Envisioning Islamic democracy

by Jocelyne Cesari
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Boston, Massachusetts - Islam is often perceived as a potential threat to democratisation, and justifications for this view tend to repeat ad nauseam the idea that for Islam, there is no separation between politics and religion.

In the West, politics based on individual rights (as opposed to the common good) and religion as independent of the state have marked the triumph of a liberal vision of the self within a secularised public arena. No similar movement has taken place in the Muslim world. It may be tempting, then, to consider the absence of this development as evidence that the Muslim mind is resistant to secularisation in toto.

There is currently no nation within the Muslim world that does not claim Islam as a foundational element of national unity. Within the Muslim world, Islam is either a state religion or it is under state control, even in ostensibly secular nations such as Turkey or Hussein-era Iraq. Therefore, the state is almost always the primary agent responsible for the authoritative interpretation of tradition. As a result, Islamic thought has lost a certain vitality, not only in questions of government, but also on issues of culture and society. Thus it is not that the so-called Muslim mind is naturally resistant to critical thinking, but rather that analysis and judgment have too often been the exclusive prerogative of political authorities.

Another factor impacting the relationship between Islam and secular democracy is the prevailing view of international relations, which depicts Islam and the West as opposing forces. This creates a siege mentality among Muslims, and turns Islam into a tool of political resistance. Thus, religious discourse has become a key element in wartime rhetoric, a fact illustrated by the religious claims made by the otherwise explicitly secular Saddam Hussein during the 1990 Gulf War.

It might seem to be a paradox, but Muslims in fact praise democracy as the best political system. In recent years, numerous polls have shown that Muslims would like to live in a democratic society: they praise free elections, freedom of speech and human rights. At the same time, Muslims acknowledge the importance that shari'a, or Islamic law, plays in their lives. This is where misunderstanding between Muslims and non-Muslims often occurs in discussions of democracy. Shari'a does not refer here to actual laws but rather to a set of moral principles and norms that guide Muslims in their personal and social choices.

The same apparent paradox emerges for Muslims living in Western democratic secular regimes. Muslim emigration to Europe and the United States provides release from the iron grip of Muslim states on Islamic tradition. This liberation can take a variety of forms and produces two surprising results. The first is that most Muslims living in Europe and the United States acknowledge and appreciate the democratic and secular nature of the states where they reside. With the exception of marginal groups, such as the muhajirun in the United Kingdom, there is no real attempt by Muslims in the West to change Western political regimes and to establish Islamic states. The second is that Muslims in the West increasingly conceptualise and employ shari'a as a personal code of morality.

This does not mean, however, that all tensions disappear. Areas of ongoing conflict between interpretations of shari'a and the social norms of secular democracies include the family, the status of women in marriage and divorce, and the education of children. Civil court is now the most significant platform from which Muslims are demanding recognition of a "Muslim" specificity that is not taken into account in the civil law dominant in the West.

This double movement of loyalty to the democratic and secular state and simultaneous insistence on the importance of religion at the personal level is reflected in the recent polling by Gallup among Muslims in Paris, London and Berlin. The majority of Muslim interviewees praise the nation and state in which they live at the same time that they declare that religion is very important to them. In this respect, they differ from the majority of their non-Muslim fellow citizens, who responded that religion is not important at all.

This situation may be disturbing to Western observers. More importantly, it reflects a trend that policy-makers and scholars need to take into account: it will not be possible to implement a Western model of democracy that is based on the marginalisation or rejection of religion in Muslim societies. Muslims want to be democratic on their own terms, and for Muslims living both in the West and in Muslim-majority societies, this means that they want religious norms to be visible in their personal, daily lives. Moreover, this means that members of democratic, Muslim-majority societies would want religious norms to regulate public social life.

This raises legitimate concerns about the recognition and freedom of other religious minorities within a social system dominated by Islamic references. In some ways, American (more than European) democracy may reflect key elements of an Islamic democracy: sovereignty of the people, separation of church and state, and socio-political acknowledgment of the importance of religions to private citizens and public social life.

It is crucial that Western politicians and intellectuals acknowledge processes of modernisation and democratisation that include Islamic references, while striving to protect religious and cultural minorities and guarantee freedom of expression. Without these safeguards, it is impossible to envision any democracy, Islamic or otherwise.

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* Jocelyne Cesari is visiting associate professor of Islamic Studies at Harvard University and director of its Islam in the West program. This article is distributed by the Common Ground News Service (CGNews) and can be accessed at www.commongroundnews.org.

Source: Common Ground News Service (CGNews), 22 May 2007, www.commongroundnews.org
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Why do Muslims look to religion to address political issues?
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Other articles in this series

What is it about Western secularism? by Jorgen S. Nielsen
What words can mean by Javed Anand
Myths about Western secularism and politics in Islam by Asma Afsaruddin
Why do Muslims look to religion to address political issues? by Dalia Mogahed
False dichotomies: "Secularists" and "Islamists" in Turkey by Nora Onar