Potential For Democratic Governance Within Islamic Societies

When referring to the maps Freedom House produces, one may wonder why the bulk of strongly Islamic countries happen to be considered not free or partially free by the standards used, and often appear be in the throes of war. There are several scholars who believe the reasoning behind this phenomenon stems from the roots of the Islam itself. Ayaan Hirsi Ali argues that the reason most Muslim majority countries are not democratic is due to the religious text of Islam, the Quran. The Muhammad Medina part of the Quran advocates striking “terror (into the hearts of) the enemies, of Allah and your enemies…” (Ali 3), meaning ideologically converting, using violence if necessary, those of different faiths. Due to a combination of dysfunctional economics and civil war, amongst other factors, the Medina interpretation of the Quran is readily accepted by about 7% of Muslims worldwide.

Samuel Huntington also believes that cultural differences are at fault for the lack of Western democratic development in Muslim majority countries. Huntington argues that there are several clear civilizations dividing the world, and that by looking at historical data, one can see most alliances within the domain of global policies and alliances fall within the cultural boundaries of these civilizations. Looking at these civilizations, the majority of democratic countries belong to the Western civilization, suggesting that being Western is a prerequisite for democracy. Therefore, countries belonging to the Islamic civilization must become Western before they can become democratic. Becoming Western however is improbable as Islam contains a set of laws, Sharia law, which many Muslims believe are integral and should be included in any governing body created. This limits the prospects of Western democracy in Islamic states as Sharia law is based on the teachings of the prophet Muhammad, and thus is non-secular in nature, and variant from Western democracies’ notion of the ‘separation of church and state’. Ali primarily draws on passages from the Quran to exemplify the rationale behind Islamic extremist violence.

Ali then explains that while extremists are by far the minority, they are the most vocal, and unless the majority speaks up, the governance in Islamic countries will continue to be undemocratic due to the propagation of violence within the states. Huntington takes a slightly different approach in that he draws on the apparent cultural divides within global politics as mentioned earlier. The opposition to the above points of view argue against the idea that Islam and democracy cannot coexist by citing a large number of polls of Muslim populations around the world concerning their attitudes toward things like democracy and violence. For example, Esposito and Dalia Mogahed use a set of Gallup polls “reflective of more than 90 percent of the world’s Muslim community” which showed that 90% of those polled were against anti-American terrorism. This paper uses this data to disprove the “clash of civilizations argument” by providing recent statistical data in a way Huntington and Ali do not. Fatima Al-Samak set up her argument by presenting Huntington’s argument, and suggesting there are other factors that are contributing to the lack of democracy in Islamic countries.

Al-Samak also leans heavily on data from polls of Muslim people to construct her argument. She refers to polls of Muslim people’s attitudes toward democracy, showing a strong preference for democratic governance. This suggests there are explanations other than those suggested by Huntington and Ali as to why there is a lack of democracy in Islamic states. Finally, Shadi Hamid presents his argument by going through the evolution of governance in Islamic states, and questions why the West assumes democracy in Islamic states must look like democracy in predominantly Christian Countries. Hamid primarily draws on historical references and logic to question the fate of politics in Islamic countries. Taking everything into consideration, I do believe democracy is possible within Islamic countries, but I do not believe that said democracy would look like an American democracy. As the faith of Islam has a set of laws already attached it would be impossible to create an American democracy which encompasses Sharia law.

According to Al-Samak, however, “Islam’s concept of Ijtihad, or independent reasoning, allows Muslim scholars to interpret or reinterpret the Islamic laws (to an extent) and devise new interpretations based on their own reasoning” (4). This means that new interpretations of these laws can be made within the context of the modern world so that Sharia law may better fit the governing model of a democracy. Huntington is absolutely correct in his assertion that there are vastly different ‘civilizations’, as he puts it, around the world which tend to interact politically among themselves, but I do not believe that being part of the Western civilization and being democratic are mutually exclusive. Why can’t there be something dubbed an ‘Islamic democracy’? As Al-Samak puts it, the majority of “Muslims want self-determination, but not an American imposed and defined democracy” (6).

Additionally, polls of Muslims globally show that the majority of Muslims believe democracy is the best form of governance, believe people should have freedom of religion, and women should be treated equally in all aspects of society (Esposito and Mogahed). These are all Western democratic values; the only difference is the addition of an interpretation of Sharia law. Addressing the point Ali makes that democracy and Islam are incompatible since the Quran, the religious text of the Muslim faith, advocates violence is understandable yet short sighted. This suggests that, in comparison, the bible (the religious text of the Christian faith) is not. This is wholly not true. According to Dr. Jenkins, a professor at Penn state and an expert on the issue, “Violence in the Quran, […] is largely a defense against attack” when compared to the violence in the Bible. This suggests that the issue is not the Quran, but a violent minorities’ interpretation of the text.

This can be compared, however on a smaller scale, to extremist Christians who act violently toward LGBTQ+ minorities because of carefully chosen passages in the Bible. Over all, the rationale that Islam and democracy are incompatible due to the violence written into the religious text is short sighted as Esposito and Mogahed say, “As with other faiths, today, a radical fringe ignores, distorts, and misinterprets mainstream and normative doctrines and laws” (3), meaning radical religious ideals are not unique to the Islamic civilization, and thus not a limiting factor to democratic development. Of Islamic nations, Tunisia is closest to having democratically elected political leadership. While the country is facing growing pains, the democracy created from the Arab Spring has held. Egypt however contrasts Tunisia’s relative democratic success. Egypt is in crisis, and the weak democracy that was created is corrupt.

President Morsi used the weak democracy to allow infiltration by the Brotherhood making true democratic process difficult if not impossible. Egypt is currently struggling democratically, but if its citizens slowly begin to raise their voices, in the future, Egypt may be truly democratic. Both of these examples support aspect of the scholars previously mentioned positions. In the case of Tunisia, while there is some violent unrest within the Tunisian population, it is in no way due to the religious doctrine, it is due to poor economic conditions and the subsequent desperation and unrest of its people. Thus, Ali’s predictions do not hold true for the Tunisian population. Huntington, on the other hand, appears to be partially correct. He said that democracy is not compatible with non-Western civilizations. The Tunisian example does not embody this perspective as democracy does exist in Tunisia, though it is fragile.

On the other hand though, the state of Tunisia does follow the predictions of Al-Samak as she claims Muslims want democracy, but not Western imposed democracy. This could explain the fragility of the current system in Tunisia as it follows a very Western example. In the case of Egypt, Ali’s writing appears to what is happening. Ali suggested that the vocal minority within the country, Medina Muslims, would take power, and that appears to be what has happened. While a pseudo-democracy was created, the positions of power have all been taken by the powerful Brotherhood, and only 10% of citizens exercised their democratic right to vote last election. While Ali supports the current state of Egypt, so do the predictions of Al-Samak, like in the case of Tunisia. In the future, information on the structure of the Tunisian and Egyptian governments will help to discern whether I am on the right track. If they are stable in the future and are structured in a way that encompasses Shari law as well as traditional democratic values, I will be on the right track.

If, in the future, the currently fragile Tunisian democracy crumbles rather than slowly changes and strengthens, I will have been sorely mistaken. As Esposito and Mogahed say, “Muslim societies will change through evolution – not revolution” (8), so if there is evidence of Islamic states slowly evolving toward democracy in the future I will have been on the right track.

03 December 2019
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