Democracy without Secularism?
Reflections on the Idea of Islamic Democracy (*)
This paper explores an Islamic interpretation of a word that has become a battle-cry in political debates within Arab-Islamic societies: "democracy" (1). Variously interpreted and differently understood, this word has nevertheless come to represent an ideal which most political movements, even some which identify themselves as Islamic, claim as their own.
What do contemporary Islamic thinkers understand by the term "democracy"? How do they deal with arguments which purport to prove that democracy requires secularism? Do they end up by subverting the meaning of "democracy", or do they succeed in offering an innovative and coherent understanding of what the term means, a vision of politics in which political and religious elements co-exist peacefully?
To examine Islamic approaches to democracy is (in part) to see how Islam views "the Other". In the present case this "Other" is a victorious, democratic West which claims that, despite its faults, democracy is the only morally defensible political order, the only political option for societies and states that do not want to be left behind in the rapidly evolving world in which we live.
There are at least two reasons why it is useful to explore how Islamic thinkers view democracy. To begin with, there is a purely theoretical interest which lies in seeing how intellectual traditions (or cultures) perceive each other. In particular, there is an interest in seeing how concepts and practices which emanate in a given intellectual tradition fare when attempts are made to graft them onto other intellectual traditions. In this we can find a measure of perceived distances between traditions, and their ability (or inability) to recognize in each other an interlocutor from which something can be learned.
Secondly, and perhaps more importantly, there is a practical interest in seeing the possible form, or forms which political practice may come to assume in those countries where Islam is dominant, or increasingly influential. For example, it would interesting to find out if there are significant differences between Islamic movements which pledge allegiance to democracy, and those which are consciously opposed to it. There is something to be gained by understanding the conceptions and ideas which pro-democracy Islamic thinkers entertain. This can help to anticipate the future and perhaps play a part in shaping it.
In the first section of this paper, I explain certain aspects of the "received view of democracy", which are relevant to our discussion. According to "the received view" (both in the West and Arab-Islamic countries), democracy presupposes (or implies) secularism. Western thinkers, long accustomed to the notion of the separation between religion and the state, tend to assume this as part of the intellectual background of discussion. But pro-democracy Arab thinkers who are opposed to political Islam, are acutely aware of the need to convince their readers that no genuine democracy is possible unless religion is relegated to the private sphere. All of this is part of the intellectual setting in which Islamic thinkers are forced to "contest" democracy for Islam.
In the second section of this paper, I move on to explain the Islamic "take" on democracy. It turns out that "Islamic democrats" propose to conceptualize democracy as a set of "procedures" for arriving at political decisions. Moreover, it turns out that Islamic thinkers view these procedures as being more or less value-free, which is to say they are neutral between different value systems- including Islamic and secularist values, or ways of life.
Finally, in the last two sections of this paper I stop to consider a number of objections that have been discussed in connection with the proposed Islamic view of democracy. Objections to the notion of "Islamic democracy" seek to bring out, by means of specific examples and scenarios, the extreme tension, if not explicit contradiction, which is bound to occur between the requirements of democracy and the requirements of the faith. Islamic replies, on the other hand, seek to minimize the degree of these tensions, or to show that they are neither inevitable, nor peculiar to the Islamic system of government.
II. Secularism and the Received View of Democracy
The concept democracy has a long history, during which associations were formed, and links to other concepts were forged. It is a rich and complex concept. For this reason, it is not surprising to find that some of the more astute Islamic thinkers who have discovered the concept in recent years do not believe that "democracy" expresses a simple meaning which needs to be accepted or rejected wholesale.
I believe that Islamic thinkers are fully justified in this attitude. For the concept democracy has been, and continues to be, explained in many different ways, as is suggested by existence of various schools of "democratic thought", with names such as "liberal democracy", "social democracy", "participatory democracy", "deliberative democracy", in addition to more descriptive names which center around terms such as "elite pacts", "pluralism", "polyarchy", and others.
The existence of different schools of thought, each of which claims to offer a more adequate, perhaps more insightful view of democracy than its rivals, shows that democracy is an "essentially contested concept" (2). It is plausible to view Islamic writers who discuss democracy as having decided to "join the fray" of debates that are taking place about the use, or uses of the term. One can see their work as an attempt to contest "democracy" for Islam, or to win democracy for Islam.
On the face of it, it does not appear that their task is likely to be an easy one. For despite all the disagreements between proponents of democracy (Western and non-Western alike), and the differences between the various explications of the term, it is possible to say that contemporary discussions of democracy commonly assume that religion has been firmly placed in "the private sphere", that the public sphere, where political activity takes place, is open to all citizens, without reference to religious considerations.
Indeed, sometimes the need for citizens to meet on neutral, non-religious ground is brought to the fore as a requirement, or a presupposition which all but betrays the democratic-cum-secular form of the desired political order. Such is the case of Rawls, who offers "political liberalism" as a possible answer the question of
"How is it possible that there may exist over time a stable and just society of free and equal citizens profoundly divided by reasonable, through incompatible, religious, philosophical, and moral doctrines?" (3)
More often, however, it is simply assumed political debates and arguments which are to be conducted in the "public arena", in the presence of all interested citizens, will use what Audi calls "secular rationale". Secular rationale is defined as
"..one whose normative force, i.e., its status as a prima facie justificatory element, does not evidentially depend on the existence of God (or denying it) or on theological considerations, or on the pronouncements of a person or institution qua religious authority." (4)
On the whole, it seems fair to say that the problem of what to do with religion is not considered to be a major problem, as far as discussions of democracy in the West are concerned. Most of the time debates revolve around the questions of representation, fairness, equality, participation, and others which put religion somewhat aside.
