Is Islam Compatible with Democracy?
Tue 29th Oct 2013
The Western world, used to its democratic frame of mind, is constantly telling Muslims in general and Arabs in particular, to build democratic governments. This would appear to be a reasonable request. So why is it so apparently difficult to do? Can Islamic state politicians build inclusive societies?
There are several reasons why it has proved so difficult for Arabs to build democratic self governing institutions. Firstly, we Arabs have lived in non democratic states all through our history. Democracy, as the West understands it, is utterly unfamiliar to us. Witness the Arab Spring which raised hopes and aspirations that have been uttered dashed. Out with the old order and in with the new. Yet, and Egypt is a glaring example of that, "plus ça change plus c'est la même chose".
To us Arabs democracy means aping the Western World. We want to do what we want, where we want, when we want. That is freedom without responsibility. We do not have the internalised disciplines needed to take responsibility for our action. Democracy will, therefore fail. Even a democratically elected president like President Morsi, did not fulfil his voters' aspirations. He was too busy consolidating his and his Party's hold on power which in itself is contrary to any democratic imperative. So, out with the old and in with the new.
There are other reasons why democracy has not worked in the Islamic world. Islamic society is a patriarchal society predicated on obedience of the male father figure. Almost by its nature, it precludes the maverick, the eccentric, the different, the creative and anyone who finds it hard to conform. Consequently, democracy does not sit comfortably within such a construct. I remember my father catching me smoking as a teenager. Her sat me down, gave me a harrowing lecture on the evils of smoking and ended with an exhortation on freedom of choice. He then picked up a packet of cigarettes and offered me a cigarette saying that it was up to me to choose. I chose. My cheek still smarts today from the slap that landed on it as a result of my "irresponsible" and "rude" choice. So much for "free choice"!
This may be anecdotal evidence which brings an affectionate smile to my ageing face in memory of a strict but loving father. However, its kernel of truth is there to see in the streets of Syria where the people made the choice to remove a patriarchal figure whom they disliked.
History and social norms are not the only reason why Arab Islamic societies are inimical to democracy.
Islam is not only a faith. As is often said, Islam is a way of life. Islam's precepts are not predicated on choice - personal or otherwise. Even with the Islamic schisms of Sunnis, Shi'as, Alawites, Salafids, Wahhabis, Druze and so many others, all have one quality in common: They dictate in no uncertain terms how their adherents should live. Indeed, the expectation of how I, as a Muslim, should live is not only religious (with the ultimate punishment of Hell fire) but it is also earthly (with the ultimate punishment of being excoriated, ignored, marginalised, exiled and, in extremis, executed). In other words, the concept of choice as we know it in the West is anathema in the Muslim world.
I can remember a good Christian friend of mine attempting to convince me of the truth of Christianity. Her thesis was very simple: Islam gives you no choice on how to be and how to act. Christianity does. She adds with great passion: "God sent His only Son to cleanse your sins, He gave you the Holy Bible and freewill. God is a Gentleman. He does not force you to do anything. You choose...". This mentality, developed over two thousand years allows Westerners the luxury of democracy with all the choice possible within secular societies which can be secular because God, being a "Gentleman" does not dictate choices. The morality or otherwise of one's choices is between the individual and his/her country's laws and between him/her and their Lord. You wish to commit Adultery? You choose. Even the law will not punish you. You want to gamble? You want to drink? You want to disprove the existence of God? The examples are endless.
In Islam, whatever the subgroup that you belong to, there are very clear rules about what you can do and what you can not do. Such an imperative, surely, in and of itself, precludes choice. No you can not drink or gamble or deny God's existence...etc... These activities have been denied to you by the Word of God. Period.
Does this mean that a Muslim can not live in a Western democracy? Of course not. I know an endless number of Muslims who live God fearing lives in England whilst being full democratic citizens: i.e. they choose not to do those things that British society allows but that their faith does not. So, I go into a Pakistani restaurant, order my meal and ask for a beer to cool the curry heat down. I am politely refused the alcohol because the Muslim owner, being British, is free to choose not to serve alcohol. Reverse the situation, and have a British person enter many restaurants in the Arab world and ask for a beer - in many, he would be breaking the law (such as in Saudi Arabia or Iran) and in others he would at best be tolerated (as in certain parts of Dubai).
Do the different Muslim groups offer differing chances of creating a democracy? Not really since each group, be it the orthodox Sunni or the schismatic Shi'ite, has clear rules to obey that remove the element of choice as we understand it in the West.
Of course, we need to remember that democracy is not only about choosing to do whatever I feel like doing without being held responsible (unless I break the law). Democracy is about choosing our leaders and holding them accountable. It is also about governments listening to people. This side of democracy is more than possible within Islam which does encourage, through the example of the Prophet (PBUH), the art of listening to the people and responding to their needs and accommodating their all too human shortcomings. Furthermore, surely it is possible to elect leaders through a one person (or, given our conservative attitudes to women) one man one vote. Is it?
We are now back to the beginning of this short analysis: our history, patriarchal society and customarily closed minds preclude even that simple act of casting a fair vote. Our leaders won't allow it... and they use Islam superbly to keep us quietly compliant.