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Is Islam Compatible With Democracy?

by John L. Esposito

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It is a question more observers are asking as recent events in the Middle East unfold: uprisings have toppled regimes in Egypt and Tunisia; protests seek to do so in Bahrain, Libya, Syria and Yemen; reformers demand greater power sharing in Jordan, Morocco and elsewhere. What role will religion play in newly emerging governments? Will Islamic political parties be prominent and what are the implications?

History demonstrates that all religious traditions can accommodate different and multiple political realities and ideologies. Europe’s evolution from feudal principalities into modern democratic states ignited vibrant theological debates within Christian and Jewish communities. Over time, Christianity and Judaism came to embrace the democratic ideal.

Similarly, Islam lends itself to different and multiple interpretations; Islam has been invoked in support of monarchy and dictatorship, democracy and republicanism. The 20th century bears witness to all these.

Some scholars believe that Islam is inherently democratic, basing their views on the well–established Quranic principle of shura (“consultation” in Arabic). However, they often disagree about the extent to which “the people” should exercise this duty.

They also stress the Islamic principle of ijma (“consensus” in Arabic). They argue that rulers have a duty to consult widely and to govern on the basis of consensus. But as with shura, scholars and activists have widely different views on the role ijma should play in society.

Conservatives and traditionalists define these principles narrowly and advocate for restricted democratic reform.

Conservatives, to whom belong the majority of the ulama, the educated class of Muslim legal scholars, endorse the classical formulation of Islamic law as it is elaborated in the ancient manuals and commentaries, and do not believe significant reform is necessary. While they accept the democratic character of shura and ijma in theory, in practice they adhere to strict, traditional interpretations of Sharia (the religious law of Islam).

In contrast, traditionalists reverence Sharia, but also pursue new interpretations of it that allow for a greater degree of democratic reform.

Islamic modernist reformers are the most adaptable. They look to early Islam as embodying a normative ideal — not as a practical model for contemporary society.

They distinguish more sharply between form and substance; in other words, between the principles and values of Islam’s immutable revelation and historically and socially conditioned institutions, laws and practices. The latter, they argue, are man–made and historically relative and may need to be reformulated to accommodate modern society’s political, social and economic needs.

Since the late 19th century, reformers have grappled with Islam’s relationship to the changing realities of modern life. They continue to lead lively debates on issues as diverse as the extent and limits of democratic reform, the role of tradition, women’s rights, forms of resistance, the dangers of radical Islam — such as terrorism and suicide bombings — religious pluralism and the relationship between Muslims and the West.

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Tags: Middle East Islam Arab Spring Democracy