Center for World Conflict and Peace

Center for World Conflict and Peace

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Democracy and Islam: A Think Piece

 Does Islam fit with democracy? It is one of the most often asked questions and yet probably a very misleading question, leading to more problems and biases.

Why? Considering the crowd to whom the question is often asked, notably the political scientists, religious scholars, and PC crowd, the question usually demands a resounding answer "yes."

Yes, a good Moslem can also be a good democrat.  Yes, Islam is compatible with democracy. 

At the same time, however, in Moslem-majority countries, including those that have experienced the Arab Spring, reactions to democracy have been mixed, ranging from enthusiasm to longing for the good old stable days under authoritarianism. And in extreme cases, democracy is just a stepping stone toward an Islamic caliphate or theocracy, such as in Iran. 

In fact, for some Islamists, democracy is a secular invention, a deviation that circumvents the role of God, causing people to no longer rely on God for their decisions. They also look at the hypocritical conduct of various democratic countries, especially those that have turned a blind eye to the dictatorships in China and the Arabian peninsula while at the same time bombing Libya, threatening Syria, and boycotting Iran.

This worldview thus leads to many dilemmas and questions in various newly democratized Moslem-majority countries. To what degree can people trust the Islamists to respect democracy and the rule of law? Why there are people actually voting to demolish democracy? Why would people cling to dictatorships, even though many have already realized that the autocrats have done nothing beneficial for their countries. Why would extremist Islamists engage in democratic elections, even though they openly disdain the system that they are participating in?

The great hope, of course, is that Moslems of all stripes will see the light, the benefits of democracies, and willingly embrace it.

But some Moslems, including Moslem political elites, see a downside here. In order to reap these so-called benefits, they have to change their interests and values to fit with the ideals of democracy. With this in mind, then, maybe the better question is whether democracy with Islam? 

Perhaps Moslems need to be reminded that in spite of its secular origin, democracy itself is a neutral entity, a method of picking a government and a way to ensure that the government is accountable to the people.

It seems for many scholars, analysts, and pundits, democracy is an "endgame," that by the end of the day, everyone should embrace democracy. The problem, however, is that this normative view makes democracy sound like this "kingdom in the sky," a perfect ending that should not be analyzed critically. But why should people embrace democracy if it also leads to massive corruption, political instability, bad governments, and worse, authoritarianism?

While democracy defenders claim that democracy improves the welfare of people, it should be stressed that this outcome is achieved only if the rule of law is upheld by a strong and capable judiciary and police force. The problem is that newly democratized countries often lack a capable police force and independent judiciary, which can and frequently does lead to internal chaos. A quick glance at Arab Spring countries, like Egypt and Tunisia and Libya, reveals the perils: a spike in violence, criminality, gangs, militias, and a general sense of social and political disorder. Quite frankly, it is no wonder people long for the return of good ol' authoritarianism or hope for another kingdom in the sky, a Theocracy, a caliphate, or whatever else.

A competent scholar could argue that authoritarianism strongly limits free speeches, allows ruling elites to act with abandon, promotes injustice and cruelty against citizens, and that all the troubles in newly democratized countries are really traced back to the authoritarianism period. Any good historian could also make a case that a caliphate system would be terrible, considering the experience of the Ottoman Sultanate, where the caliphate crumbled from within, destroyed by inertia, a succession of bad rulers, and an inability to adapt to the new threats and new technological developments from Europe.

Still, the point is that proponents of democracy should try to make a better case in defense of democracy. In short, a democratic system of politics and governance might be flawed, but in the end, it is a superior system to any other than currently exists in practice. Most notably, it can, if done right, coexist with religious beliefs or local systems, not sully or destroy them.

This, then, begs a question: how can democracy be fitted around local political systems, local religious beliefs, varying customs, and a wide of political and social ideas and sensibilities? Given the rise of democracy around the world, as well as the immense struggles of the U.S. in Iraq and Afghanistan, it is an issue worth pondering about.

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