Islam and Democracy: Text, Tradition, and History

Ahrar Ahmad

Popular stereotypes in the West tend to posit a progressive, rational, and free West against a backward, oppressive, and threatening Islam. Public opinion polls conducted in the United States during the 1990s revealed a consistent pattern of Americans labeling Muslims as “religious fanatics” and considering Islam’s ethos as fundamentally “anti-democratic.”1 These characterizations
and misgivings have, for obvious reasons, significantly worsened since the tragedy of 9/11. However, these perceptions are not reflected merely in the popular consciousness or crude media representations. Respected scholars also have contributed to this climate of opinion by writing about the supposedly irreconcilable differences between Islam and the West, the famous “clash of civilizations” that is supposed to be imminent and inevitable, and about the seeming incompatibility between Islam and democracy. For example, Professor Peter Rodman worries that “we are challenged from the outside by a militant atavistic force driven by hatred of all Western political thought harking back to age-old grievances against Christendom.” Dr. Daniel Pipes proclaims that the Muslims challenge the West more profoundly than the communists ever did, for “while the Communists disagree with our policies, the fundamentalist Muslims despise our whole way of life.” Professor Bernard Lewis warns darkly about “the historic reaction of an ancient rival against our Judeo–Christian heritage, our secular present, and the expansion of both.” Professor Amos Perlmutter asks: “Is Islam, fundamentalist or otherwise, compatible with human-rights oriented Western style representative democracy? The answer is an emphatic NO.” And Professor Samuel Huntington suggests with a flourish that “the problem is not Islamic fundamentalism, but Islam itself.” It would be intellectually lazy and simple-minded to dismiss their positions as based merely on spite or prejudice. In fact, if one ignores some rhetorical overkill, some of their charges, though awkward for Muslims, are relevant to a discussion of the relationship between Islam and democracy in the modern world. For example, the position of women or sometimes non-Muslims in some Muslim countries is problematic in terms of the supposed legal equality of all people in a democracy. Similarly, the intolerance directed by some Muslims against writers (e.g., Salman Rushdie in the UK, Taslima Nasrin in Bangladesh, and Professor Nasr Abu Zaid in Egypt) ostensibly jeopardizes the principle of free speech, which is essential to a democracy.
It is also true that less than 10 of the more than 50 members of the Organization of the Islamic Conference have institutionalized democratic principles or processes as understood in the West, and that too, only tentatively. Finally, the kind of internal stability and external peace that is almost a prerequisite for a democracy to function is vitiated by the turbulence of internal implosion or external aggression evident in many Muslim countries today (e.g., Somalia, Sudan, Indonesia, Pakistan, Iraq, Afghanistan, Algeria, and Bosnia).
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