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Is Islam Compatible With Democracy?

It is a question more observers are asking as recent events in the Middle East unfold: uprisings have toppled regimes in Egypt and Tunisia; protests seek to do so in Bahrain, Libya, Syria and Yemen; reformers demand greater power sharing in Jordan, Morocco and elsewhere. What role will religion play in newly emerging governments? Will Islamic political parties be prominent and what are the implications?

History demonstrates that all religious traditions can accommodate different and multiple political realities and ideologies. Europe’s evolution from feudal principalities into modern democratic states ignited vibrant theological debates within Christian and Jewish communities. Over time, Christianity and Judaism came to embrace the democratic ideal.

Similarly, Islam lends itself to different and multiple interpretations; Islam has been invoked in support of monarchy and dictatorship, democracy and republicanism. The 20th century bears witness to all these.

Some scholars believe that Islam is inherently democratic, basing their views on the well–established Quranic principle of shura (“consultation” in Arabic). However, they often disagree about the extent to which “the people” should exercise this duty.

They also stress the Islamic principle of ijma (“consensus” in Arabic). They argue that rulers have a duty to consult widely and to govern on the basis of consensus. But as with shura, scholars and activists have widely different views on the role ijma should play in society.

Conservatives and traditionalists define these principles narrowly and advocate for restricted democratic reform.

Conservatives, to whom belong the majority of the ulama, the educated class of Muslim legal scholars, endorse the classical formulation of Islamic law as it is elaborated in the ancient manuals and commentaries, and do not believe significant reform is necessary. While they accept the democratic character of shura and ijma in theory, in practice they adhere to strict, traditional interpretations of Sharia (the religious law of Islam).

In contrast, traditionalists reverence Sharia, but also pursue new interpretations of it that allow for a greater degree of democratic reform.

Islamic modernist reformers are the most adaptable. They look to early Islam as embodying a normative ideal — not as a practical model for contemporary society.

They distinguish more sharply between form and substance; in other words, between the principles and values of Islam’s immutable revelation and historically and socially conditioned institutions, laws and practices. The latter, they argue, are man–made and historically relative and may need to be reformulated to accommodate modern society’s political, social and economic needs.

Since the late 19th century, reformers have grappled with Islam’s relationship to the changing realities of modern life. They continue to lead lively debates on issues as diverse as the extent and limits of democratic reform, the role of tradition, women’s rights, forms of resistance, the dangers of radical Islam — such as terrorism and suicide bombings — religious pluralism and the relationship between Muslims and the West.

Reformers also work to debunk deeply entrenched prejudices among non–Muslims: for instance, that Islam is medieval, static and incapable of change; that it is a violent religion; that it degrades women; that Muslims do not speak out against radical Islam and terrorism; that they reject religious pluralism and interfaith dialogue; and that they certainly cannot be loyal citizens of non–Muslim countries.

But what about the people in the Muslim world? What do they think about democracy? Do they want it? Opinions in the Muslim world about democracy vary greatly. While a small number of Islamic extremists reject anything associated with modern democracy, dismissing it as “Westernization” and incompatible with Islam, most Muslims have at least come to terms with the idea of democracy — though often in drastically different ways.

In 2007, Gallup World Poll conducted a survey of the general public in 35 predominantly Muslim countries, whose combined populations represent a billion Muslims. The survey’s results indicated widespread support for Sharia as “a” source — but not “the sole” source — of legislation.

The majority of those surveyed also expressed desire for democratic reform and greater individual freedoms, transparency and respect for the rule of law. Moreover, most said they did not believe they had to choose between their religion and democracy, but that the two can coexist.

The hard reality, however, is that the political experience for most people in the Muslim world is far from democratic. By and large, the governments of predominantly Muslim countries consist of absolute monarchies, autocracies or military regimes with tenuous legitimacy.

Indeed, observers often refer to states of the Arab world as mukhabarat, or “security states” in Arabic. Outside the Arab world, authoritarian regimes — Islamic and secular — govern most other Muslim countries, such as Iran, Pakistan, Sudan and the Taliban’s Afghanistan.

The spread of Islamic terrorist groups, such as Al Qaeda, who espouse a global jihadist agenda, reinforces the common prejudice that Islam will never be hospitable to Western–style democracy.

However, Islam’s relationship with democracy is far more complex.

Understanding the Middle East today requires us always to bear in mind that most of the present–day nation–states in the region are relatively young, many carved out of colonial territories as European powers departed after World War II. For example, the French created modern Lebanon, which included portions of Syria; Great Britain determined the borders and rulers of Iraq, Kuwait and Jordan.

Since decolonization, the ruling elites in the region have for the most part been more concerned with maintaining their power and privileges than upholding democratic principles, such as power–sharing and the freedom of assembly, speech and the press.

For geopolitical and economic reasons related to the Cold War, support of Israel, access to the region’s rich oil supply and most recently the global war on terrorism, the United States and Europe have done little to promote democracy in most Middle East countries. In fact, the West has supported many of the region’s least democratic governments, such as those in Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Tunisia.

In the late 20th century, calls for democratic reform and greater individual freedom increased in the predominantly Muslim North Africa, Middle East and Southeast Asia. In many countries, diverse sectors of society began seeing their government’s response to their demands for broader political participation and individual freedom as a litmus test by which to measure its legitimacy. As a result, many countries have seen a proliferation of both secular democratic reformist and Islamist movements as well as an increase in street protests and politically motivated violence.

