Can there be Islamic democracy?

Forget about 'clash of civilizations.' A new poll of

the world's Muslims finds strong support for many

democratic values, says SHEEMA KHAN


Globe and Mail Update

Some in the West say Islam and democracy cannot

co-exist. Some Muslims feel the same way. But people

like Osama bin Laden don't offer alternate visions of

governance; they're not interested in building states,

but destroying them. Meanwhile, hundreds of years of

Islamic culture say that democracy and Islam are

compatible -- provided democracy is rooted in Islamic


Developing such a democracy is also the vision of Noah

Feldman, a New York University law professor and

author of After Jihad: America and the Struggle for

Islamic Democracy, currently an adviser appointed by

the Bush administration to help set up the interim

Iraqi governing council. Prof. Feldman points out that

Judaism and democracy co-exist in the state of Israel;

true, there are tensions, but they are creative


Muslim scholars and intellectuals of diverse

backgrounds agree that Islam emphasizes certain

fundamentals of governance -- justice, human dignity

and equality, the rule of law, the role of people in

selecting their leaders, the obligation of

consultative government, and the value of pluralism.

Clearly, these elements are lacking in many Muslim

countries. But a sweeping new international poll shows

that a majority of Muslims believe that their

political institutions must become more democratic,

even as they find a greater role for religious


From April 28 to May 15, the Pew Research Center for

the People and the Press surveyed the political,

social and religious attitudes of Muslims in 14

countries -- Mali, Indonesia, Pakistan, Turkey,

Bangladesh, Lebanon, Jordan, Uzbekistan, Nigeria,

Ghana, Uganda, Tanzania, Senegal, and the Ivory Coast.

Interestingly, the Egyptian government did not permit

survey questions pertaining to democracy.

Majorities of Muslims in nine countries want Islam to

play a large role in politics, while a slim majority

favours the opposite in Lebanon, Turkey, Senegal and


In countries where Muslims support a greater role for

Islam in politics, people also told pollsters that

they valued freedom of speech, freedom of the press

and free elections. Majorities also place high

importance on the freedom to openly criticize the

government, judicial systems that treat everyone the

same, and honest multiparty electoral systems --

ideals that are in harmony with Islamic values.

(Jordan, a monarchy with a limited parliament, is an

exception; less than one-third expressed support for

such freedoms.)

When asked about what kind of leadership they would

trust, most of those surveyed preferred a democratic

government to a strong autocratic leader (the

exceptions were Jordan, Uzbekistan and Nigeria). The

Uzbekistan view that a strong central authority is the

best form of governance was in line with other

post-Soviet-bloc nations (Russia and Ukraine).

But for those who favoured democracy, the question

remains: What kind of democracy? The Pew pollsters

didn't probe the particulars, but did ask Muslims what

they thought of American-style democracy. The result:

Solid majorities in Turkey, Indonesia, Pakistan and

Jordan expressed dislike of the latter.

That's not a contradiction, even if some U.S.

observers interpret it that way. The fact is,

democracy comes in many forms. But the practical

question remains: How can Muslims combine democratic

ideals with the strong presence of their faith?

In secular democracies that strictly separate church

and state, this may seem impossible. But if you look

back at Islamic governance over 14 centuries, you find

a system akin to constitutional democracy serving as

the foundation of certain states. The norms of the

Koran and the sunnah (the authentic traditions of the

Prophet Mohammed) served as the constitution, while

bodies of independent scholars provided rulings in

light of these texts.

The principle of public participation was enshrined by

the institution of shurah (consultation), but such

consultation could not contradict the constitution.

Moreover, the constitution required that the laws be

applied equally to both the ruling class and the

ruled. On occasion, the ruler would disregard the

scholars' rulings; at times, courageous scholars would

choose prison over bending to tyranny.

Canadians should recognize aspects of such a

democracy. We have a constitutional democracy, in that

the democratic will (represented by Parliament) is

subject to the Constitution as interpreted by the

courts, whose rulings are binding on the government

(the latter may opt out by invoking the

notwithstanding clause, but even that exceptional step

is enshrined in the Constitution).

Today, it's a challenge to find one Muslim nation that

abides by an Islamic model of constitutional

democracy. Most are dysfunctional, with power

concentrated in the hands of a few; little

accountability of government leaders; and no checks

and balances to set things right.

And here's another problem turned up by the Pew poll:

While Muslims favour democratic elements in political

life, Muslim majorities in 10 of the nations surveyed

rejected the idea that Islam should tolerate diverse

interpretations. Yet the view that there should be

only one true interpretation of Islam is supported

neither by authentic Islamic texts, nor by history.

The concept of haj (pilgrimage to Mecca) has made the

Muslim community something of a global village for

more than 14 centuries. Writing seven centuries ago,

Ibn Battuta described the richness of thought in the

Islamic empire in his travels from North Africa to

China. The fact that four major schools of Islamic

jurisprudence have evolved is yet another sign of the

diversity of interpretation.

This survey result is thus all the more perplexing.

Does this mean that Muslims are looking for a central

body of qualified scholars to provide one uniform

interpretation of the religion? Whose interpretation

will be taken as "true"? Will there be intolerance for

differing interpretations? More importantly, does this

imply that Muslim publics are susceptible to a

demagogue who espouses rhetoric in the name of "one,

true" interpretation?

One hopes not. Islamic thought has sustained and

nourished a rich world of scholarly opinion. Muslims

today must remember that.

Sheema Khan is chair of the Council on

American-Islamic Relations (Canada).


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