Saturday, April 14, 2007

Can there be an Islamic democracy?

Can there be an Islamic democracy? David Bukay breaks down the intellectual arguments and concludes the answer is no. The validity of any answer to the question depends on defining exactly what the words mean. For starters democracy implies much more than elections.

The Middle East Forum: Larry Diamond, co-editor of the Journal of Democracy, and Leonardo Morlino, a specialist in comparative politics at the University of Florence, ascribe seven features to any democracy: individual freedoms and civil liberties; rule of the law; sovereignty resting upon the people; equality of all citizens before the law; vertical and horizontal accountability for government officials; transparency of the ruling systems to the demands of the citizens; and equality of opportunity for citizens. This approach is important, since it emphasizes civil liberties, human rights and freedoms, instead of over-reliance on elections and the formal institutions of the state.

Elections are simply a way to keep score, not an indicator of the underlying game. Authoritarian regimes use voting to for a number of reasons, but democracy requires the voting process to loan the sovereignty of the people to those individuals responsible to shape and administer the laws. Bukay reviews academic attempts to show possible compatibility between Islam and democracy, and points out the flaws in the reasoning.

Esposito and Voll argue that Islamic democracy rests upon concepts of consultation (shura), consensus (ijma'), and independent interpretive judgment (ijtihad), other Muslim exegetes add hakmiya (sovereignty). … Just as Esposito eviscerates the meaning of democracy to enable his thesis, so, too, does he twist Islamic concepts. Shura is an advisory council, not a participatory one. It is a legacy of tribalism, not sovereignty. Nor does ijma' express the consensus of the community at large but rather only the elders and established leaders. As for independent judgment, many Sunni scholars deem ijtihad closed in the eleventh century. …

Mawdudi argues that any Islamic polity has to accept the supremacy of Islamic law over all aspects of political and religious life -- hardly a democratic concept, given that Islamic law does not provide for equality of all citizens under the law regardless of religion and gender. Such a formulation also denies citizens a basic right to decide their laws, a fundamental concept of democracy. Although he uses the phrase theo-democracy to suggest that Islam encompassed some democratic principles, Mawdudi himself asserted Islamic democracy to be a self-contradiction: the sovereignty of God and sovereignty of the people are mutually exclusive. An Islamic democracy would be the antithesis of secular Western democracy.

I like this warning: “It is one thing to be wrong in the classroom, but it can be far more dangerous when such wrong-headed theories begin to affect policy.” It is truly amazing how many wrong-headed theories evolve from the rhetoric games being played in the comfort of the Ivory Towers.