Islam and Democracy – Crunch Time


The numbers are in and the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood has secured a dominant position in the parliamentary make-up of post-Mubarak Egypt. For a long time, in addition to scare-mongering by right wing media, we were told by any number of commentators and academics that Islam and democracy are entirely compatible. This debate moved up a gear following the attacks in 2001. That may well be true of Islam and democracy, but it doesn’t take a political scientist to point out that mere democracy, rule by the many, is not the whole story.

What we in Europe understand as ‘democracy’ is actually liberal democracy, and it is liberalism – not merely electoral politics – that needs to be measured against the ideology that guides the progeny of al Banna and Qutb.

This distinction between democracy and liberal democracy needs to be engaged with more honestly by the stakeholders of the new Egypt (and Tunisia, and Libya, etc), as well as by Western media commentators and academics. It is remarkable to observe that anyone suggesting that a politico-religious ideology such as Islam and full fat, unapologetic liberal democracy are incompatible is likely to invite controversy, even accusations of xenophobia. But when we admit the term ‘liberal’ into the equation, there can be little doubt that, despite emotionally based objections, the contention rests on very solid foundations. And Islam is not alone in this respect. Several things are required in any debate about Islam and democratic government, and these requirements are urgent given what is now occurring across the Maghreb and beyond.

First, we need to step back from a range of reactionary responses among Islamists who are inclined to take any criticism of their faith rather badly. Some will affirm the incompatibility between both worldviews and insist that liberalism must be the loser in any post Arab Spring future. Others, and moderate Muslims will baulk at the suggestion, arguing that it is western hostility and prejudice that fails to understand ‘true’ Islam. In addition, the hypersensitivity of those on the Left to suggestions that any ‘minority culture’ is somehow less than perfect needs to be faced down by more courageous ‘liberal’ voices. If the voices of unbowed liberalism do not step up, those on the far right, all too eager to offload their prejudices onto an otherwise necessary debate, will fill the void. We do this by insisting on an understanding of Islam as a faith and in specifically religious terms, not as some pseudo-ethnic identity or ‘culture’ with its own collective rights, and deserving of unqualified respect. Above all, we need to understand what we mean by liberal democracy.

The conceptual conflation of ‘liberal’ and ‘democracy’ solely into the term democracy has meant that many commentators are simply talking past one another. If the majority of the people in the Maghreb express a wish through plebiscite to be ruled over by a political system that rests unambiguously on the principles enshrined in the Qu’ran, then that is their ‘democratic’ right. But it will invariably not be liberal democracy, and we should not pretend that it is. There is an obligation to spell out precisely where liberal democracy and Islam, as a faith, are fundamentally in conflict. This is not to suggest that Islam and Muslims cannot be part of a democratic society, even a liberal democracy. But it is to suggest that, for this coexistence to be unproblematic, liberal democracy and the principle of secularism must be hegemonic. We could argue until the mid-century about which interpretations of Islam accord most readily with liberal democracy, but it’s hardly the point. At the heart of Islam, of whatever interpretation, the problem is not the interpretation of texts or doctrine but the fundamental relationship embodied in the core of the faith. Islam is about a particular relationship between humanity and a creator-god, and humanity is the subservient partner. This form of social power makes things awkward in a liberal democracy.

Like Christianity, across its various sectarian manifestations, Islam shares a very particular view of humanity that finds its ultimate nemesis in liberalism. The core of liberal democracy is a political commitment not to interfere in the life of the human individual beyond ensuring that all citizens are protected from the dominance of others. This has not been attained with any ultimate finality, of course. Liberal society is not an end state, it is a process without end. It is a constant conflict, requiring constant vigilance against new forms of domination over the individual. We’ve known since Foucault, that our apparent freedoms are never really ‘free’. We are inevitably dominated by someone or something, somehow.

Doctrinally, Islam makes no such unqualified commitment to individual freedom. Like Christianity, the Islamic tradition is grounded in the idea that human conduct, right down to micro-level social practices and habits associated with the most mundane and animalistic aspect of our existence, are measured, adjudicated and regulated through the institutionalised interpretation of divine will. We should not be so naive as to believe that religions, whether Islam, Christianity or any other universal tradition, will ever be satisfied merely with internal ethical constraint on the part of its adherents in an otherwise free society. Sociologists have long understood the human need to construct, externalise and solidify morality through temporal power. Islam will be no different. It isn’t in Saudi Arabia. It isn’t in Iran. The fact that those moderates and liberals who spearheaded the Arab spring are now a small minority interest in the new Egypt only goes to prove that the idea of individual freedom instils as much fear in some as the prospect of tyranny. The issue is not an essentialist reading of Islam as either compatible or incompatible with full fledged liberal democracy. The question is whether the new custodians of Egypt’s future are prepared to institutionalise the vital separation of religion and politics that will permit people to be other than devout and subservient Muslims.

Image courtesy of Kodak Agfa

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About Kenneth Houston

Kenneth Houston coordinates the undergraduate International Relations program at Webster University’s Thailand campus. He holds a PhD in politics and an MA in Peace and Conflict Studies from the University of Ulster, Northern Ireland. He was previously a research intern at the INCORE institute at the University of Ulster. His research interests lie in the areas of religion and politics, European politics, conflict studies and power.

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