Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Towards an Islamic Concept of Democracy

Dr. `Abd Allah Nâsir al-Subayh

“Democracy” is a powerful and attractive word. This holds true for the people of the Middle East, since their societies have come heavily under the influence of Western ideas and cultural values. For many, democracy has come to represent freedom, advancement, peace, stability, and prosperity. For some, it represents the very embodiment of all that is good.

The media contributes greatly to this general positive attitude towards democracy. The media links the word “democracy” to a vast number of concerns, depicting it as a sort of magic potion with the power to cure a myriad of social ailments. As a result of the media hubbub, many people have fallen into what might be called “the democracy trap”, by which I mean their belittling and totally disregarding their own cultural context to clear the way for an abstract ideal that is completely divorced in practice from the cultural reality in which they live.

The way to avoid this trap is to fully understand and appreciate the critical analysis that is brought to bear by leading democratic theorists with respect to the shortcomings that exist in both the conceptualization of democracy and its practical application.

Democracy is not the embodiment of all that is good. Nor is it something bad. The problem is that some of those in the Muslim world advocate democracy are unable to see it except within the superficial confines of a single ideological pattern tied in their minds to a single mode of practice. In the minds of such people, democracy means nothing other than parliaments and elections. This line of thinking can only result in a charade – the mere outward trappings of democracy. Then there are those who oppose democracy, conceiving of it as the absolute rule of the people which must necessarily be rejected. Their rejection, however, can only result in the absolute rule of a single, oppressive dictator.

In practice – as well as in theory – democracy is not a monolithic idea with a single mode of practical expression. There is a variety of approaches to democracy that have come about as a result of the different philosophical backgrounds and particular circumstances of the various societies wherein it has been adopted.

When democracy first developed in Athens over two thousand years ago, it was the people choosing to govern their own affairs instead of letting a tyrant do it for them. Democracy was a way to for them to do away with tyranny so that the people could express their will as to how they would govern their city.

The democracy of Athens was known as “direct democracy”. The idea of democracy evolved since then into what we know as “representative democracy”. This is the form that democracy takes in our present era. It, in turn, conceptualized and applied in various different ways.

Many theorists make a distinction between the philosophy and values that form the basis for democracy and the machinery by which the will of the people is ascertained – in other words, the means by which governance is carried out. They see democracy on its own unable of realizing its social objectives. They speak about principles of democracy that need to be realized as well, such as: the rule of law, freedom of speech, separation of powers, transparency of government, and secularism.

Though these principles and others enjoy the general acceptance of democracy theorists, we find that a number of these principles have come under some serious discussion. Take, for instance, the principle of majority rule. This is an essential principle, without which there can be no democracy. The very purpose of democracy would be lost without it. Nevertheless, a good number of theorists have expressed concern over the possible tyranny of the majority. Some argue that the fear of mob rule was the central issue that preoccupied the American thinkers who drafted the United States Constitution. This is the reason why, at the outset, the right to vote was restricted to certain sectors of society. Women and slaves, for instance, were ineligible to vote.

The discussions and disagreements that exist among political theorists tell us as Muslims that we need to investigate these issues ourselves and work to develop a way to apply democracy in a way that is suited to our Islamic outlook. I suggest, for this purpose, the following:

1. Distinguishing between ideological frameworks and means of governance

We can accept democracy as a form of government and a means of expressing the will of the people without adopting ideological principles and values that are at variance with the teachings of Islam. One of these Islamic values is that the ultimate authority for legislation is the Qur’an and Sunnah. This is not at odds with the concept of democracy, since democracy, as political theorists have pointed out, is a means of governance that cannot exist outside the context of some philosophical framework. As the American political thinker Zbigniew Brzezinski pointed out, democracy might be basically a western idea, but it is a vessel that needs to be filled with something. We can, therefore, fill that vessel with contents that are compatible with our faith.

Those who promote democracy today are not content merely to speak about it on its own. They link it to liberalism and individual freedom and claim that any democracy that does not realize these meanings is not a true democracy. If they are permitted to link democracy with other philosophical precepts that they embrace, then others are likewise permitted to do so.

Some might object the authority of the Qur’an and Sunnah conflicts with the basic principle of democracy that the state must be a secular one. We can counter that claim by pointing out the following:

1. We do not have to accept every principle that is advanced as a principle of democracy. We can have our own vision. We can develop a form of democracy that is compatble with our identity.

2. Most forms of modern Christianity do not have a specific code of Law that it is considered a religious duty for Christians to uphold in the governance of their societies. Therefore, secularism on the level of the civic polity does not constitute a revocation of Christian sacred law, since such a law does not exist in principle. What secularism means to Christianity is the abolition of theocracy – the rule of the clergy, the rule of people who claim to speak on behalf of God and on the behalf of Christ (peace be upon him). The clergy in a theocratic system claim to receive direct divine insight and in turn require that other people submit to their direction and their command. The will and the welfare of the people is not a consideration.

Islam is opposed to the idea of a clerical class. Islam views what they practice as heresy, as a situation where a special group of people upon their own authority concoct lies against Allah and misrepresent the religion.

3. Once it becomes clear to us that secularism poses no conflict for the Sacred Law as understood by Christianity, we need then understand that secularism itself takes many forms. In America the Constitution openly declares the separation of church and state. In Britain, however, we find a different situation, where the Queen is the head of the church and the country tends to the affairs of the official Christian faith.

4. In Islam, the jurists and scholars – people who are often misleadingly reffered to by non-Muslims as “Muslim clerics” – do not possess exclusive access to the truth. They are people who can be debated with, whose views can be contradicted. In Islam, religious authority does not rest with the scholar or jurist; it rests with the Qur’ân and Sunnah. These texts are independent of the people and are to be approached objectively.

There is no single concept of secularism that is accepted by all secularists. If we understand from it that the people are to be consulted and that they have the right to express their opinions and object to what they disagree with – and this is the democratic spirit – then this is one of the basic principles of our Law.

2. Recognition of the excellence of many of the principles of democracy

Among these principles are the primacy of the constitution, transparency of government, independence of the judiciary, separation of powers, freedom of speech, respect for human dignity, and the preservation of human rights. These principles embody the true essence and spirit of democracy. Without them, all that can exist is a farse, the mere outward trappings of democracy.

These are principles that Islamic Law calls us to uphold and commands our politicians to adhere to. Whoever wishes to adopt democracy should, first and foremost, embrace these principles. It is deeply regrettable that in many countries in the Arab world where we find the outward appearance of the democratic process, we do not find the reality of democracy.

3. Recognition that democracy is a culture and a social practice

Democracy is not merely a parliament and a ballot box. The practice of true democracy requires freedom of speech and open public dialogue.

4. Democracy cannot exist without public scrutiny

A democracy that cannot be monitored by the people is not a true democracy. Transparency in government administration is essential. All citizens must have equal access to information.

5. Muslims must exercise every effort to develop their mode of government

We must devise our own Islamic terminology that reflects our religion, our heritage, and the requirements of our faith.

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