The problem of ‘democracy’ in Muslim political discourse

Developing Just Leadership

Iqbal Siddiqui

Muharram 10, 1425 2004-03-01

Islamic Movement

by Iqbal Siddiqui (Islamic Movement, Crescent International Vol. 33, No. 1, Muharram, 1425)

The "essentially disputed" concept of democracy now dominates much of Muslim political discourse. IQBAL SIDDIQUI questions its utility, suggesting that it is virtually meaningless and creates more problems than it solves.

In an article published in the British magazine Q-News in December 2003, Kamran Bokhari expresses frustration with the simplistic understandings of Islam and politics of those he regards as "radical Islamists" (Kamran Bokhari, "Is Democracy Disbelief?", Q-News, December 2003). He was apparently referring to groups such as Al-Muhajiroun and Hizb al-Tahrir in Britain. His frustration is understandable, and indeed widely shared; however, the importance of such groups should not be exaggerated. Although they are vocal in Britain, they represent only a marginal sector in Muslim political thought, and are not particularly influential. Rather they should be seen – at least in the British context – as phases through which many Muslims pass, before developing more rounded understandings of Islam and human society, realizing that Islam does not in fact provide a well-defined, timeless and rigid system for government and politics which would be a panacea for all political and social problems.

Bokhari appeals for Muslims to adopt democracy as a better alternative for Muslim societies. Unfortunately, his own arguments are based on an equally simplistic political understanding, particularly of democracy. What is more, attempts to integrate democracy into Muslim political thought and praxis are potentially far more damaging, both because Muslims are much more likely to be misguided by them than by the superficial musings of marginal Islamist groups, and because they are open to exploitation by forces whose concern is neither the correct implementation of Islamic principles nor the welfare of Muslim societies. Such forces have already achieved an unprecedented degree of political, social, cultural and intellectual hegemony over Muslim societies, and need to be resisted as far as possible.

Bokhari uses Walter B. Gallie's idea of "contested concepts" to highlight the over-simplicity of some radical Islamists' understandings of democracy. Bokhari is quite right to consider that "no one brand of democracy is any more authentic than the other". On the same basis, however, it must also follow that Bokhari's preferred definition of democracy is not necessarily any more valid than that of the Islamists whom he criticises. Certainly many advocates of democracy would disagree with Bokhari's assertion that democracy is "nothing more than the most efficient means of political management available" with no ideological or value-driven element; not least the many political theorists who argue that democracy is inseparable from liberalism. Bokhari is entitled to use his own understanding of democracy as little more than "a constitutional framework"; but most people would probably consider the Islamists' definition closer to common understandings of democracy.

These are, of course, only two out of countless possible interpretations of democracy. There are many others, used by political philosophers and theorists, political scientists, politicians, political analysts and commentators, journalists, activists, and others. Moreover, most peoples’ use of the term ‘democracy' is laden not only with value-judgements, but with historical and political connotations that cannot be ignored. These often include the historicist assumptions of the modernisation thesis – that all societies, as they modernize, will become more and more like modern western societies – which underpin the common western assumption that western countries have some modern equivalent of the "white man's burden" to bring ‘democracy' and ‘freedom’ to other societies. This is certainly evident in the way western politicians routinely speak of the need to democratise the Muslim world, and the way their statements are interpeted, even though they are in truth nothing more than legitimising facades for hegemonic neo-imperialism.

Equally evident, to those willing to see it, is the remarkable inability of commentators supposedly sympathetic to Islam and Muslims to recognise or acknowledge these facades. Thus Noah Feldman can regard the US's long record of supporting despotic and dictatorial regimes against popular political movements as an unfortunate aberration, without questioning what this record might suggest about the US's real agenda (Q-News, December 2003); while some Muslims are apparently so happy to find supposed Western sympathy for Islam that they ignore these obvious problems in the work of Feldman and others like him. Nazim Baksh, for example, in his laudatory review of Feldman's book After Jihad: America and the Struggle for Islamic Democracy (Q-News, October 2003) totally ignores the fact that Feldman's argument is based on the remarkable assumption that the US is an altruistic force for good in the Muslim world, and that what is good for US interests is good also for Muslims.

All of which begs the question: why should Muslims work so hard trying to make relevant to Islam a concept that is so problematic even within western political culture?

The only possible answer is that democracy is seen as central to the apparent success of the most advanced and powerful civilization in the modern world. Historians have long since recognised the phenomenon of conquered peoples adopting the tools and culture of their conquerors in order to try to emulate their success. In the colonial period, Muslim elites adopted everything from western dress and institutions to western languages and ideologies, in order to become ‘modern’; all it achieved was the consolidation of western hegemony over our societies, even as they remain dysfunctional disaster zones. This process was helped, of course, by the colonial powers’ patronage of those that emulated them, and their marginalisation – and brutal repression when necessary – of those who tried to assert alternatives rooted in indigenous Islamic traditions and values, a strategy which the post-colonial west and their allies continue to use today.

