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Islam and democracy – two irreconcilable concepts?
lecture at the Swedish Research Institute in Istanbul October 12 2006

When our eyes were opened in Sweden to Islam as a political phenomenon just before the fall of the Shah in 1979, Ayatolla Khomeini was described in Dagens Nyheter as an Iranian Per Albin Hansson and the chador, the veil, as a symbol of women’s liberation. Readers received the message that the Koran was basically an Arabic version of the Social Democratic Party manifesto. In the Swedish Riksdag, one of the foreign policy experts of the Left Party Communists declared the party’s contacts with the clergy in Iran had made it clear that Khomeini was really a true Hermanssonite.

Thus, the debate was typical of the revolutionary romanticism prevalent in Sweden at that time. Like all other previous revolutions, the Islamic revolution was expected to automatically lead to an ideal society.

It proved not to be quite that simple, inter alia because there is no political theory in Islam. The Koran’s political messages may largely be said to be formulated in such general terms as to be compatible with ideologies across the entire political left-right spectrum. This is, of course, also true of the Bible which is cited as an ideological basis by politicians across a broad political spectrum from General Augusto Pinochet in Chile to dual-faith Christian Marxists, a species probably now dying out. In Sweden too we can see examples of Christians with irreconcilable political views. And there is no dearth of Islamic theologians and political theorists willing to justify different groups’ claims of representing the true belief. Nothing is easier for them than to proclaim an opponent to be adou Allah (the enemy of Allah) with the aid of selected quotations from the Koran, sunnah (the way of the prophet) or hadith (traditions).

Only 200 of the Koran’s 6 000 verses are normative and from these only three clear conclusions can be drawn:

– the state must be led by one person (caliph or emir) and not by a committee or politburo. This person shall act as the prophet’s successor but not, in contrast to the Pope, play the role of God’s representative.

– Islam is a state religion, which means the head of state must be a Muslim and all legislation must follow the Koran which is thereby given constitutional status.

– the executive and legislative function shall be exercised on the basis of consultation, shura, which is the title of the forty-second sura in the Koran.

Sometimes a statement by the prophet himself is also cited: God and his prophet are not in need of “shura” but for my communion God has made consultation a mercy, for he who consults shall not be without guidance on the Right Way, he who neglects to consult will be rich in mistakes.

While both Muslim fundamentalists and radical secularists reject every form of parliamentary democracy as being incompatible with religious traditions, at the same time many Muslim intellectuals and Islamic activists have tried to reconcile the Koran’s message with democracy. In this debate, an attempt is made to show that Islamic methods of politically organising society are superior to western methods, in both moral and practical terms, and that Islam in fact served as a source of inspiration to European thinkers during the Middle Ages and the Enlightenment.

The majority of those taking part in the discussion since then have agreed that Islam is din wa dawla, that is to say religion and state, and that these concepts are one and cannot be separated. Even though a secular social model has been rejected, a difference is still made between the religious sphere and more worldly concerns, between the holy and the profane, and between the eternal and the temporal. In this discussion, great importance has been attached to the principle of shura. Many writers proposed that the different political functions be divided between a regent and a legislative assembly in the form of a shura or a parliament so that political balance can be maintained. The importance of an independent judiciary has also been underscored and proposals presented for a higher constitutional court to guarantee lawful forms of rule.

However, several issues have been controversial. Is this consultation a duty of the regent and in that case is he bound by its decisions? Should he himself appoint the members of a consultative assembly or should they be elected members from the Muslim community or belong to formal institutions such as parties? Should they be religious experts or should their expertise lie in other areas? Should they take majority decisions and should all important issues be subject to consultation?

Even those who considered that a consultative procedure is necessary, that the result must be binding and who would also like a shura to be made up of elected members with special expertise in different areas, have at the same time asserted that decisions should be taken on the basis of an objective truth, that is to say the Koran. A shura should not therefore take the form of a political assembly where different basic political views are debated and adopted or rejected.

The ideal aimed for is consequently rule by experts with a just regent at the top more than a genuine political process with representation of interests and competitive views. Thus, the Iranian constitution asserts the right of experts. Above parliament there is the Guardian Council which has a right of veto over all decisions taken by the popularly elected assembly. It is a question of a moral and not a political principle. In the debate on pluralism, it is indeed recognised that God created people differently and that differences of opinion are therefore natural occurrences and may even be beneficial to Muslim society, however this is on condition that they stay within the limits of the faith and general decency.

