The relationship between Islam and ‘democracy’ dominates much of contemporary Islamic political thought, particularly among western-educated and ‘modernist’ Muslim intellectuals.
The relationship between Islam and ‘democracy’ dominates much of contemporary Islamic political thought, particularly among western-educated and ‘modernist’ Muslim intellectuals. However, much of the debate either does not bother to define democracy, assuming that others understand the term, or uses simplistic, naive definitions that people are undoubtedly accustomed to, but which have little meaning or relevance if critically assessed. The problem is that the word ‘democracy’ has come to mean all things to all people; it has become so vague that it is virtually meaningless, even in the western political culture from which it originated.
For western politicians, for example, it is a label by which they can claim legitimacy for themselves and those they favour, and condemn those they oppose. For them, it has no agreed terms of reference, no fixed points of definition. Precisely the same phenomena or modes of behaviour can be characterised as democratic, and so praised when displayed by some sectors of society or foreign governments, and condemned as undemocratic when displayed by others. Thus the manipulation of economies by big business can be seen as democratic, while the organisation of labour is undemocratic; a military regime such as Algeria’s can be ‘democratising’, while a popular revolution such as that in Iran can be ‘anti-democratic’. The list of possible examples goes on and on.
Western political theorists, on the other hand, regard such shenanigans as mere politics – even though they are supposed to be democratic politics – that have little to do with the real meaning of democracy. For them, democracy is about ‘civil society’, ‘the rule of law’, ‘political plurality’, the ‘sovereignty of the people’, and so on, all concepts traced back to the ancient Greeks, the ‘founders’ of democracy. The realities of politics have little interest to them, hence the emergence of scholars not of ‘political theory’ or ‘political science’, but of ‘politics and government’ or just plain ‘politics’. These look at political realities, such as the role of political elites and parties, and the manipulation of public opinion by ‘spin doctors’, without ever asking the obvious questions: are these realities so far removed from the ideal of ‘democracy’ that the word hardly applies to modern western states? And, this being the case, does western history not suggest that perhaps the theoretical ‘ideals’ of democracy are simply that: ideals that are not practical and that have no relevance to real life?
These questions are addressed, at least in part, by ‘democratic activists’ and ‘dissidents’ in the west. Many of these are famous intellectuals, such as Noam Chomsky and Howard Zinn. There is also a substantial, if little-known, democratic opposition movement, which is constantly critical of western governments and institutions that claim democratic legitimacy but are grossly undemocratic in their actual working. The dissidents’ bald definition of democracy is that as many decisions as possible should be collectively taken by as many people as possible. The ecological movement and the campaign against international economic institutions such as the World Bank are largely dominated by such groups. Their best-known publication is probably the New Internationalist, a magazine that is published monthly from Canada. This discussed democracy in its May 2000 issue, concluding that democracy is perhaps an ideal that can only be aspired to and never actually achieved.
For Muslims trying to make sense of this confusion, two points are particularly important. One is that there is a clear distinction between the understandings of democracy used by western states and the ideals defined by theorists and espoused by idealist activists and dissidents. The latter do not hesitate to condemn western states and their actions as undemocratic; yet many Muslims, the main victims of the west’s self-serving and ‘undemocratic’ conduct, seem unable to grasp this reality. The second is that it is peculiar that Muslims should seek to discuss Islamic political thought in terms of a concept that is so ill-defined and ill-understood even in the political culture in which it originated.
There are two main reasons for this apparently incomprehensible behaviour. First is that the west is so dominant in every aspect of modern life – political, economic, cultural and intellectual – that it is inevitable that others trying to challenge them should try to emulate and adopt the apparent foundations of the westís success. These foundations are in truth nothing very laudable: an unlimited appetite for power and material wealth; willingness to use unlimited and brutal force to promote western interests; and a remarkable capacity for deceit, manipulation and self-promotion in order to disguise the first two realities. But all these foundations are well disguised, and it is inevitable that many non-westerners, particularly those trained in western institutions, and nurtured by western political/social discourse, should fall instead for the false self-image that the west so assiduously cultivates.
The second is that the west has, over centuries, systematically destroyed or devalued all non-western institutions and traditions, with the result that non-western intellectuals have few opportunities for training or advancement, and are systematically marginalised even in their own countries. The results of this strategy have corroded the psyches of Muslim peoples too; in how many Muslim countries are ulama trained in Islamic institutions given the same respect and rewards as are afforded to westernised professionals, academics and intellectuals? The result is that positions of influence have inevitably passed to those who think in western terms rather than Islamic ones, simply because they are the only terms they know.
The same mistake is made even by Islamic movement activists, who recognise the anti-Islamic nature of western civilisation and the role played by pro-western governments – all dictatorships or monarchies – in Muslim countries. But in order to oppose the west they demand not Islam purely, but ‘democracy’. This reflects the seductiveness of the western image of democracy. After all, who can dispute the desirability of ‘rule of law’, ‘human rights’, ‘civil society’, ‘popular involvement’ in decision-making, ‘freedom from oppression’, ‘modernity’ and so on? All these are, after all, virtues that exist in Muslim political thought as well, in one form or another – Islam is not opposed to the rule of law; Islamic rulers and governments are supposed to be law-abiding. They are also supposed to promote and protect the rights of their people, not to oppress anyone, and to consider public opinion in decision-making. What, then, some Muslims say, is the difference between Islam and democracy?
However, when Muslims talk in terms of ‘democracy’, even if they do not mean to be pro-western, the effect is: a) to give the impression of endorsing western values and western claims to represent universal values; and b) to lay themselves open to accusations of being undemocratic by westerners. Then suddenly, instead of being able to simply accept the parts of ‘democracy’ that are common to Islamic political thought, and criticise the rest, Muslims find themselves having to explain why they do not accept all of democracy, at which they tend to be extremely apologetic and ineffective. They are put on the defensive and find themselves talking about democracy instead of Islam. The other problem is that they are then tempted to work alongside non-Muslims who claim to be democratic, on the basis that they have common agendas and principles. This also dilutes the Muslims’ ability to put Islam first in their thoughts and actions.
The problem is that too many Muslims who work in the area of Muslim political thought actually know little of Islamic teachings and scholarship, and are too deeply immersed in western political thought. This is especially true of Muslims who think and write in English or other western languages. But it is also true of much political discourse in Arabic and other traditional languages used by Muslims, because the political terminology that they use usually consists of translations of western terms, instead of original Islamic terms. These western terms are inevitably laden with western meanings, implications and other baggage that obstruct attempts to think clearly in Islamic terms.
The Islamic movement desperately needs the emergence of a language of political discourse that stems from Muslim political traditions and scholarship, instead of being imported and adapted from western political terminology. It may well prove impossible to fully achieve this; even such words as ‘revolution’ and ‘state’, which are routinely used with the prefix ‘Islamic’ in Muslim political discourse, come with a certain amount of western conceptual baggage. Nonetheless they can be and are used within the Islamic movement, and are sufficiently clearly understood to be useful, at least to some extent and for the time being.
Other, more subjective western terms must be avoided like the plague, however, if their western baggage is to be successfully excluded from Islamic political thought. Democracy is perhaps the most important of these. The confusion being caused by the importing of ‘democracy’ into Muslim political discourse, and the damage this trend is doing to Muslim political thought and the Islamic movement, is immense; it is likely to prove as great a problem in the future as the more tangible effects of the centuries of western political domination and exploitation of the Muslim world.
[This article was originally published in Crescent International, June 1-15, 2000.]