But this is not the case when democracy is discussed in the context of Arab and Islamic culture. Here we find no dearth of writers who are willing to remind us of the need to resolve the issue of the relation between religion and politics. The resolution which is suggested most of the time requires leaving religion outside the political arena. Democracy, we are told, requires secularism.
To Aziz Azmeh, one of most prolific and insightful writers on the subject of political Islam, it is almost axiomatic that democracy implies secularism. This is evident in the way he bemoans the rarity, in recent democratist discourse in the Arab world, of "the positions that underline the necessity of secularism for any democratic order..." (5)
Another writer, Elie Keddourie, a firm believer in the hostility of Arab-Islamic culture to democracy, claims that the idea of the secularity of the state (an idea which is "indispensable to good government and a free society") is "implicit in popular sovereignty." (6) Given that popular sovereignty is implied by democracy (the term literally means "government by the people"), it would seem, according to this argument, that secularism is implied by democracy.
Still a third, Azmi Bisharah, infers secularism from the very definition of democracy, or so it seems. According to Bisharah:
"...it is conceptually impossible to entertain a notion of the freedom of thought and expression unless beliefs are placed in the realm of free decision. Freedom to decide, on the other hand, is (by definition) an individual liberty. Thus if freedom of thought and expression is an essential constituent of democracy, it follows that secularism ... is an essential constituent of democracy." (7)
This perceived connection, escapable or not, between democracy and secularism, has not been lost on Islamic writers, who have been trying to come to terms with the notion of democracy. The constellation of concepts which they find themselves having to work with includes not only democracy-related concepts such as the people, popular will, the common good, but also concepts such as divine sovereignty, obedience to God's law, and an entire system of moral and aesthetic values which derive from history and religion.
Having seen for themselves the effects, both short-term and long-term, of despotism, and having witnessed, often at close quarters, the well-ordered workings of the political system in stable Western democracies, many Islamic thinkers have begun to yearn for a political order which would, in some ways, emulate that which they observe in the West, but without forsaking the living faith of the people.
The challenge which these thinkers pose to themselves is to decipher the basic components and aspects of this method of government which is called "democracy", with the aim of determining how the system works, what its presuppositions are, and whether (and to what extent) it can be emulated, without doing harm to Islamic religion and culture.
This does not promise to be an easy task, inasmuch as it involves resolving some (apparently) very serious conflicts between religion and democracy. One major problem, hinted at by Kiddourie above, is the problem of recognizing the principle of popular sovereignty. This raises a question of how a religion-based political system can avoid setting up an office of "religious guardians" with veto power over the will of the people. Another is the problem of freedom of thought and expression, referred to by Bisharah above. This raises a question of whether the need to preserve a measure of orthodoxy (a hallmark of all religious traditions) can be reconciled with freedom of thought and expression, and whether it is indeed compatible with the spirit of toleration, which is supposed to be an essential part of democratic practice.
III. An Islamic View of Democracy
The Islamic view of democracy which I want to discuss in what follows is best introduced by reference to the writings of three well-known Islamic thinkers: Ghannouchi, Turabi, and Khatami. Their views are not universally well-received: secular-minded writers think that "Islamic democracy" is not sufficiently democratic; conservative Islamic writers think that "Islamic democracy" is not sufficiently Islamic. Nevertheless, many people find their moderate and reformist views reasonable, as well as appealing. Considered as a whole, their work represents a fairly elaborate attempt to come to grips with the fundamental questions that Islamic thought must face if it is to succeed in arriving at a satisfactory settlement with democracy.
Simply put, their basic logical move is to distinguish between two ways of thinking about democracy. One way is to view democracy as being basically a "doctrine of procedure", a method for dispensing, sharing, and managing political power. This way of viewing democracy has been classically expressed by Schumpeter in these words:
"Democracy is a political method, that is to say, a certain type of institutional arrangement for arriving at political... decisions, and hence incapable of being an end in itself, irrespective of what decisions it will produce under given historical conditions." (8)
In this "procedural conception" of democracy, one finds room for Dahl's so-called "institutions of polyarchy", I mean things such as free, periodic elections, inclusive suffrage, associational autonomy, and the like. (9) Basically, democracy is a method of government which allows the people to chose their rulers and hold them accountable for what they do in office.
The other way is to view democracy as a procedure which is tied to values and philosophical beliefs that hinge on a certain conception of the "good life", a life which involves, among other things, autonomy, individuality and free choice-- in short, a life which is "worthy" of the dignity of human beings within political community.