Unrestricted and organised freedom of expression is viewed with distaste even in today’s Muslim reformist discussion. The limit is sharp and clear. The enemies of Islam cannot be tolerated, nor the hypocrite, atheist or sceptic. For many Islamists, not least those who belong to the Muslim Brotherhood active in large parts of the Arab world, Islam and democracy is and will by definition remain an impossibility. The idea that all citizens are equal is said to contravene the foundations of Islam since there are insurmountable and eternal differences between believers and non-believers, between rich and poor, between husband and wife(wives) and between jurists and the congregation. Nor is there any need for a legislative assembly since Islam does not have any deficiencies that need to be remedied.

The leading theorist of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, Sayid Qutb, strongly opposed any idea of the sovereignty of the people. This would be tantamount to setting aside God’s sovereignty and a kind of tyranny since the will of the individual would be subjected to the will of other individuals. Instead, the only solution to the problem of democracy, according to Qutb, was to restore the supremacy of divine rule:

Every form of aggression against God’s rule on earth – democracy was an example of this – Qutb equated with jahiliyya, the period of deepest ignorance that preceded Mohammed. Certainly, Qutb considered that an Islamic state must be based on the principle of shura but at the same time he was of the view that Muslim law was so perfect as a legal and moral system that further legislation was both unnecessary and impossible. New laws would therefore only be harmful.

So the odds appear to be against democratic systems in the foreseeable future in Europe’s neighbouring areas in the Middle East and North Africa. During the 1980s and 1990s the strongest opposition came from fundamentalist groups and not from parties or organisations that appealed for a western type of democratic system.

Has the opportunity already been lost? Did we perhaps already stand at a decisive cross-roads a couple of decades ago? Islamists and fundamentalists were marginal in politics at that time and the political debate was largely secular. Internal élites had a western upbringing and education and governments still had societies under reasonable control. The population bomb had not yet exploded. Urbanisation problems were manageable and the secular, west-oriented and putative socialist parties not yet totally discredited. However, the regimes were too authoritarian and based on special interests to understand the necessity of democratisation and the western world’s interest in democracy and human rights outside Europe was not as pronounced as it is now. Furthermore, in the 1950s and 1960s many accepted that democratic rights be suppressed on the grounds that it was necessary both for the survival of individual nations and for the sake of Arab unity and the fight against Israel. An Arab socialism based on a one-party system was also claimed and considered in many quarters, including Europe, to be a precondition for economic development. This applied not least to the now so discredited NLF version of Algerian socialism.

Awareness is now growing that none of these goals could defend the suppression of democratic rights. Nowadays, the Islamic world is also inundated with information and just as in Africa, Latin America or Asia, the despots cannot isolate their citizens from CNN and continuous information about political events and trends in the rest of the world. Hundreds of guest workers take their experience home from Europe. Like Coca Cola, the word democracy does not need to be translated

Many of the regimes in the Arab world have realised this and liberalisation has been their answer. This is far from being tantamount to democracy, however freedom of speech has improved in some places, limits have been set for overly arbitrary exercise of power and political parties and associations have been accepted. In Egypt, Jordan, Yemen and Kuwait, Islamic parties with roots in the Muslim Brotherhood have chosen to follow a parliamentary path and have been allowed to take part in political life and openly express their criticism of the government’s policy. Furthermore, in Egypt and Lebanon, Islamic parties have formed coalitions with non-Islamic parties, something which was previously inconceivable. Islamic organisations have also started their own newspapers, financial institutions and schools and their influence is noticeable at universities and in trade union organisations and women’s organisations.

Free thought cannot be fettered was the message on banderoles during student demonstrations in Teheran in the summer of 1999. The most far-reaching and interesting reform thinking is now taking place in Iran. The actual central idea of the Islamic state is rejected there by Islamic theologians who claim that the greatest threat to Islam in Iran is the experience the Iranians have of 25 years of Islamic rule.

