Islam and Democracy Research Papers
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Esposito and Voll contend that the modern political institutions in Islamic nations contain a strong element of democracy that is manifested according to local conditions and the boundaries of the existing nation-state system. This has led to a range of expressions of democracy, which include the following:
- The Islamic activists in power in Iran and the Sudan
- Revolutionary opposition in Pakistan and Malaysia
- The more clandestine Islamic movements as in Algeria
The Islamic concept of democracy, however, does not fit the generally accepted definition that is derived from the political traditions of Western Europe and the United States. The authors suggest that the Islamic quest for greater political empowerment and an end to marginalization is a manifestation of democracy, and is supported by Islamic thought and tradition that values consensus and group selection of leadership.
In the twentieth century, the two trends of democratization and Islamic identity assertion began to alter the political process in Islamic nations. The existing political structure had largely been imposed by outside forces, and was authoritarian in nature as a legacy of past political paradigms. Embedded within the political forms, though not always visibly operant, were the Islamic traditions of consultation, consensus and independent judgment, which the Koran indicates should guide the community’s decision-making process.
In actual Islamic heritage, the term “caliph” that had come to be synonymous with autocratic leader was originally intended to mean representative. From this perspective, the leader of the community was required to exercise divine authority in this world within the limits prescribed by God. The leader was not ordained by God, but by the community, and was obliged to consult with the community in an attempt to achieve consensus in worldly matters. The more modern interpretations of this traditional doctrine of consultation, or shura, have expanded it beyond the mandate for leaders to consult with the populace to a process of mutual advice between equals. The principle of consensus was based on the premise that a community cannot agree upon error, which theoretically allows a degree of evolution in both Islamic law and political structures. The exercise of informed, independent judgment permits individuals to call for radical reform of existing social institutions, as long as the reforms remain within the general context of Islamic law. These elements of Islamic thought set the stage for the development of a democratic form that may be different from the Western concept of democracy, but suited for the Islamic socio-political environment.
The primary difference between the Western and Islamic approaches to democracy is the alternative definitions of the external mandate that governs a political system. The Western concept is based on constitutionalism, which is the outcome of social reasoning of human beings (40). The Islamic concept, in contrast, is based on divine law, which is not subject to human reasoning. Nonetheless, within the framework of divine law as manifested in the Koran, there is a great deal of support for freedom of expression and openness to diversity. While religion and state are not separable in this framework, the quasi-fusion does lead to an implied contract between rulers and the community of Muslims. Although these theoretical tenets cross national boundaries, their application as demonstrated in democratic movements varies considerably among the Muslim nations.
In Iran, the current Islamic Republic can be seen as democratic in that it originally sought to political empower fundamentalist Muslims, who were marginalized by the pro-Western and authoritarian government of the shah (61). Many of the senior ayatollahs in 1979 opposed direct clerical rule, but in a democratic process the majority who advocated clerical rule dictated the terms of the nation’s constitution (63). Although the rights of ethnic and religious minorities are ostensibly guaranteed, in practice they are generally not well protected. A similar situation exists in the Sudan, where a fundamentalist political party collaborated with the military to seize power, establishing a totalitarian regime based on religious tenets (87). As in Iran, the original objective was democratic in that it sought political empowerment for a majority that perceived itself as disenfranchised.
Pakistan, in contrast, is currently an example of a more functional democracy. The various political parties of the nation associated with Islamic groups and positions, yet manage to engage in viable debate that leads to compromise and unified policy formation (102). For much of Pakistan’s history, however, it was subject to martial law, with democratic elements in open opposition. As such, the concept of democracy acted as a rallying point around which opponents to the military regime could coalesce. In Malaysia, Islamic political parties support democracy as the best means to achieve and maintain political power (141).
In Algeria, democracy operates as a cohesive force for the opposition to a secular elite that dominates the nation (171). As such, it is not a democratic process in operation, but a desire for political empowerment expressed by a marginalized majority. There is a similar quest for the use of democracy as a means of empowerment in Egypt, although it is more of a social than a revolutionary movement (190).
To make their case, the authors are forced to use a very broad definition of democracy, which does not include any form of guarantee of an ongoing democratic process once the marginalized group attains political power. Implicit in their analysis and the examples they provide is the suggestion that democratic aspirations are used as a means to gain political power, but democracy is not universally extended once the power is achieved. The authors make a strong case for the existence of democratic principles in Islamic belief and thought, but fail to adequately connect the principles to the actual examples of Islamic democracy that they provide.
Esposito, John L. and John O Voll. Islam And Democracy. New York: Oxford University Press, 1966.