One finds a recognition of this view of democracy in the writings of Schumpeter and (more recently) Rawls. Both of them reject it, albeit for different reasons. According to what Schumpeter refers to as the "classical theory of democracy", democracy is an institutional arrangement which aims at achieving "the common good". (10) Moreover, this view of democracy has "religious underpinnings", in that the belief in the intrinsic and equal worth of all individuals (which can be found in some statements of the "classical theory of democracy") is nothing but a political translation of the Christian belief in the equality of all souls before God. (11)
Rawls, on the other hand, distinguishes between liberalism viewed as a "comprehensive philosophical doctrine", and liberalism viewed as solution to the problem of how citizens who are divided by "incompatible religious, philosophical, and moral doctrines" can live together. Rawls refers to the latter as "political liberalism", and he illustrates the difference between the two views of liberalism by reference to the value of individual autonomy. According to Rawls,
"This value may take at least two forms. One is political autonomy, the legal independence and assured political integrity of citizens and their sharing with other citizens in the exercise of political power. The other form is moral autonomy expressed in a certain mode of life and reflection that critically examines our deepest ends and ideals, as in Mill's ideal of individuality, or by following as best one can Kant's doctrine of autonomy. ...Many citizens of faith reject moral autonomy as part of their way of life." (12)
The distinction which Islamic thinkers draw between different ways of viewing democracy does not correspond in all details to the distinction which Schumpeter and Rawls make, nor is it illustrated in the same way. Nevertheless, the distinctions are noticeably similar. Ghannouchi may be credited with the clearest formulation of the distinction between two ways of viewing democracy:
"...it is possible for the mechanisms of democracy ... to operate in different cultural milieus .... Secularism, nationalism, profit- making, pleasure, power, and the deification of man (these are the values and practices under whose shadow democracy developed) are not inevitable consequences of democracy. Democracy resolves itself into popular sovereignty, equality between citizens, governing bodies which emerge from popular will through free elections, ....recognition of the majority' s right to rule.... There is nothing in these procedures which is necessarily in conflict with Islamic values. On the contrary, the democratic apparatus is the best available method for realizing these values." (13)
Khatami, on the other hand, formulates the distinction in this manner:
"Democracy is a method of achieving [political] stability. This means that democracy is a mechanism, and that the form of government is to be decided by the popular will. Now, in the West, popular will has led to secularism and liberalism. In Islamic societies, popular will is bound to produce a form of government which is in line with people's Islamic thought." (14)
One thing which statements by Ghannouchi, Khatami, and many others make clear is that, to Muslim minds, democracy has become entangled with certain values and practices which Islam cannot allow. Primary among the values and practices in question is secularism. Materialism, utilitarianism, skepticism, and liberalism (in the sense of "unfettered freedom") are also "mixed up" with democracy. They, too, elicit the same response as the much feared, and despised secularism.
The conceptually innovative move which Ghannouchi and Khatami make lies in their claim that democracy as such is only contingently related to the abhorred values and practices. To Khatami, democracy is simply the practice of abiding by decisions of the popular will. If the beliefs and values which people have are Islamic, then by following the "democratic method" we are bound to establish an Islamic regime. If, on the other hand, the beliefs and values which people have are secular or liberal, then following the "democratic method" will naturally result in the establishment of a secular or liberal regime.
Ghannouchi is even clearer: democracy means popular sovereignty, political equality, representative government, and majority rule. None of these things spell secularism, skepticism, materialism, or utilitarianism. Hence there is no call, from an Islamic point of view, for rejecting democracy. Or, as Schumpeter puts it, democracy is simply a method of making political decisions. It does not dictate the content of the decisions to be arrived at. (15)
Believing that in a Muslim society the overwhelming majority will want to live in an Islamic way, Khatami and Ghannouchi welcome free elections. Their attitude toward political pluralism, party competition, parliamentary debates, and other aspects of the democratic process, is equally welcoming. For they imagine that all the competition, opposition, and debate will take place within limits which are established by a national consensus on the essentials of the (Islamic) regime, so that no threat to the integrity of the Islamic society will be posed by these political processes and procedures.
That pluralism and opposition take place within the framework of an enduring basic political consensus on essential matters is not an original insight on the part of Islamic writers who have been engaged in examining the presuppositions of democracy. Many Western political writers recognize this. According to Esposito and Voll:
"In standard modern Western political thought, acceptable opposition in a democratic system is closely tied to the concept of a constitutional government, in which there is an underlying, fundamental consensus on the "rules of the game" of politics. Opposition in the legitimate disagreement with particular policies of specific leaders within the mutually accepted framework of the principles of an underlying constitution that is either written or based on long-established practice." (16)
Islamic thinkers agree with Esposito and Voll in thinking that democratic practice takes place "within the mutually accepted framework of the principles of an underlying constitution". In their case, however, the constitution derives from the basic principles of the faith. This is what Islamic thinkers take Shari'a (Islamic law) to be. Turabi, for example, views Shari'a as " the higher law, just like the constitution, except that it is a detailed constitution". (17) Mawdudi, on the other hand, speaks of an "unwritten Islamic constitution", one which already exists, awaiting efforts to codify it, on the basis of its original sources. The sources for this unwritten constitution turn out to be identical with the sources of Shari'a. (18)
Once the binding Islamic constitutional framework is established, political activity can proceed in the familiar democratic manner, which involves pluralism, opposition, and power contestation.
This is all too evident for Turabi, who clearly recognizes the logic of "government and loyal opposition", as it is practiced in Western democracies:
"Such a consensus on the foundations, which is directly agreed upon, and in whose light details are discussed, is a condition for the stability of all democratic systems. This is how Western democracies have achieved their stability: the people, through a process of cultural and political development, have eventually reached a consensus on the foundations, and have succeeded in delimiting the matters which are subject to consultation and parliamentary debate..... If we were to look at partisan debates in Western democratic countries we would find that the debate takes place within an established framework. For example, the difference between Labor Party and the Conservative Party in Britain is very limited, and so is the difference between the Republican Party and the Democratic party in America." (19)
This is, then, the Islamic "take" on democracy. Democracy must be distinguished from secularism and other "ideological" value-elements with which it has become entangled in Western practice. Islamic thinkers propose to take democracy without secularism. Freed from secularism, democracy becomes available for Muslim societies to take advantage of in ordering their political life.
