is probably wider than in any Muslim land or even in Europe, there are also many voices on the other side. Mr Fadl makes his case for the compatibility of democracy and Islam from the University of California at Los Angeles, probably a more secure setting than his native Cairo.

Meanwhile Firas Ahmad, a columnist who co-edits a glossy Muslim monthly from his home in Boston, maintains that a lot of Islamic history—as well as the dilemmas of modern times—should be reconsidered in the light of the robust separation between religion and state which (on his reading, at least), Muslims have quite frequently, and cheerfully, maintained. In modern America, Muslims can make a big contribution to debates about greed and social justice, while fully respecting the country's secular constitution. And his favourite passages in history are the bits where believers (often courageous Sufi mystics) spoke truth to power, not the instances when pliant greybeards did favours to the sultan.

There are, in short, many interesting things to say about Islam and democracy. The pity is that they are mostly being said in the West, not in Islam's heartland.

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quraan burning

Planned Muslim Response to Qur'an Burning by Pastor Jones on September 11 in Mulberry, Florida

August 19, 2013| Dallas, Texas

Mike Ghouse
Text/Talk: (214) 325-1916

Mirza A Beg
(205) 454-8797


We as Muslims plan to respond to pastor Terry Jones' planned burning of 3000 copies of Quran on September 11, 2013 in positive terms.

Our response - we will reclaim the standard of behavior practiced by the Prophet concerning “scurrilous and hostile criticism of the Qur’an” (Muhammad Asad Translation Note 31, verse 41:34). It was "To overcome evil with good is good, and to resist evil by evil is evil." It is also strongly enjoined in the Qur’an in the same verse 41:34, “Good and evil deeds are not equal. Repel evil with what is better; then you will see that one who was once your enemy has become your dearest friend.”

God willing Muslims will follow the divine guidance and pray for the restoration of Goodwill, and on that day many Muslim organizations will go on a “blood drive” to save lives and serve humanity with kindness.

We invite fellow Americans of all faiths, races, and ethnicities to join us to rededicate the pledge, “One nation under God”, and to build a cohesive America where no American has to live in apprehension, discomfort or fear of fellow Americans. This event is a substitute for our 10th Annual Unity Day Celebration ( held in Dallas, but now it will be at Mulberry, Florida.

Unwittingly Pastor Jones has done us a favor by invigorating us by his decision to burn nearly 3000 copies Quran on September 11, 2013. Obviously he is not satisfied by the notoriety he garnered by burning one Qur'an last year.

As Muslims and citizens we honor the free speech guaranteed in our constitution. We have no intentions to criticize, condemn or oppose Pastor Terry Jones' freedom of expression. Instead, we will be donating blood and praying for goodness to permeate in our society.

We plan to follow Jesus Christ (pbuh), a revered prophet in Islam as well as Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) – that of mitigating the conflicts and nurturing good will for the common good of the society.

We hope, this event and the message will remind Muslims elsewhere in the world as well, that violence is not the way. Muslims, who react violently to senseless provocation, should realize that, violence causes more violence, and besmirches the name of the religion that we hold so dear. We believe that Prophet Muhammad was a mercy to the mankind, and we ought to practice what we believe and preach. We must not insult Islam by the negative reactions of a few.

We can only hope it will bring about a change in the attitude of the followers of Pastor Jones, and in the behavior of those Muslims who reacted violently the last time Pastor sought notoriety – We hope this small step towards a bridge to peaceful coexistence would propel us towards building a cohesive society.

Like most Americans a majority of Muslims quietly go about their own business, but it is time to speak up and take positive action instead of negative reaction. May this message of peace and goodwill reverberate and reach many shores.

Lastly, we appreciate the Citizens of Mulberry, Florida, Honorable Mayor George Hatch, City Commissioners, police and Fire Chiefs for handing this situation very well. This will add a ‘feather of peace’ in the City’s reputation. We hope Mulberry will be a catalyst in showing the way in handling conflict with dignity and peace.

We thank the Media for giving value to the work towards peace rather than conflict.


Thank you.


The people in Dallas are making an effort to understand and clean their own hearts first, when we are free from bias, it would be easy to share that with others. Islam teaches us in so many ways to "respect the otherness of others" and it is time we find simple practical ways of doing it.