The topic of democratization and its implications for Islamic societies have received increased scholarly attention. Much has been written and said about the controversy surrounding the relationship between Islam and democracy. Whether or not Islam and democracy are compatible remains an issue of hot political debate. Of particular importance are the ways in which Islam and democracy can become compatible (or incompatible). The views of scholars (especially Islamic scholars) on the role of Islam in democratization vary considerably. The fact is in that the concept of democracy is traditionally associated with secular meanings; the latter are believed to contradict the main premises of the Islamic religion. However, the situation is not as bad as it may seem: democracy and Islam are fully compatible. Using the words of the Iranian Islamic reformist Abdul Karim Soroush, “Islam and democracy are not only compatible, their association is inevitable. In a Muslim society, one without the other is not perfect.”Based on the recent experiences of the Islamic countries, Islam and democracy are fully compatible, through liberalization, reforms, equality, and freedom of expression.
The relationship between democracy and Islam is extremely complex. In the postmodern world, Islamic societies are considered inherently abusive and discriminatory against the basic human freedoms. Islam has an extremely negative image in the western world. Islam is associated with the absence of self-expression, suppression of gender and social equality, and religious extremism. It is no wonder that the question of Islam and democracy has become an issue of hot public debate. Understanding this complex relationship is impossible without understanding the religious, cultural, and political complexity of the Muslim world. Contrary to public beliefs, the Islamic world is hardly monolithic. Many countries where Islam is the religion of the majority citizens believe that democracy is valuable and needed to ensure the stability and effectiveness of their political and civil systems Simultaneously, many Islamic scholars keep to a belief that democracy has nothing to do with Islam.
Contemporary views on the relationship between democratization and Islam vary considerably across countries and societies. Islamic scholars who defend the importance of democracy in the Muslim world are convinced that members of the Islamic community are obliged to participate in democratic processes. Dr. Taha Jaber al-Alwani believes that it is one of the main tasks of Muslims to participate in democracy, with the goal of protecting their rights and views and improving the quality of information spread about Islam. As such, democracy exemplifies a legitimate way to achieve and sustain stability and peace in the Muslim society. According to the Cairo Declaration, democracy allows determining the rules to govern the Islamic world. Democracy creates conditions for the convergence of Western and Eastern traditions and facilitates knowledge generation and transfer across societies. By contrast, several Islamic scholars consider democracy as godless, illegitimate and unreligious, and the byproduct of Western misdevelopment. Iranian writer Sayyid Saeed Akhtar Rizvi claims that Islamic leadership has nothing to do with democracy; democracy is a regime created by people and for people, whereas the Islamic society is the society created by and for Allah. Rizvi is confident that democracy and Islam are incompatible, as the latter builds on the superiority and unquestionable power of the Holy Prophet, who effectively combines all legislative, judicial, and executive functions in one person. “The Islamic system, from the beginning to the end, is ‘for Allah’. Everything must be done ‘for Allah’; if it is done ‘for the people’ it is termed ‘hidden polytheism.”Does that mean that Islam and democracy are absolutely incompatible?
In reality, recent experiences of Islamic countries suggest that Islam and democracy are not simply compatible but impossible without one another; through liberalization, reforms, equality and free expression Islamic communities can achieve the desired degree of democratization without losing its religious insight. Throughout the latter half of the twentieth century, dozens of purely Islamic groups sought to participate directly in reforms and other democratic processes. The past year witnessed a series of overthrows in the Middle East; dictators and authoritarian rulers give place to democratic regimes. In Iran, Islamic groups tried to redefine the meaning of democracy and its role in achieving the stability and fostering progress in the Islamic world; in other countries, Islamic groups realized the importance of participating in more secular political processes. Recent elections in Egypt have become an excellent prism for the analysis of democracy-Islam relationships and compatibility: the Muslim Brotherhood that had been taunted by political critics to assume and show their democratic commitments grasped the elections opportunity to re-establish and confirm their democratic credentials. Most probably, participation will remain the defining feature of democratization in Egypt, and previously radical Muslim Brotherhood will pursue the line of democratization through elections, liberalization, and further political reforms.
Islamic countries and communities are not monolithic; and Islam often lends itself to more than one interpretation of the Islamic and democratic ideals. Countries of the Middle East and other members of the international Islamic community reinterpret their values and beliefs to accommodate the ideal of democracy. Despite considerable differences in how Muslim societies interpret the vision of democracy, many have abandoned their anti-democratic hostility and came to view democracy as a promising trend. Again, elections, liberalization, freedom of expression became the main ways to make democracy and Islam compatible. Back to the Islamic organizations, the Muslim Brotherhood of Syria acted openly against the authoritarian regime of Hafiz al-Asad. The Brotherhood was explicitly determined against similar dictatorships but, simultaneously, left some room for consultations and compromises in case such regimes came to power.