Still, many important and valid questions remain to be asked with regard to the logical coherence of the resulting proposal. Almost all the questions which can be raised have to do with "rights". What types of rights does the Islamic constitution recognize and protect? Does it legitimize any type of discrimination between citizens? Does it protect the right of opposition and dissent, and to what degree? How does the minority fare in the Islamic regime? But perhaps we should begin by considering the fundamental question whose answer sets theocratic forms of government apart from modern democratic forms. This is the question of popular sovereignty: the collective right which people have to govern themselves by laws of their own making. Democracy, after all, means "government by the people". Is this something that a religion-based regime can accept?
IV. People vs. God: the Question of Sovereignty
Islamic thinkers who want to come to terms with democracy are often thought to face a major conceptual difficulty at the outset. The difficulty can be summarized thus. On the one hand, democracy requires the upholding of a principle of popular sovereignty. In a democracy, the people are supposed to rule. Islam, on the other hand, seems to require repudiation of popular sovereignty in favor of something which is sometimes referred to as "divine sovereignty", or "divine ruler-ship" (al-hakimiyya al-ilahiyyah). According to Sayyid Qutb, a well-known exponent of this idea:
"The right of ruler-ship gives rise to the right to legislate to people, the right to prescribe the way of life which people lead, the right to institute the values which this life is to be based on. ... Whoever claims for himself the right to legislate a way of life for a people, thereby claims divine authority over them, for he seeks to appropriate the most important attribute of divinity. Moreover, whoever amongst the people accepts this claim has thereby agreed to make this person a God in place of the true God, for he attributes to him the most important attributes of divinity." (20)
This is often taken to illustrate the profound difference between Islam and its Western-secularist "Other". With the two sides speaking such different languages, what hope can there be for a real dialogue, much less mutual understanding, to take place?
How can advocates of Islamic democracy reply to this charge? (21) Initially, it should be made clear that Islamic thinkers who speak of "divine sovereignty" do not usually mean to imply that the Islamic state, unlike other mundane states, has an "Invisible President" who rules as mundane potentates do. Sayyid Qubt's statement notwithstanding, God does not rule over the affairs of the Muslim community as human rulers do. As Ghannouchi puts it,
"Those who uphold the slogan 'Sovereignty belongs to God' do not mean that an Incarnate God comes to dwell amongst us in order to rule over us. God -may His Name be exalted- can not be seen, nor does He dwell in a person or an institution that can speak for Him. The slogan 'Sovereignty belongs to God' means only 'lawful rule'..." (22)
Building on Ghannouchi's suggestion, one can, more clearly and accurately, say that statements such as "Sovereignty belongs to God", "In an Islamic state only God rules", are to be viewed as statements about what political decisions ought to be like, if they are to have validity, or moral rightness. (23) The ideal situation is when democratic procedures function within parameters set by divine law. People debate and discuss and, finally, they take a vote. And there is always a way to find out whether the decision was "valid": not by the fact that it was accepted by the majority, after discussion and debate, but by checking it against divine law.
The idea that Islamic calls for "divine sovereignty" and the application of Shari'a should be understood as hinting at the idea of "rule of (divine) law", constitutionalism, or an Islamic version of these, is not a instance of wishful thinking which betrays an inclination to interpret Islam sympathetically. The idea has not been lost on the more astute Arab secularists, such as Amzi Bisharah who claims that
"In times when social consciousness takes a religious form, it is possible that calls for the application of Shari'a express a democratic tendency, or (at least) an opposition to despotism, simply because Shari'a rule implies restrictions on the exercise of political power over and above mere will of rulers." (24)
This remark, as well as similar remarks by Tariq al-Bishri and Nazih Ayyubi (25), suggests that we should view Islamic thinkers' advocacy of divine sovereignty as a way of referring to the constitutional framework, within which the democratic process is to take place, and which is the final arbiter in matters of political rightness or validity. There is nothing here which constitutes a special difficulty for the Islamic conception of democracy. After all, all democratic procedures, including those which take place in a liberal-secular framework, require a constitution, one whose validity is not put to question every time the people go to the polls. In the case of Islamic democracy, the constitutional framework is none other than divine law, which people accept, and which is the basis of their consensus.
Still, many difficult questions are bound to be raised about the Islamic "rule of law", the Islamic constitution. Some of them bear reference to the content of the Islamic law, and how it is likely to impact on the freedoms and the rights of minorities and other specific groups, such as women and non-Muslim. We shall, in the next section, indicate how Islamic writers may deal with questions of this kind. But for the present we need to discuss another question which has to do with the relation between popular sovereignty and the Islamic rule of law (which is how we propose to explicate the notion of "divine sovereignty").
