May 312007

“Is Islam incompatible with democracy?” was the title of a discussion panel (sponsored by the New Statesman) at the Hay Festival last weekend. This clichéd question, which keeps scores of journalists and writers busy today, is in reality the product of stereotypical understanding of “Islam” and “democracy”.

“Islam” here appears as a self-enclosed religion that recognises no will but the will of the omnipotent God, leaving no room for the individual, his/her freedom and autonomy. This solid block confronts “democracy” as its other; “democracy”, the prodigal child of the liberal values of subjectivity and individualism, secularity and rationality.

This is a myopic view of the two terms under discussion. What it fails to see is that Islam, just like any other religion, was, is and will always be the object of multiple strategies of interpretation. The monolithic, uniform, and absolute Islam of the question has no existence outside the minds of fundamentalists, religious and secular – of whom there was no shortage on the panel.

The absence of an ecclesiastical authority (such as the Papacy) has been a factor of richness in the Islamic intellectual and cultural tradition, allowing for the emergence of a great multitude of schools of thought. With the crisis of modernisation in the post-colonial era, the erosion of the great learning institutions – such as al-Azhar, al-Zaitouna, and al-Qarawiyyeen – and weakening of the moral authority of the ‘ulama (religious scholars), this interpretive pluralism turned from virtue to curse. And this is where we find ourselves today, caught in the midst of a flood of extreme readings of Islam. Amid this chaos, such obscure figures as Bin Ladin and al-Zawahiri could claim for themselves the right to speak for Islam and its millions of followers worldwide.

This shortsighted essentialism subjects democracy to the same treatment, painting it as a closed, pre-determined system, capable of taking one form only: the western liberal form. The reality, however, is that democracy is neither a sacred ideology, nor a meta-historical dogma but a set of mechanisms and instruments devised to cure the political disease of despotism.

These include the mechanism of political accountability, the rule of law, the separation of powers, and power checks and balances. Such tools are capable of functioning across a wide range of cultures and traditions, in the UK as in India, in South Africa as in the US. They can work in the republican framework of the US, as in the state-centralised framework of France, in the royalist liberal British context, as in its revolutionary liberal American counterpart. Nor is democracy exclusive to western liberal systems; like the socialist Chavez or loathe him, he presides over a democratic government in Venezuela as does Morales, his Bolivian neighbour.

I can just hear you object: “But none of these are Islamic. Of course, only dictatorships are to be found in the Muslim world.”

Not quite. That the “Muslim world” is one bleak stretch ruled in its totality by dictatorships is a common, albeit inaccurate argument. Indonesia and Bangladesh are democracies; Turkey, Kuwait, Morocco, Mauritania, and Senegal half-democracies. Even Iran, which many insist on dismissing as a dictatorship, is a democracy of sorts. It has incorporated many of the mechanisms of democracy within a Shia Islamic system. Power is scattered across many hands. There is an elected revolutionary council, an elected parliament, a constitution, a council of experts, to name some of the parts of a highly complex structure. Whatever the reservations we may have about the Iranian system, it is more democratic than the Shah’s regime that it replaced, and many of the pro-western governments of the Middle East.

To phrase the question of Islam’s reconcilability with democracy in the negative is to cast it in the role of a defendant who has to prove her innocence against all the odds. The answer is implied in the question itself: Islam is democracy’s antithesis.

To make matters worse the organisers then invite a notorious neocon, Michael Gove, to answer the loaded question and a chair who confesses to being biased. This is like turning to Ayman al-Zawahiri and Omar Bakri for a verdict on western liberalism and democracy.

What starts as a question on “Islam” and “democracy” then turns into a discussion on “radical Islam”. This erratic shift of emphasis is hardly surprising to those who have been following discourse on Islam since September 11 closely. Its slippery language always swings from “Islam” to “radical Islam”, and from “Muslim” to “terrorist”, such that all these different terms become synonymous.

The same will to confusion and distortion characterises treatment of the subject of “political Islam”. Martin Bright and Michael Gove use the labels “radical” and “political Islam” interchangeably. The result is equating one with the other, as though no difference existed between the ruling AKP of Turkey and al-Qaida, between Erdogan in the Meclis or Turkish parliament, and Bin Laden in the caves of Tora Bora If a student were to use this lazy, generalised and simplistic argument in an essay on “political Islam”, she should count herself lucky if she got so much as a pass.

Consciously or otherwise, those who adopt these views depict the Muslim scene as a pit of darkness and stagnation summed up in the word “al-Qaida”. Decades of Islamic modern and contemporary political thought since Refaa al-Tahtawi wrote his Paris Profile (Takhlees al-Ibriz fi Talkhees Barees) in the 19th century are deleted. Years of acculturation and intellectual interaction with the democratic idea are erased. And an unfolding history of movement and conflict on the ground stubbornly seeking to transform the abstract into a concrete reality is brushed aside.

Just as our predecessors in the 1950s and 1960s were told that nationalism is incompatible with freedom and democracy, today we hear the same said of “political Islam”. The demon of Nasserism has made way for the monster of Islamism. I am sure that these cliché-ridden conversations are music to many ears eager for a monologue that confirms shallow stereotypes and deep-seated prejudices. But to the serious observer they are meaningless rant, refuted by developments in the world of ideas, and movement on the ground.

Behind its abstract terms, the question masks the real issues at stake. Instead of asking whether Islam can be reconciled with democracy and whether Muslims can be convinced of its virtues, what we should be asking is: “Are western interests in the ‘wider Middle East’ incompatible with democracy?”

Between support for hardened dictatorships in Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, or Tunisia, and punishment of the Palestinian people for its electoral choices, the answer has been a shameless and poignant “Yes”. If Gove, Bright and their likes really care for democracy, they should spend less time on absurd polemics and more on lobbying 10 Downing Street and the White House, not to spread democracy, but to stop obstructing it.


First Published in The Guardian, Thursday 31 May 2007

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