For many reasons people are increasingly turning away from the religious leadership and politico-religious oppression, and the corruption, both moral and financial, which characterises many of the religious leaders and their inability to manage the economy. The election of the former revolutionary guard Mahmoud Ahmadinejad as president was above all a protest election in spite of his religious image and he received most of his votes from the growing proletariat in the slums of the big cities while the groups who are striving for a democratic development boycotted the election. Gradually, ordinary people have got used to living double lives as during the Shah period but now in reverse. Before the revolution, prayers were often said at home before going out to celebrate. Now prayers are said in public mosques while celebrations take place within people’s own four walls.

Prominent theologians such as Mohammed Mojtahed Shabestari and Abdul-Karim Soroosh constitute the most dangerous opposition to the “Guardian Council” which has the real power in the country, since this opposition is presented from Islamic points of departure.

The basic idea is that Islamic values should certainly play a fundamental role in the state but that the citizens are its sovereign irrespective of religious attitude. The idealisation of Islam was a consequence of the Shah’s enforced modernisation policy. Now instead, it is a matter of finding a way back to a depoliticised piety. Since Islam is identified with the state, the religion is also responsible for all the bad conditions. The consequence will be not just religious hypocrisy and loss of religious values but also secularisation and in continuation atheism.

Mohammed Mojtahed Shabestari asserts that democracy and human rights are the highest norms that shall be respected in a polity. These norms are, above all, religious boundaries. Political freedom, civil rights and freedoms are linked to relations between people and their relationship to society and the state and therefore have nothing to do with religion. A democratic form of government without the Islamic prefix is compatible with Islam since Islam does not prescribe any special form of government. Mohammed complied with the polity that prevailed during his life and throughout the history of Islam we have seen many forms of government adapted to the conditions of their time.

Abdul-Karim Soroosh chiefly attacks the idealisation Islam was subject to in the last century. He calls politicised Islam a line of thought that has engaged in people’s political, social and moral lives in a tyrannical way and given a simplified picture of the world as an arena for combat with religion as a weapon. When the opportunity for and necessity of a new interpretation is denied as has been the case and continues to be so, not only the diversity but also the depth and complexity of the religion disappears.

Soroosh’s thoughts are based on a minimalist definition of the role of religion. He stresses ethics and draws a decisive dividing line between a religious state based on Islamic values and an Islamic ideological state. His objective is to “reduce religion’s public influence in order in this way to lay the foundation for a pluralist society”. Soroosh views the democracy discussion as part of a larger project to reform Islam. Islam must become reconciled with scientific progress:

“Let us differentiate between religion on the one hand and our interpretations of religion on the other. I mean by religion not the faith that is the subjective side of religion but the objective side which consists of the disclosed text. The Koran does not change but our understanding of it is subject to change. Advances are made in science, new areas of knowledge are won and this will inevitably have consequences for religious knowledge.”

Thus, the basic idea is that while religion implies freedom, perfection and holiness, theology is always in process of change and under the influence of and dependent on other areas of knowledge. If there is a decisive breakthrough in an area “this wave will be propagated and set the whole sea of science in motion. If scientific knowledge of the cosmos increases this will also produce truer theological knowledge.”

Throughout history Islamic scholars have interpreted the text of the Koran in different ways. According to Soroosh, the historic contexts must be brought to the fore and given decisive importance:

“The texts never stand alone and are not necessarily bearers of their own meaning. They must be put in their context, they are loaded with theory. We cannot make an exception for religious texts. The interpretation of them is in a state of constant change.”

This has consequences for Islamic law also. Soroosh considers this to be a historic product. While traditional legal thinking is elaborated according to methods from a distant past, what may be called dynamic legal thinking can open paths to new answers. He takes as an example the question of equal rights for Muslims and non-Muslims in a Muslim society. Traditional legal thinking makes a distinction which Soroosh cannot accept. Religious affinity cannot be sufficient as a basis for rights, it is rather as human beings we have these rights. The goal must always be to promote a religious perception that focuses on individual religious experience and God’s love.

The growing number of intellectuals in the Muslim world who now advocate a modern interpretation of Islam do not constitute a pressure group with a common agenda. They receive support neither from governments nor traditionalist nor radical groups. The traditionalists consider them westernised, the radicals consider them compromised and the authoritarian regimes consider them dangerous.