The situation in Turkey is somewhat different but no less interesting. Turkey has come to exemplify one of the best places where democracy and religion successfully coexist. Turkey encourages free self-expression, organizes and holds liberal democratic elections, runs a multipartisan political system and relies on the principles of equity inherent in the Islamic religion and Koran. Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan shows deep respect for democracy; like Islam democracy in Turkey works for the benefit of all people. Like many Islamic organizations, Erdogan relies on the Islamic principle of shurah, or consultation. Through consultation, democracy turns into a process of knowledge exchange. For Erdogan, as well as for many other organizations and Islamic politicians, democracy is identical and synonymous to consultation in the widest sense of the word. In Turkey, consultation works through increased participation of non-Islamic parties in political decisions and processes.In other countries of the Middle East, shurah makes possible to achieve a reasonable consensus among the conflicting parties and members of the political landscape. It would be fair to say that, through the proper understanding of the Koran and Islamic values most Islamic countries can achieve the desired balance of religion and democracy.
In this context, the role and place of Islamist organizations cannot be easily dismissed. The emergence of pan-Islamism and the huge influence of Islamist beliefs and values distort the relationship between Islam and democracy. These beliefs position Islam as incompatible with democracy; apparently, where Islamist principles are dominant democracy and Islam cannot coexist. For example, the Iranian revolution inspired the creation of independent Sunni terrorist organizations and networks which later served the basis for the expansion of the al-Qaeda. Islamism fueled the rapid evolution of Egyptian Islamic Jihad who planned and assassinated Egyptian President Sadat in 1981. The rise on terror and Islamic fundamentalism can be partially attributed to (a) the absence of liberal political institutions; and (b) failure to understand and interpret the religious philosophy behind the Koran. Outstanding political and religious figures to play a role in how democracy in the Islamic community is implemented: the dramatic influence of President Khomeini on Palestine and its branch of Islamic Jihad was responsible for the subsequent Islamization of the Palestinian Question.
Yet, even these trends and influences do not deny the productive and desirable coexistence of Islam and democracy. More often than not, failure to instill democratic values in Muslim communities results from distorted understanding of Islam’s history and religious teachings. It is no wonder that these barriers are called “Islamist”; not “Islamic”. In other words, organizations and leaders that call themselves Islamist work against the basic premises of Islam. Islamist organizations and leaders have a unique ability to use religious terminology in ways that distort the message of the Koran sent by people. Moreover, these organizations have a habit to integrate this terminology with their own distorted political content. In reality, the Koran allows and even facilitates the implementation of democratic initiatives, through liberalization and reforms. The abovementioned principle of shurah has been used extensively by Muslim readers to encourage public participation in politics, self-expression and liberalization of opinions through consultation and analysis.
Shurah is not the only Islamic principle that supports the implementation of democracy; the concept of khalifa used in the Koran creates a strong linkage between Islam and democracy. The term Khalifa is used twice in the Koran, in relation the Prophet Adam and the Prophet David. The word “khalifa” describes a person who is responsible for maintaining order in the community and carrying out the laws. The history of Islam and the Middle Eastern world witnessed various methods of implementing the concept in practice. To begin with, the Koran does not offer any explicit directions on how successors and governments should be appointed. Muslims used elections to choose the best caliph and end those governments and caliphates that did not satisfy their needs. This being said, Islam is not against democracy, and democracy fits perfectly well in the conditions and circumstances of the Muslim religion and culture. In light of this information, it is clear that Islam and democracy are fully compatible and can coexist, by means of liberalization, reforms, equity, and free expression. Additionally, one of the principal ways to promote productive coexistence of democracy and Islam is to ensure that the values, beliefs, and concepts of the Islamic religion and Koran are properly interpreted.
The issue of Islam-democracy compatibility remains the object of hot professional debates. Much has been written and said about whether or not Islam and democracy are compatible. Basically, the coexistence of Islam and democracy is not only desirable but simply inevitable; in any Muslim country, one without another would be poor and incomplete. Those who claim that Islam and democracy cannot be compatible either misunderstand or intentionally distort the main principles of the Koran. The latter teaches Muslim adherents to rely on shurah and khalifa and ask public opinion and consultation on the most problematic issues. Based on the recent experiences of the Islamic countries, Islam and democracy are fully compatible, through liberalization, reforms, equality, and freedom of expression. It would be fair to say that one of the basic precondition for the compatibility of Islam and democracy is proper understanding and interpretation of Islamic values and religious principles communicated by the Koran.