It may be thought that the notion of divine sovereignty, even when it is taken to mean "rule of law", still poses a threat to popular sovereignty. After all, who is to be entrusted with codifying the unwritten Islamic constitution of which Mawdudi speaks? And who is to have a role in interpreting it? Surely not everyone (the people), regardless of religious qualification. The concern here is well expressed by the Egyptian thinker Nasr Hamid Abu-Zaid, who fears that the divine sovereignty will easily dissolve into "the sovereignty of the fuqaha'" (Islamic jurisprudents). (26)
Abu-Zaid's fears seem to have come true in the constitution of the Islamic Republic of Iran. (27) This constitution probably represents the first attempt that has ever been made to write a detailed, workable constitution from an Islamic point of view. It is instructive to look at some of the relevant articles of the constitution:
"All civil, penal, financial, administrative, cultural, military, political laws and regulations, as well as other laws or regulations, should be based on Islamic principles. This principle will in general prevail over all of the principles of the constitution, and other laws and regulations as well. Any judgment in regard to this will be made by the clerical members of the Council of Guardians." (Article 4)
"The Islamic Consultative Assembly cannot enact laws contrary to the usul [fundamentals] and ahkam [judgments] of the official religion of the country or to the Constitution. It is the duty of the Guardian Council to determine whether a violation has occurred in accordance with Article 96." (Article 72)
"The determination of compatibility of the legislation passed by the Islamic Consultative Assembly with the laws of Islam rests with the majority vote of the fuqaha' of the Guardian Council; and the determination of its compatibility with the Constitution rests with the majority of all the members of the Guardian Council." (Article 96)
The Guardian Council is not a popularly elected body. The clerical members, who are six in number, are appointed by the religious Leader, while the remaining six are nominated by head of the Judiciary Power, who is appointed by the Leader. This moves Mayer to says: "In consequence, not even constitutional rights guarantees can have force should the clerics... decide that those guarantees are not based on Islamic principles." (28)
Surely this cannot be squared with the basic principle of democracy, which gives people (or their duly elected representatives) power to pass legislation. If any agency has veto power over the decisions of the legislative council, which represents the people, how can one speak of "popular sovereignty", much less of democracy?
There are several considerations which Islamic thinkers can urge here, which have a net effect of alleviating, if not altogether removing the alleged danger which the intrusion of religion poses to democracy.
Firstly, with reference to the origination, authorship, or codification of the constitution which regulates political life in society: it is rarely, if ever, the case that the multitude of the people, in their millions, or hundreds of thousands, participate in laying down the foundations of the constitution. More often than not, constitutions have "fathers", who are usually distinguished members of the community, people who assume a position of leadership which entails convening "people's assemblies", or calling plebiscites which give their stamp of approval to principles and procedures that have already developed and matured on the hands of the "few", the ruling elites. In Islamic history, this class of people is referred as ahl al-hal wa al-'aqd (those who "lose and bind"). They include people who are well-versed in religion, and others as well. If they were to play a major role in putting together the constitution according to which the nation lives, this would in no way be inconsistent with historical practice in laying down constitutions.
Secondly, even if we assume that people (as a multitude) participate in the creation of their constitution (that is, even if we assume that political elites do not play much of a role in politics), this will still not mean that constitutions are constantly freely-willed and freely-chosen by those who live under them. The point is simply this. A people creates a constitution which (let us grant) reflects the political will of the generation which participated in its creation. But succeeding generations do not create anew the constitution under which they live. On the contrary, they are the ones who are created by the existing constitution, inasmuch as the constitution, and the institutions which it legitimizes, function as great educators of the people. Constitutional amendments do indeed take place, but constitutional revolutions are much less frequent. Constitutions, on the whole, are conservative elements, as far as political change is concerned.
Thus, all things considered, we should not attach undue weight to the idea that, in the Islamic polity, people are in principle excluded from the work of constitution-making. There is no reason to think that constitutional politics in Islamic society has to take a radically different form or course of development from that which is taken in other societies.
Thirdly, and most importantly, neither the office of "Guardian Council" which is found in the Iranian Islamic constitution, nor the "sovereignty of the fuqaha'", alluded to by Abu-Zaid, are inevitable consequences of Islamic principles of government. There is no reason in the nature of Islamic teachings which says that any agency should have veto power over decisions of the legislative assembly. Islamic thinkers, in common with ordinary Muslims, believe that Islam does not accept any mediation in the relationship between God and man. Enlightened Muslims can be (should be) wary of ruling elites that aspire to have a monopoly of political power in the name of religion. It is Islamically possible to conceive of a situation where all people take themselves to be legitimate interpreters of the faith, and that disagreements over matters of interpretation should be resolved by voting.
Of course, this idea is not likely to be well-received by classes of the fuqaha', 'ulema, or other religious "experts", who often have a vested interest in being viewed as guardians and interpreters of the faith. This is not surprising, nor is it conceptually impossible to deal with. At most, it calls for a Protestant-like reformation to take place in Islamic society (which is needed anyway, according to some thinkers).
In other words, the concept of "divine sovereignty", suitably interpreted, need not pose a threat to the notion of "popular sovereignty". It simply means "rule in accordance with Islamic principles". Should these principles be freely chosen by the people, and should they be applied in a way that does not infringe upon familiar democratic procedures (on this more presently), no one has a reasonable cause to call into question the logical coherence of the idea of "Islamic democracy". (29)
V. Diversity and Toleration
Another set of difficulties, less philosophical and more pressing than the difficulties dealt with in the preceding section, is occasioned by diversity (cultural, religious, and other) which is an established fact in most, including Islamic, societies. Now democracy is supposed to be tolerant, even protective, of pluralism and diversity. Democracy guarantees individual rights and liberties for all, regardless of religion, gender, political persuasion, etc. Being in the minority is an acceptable situation in a democracy, because the system is geared towards protection of individual rights and liberties, regardless of the size of the group to which one belongs. Can Islamic rule to be relied on to grant and to protect the rights of "the different", even when they constitute a small minority in society? If not, how can one speak of "Islamic democracy"?