Economic crises in Algeria, Jordan, Tunisia and Turkey in the late 1980’s and 1990’s prompted tremendous public outcry. Many called for more sharing of power, transparency and respect for human rights. Others turned to fundamentalist Islamic groups, whose membership swelled.

The growth of Islamic movements, in particular, has had a profound impact on the geopolitical landscape.

On the one hand, since the late 20th century, Islamist political parties have emerged as major contenders in democratically held elections in Algeria, Bahrain, Indonesia, Egypt, Jordan, Kuwait, Lebanon, Malaysia, Morocco, Pakistan, Tunisia and Turkey. In Egypt, Jordan, Kuwait, Morocco and Tunisia, they represent the leading opposition to ruling, incumbent parties. In Algeria and Turkey, Islamist parties won major elections and now dominate their governments, with party members holding high–ranking positions, including prime minister, speakers of assembly and parliament, cabinet ministers and mayors.

On the other hand, the rise of radical Islamic groups, including terrorist organizations such as Al Qaeda, has undermined democratic reform. Radical Islamists generally oppose all forms of government other than a theocratic form based on Sharia.

Moreover, the September 11 attacks, the global war on terrorism that ensued and other violent terrorist activities attributed to radical Islamists have provided a convenient excuse for autocrats and monarchs in Muslim countries and some Western policymakers to forestall democratic reform. They warn that the democratic process runs the risk of allowing Islamist groups to make further inroads to centers of power. Ruling parties in Muslim countries, including those in Algeria, Egypt, Pakistan, Tunisia and countries in Central Asia, have also exploited the danger of radical Islam and their duties in the global war on terrorism to suppress opposition movements — extremist and mainstream — as well as to attract American and European aid.

Yet in spite of these challenges, over the last several months, the world has watched in wonder as hundreds of thousands of citizens of predominantly Muslim countries in North Africa and the Middle East have taken to the streets to make their democratic aspirations heard.

In mid–December 2010, Tunisians from all walks of life came together to demonstrate against longstanding political and economic grievances: rampant corruption, a lack of freedom of speech and other civil and political freedoms, persistently high unemployment, rising food prices and a gaping divide between the rich and poor. By the end of January 2011, the largely peaceful protests ousted President Zine El–Abidine Ben Ali, paving the way for anticipated free and fair democratic elections.

The event sparked what is now being called “The Arab Spring” and inspired successive uprisings in Egypt, Bahrain, Libya, Yemen and Syria as well as protests for democratic reforms in Algeria, Jordan, Morocco, Oman and Saudi Arabia.

On 25 January, Egyptian protesters took to the streets, demonstrating against the same longstanding political and economic grievances as had Tunisians in previous weeks. Despite violent attempts by authorities to disperse demonstrations, protesters refused to back down or resort to violence. On 11 February, President Hosni Mubarak was forced to resign, ending his 30–year rule.

The successes in Egypt, Jordan, Morocco and Tunisia demonstrate that many people in the Muslim world want democracy and believe it compatible with Islam. They also prove that the Arab world’s mukhabarat are not unshakable but can be deposed or forced to implement democratic reforms.

As the Arab Spring proceeds, observers must remember that a successful transition to democracy is a difficult and fragile process of trial and error.

Egyptians and Tunisians face many challenges in the months ahead, chief of which is establishing new democratically elected governments. Though expectations are high that these governments will set the stage for a prosperous future founded on the respect for the rule of law and human rights, nothing is certain.

Even if Egyptians and Tunisians successfully establish democratic mechanisms that ensure free and fair elections with broad public participation, this alone does not guarantee society will embrace other democratic values. More specifically, the democratic principle of religious pluralism has already manifested as a thorny issue in the post–Arab Spring world.

Most Egyptians embrace religious diversity; earlier this year, Muslims and Copts protested side by side in the streets, chanting in unison: “Hold your head high; you are an Egyptian.”

However, some militant Islamists virulently resent the country’s ancient Christian Coptic minority. In recent months, a string of violent attacks on Copts serve as a chilly reminder that myopic religious world views can turn ugly.

In Alexandria this past New Year’s Eve, a few minutes after midnight, an Islamist suicide–bomber detonated explosives at the entrance of a Coptic church, where parishioners were celebrating the Divine Liturgy. The blast killed 23 people and wounded 97 others.

The event shocked the nation; Muslim and Christian religious leaders, politicians and the media condemned the attack. And on 6 January, when Coptic Christians celebrate Christmas, thousands of Muslims joined them for candlelight vigils at churches around the country to honor the victims and help protect their Coptic neighbors. However, peace was again threatened in May when Copts and Muslims clashed in Cairo’s Imbaba district.

The relationship of Islam and democracy remains central to the development of the Middle East and the Muslim world in the 21st century. As U.S. President Barack Obama stated in his Cairo speech: “All people yearn for certain things: the ability to speak your mind and have a say in how you are governed; confidence in the rule of law and the equal administration of justice; government that is transparent and doesn’t steal from the people; the freedom to live as you choose. Those are not just American ideas, they are human rights, and that is why we will support them everywhere.”

John L. Esposito, Ph.D., is professor of international affairs and of Islamic studies and is the founding director of the Prince Alwaleed Bin Talal Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding at Georgetown University, Washington, D.C. His most recent book is “The Future of Islam.”

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