Sunday, October 10, 2004

Islam and Democracy

Afghanistan--where yesterday's presidential election was marked by charges of fraud from candidates opposing American favorite Hamid Karzai--and Iraq--where questions continue to surface concerning the feasibility of holding elections scheduled for January--cause some to wonder whether Islam and democracy are compatible. In fact, Intelligence Squared, a London-based forum that sponsors live debates, hosted six eminent speakers in a debate on the proposition that "Islam is incompatible with democracy" on May 18, 2004. (The audience affirmed the proposition by a vote of 404 to 267.)

Amir Taheri, an Iranian journalist living in London and a participant in the Intelligence Squared debate, distilled his debate text into an op-ed piece for the Sunday Times (London) on May 23, 2004. He wrote:

To say that Islam is incompatible with democracy should not be seen as a disparagement of Islam. On the contrary, many Muslims would see it as a compliment because they believe that their idea of rule by God is superior to that of rule by men, which is democracy.

The great Persian poet Rumi pleads thus:

Oh, God, do not leave our affairs to us For, if You do, woe is us.

Islamic tradition holds that God has always intervened in the affairs of men, notably by dispatching 124,000 prophets or emissaries to inform the mortals of his wishes and warnings.

Many Islamist thinkers regard democracy with horror.

The late Ayatollah Khomeini called democracy "a form of prostitution", because he who gets the most votes wins the power that belongs only to God.

Sayyid Qutb, the Egyptian who has emerged as the ideological mentor of Salafists (fundamentalists who want to return to the idyllic Islamic state of their forebears) spent a year in the United States in the 1950s. He found "a nation that has forgotten God and been forsaken by Him; an arrogant nation that wants to rule itself".

Last year Yussuf al-Ayyeri, one of the leading theoreticians of today's Islamist movement, published a book in which he warned that the real danger to Islam did not come from American tanks and helicopter gunships in Iraq but from the idea of democracy and the government of the people.

Fareed Zakaria, in The Future of Freedom: Illiberal Democracy at Home and Abroad, devotes considerable attention to the question of democracy in the Muslim world. Portions of his comments (from pp. 128-29) are worth quoting:

The trouble with thundering declarations about "Islam's nature" is that Islam, like any religion, is not what books make it but what people make it. Forget the rantings of the fundamentalists, who are a minority. Most Muslims' daily lives do not confirm the idea of a faith that is intrinsically anti-Western or antimodern. The most populous Muslim country in the world, Indonesia, has had secular government since its independence in 1949, with a religious opposition that is tiny (though now growing). . . . [Indonesia] has now embraced democracy (still a fragile experiment) and has elected a woman as its president. After Indonesia, the three largest Muslim populations in the world are in Pakistan, Bangladesh, and India (India's Muslims number more than 120 million.) Not only have these countries had much experience with democracy, all three have elected women as prime minister, and they did so well before most Western countries. So although some aspects of Islam are incompatible with women's rights, the reality on the ground is sometimes quite different. And South Asia is not an anomaly with regard to Islamic women. In Afghanistan, before its twenty-year descent into chaos and tyranny, 40 percent of all doctors were women and Kabul was one of the most liberated cities for women in all of Asia. . . .

Then there is Turkey, with the fifth largest Muslim population in the world, a flawed but functioning liberal democracy, a member of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and perhaps soon to be a member of the European Union. Add fledgling democracies such as Nigeria and Mali and you have a more rounded view of the world of Islam. It is not the prettiest picture. Most Muslim countries are in the Third World and share the Third World's problems of poverty, corruption, and misgovernment. But there is no simple link between Islam and repression. As Freedom House noted, "the majority of the world's Muslims live in electoral democracies today." If there is a fundamental incompatibility between Islam and democracy, 800 million Muslims seem unaware of it.

Zakaria goes on to note that the 800 million Muslims living in electoral democracies are not the Muslims who live in the Middle East. It is the Arab portion of the Muslim world from which democracy is conspicuously absent. Nation-building (and democratization) in Iraq is, consequently, both a high-risk--and high-stakes--proposition.

[UPDATE: Kevin Kumala reminds us here that Indonesia has just held its first direct election for president and that Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono defeated incumbent Megawati Sukarnoputri. So, barring a challenge to the election results--and, more broadly, to Indonesian democracy--Indonesia will no longer have a woman in the presidency as of October 20.]