A process of democratisation must come from within and the preconditions for this differ from country to country. An absolute precondition is that there is a feeling of common history, national affinity and national identity. Bush could therefore not have chosen a worse guinea-pig than Iraq for his ambitions to introduce democracy from outside, which is then to spread its light over the Muslim world. When the British and French mandatory powers redrew the political map of the Middle East after the First World War, state boundaries in the Middle East were drawn to suit the aims of the colonial powers and precisely to undermine national unity and stability which are necessary for a well functioning democracy.

The longer the occupation of Iraq lasts, the greater will be the credibility of Bin Laden’s argumentation that the Muslim world as a whole was the main target from the very beginning. Iraq was attacked and not North Korea which was a greater threat. Saddam Hussein’s claimed possession of weapons of mass destruction proved to be a pretext and for many Muslims the occupation of Baghdad is the most humiliating occurrence since the loss of eastern Jerusalem in 1967. As the capital city of the Islamic caliphate during a six-hundred-year period of glory, the city has great symbolic value. Moreover, the Iraqi regime’s rapid and total collapse further strengthened Bin Laden’s argument that neither secular Islamism nor Arab nationalism can free the Muslim world but rather salvation lies in Islam and a permanent violent military jihad. If just one per thousand of the population in the Muslim world believes in these arguments, it means a recruitment base of over a million people. Blind terror directed against American and other western targets as recently in London will therefore probably remain a phenomenon we are forced to live with in the foreseeable future. In a worst case scenario the Cold War of the 20th century will be replaced by a very hot one without clear fronts and with new weapons we do not know how to combat or protect ourselves against. To wage a military war against an abstract substantive such as terrorism is an impossibility and with the invasion of Iraq the possibilities of winning it have been, pardon the play on words, ground to zero.

The chances of the American invasion creating a prosperous democracy of western type that rapidly spreads its light over the Muslim world are therefore small. Instead, the prospects for a democratic development have darkened and American style democracy has come to be regarded as an enforced westernisation without regard for domestic culture and local traditions. As a consequence of the invasion of Iraq, it is highly probable that anti-western parties influenced by Islamism would win free elections all over the Muslim world.

The western world has two alternatives for action. One is to influence and encourage Muslim states to take the path to political pluralism and to accept the results of free and democratic elections whoever wins.

The regimes in many Muslim states are now facing problems of the same kind as several west European governments had to manage during the post-war period. The Communists made up 20-30 per cent of the electorate in some places at that time. Their desire to conform to fundamental democratic principles such as respect for election results and voluntary return of power was in many cases disputable. In France and Italy, they were allowed not just to participate in parliamentary life and play an often prominent role at the local level but also were included on some occasions in governments until they began to disappear from the political scene in the 1980s.

If the fundamentalist groups were treated in a similar manner in the Muslim world and were not only allowed to take part in elections but also to rule in regions and municipalities where they gain a majority, their inability to manage modern societies would be exposed and their power of attraction lessen. The slogan that Islam is the solution would once and for all lose its credibility.

The other alternative is to pursue a policy of obstruction and try to stop Islamic movements by supporting the regimes that oppress them. A policy of this nature will surely prove considerably more difficult than the fight against communism. To challenge an ideology based on an unsuccessful economic system is one thing, to demonise and fight a faith and culture over a thousand years old is quite another. Moreover, the regimes one would need to turn to for support are not exactly models of democracy. What those who have shown the greatest determination in the fight against fundamentalist voices have in common is quite the reverse, they have been callous dictatorships such as Hafez-al-Assad’s Syria, Quadaffi’s Libya and Saddam Hussein’s Iraq.

If the regimes in power are encouraged to withstand all fundamentalist tendencies on the grounds that under all circumstances they harm western interests, the western world is in addition in danger of becoming insensitive to or of disregarding tendencies and trends that may be genuinely democratic and hence further their own long-term interests. A policy of this type also leads, quite rightly, to accusations of a hypocritical attitude and view of democratic ideals.