There are many lines of thought which Islamic thinkers can explore in order to meet difficulties which center around the issues of pluralism and tolerance. To begin with, one can point out that the issue of toleration is still an unresolved problem for all political systems and theories. Bernard Williams illustrates this difficult aspect of the problem of toleration:
"The difficulty with toleration is that it seems to be at once necessary and impossible. It is necessary where different groups have conflicting beliefs - moral, political, or religious - and realize that there is no alternative to their living together ... Yet in those same circumstances it may well seem impossible. ... In matters of religion, for instance, ... the need for toleration arises because one of the groups, at least, thinks that the other is blasphemously, disastrously, obscenely wrong. ...We need to tolerate other people and their ways of life only in situations that make it very difficult to do so. Toleration, we may say, is required only for the intolerable. That is its basic problem." (30)
It is thus not surprising to find that toleration continues to be a potential source of embarrassment for many (otherwise plausible) conceptions of democracy. Consider the version of democratic theory, "political liberalism", which Rawls advocates. According to Rawls:
"Political liberalism also supposes that a reasonable comprehensive doctrine does not reject the essentials of a democratic regime. Of course, a society may also contain unreasonable and irrational, and even mad, comprehensive doctrines. In their case the problem is to contain them so that they do not undermine the unity and justice of society." (31)
Liberal democracy is supposed to tolerant, but even liberal democracy has limits, if Rawls is to be believed. Unreasonable views, those that are "mad", or "irrational", are to be "contained". Presumably containment is not the same as toleration; it is less.
But what if we are unable to agree as to what is mad or irrational? Does this not mean that the question of what to tolerate, and what to "contain", will always be an open, unresolved problem for us?
Naturally, we have no reason to expect Islamic thinkers not to face difficult or embarrassing questions with respect to the toleration of diversity. But in this regard they are not different from other views, Rawl's view included. In fact, it is remarkable to find that Ghannouchi takes a view which is similar to Rawls' view of "containment", with respect to opinions which Ghannouchi finds beyond "the pale". Having satisfied himself of the existence of a society-wide consensus on a basic Islamic constitution, Ghannounchi does not object to the continued existence and operation of non-Islamic (perhaps even un-Islamic) parties and groups. According to Ghannouchi, such groups and movements will be largely marginal and ineffective, on account of the fact that they are not part of mainstream Islamic tendencies. "Civil society", says Ghannouchi, "will see to it that such groups will be marginal. There will be no need to resort to state power [in order to "contain" them]." (32)
The above mentioned considerations constitute one line of thought which Islamic democrats can use in order to deal with the difficulty occasioned by the question of diversity and toleration of difference. Toleration has limits. In every society, in every political system, toleration has a "ceiling", whose height will vary, depending on the type of measurement which we use, as well as our expectations as to the height which the ceiling must have, if the "house" is to be fit for human habitation. Subjective, culturally relative judgments will abound here, and, short of universally accepted criteria of validity (which experience has shown to be unavailable, at least for now) there is no way resolve disagreements.
Another, quite different, line of thought which Islamic writers could follow would be to point out that Islam is not one thing to all those who advocate Islamic government. For example, Islamic writers who are hostile to the very idea of speaking of Islam and democracy in the same breath are not the same as those who advocate "Islamic democracy". And those who are willing to entertain the notion of Islamic democracy may also exhibit internal differences. Some may be more liberal than others.
A remarkable case in point is that of the Sudanese thinker Abdullahi an-Na'im, whose approach to ethics, and whose daring views on how to interpret Shari'a are reminiscent of Mu'tazilism at its best. An-Na'im accepts all the non-controversial rights provisions which Shari'a offers, such as the right to life, dignity, privacy, property, and others (33), but he pushes the frontiers of reform much further, to the extent wanting to bring Islamic legislation to full conformity with international human rights standards. His understanding of Islam requires the official abrogation of slavery, complete freedom of belief (including freedom to change one's religion) and abolition of all forms of discrimination on the basis of gender. (34)
In sum, it must be remembered that when we say that Islam and democracy are compatible, we mean Islam on some interpretation thereof. Until it is shown that Islam, on each and every possible interpretation, is incapable of displaying tolerance toward those who are different, we have no reason to believe that Islam is intolerant of diversity and pluralism. This is, of course, a large claim which no reasonable person can profess to be able to prove. In short, the issue of tolerance need not be (in fact, it is not) the fatal flaw it is often taken to be, as far as Islamic government is concerned.
There is one last line of thought which Islamic thinkers can avail themselves of in connection with the problem of toleration of diversity. It is a last ditch strategy. Islamists (and others) may avail themselves of it, when they find that they are at the end of their tether, as far as the possibilities of compromise and accommodation are concerned.
Imagine there is a society where Muslims constitute a politically active majority that wants to institute an Islamic regime. (It could be an overwhelming majority, or something that falls short of that. It does not matter for our purposes.) Suppose, furthermore, that (despite all attempts) members of society are unable to reach agreement on an Islamic constitution which is acceptable to all, Muslims and non-Muslims alike. What it is to be done then? We do not really have many solutions to choose from here.
