Yemeni man voting; photo by Hani Mohammed/AP

By Samira Ali BinDaair, Sanaa, Republic of Yemen

This essay is an attempt at shedding some light on the relationship between democracy, Islam and the Western world and in the process dispelling some of the misconceptions about the chasm between Islam and democracy. It is nowhere easy for the entire society to have unanimity on any given issue let alone such a complex one as what constitutes good governance and the best political system to be adopted. The Arab world has tried it all but I would like to point out that any system when transplanted and adopted without the necessary conditions for its success is bound to fail, leading to the condemnation of the system rather than analysis of the causes of failure in implementation.
Democracy as a pure concept

I would like to start with the concept of democracy which some Muslims have rejected on the basis of its emanating from the West within secular governments and secular ideas. However, if one examines the concept in its pure form it simply means rule of the people by the people for the people. To demystify it further, what it simply boils down to is that people have a voice in national affairs and choice of their leader and by virtue of the same fact are able to remove the leader through general consensus and legal means if the leader proves to be incapable of living up to the responsibilities entrusted to him/her.

The emergence of democracy in the west

Democracy as a term is supposed to have come from ancient Greece, with the emergence of the Greek city states . However on reading Plato’s “Republic,” it is obvious that he was delineating a system where the “Philosopher kings” reigned supreme as opposed to the lowly populace of inferior intellects. So beyond seeking wisdom from the “Oracles of Delphi,” a state based on Plato’s Republic cannot be seen as democratic in modern times. My point is that any concept takes on a different connotation in a particular historical and social context, apart from its pure form as a generic concept.

Real democracy came to Europe after the two world wars, and the end of dictatorship. During medieval times, the church controlled the state and later on became extremely corrupt which led to the Reformation. Even after the Renaissance and later in the Age of Reason modern institutions which were the corollary to democracy had not yet taken off. The German philosopher, Hegel, in his paradigm of the dialectical process had inadvertently given Marx the opportunity to build his theory of the class struggle in “Das Capital”. Marx, and other political thinkers gave the impetus to revolution in different countries in the west, and the class struggle against exploitation of the kings and emperors. With the advent of Adam Smith and “The Wealth of Nations,” large corporations and business monopolies gave rise to capitalism in parts of the Western world. Were all these systems democratic? Many writers in the West had cast doubt on democracy and dubbed the big business monopolies as the new emperors who exploited people. Marshall McLuhan in his “Understanding Media” described how the media controls people’s ideas and that people in power use media as a form of control. Alvin Toffler in his “One Dimensional Man” also talks about voting for a television image and the way that politicians “pull the wool over voters” eyes in campaigns. Bernstein in his ” Class Codes and Control” enumerates the undemocratic nature of modern educational systems which is overlaid with codes that are beyond the reach of working class children and their environment and thus it is a self-perpetuating system of control for retaining the established status quo. Ivan Illich in his “Deschooling Society,” and in several other anti-establishment books, also illustrates how modern institutions far from being democratic take away the responsibility of learning or one’s health (in “The Medical Nemesis”) and the large bureaucracies are a form of control by the minority. Despite all these claims, the Western world has managed to build institutions that support democracy and ensure people’s rights to as large an extent as possible. It is in human nature to commit excesses and these exist even in the best welfare systems and democracies. However, there are “checks and balances” and a viable judiciary system to which people can appeal, as well as clear accountability lines for politicians and officials. The very fact that civil society is powerful and verbal in exposing corruption and misdemeanors of politicians validate the role of democracy, imperfect as it may be.

When it comes to the Arab or Muslim societies, the rulers or kings or presidents all claim to be democratic, but in reality dictatorship in some form or another has prevailed over decades and centuries in these countries. Some Muslims claim that there is no real Islamic state at present , and yet they reject democracy as a system because it is unIslamic. Further on in this article I will try to show the fallacy of this claim. When the Western world declared themselves to be secular states, it had nothing to do with democracy and it was as I said earlier on to avoid the potential control of the church as in the past. To be fair, people in the third world became suspicious of Western claims to democracy due to the fact that the democracy they preach is not necessarily practiced in their policies towards the third world countries within the backdrop of global inequality. Also it is often the case that some of these Western countries tend to support dictators in the third world who serve their interests. Thus these double standards have made people in the third world throw away the baby with the bath water. I hope I have managed to clarify in this lengthy exposition that democracy has in reality nothing to do intrinsically with the West or with secularism as a pure concept of giving a voice to the people.

In the same way some Muslims have considered philosophy to be kufr (heresy) , failing to distinguish the difference between the philosopher (who may or may not believe in God) and philosophy as a logical system of thought and a conceptual framework applicable to different bodies of knowledge be it metaphysics, epistemology mathematics or science. Thus rejection of democracy follows the same pattern. These people tend to forget that “Reason” and “Akl” permeate the entire Quran where it is stated that human beings have been put on the highest pedestal amongst living beings due to the power of Reason being Allah’s Vicegerant on earth(Khalifa fil ard) It is reiterated again and again that Allah’s signs (ayyat) are for those who think, in order to understand the fundamental truths about the cosmos and creation. There has been an unfortunate dichotomy between “Akl” (Reason) and “Nakl” (the teachings of Islam and the Quran) which are in reality interdependent; one needs Akl in order to understand the meaning of the different Islamic injunctions in the process of Nakl. In this context I would like to quote the Pakistani thinker, Mohamed Iqbal, who explains the dilemma of the West and the Muslim societies as:

i) “The failure of Europe to gain an epistemological foothold in a world of perpetual change”. ii) The mistake of modern Islamic societies to understand the eternal principles as to exclude the possibility of change and growth within these immutable principles”.

Thus Islam is for all times and purposes; as a dynamic religion, it should be possible to respond to emerging developments without altering the fundamental principles. Democracy is a case in point. When scientists were being burnt at the stake as heretics in the West, science and knowledge flourished in the Islamic world, in Andalucia and other places, and was transmitted to Europe along with some of the Islamic values that are being lost in Muslim societies in modern times. The Muslims even in the early days of Islam before the death of the Prophet (PBH) interacted with other civilizations and Islam does not forbid borrowing knowledge from other lands provided it does not violate the Islamic ethical framework. For example, the Caliph Omar borrowed some ideas from Byzantine Rome in formulating the system of “Dawaween” (equivalent to modern day ministries). There is also that famous saying of the Holy Prophet (PBH) about seeking knowledge even if it is in China.

to be continued