In Algeria, both this alternative and the question of Islam’s compatibility with democracy could have been tested. When President Chadli Ben Djedid ended the one-party rule of the National Liberation Front (NLF) in 1988 following growing dissatisfaction with its misgovernment, Islam immediately began to assert itself as a political force. In the local and regional elections in June 1990, the FIS (Islamic Salvation Army) gained 65 per cent of all votes and a majority in Alger, and 32 of the 48 provinces and more than 60 per cent of local assemblies. Successes continued in the first round of the parliamentary elections in December 1991. NLF won only 15 seats. For the first time in the Arab world, a government party had been beaten by an Islamic party in free elections and FIS appeared to be set to win a safe majority in the elections on 15 January 1992 which were to decide the 199 seats that could not be decided in the first round of the elections. This did not happen, however. Five days before the second round, President Ben Djedid was deposed in a military coup and the elections were called off. The leaders of the FIS were imprisoned and the party prohibited.

Military rule led to increasingly escalated violence with strong anti-western elements. It would perhaps have been politically more astute to let FIS defend its policies in an open political system than to force the party underground and make it a martyr. In government, FIS would have been forced to adapt its policies to grim reality and attempts to carry through drastic Islamisation of Algerian society would have led to an anti-fundamentalist backlash.

If the west makes it absolutely clear from the outset that the results of democratic elections will be accepted irrespective of who wins, it will be easier to later adopt a firm position if democratically elected Islamic governments abuse their power. Criticism cannot then be dismissed as an expression of anti-Islamism.

For the Muslim world, the Algerian elections instead became something of a test of the west’s view of Islam and democracy. The western world’s reaction to the coup could be characterised as passive not to mention silent approval. Representatives of the Algerian military were given a friendly reception on their tours to explain the aims of the coup. The State Department in Washington did indeed regret that the democratic process in Algeria had been suspended but otherwise remained silent. The sigh of relief drawn after the military seizure of power did not tally with the sanctions imposed against Haiti’s military junta, Burma’s dictatorship or the international criticism Peru’s President Fujimori faced when earlier that year in April he dissolved parliament and abolished the constitution. The lame reaction was seen as proof that the inherent anti-Islamic frame of mind in western democracies is so strong that even an Islam that wants to act within the framework of the democratic process is repudiated. This frame of mind played into the hands of the fundamentalists and had consequences far beyond Algeria.

When the election victory had been stolen from FIS, the fundamentalists got the upper hand and liberal activists who opposed terror attacks were murdered. The inability or unwillingness of the west to imagine that liberal Islam might be a possibility became a self-fulfilling prophecy. In spite of all the rhetoric about the necessity of pluralism, political reform, democratic systems and free elections, the combination of Islam and democracy appears therefore to spread as much anxiety among western governments as among despots and authoritarian rulers in the Muslim world.

Although Islamic culture may now be an obstacle to democracy we must not forget that cultures, and also the current prevailing religious ideas, are subject to constant change. Many cultural elements remain constant, others change in the course of one or two generations. Economic development is a major factor in this process of change. Spanish culture in the 1950s was described as traditional, authoritarian, hierarchic and religion-oriented. Spain is no longer described in such terms.

It is as yet too early to say where the Islamic discussion of democracy will lead. However, it is clear that Muslim political traditions and institutions are in process of development in the same way as social conditions and class structures are changing. Both these trends are important for the future development of democracy. Changes will occur in the Muslim world but their expression will take several different forms. In some cases, a democratisation will only mean that the people are led round in a circle and arrive back where they started. In other cases, what the Arabs themselves refer to as a facade democracy will be introduced, where a democratic vocabulary is used to pass on the old authoritarian system. In other places, demands for development towards a civil society will increase.

This does not mean, however, that the whole Dar al-Salam will be an isolated anti-democratic pocket for ever. Rapid technological developments will affect all cultures, including Muslim culture. Muslims will influence one another and be influenced by other cultures to an extent never seen before. The debate will therefore inevitably go from chewing the rag about theological theses and the literal interpretation of the holy texts to attempts to adapt these to an increasingly complicated world. Islam will be a source of personal identity and group identity but more and more people will critically review their heritage from previous generations and try to adapt it to today’s reality.

Therefore, the fact that Islam has not been compatible with democracy in the past does not mean that a pluralist political system will never be possible. However, it is clear that the road to such a system is secular and based on economic and social development and the changes must come from within. To put it incisively, the Muslim world may be said to face a choice between Mekka or mechanisation.

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