Firstly, there is the secularist solution, which is to take religion out of politics. But this solution, contrary to all initial appearances, has little or no justification from a democratic point of view. For it is hard to think that democracy requires that the majority lead a double life, almost bordering on the schizophrenic : at home you can be religious, and you can believe that religion is the most important thing in the world, but out on the street you must hide your religion, and you must pretend that religion does not really matter. Besides, some religions think it is the epitome of irreligion to live your life in this manner. It is a mistake to think that all religions are like Christianity in being able to separate Caesar's Kingdom form that of God. Islam, in particular, may be unable to condone this type of separation.
Another choice would be to force the minority to lead a life whose pattern is dictated by the (Muslim) majority. This could be a situation where Islamic penalties are to be universally applied in country that has a Christian, or an un-Islamic minority. Again, this does not comport with democracy, for the latter cannot accept the idea of people being ruled by a constitution which they are fundamentally opposed to.
Is there a way out of the situation where disagreements cannot be ended except by loss of constitutive identity for one or more party? This is a situation where it seems impossible to agree on a common definition of citizenship. Walzer deals a situation of this kind in the context of his discussion of the collective right which a group exercises with respect to membership. According to Walzer:
"If a community is so radically divided that a single citizenship is impossible, then its territory must be divided, too, before the rights of admission and exclusion can be exercised. For these rights are to be exercised only by the community as a whole... and only with regard to foreigners, not by some members with regard to others. No community can be half-metic, half-citizen and claim that its admissions policies are acts of self-determination, or that its politics is democratic." (35)
Put "half- dhimmi, half-Muslim" for Walzer's "half-metic, half-citizen", and you have, in a nutshell, the problem of Islamic political communities that insist on treating individuals of different faiths as "protected citizens" (dhimmis) with diminished political rights. Such politics cannot be democratic. The only to restore democracy, in line with Walzer's suggestion, is to allow for political separation, and the attendant division of territory.
Of course, it may be difficult, in fact, it may sometimes be impossible, to redraw borders and boundaries, especially when communities are intermingled, or have been intermingled for generations in the same area. But division and re-division of territory are sometimes practicable. They have been know to happen, and they continue to happen, albeit (sometimes) at a costly price, and not always for such good reasons as the search for a democratic way of life. But, as we said, this is a last ditch solution which Islamic thinkers (and supporters of other doctrines) can take. Specific circumstances may require looking for different solutions, and there may be other, more innovative solutions waiting to be discovered.
These are, then, three types of consideration which can be urged in order to obtain a more adequate perspective on the possibilities of diversity and toleration in the context of the Islamic regime. These considerations are (obviously) of different natures. They are neither mutually incompatible, nor do they pull in the same direction. In presenting them in this manner our aim has been merely to cast doubt on the naïve supposition that the Islamic regime is bound to be undemocratic, on account of the intolerance which it entails for those who are "different".
V. Concluding Remarks
Some people continue to think that the Islamic view democracy is not a viable proposal, because it seeks to divorce the democratic procedure from some of the basic values and philosophical beliefs which have been historically associated with it in its "country of origin", namely the West. The fact that Islamic democracy shows no signs of being about to emerge in Islamic countries lends further support to the idea that "Islamic democracy" is inherently implausible.
But this harsh judgment is not justified by the hard facts of the matter, if there are indeed any hard facts about the matter of democracy. The distinctions, within contemporary democratic theory, between substance and form, method and aim, procedures and result, are all distinctions which have been made by Western thinkers. Islamic thinkers recognize the goodness (value) of the procedure, but they refuse to accept the Western values and definitions of the meaning of life that have come about in the aftermath of specifically Western social revolutions. Until it is shown how to derive secularism, liberalism, and relativism form the very notion of "government of the people by the people", we cannot simply dismiss the conceptual possibility of Islamic democracy. □
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*. "Democracy Without Secularism?" in Islam, Judaism, and the Political Role of Religions in the Middle East, ed. John Bunzl. Florida: University Press of Florida, 2004.
1. Some of the ideas expressed in this paper have already appeared in "People vs. God: the Logic of 'Divine Sovereignty' in Islamic Democratic Discourse", Islam and Muslim-Christian Relations, 11(3), 287-298, and Popular Sovereignty, Divine Sovereignty: On the Relation Between Democracy and Secularism (Amman: Dar al-Shurouq, 2000). I would like to thank the publishers for permission to quote passages from these works. My thanks also to Professors Bill Templer and John Bunzl for comments on an earlier draft of this paper.
2. "Essentially contested" means there are disputes about the use of the term in question. Different (suggested or actual) uses are sustained by "perfectly respectable arguments and evidence", which, nevertheless, fall short of settling the dispute about the use of the term. See W. B. Gallie, Philosophy and the Historical Understanding (London: Chatto and Windus, 1964), p. 14.
3. John Rawls, Political Liberalism (New York: Columbia University Press, 1993), p. xx.
4. Robert Audi, "Liberal Democracy and the Place of Religion in Politics," in R. Audi and N. Wolterstorff, eds., Religion in the Public Square: the Place of Religious Convictions in Political Debate (Lanham, Maryland: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc., 1997), p. 26
5. Aziz al-Azmeh, "Populism Contra Democracy: Recent Democratist Discourse in the Arab world," in Ghassan Salame, ed. Democracy without Democrats? The Renewal of Politics in the Muslim World (London: I.B. Tauris, 1994), p. 127.
6. Elie Kedourie, Democracy and Arab Political Culture (London: Frank Cass & Co. Ltd., 1994), p. 5.
7. Azmi Bisharah, "Madkhal li-Mu`alajat al-Demoqratiyya wa-Anmat at-Tadayyun," in Hawla al-Khiyar al-Demoqrati, ed. Burhan Ghalyun et al. (Ramalla: Muwatin, 1993), p. 78. The missing premise here, of course, is the idea that freedom of thought cannot be ensured in a non-secular society.
