One of the most prescient insights about Islam and democracy that have informed my politics over the years is an observation by the late Eqbal Ahmad, a former contributor to Boston Review. In response to the question: “what strategies should Arab and Muslim intellectuals pursue to democratize their societies?” he offered the following words of wisdom in an unpublished 1994 interview:
One must make an effort to understand the past, understand it with compassion, sympathy and criticism. The reason I am stressing that is that many of us, Arab and Muslim intellectuals know more about the West, more about modern history, more about the ideas of the Enlightenment than we do about our own [history and culture]. No significant change occurs unless the new form is congruent with the old. It is only when a transplant is congenial to a soil that it works. Therefore, it is very important to know the transplant as well as the native soil.
There is a great deal in our civilization which has been old, very creative, very humane in many areas and also with many weaknesses, with many problems. [It is necessary] for us to understand our own first and then develop change in an organic relationship to the inherited civilization. We have to visualize change in that way, otherwise it won’t work.
I am reminded of these remarks after reading Khaled Abou El Fadl’s thoughtful meditation on “Islam and the Challenge of Democracy.” Abou El Fadl has made a significant and unique contribution to advancing a democracy theory for Muslim societies by virtue of his command of both the core requirements of modern liberal democracy and—this is the important part—by his solid grasp of Islamic political and theological thought. There are very few people who possess a firm grounding in both disciplines within the Muslim world—Eqbal Ahmad was one of them—which is one reason why liberal-democracy remains a contested concept.
Regrettably, democratic voices in the Muslim world have read their own secularity into their host communities that remain largely religious. On the other side of the equation, democracy has not flourished because Islamically inspired activists who enjoy grass-roots support reject the values of democracy and liberalism as alien imports tied to colonialism and imperialism. The result is a dialogue of the deaf between two segments of Muslim society that desperately need to communicate. Eqbal Ahmad realized that bridging this chasm was the way forward: “no significant change occurs unless the new form is congruent with the old. It is only when a transplant is congenial to a soil that it works.” Had Eqbal been alive today I think he would have shared my enthusiasm for Khaled Abou El Fadl’s essay primarily because it seeks to indigenize democracy and human rights within an Islamic framework.1
The second contribution Abou El Fadl has made is to refute a widely held thesis that Islam is incompatible with democracy. After September 11 this idea has understandably gained new currency. According to Bernard Lewis the culture of Islam and democracy are fundamentally incongruent and the choice facing Muslims in the twenty-first century is between modernization and fanaticism. “The future of the Middle East will depend on which of them prevails,” he recently told an audience at his native Princeton University. Similarly, Leonard Binder refers to a “cluster of absences” within Islam that accounts for it’s liberal-democratic deficit: the absence of a concept of liberty, the absence of a middle class, and the absence of autonomous corporate institutions. While it certainly is tempting to invoke these arguments in today’s post–9/11 world, the “Islamic Exceptionalist Thesis” does not stand up to critical scrutiny.
Like other religious traditions whose origins lie in the premodern era and that are scripturally based, Islam is neither more nor less compatible with modern democracy than Christianity or Judaism. Not too long ago it was similarly argued that Catholicism was an obstacle to democracy and that only Protestant majority countries respected popular sovereignty. Religious traditions are a highly complex body of ideas, assumptions, and doctrines that, when interpreted in a modern context 1500 years later, contain sufficient ambiguity and elasticity to be read in a variety of different ways. This is not to suggest that religious doctrine should be completely ignored when discussing democracy in the Middle East. It is at best one factor among many that effect the prospects for political development. The point that Abou El Fadl demonstrates is that Islamic tradition and Muslim political thought are not fossilized and they are capable of being read and interpreted in a myriad of distinct ways—including in support of democracy and liberalism. The current struggle for democracy in Iran today is ample proof of this.
While student demonstrators have garnered much deserved international media attention for their opposition to theocratic rule, there is a less well-known yet equally significant transformation of Iran’s religious heritage underway—led by dissident clerics—that has significantly impacted the process of democratization. The liberal and democratic Islamic exegesis of theologians such as Mohsen Kadivar, Mojtahed Shabestari, and Hassan Yousefi Eshkavari have won them a broad following among all layers of society particularly among the burgeoning youth population. Unable to respond to these ideas in the court of public opinion, the ruling clerical establishment has resorted to censorship, imprisonment and outright intimidation. In a sermon at Tehran University in 1999, the chief conservative ideologue Mohammad Taqi Mesbah-Yazdi summed up the new call to arms: “If someone tells you he has a new interpretation of Islam, sock him in the mouth.” The broader lesson that emerges from Abou El Fadl’s essay is that the popular question—is Islam compatible with democracy?—is fundamentally misleading. The real focus should be not on what Islam is, but rather, as Graham Fuller suggests, what do Muslims want? If they want to construct a democratic society where human rights are respected and protected then it is up to them to invoke the necessary arguments, to make the required sacrifices, and engage in an interpretation of their religious tradition that can turn this vision into reality. In this debate Western societies have very little say on what is an internal Muslim struggle. Any intervention will likely make the situation worse. The best thing the West can do is observe its own ideals when dealing with the Muslim world and to let the struggle for democracy run its evolutionary course.
1. Along the same lines, Abdullahi An-Na’im had observed that to “seek secular answers [to the Muslim condition] is simply to abandon the field to the fundamentalists, who will succeed in carrying the vast majority of the population with them by citing religious authority for their policies and theories. Intelligent and enlightened Muslims are therefore best advised to remain within the religious framework and endeavour to achieve the reforms that would make Islam a viable modern ideology.