It may seem harsh to regard the efforts of some Muslim intellectuals to convince us that democracy is our best option as a continuation of this phenomenon. The vast majority are undoubtedly sincere and well-meaning, perhaps even genuinely misled by the west's assiduous promotion of an image of itself as a force for good in the world, despite ample evidence to the contrary. Nonetheless, it is difficult not to suspect that the opportunities and patronage available to Muslims who say the right things is also a factor, at least subconsciously.

After all, it is not as though the true nature of western democracy is totally unrecognised, even with the west. The writings of intellectuals such as Noam Chomsky and Howard Zinn have long since exposed the reality that western democracy serves as little more than a legitimating device for the dominance of oligarchic moneyed elites. For those willing to see them, the realities of the domination of wealth in western politics; of the continued and increasing exploitation of the poor by the wealthy; of the manipulation of public opinion by political interests; of the resultant alienation of ordinary people from political processes; and of the enormous gap between the idealistic rhetoric of democratic ideals and the realities of democratic politics, should be inescapable.

Kamran Bokhari writes that "democracy is about providing a constitutional framework which would ensure legitimacy of the government, accountability, transparency, [and the] rule of law..." The reality is that democracy provides a veneer of legitimacy that disguises the absence of accountability, transparency and the rule of law, as well as the repression of dissidence, where it really matters; think, for example, of the way that the invasion of Iraq was legitimised, the passing of Islamophobic anti-terrorist legislation, the incarceration of political prisoners at Guantanamo Bay, Britain and elsewhere, and increasing pressure on mahjubahs in European countries.

Bokhari also points out that democracy is an "efficient means of political management", and so it is: for the management of political processes by elites determined to achieve their ends while minimising effective opposition. Yes, in that sense democracy certainly works, but is it really a model we should be trying to adopt?

What Muslims really need to do, instead of trying to Islamise western democracy, is to develop models of social and political organization, based on Islamic values and principles, that are suitable to the complexities of modern societies. Bokhari invokes "counter-factual history" to suggest that Muslims might have been the first to discover democracy had it not been for their intellectual stagnation. A more realistic counter-factual history might suggest that Muslims would have found their own ways of reasserting the values of Islam in public life against the stagnant and despotic monarchies that had emerged from the corruption of the khilafah, had the natural evolution of Muslim societies not been derailed by the destructive impact of western colonialism. These ways would, of course, have been both rooted in Islamic principles and values, and suited to the changing conditions of modernising Muslim societies. Getting back to something like them is the task now facing us.

These models might well have certain elements in common with western democratic institutions, such as elections to determine public opinion; but, if they genuinely reflect Islamic goals and priorities, they will be quite different in key respects. These models will also, of course, be very different from the formulaic definitions of khilafah of some contemporary Islamic groups. They will be general and tentative of necessity, and will need to be tested and refined through historical experience when implemented, which is how social institutions develop; but they will at least be built on sounder foundations than any form of democracy transplanted from western discourse. Developing such models is the task that has been, and is being, addressed by Islamic movement activists, scholars and leaders as diverse as Maulana Mawdudi, Hasan al-Banna, Hasan al-Turabi, Malek Bennabi, Ali Shari'ati, Rashid Ghannouchi and, above all, the late Imam Khomeini, with his ijtihad on the role of ulama in politics and his unprecedented attempt to establish the first Islamic state of the modern era.

While some of these scholars, such as Rashid Ghannouchi, discuss Islamic political society with reference to democracy and other western concepts, such as Rashid Ghannouchi, all have far more nuanced understandings of democracy than those displayed by Bokhari and others like him. These are the sorts of "radical Islamists" whose work contemporary Muslim political academics and analysts need to engage with, not the marginal groups whose arguments Bokhari so effectively demolishes. In the process, they might make a far more constructive contribution to Muslim political discourse than they can by seeking to ‘Islamise' western-style democracy.

And if such academics and analysts find themselves ill-equipped or unable to do this, trained and operating as they are within western academic institutions and western discourses, then perhaps they are not the intellectuals Muslims should be looking to for ideas and insights at this crucial stage of our history.

[A version of this article was first published in Q-News in January 2004, in response to an article by Kamran Bokhari published in Q-News in December 2003. Further debate on the issue between Bokhari and Siddiqui on this issue, including Bokhari’s response to this article, can be found on-line, on the Political Islam Discussion List (PIDL).]

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