8. Joseph Schumpeter, Capitalism, Socialism, and Democracy (New York: Harper and Row, 1976), p. 242.
9. Robert Dahl, Democracy and Its Critics (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1989), p. 221.
10. Schumpeter (1976), p.250.
11. ibid., p. 266.
12. Rawls (1993), pp. xliv- xlv. Rawls solution is to give "citizens of faith" (believers in religion) a double identity. Qua political persons, individuals recognize a highest interest in autonomy and individuality. Qua private persons, there is no call for them separate themselves from their enduring religious attachments, loyalties, or self-definition. For a discussion of some problems which Rawls' view may have, see Will Kymlicka, "Two Models of Pluralism and Tolerance," in David Heyd ed., Toleration: an Elusive Virtue (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1996), pp. 91-95.
13. Rachid al-Ghannouchi, al-Hurriyat al-`Ammah fi al-Dawlah al-Islamiyyah (Beirut: Markaz Dirasat al-Wihdah al-Arabiyyah, 1993), p. 88.
14. Muhammad Khatami, Mutala`at fi al-Din wal-Islam wal-`Asr (Beirut: Dar al-Jadid, 1998), p. 103.
15. There is a trivial exception to this, of course. Democracy cannot self-consistently allow the violation of democratic procedures.
16. John L. Esposito, and John O. Voll, Islam and Democracy (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996), p. 36.
17. Hasan Turabi,Islam, Democracy, the State, and the West: A Round Table with Dr. Hasan Turabi, ed. A. Lowrie. (Tampa, Fl.: The World of Islam Studies Enterprise, 1993), p. 25.
18. Mawdudi, Tadwin al-Dustoor al-Islami (Mu'assat al-Risalah, [n.p.], 1975), p. 11.
19. HasanTurabi, Qadaya a-Hurriyyah wa al-Wihdah wa al-Shura wa al-Dimoqratiyyah. (al-Dar al-Su`udiyyah lil-Nashr, 1987), p. 68.
20. Quoted in Nasr Hamid Abu-Zaid,. Naqd al-Khitab al-Diniy (Cairo: Sina lil-Nashr, 1994), p. 105.
21. I have discussed this difficulty in greater detail in the works cited in note 1.
22. Rachid al-Ghannouchi, Muqarabat fi al-`Ilmaniyyah wa al-Mujtama` al-Madani. London: Magharebi Center for Research and Translation, 1999), p. 155. Italics added).
23. By "what political decisions ought to be like" we mean to refer to the quality (content) of the political decisions which are taken, as opposed to the method by which they are taken. This is a "correctness theory" of legitimacy. It is a member of family of theories which Estlund refers to as "epistemic theories of democratic legitimacy,", which are united in their rejection of the assimilation of validity (rightness) of decisions to the method (procedures) which is used to reach them. See David Estlund, "Beyond Fairness and Deliberation: The Epistemic Dimension of Democratic Authority," in Deliberative Democracy: Essays on Reason and Politics, ed. James Bohman and William Rehg. Cambridge: The MIT Press, 1997), p. 174.
24. Bisharah (1993), p. 83.
25. Cf. Tariq al-Bishri, Al-Wad'u al-Qanuni baina al-Shari'a al-Islamiyya wa al-Qanun al-Wad'i (Cairo: Dar al-Shuruq, 1996), p. 121. Ayubi remarks that "...[the Islamists] are thus after a kind of 'nomocracy', not the reign of any particular group in particular (democracy, aristocracy or, for that matter, theocracy)." See Nazih Ayubi, Political Islam: Religion and Politics in the Arab World (London: Routledge, 1991), p. 218.
26. Abu-Zaid (1994), pp. 111, 117.
27. Albert Blaustein, and Gisbert Flanz, eds.,Constitutions of the World (Dobbs Ferry: Oceana, 1986).
28. Ann Elizabeth Mayer, Islam and Human Rights. (Boulder. CO : Westview Press. 1991), p. 37.
29. Of course, outside observers may disagree with the principles and values of the Islamic "constitution". We have not said anything to rule out the possibility of their being right in their rejection of such a constitution. But this is an entirely different type of discussion from the one which we are engaged in. We are not engaged in an attempt to prove either the truth or falsity of Islam or liberalism, or any other doctrine. Our only concern is the possibility of applying democratic procedures within the constitutional frameworks supplied by these doctrines.
30. Bernard Williams, "Toleration: An Impossible Virtue?" in Toleration: an elusive virtue, ed. David Heyd (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1996), p. 18.
31. Rawls (1993), p. xix.
32. Ghannouchi (1993), p. 295.
33. See Mawdudi, Al-Khilafah wa al-Mulk (Kuwait: Dar al-Qalam, 1987), pp. 27-31, for a catalogue of the individual rights which (according to Mawdudi) are guaranteed by Shari'a. Regardless of the strength of his arguments, Mawdudi does not find himself short of Qur'anic verses to support his view.
34. Abdullahi Ahmad An-Na`im, Toward an Islamic Reformation: Civil Liberties, Human Rights, and International Law (Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 1990), p. 179
35. Michael Walzer, Spheres of Justice: A Defense of Pluralism and Equality. (Oxford: Blackwell, 1995), p. 62.