Democracy is undoubtedly the most commonplace and widely accepted political concept in the modern world. It is barely an exaggeration to say that it has achieved the status of a universal myth; very few people in the world dare challenge the principles associated with it, and most accept it — explicitly or implicitly — as representing the standards by which any political system is judged. Thus it is that on the one hand even the most authoritarian regimes in the world claim to be democratic or to have democratic elements; and on the other, states that are recognised as democratic can get away with the most blatant breaches of the standards they claim to uphold, as well as ruthless, even murderous, behaviour in their own policies, without their legitimacy being questioned.
How has this remarkable state of affairs come about? For two reasons principally: first, democracy is associated with and claimed by the most powerful political forces in the world today, and political success is always its own justification. It is a feature of history that peoples subjected to the domination of other powers seek to adopt the ideologies and methods of those powers in order to fight back. The modern West, represented first by European colonialism, and then by post-colonial neo-imperialism of the US and the US-dominated international order, achieved global hegemony largely on the basis of its economic exploitation of resources and the military power that this economic success made possible; but even as it did so, democracy emerged as the dominant political system within the West, and Western powers used the language of democracy to explain and justify their hegemony. And so it has been that — having passed through phases of nationalism and socialism, much as the West passed through similar phases — the victims of Western power largely adopted the ideas and language of democracy to try to define their own aspirations to resist Western dominance.
The second is that democracy is so vague and ill-defined a concept that not only does it mean different things to different people, but very often different things to the same people at different times and contexts. Most people have a particular understanding of it, and assume that it means the same, more or less, to others too. In much of the West, for example, it is associated with liberalism, secularism and the universality of Western values, as well of course as electoral political institutions and systems. For many Muslims on the other hand, and others whose main experience is of authoritarianism and foreign domination, democracy is associated principally with self-determination and freedom from repression.
The contradiction here is obvious: when people in Western countries hear Muslims talking of democracy, they think, “They want to be like us, they want what we have, they aspire to the modernity and universal values we obviously do represent” — and, therefore, although it is never understood in these terms, or put so bluntly, “our global hegemony is legitimate and welcome to them”. Whereas what Muslims actually mean when they talk of democracy is more like, “We want political systems and governments that represent our values rather than those of others, we want independence from the hegemony of the West, and we want governments that serve our interests rather than those of others.”
This difference in the way democracy is understood and used among different people clearly leads to misunderstanding in itself. But to make matters worse, those who do understand the vagueness and flexibility of democracy as a concept can exploit the differences of peoples’ perceptions by using the same terminology to mean different things in different contexts, according to their audiences and purposes. Thus they can represent themselves to gullible Muslim people, particularly those who are Western educated, as representing and championing democracy against the authoritarian regimes of Muslim countries. But the not-so-hidden truth is that they themselves are the biggest sponsors and supporters of those regimes against genuinely popular political movements in the Muslim world, which are mainly Islamic movements because the indigenous values that the Muslims hope to realise through democratic systems are those of Islam.
Which brings us to the Islamic movements that are the main vehicles for popular political action in the Muslim world. These are many and varied, some focusing on jihad, others on community organization, and others on oppositional politics; the range and varieties of Islamic activism is too complex to be discussed here. But all too many, particularly those whose emphasis is on political action — such as the Ikhwan in Egypt, similar groups in other Arab countries, the Jama‘at-e Islami in Pakistan, etc. — fall into the trap of defining themselves in democratic terms as well as Islamic ones, usually by arguing that democracy and Islam are “compatible” and that Islam is “democratic.” Islam then becomes just another component of the complex debate about the definition of democracy, instead of being understood in its own terms; while debates about the nature of Islamic polities and states become distorted by the conceptual confusion and baggage that comes with democracy.
Sooner or later Muslim intellectuals, particularly those operating within Islamic movements, must challenge the universal myth of democracy instead of pandering to it, and define their ideas and the aspirations of the Ummah in purely Islamic terms. Until that happens — and not just by the facile argument that democracy is un-Islamic because in Islam sovereignty lies with Allah (swt), not “the people” — Muslims will never achieve the conceptual clarity that will enable them to articulate their political ideas in terms that will offer a genuine and credible alternative to the seductive but oh-so-dangerous myths of democracy.