An old paper on Islamic Democracy

In the current climate of international politics, there is a great deal of speculation regarding the governance of Islamic states. Many traditionally Muslim states have operated under theocratic rule, a difficult concept for the West to swallow. The American control of Iraq is purportedly only to hold the place of power until a democratically elected regime can take the place of the occupying force. But is there, as some critics have speculated, some aspect of Islam that makes it inherently hostile and incompatible with Western notions of democratic rule? This is the question which John Esposito and John Voll have tried to examine in their book Islam and Democracy. Published in 1996, this book explores the different ways in which Islam relates to democratic principles and ideas. Arguing against previously held explanations about the nature of Islam and the very definition of democracy, this book explores several cases where Islamic movements operate to a varying degree of success in the area of popular representation.

The authors begin with the assertion that due largely to economic and technological globalization, the world is presently experiencing an increase in the spread and influence of democratic ideals. Occurring alongside this political shift, they argue that there is a growing focus upon what the authors refer to as “the assertion of the authenticity and legitimacy of communal identities.”[1] This trend toward the popular identification of people with subgroups within the larger cultural framework often takes the form of the resurgence of religious fundamentalism. The authors point out that this resurgence is a natural part of the pluralistic mode of social representation. These two forces of cultural change are seem to be at loggerheads, but the book posits that they can be either complimentary or contradictory, depending upon the setting in which they interact.

The setting in which they have chosen to ground their study is the Islamic world, examining the ways in which democratic principles play out within the faith. Refuting the claim that the two are polar opposites and completely incompatible, the authors’ central point is that Islam has several features that make it ideal for democratic rule. That this seems to fly in the face of practical experience with theocratic dictatorships is not lost on the authors. Yet it is their claim that in more cases than not Islam lends itself rather well to democracy. Just not the idea of democracy that is usually associated with the West. They point out that democracy had historically been a contested notion, a hotly debated idea that has played itself out in a number of differing means. Pointing to the dissimilarity between ancient Greece, Great Britain, the United States and other democratic states both in regards to each other and in regards to themselves over the course of time. In particular, the aspects the authors claim are the most heavily contested areas within democratic theory are the notions of majority rule versus rule by consensus, the role of political parties within the system, and the ins and outs of formal electoral procedures. The current popular conception of Western democracy is based on the processes of the United States and Western Europe, and the authors highlight “multiparty, free elections and a Jeffersonian understanding of the rights of minorities.”[2] The authors claim that if we expand the definition of democracy away from these stringent fixations in order to include other representative systems that include high levels of public participation without necessarily importing foreign political institutions.

The main features of the Muslim faith that make it fertile ground for democratization are tawhid, and khilafah. To put it considerably more succinctly than the authors, tawhid is the central notion that God is at the center of reality. In practical terms, this means that God is sovereign over all things including the political establishment. The people themselves possess no outright sovereignty. They do occupy an important role according to khilafah, the tenet that man is placed as regent over creation. These two principles seem to offer a great deal of ammunition to those who would use them to justify authoritarian control, but the authors claim that while this can sometimes be the case they can also be interpreted as positive forces for political participation. According to the authors, “the threat of authoritarianism comes less from religious doctrine than politics and power, history and political culture.”[3] In other words, Islam as a faith has several features that lend themselves particularly well to empowerment and political participation.

Shurah is the idea of consultation. This principle holds that as “all sane adult Muslims, male and female, are vice-regents (agents of God); it is they who delegate their authority to the ruler and whose opinion must also be sought in the conduct of state.”[4] Traditionally, this has been interpreted to mean that a ruler should consult with his advisors, but the authors hold that the idea of mutual consultation or public discourse is a more fundamental understanding of the concept. This understanding is a key factor in the relationship between Islam and democracy. Alongside shurah, the concept of ijma or consensus is vital to the creation of democracy within Islamic terms. Again, traditionally this concept was an instrument of theocratic control as the classical interpretation of the term has been the consensus of religious scholars as to the meaning and application of Islamic law. Based on the quotation of Mohammed, “My Community will not agree upon an error”[5] the authors argue that in modern usage this idea is the perfect groundwork for developing public participation and some form of majority rule. Of equal importance is the concept of ijtihad, or the exercise of informed independent judgment. The authors interpret this to mean that the will of God is presented in broad strokes and it is up to “people of every age to try to implement and apply divine guidance to the problems of their times.”[6] This principle adds a revolutionary element to Islamic society and offers the option of political participation via representative democracy.

These are the basic structural factors that the authors cite as making democracy a realistic possibility in the Islamic context. The point is that Islam is not intrinsically anti-democratic. The problem then, is whether or not the current Islamic sates have succeeded in developing a coherent theory of democracy appropriate to an Islamic context. To study this issue, the authors have chosen to examine the democratic functioning of several states along a spectrum of oppositional stances. The cases chosen for study were Iran, Sudan, Pakistan, Malaysia, Algeria, and Egypt. These states represent Islamic groups that maintain political control in varying degrees of completeness and as such offer different viewpoints of Islamic principles in action. They provide a useful means of studying how Islam affects and is affected by its interactions with governmental institutions. The central area of comparison that the authors have chosen to use is the amount of plurality and oppositional abilities, the opportunity for dissent of different factions within the polity. Holding these as the most fundamental attributes of democratic society, Esposito and Voll catalogue the degree to which their case studies allow and work with them. The units of analysis are the states themselves. The book is laid out with each state occupying its own chapter, with the political and social history reviewed in an Islamic context.

A central argument of the book is that government accommodation of opposing viewpoints and movement within the political context. Iran and Sudan are representative of Islamic politics in the most fully realized position. These are states founded explicitly and entirely on Islamic principles. The authors discuss the Islamic Republic of Iran in terms of its high level of active participatory dimensions. While noting that they are a far cry from full representation in terms of liberal democracy, they do say that “the Islamic Republic is the closest thing to democracy Iran has ever had.”[7] Pointing to the post-Khomeini elections, and the smooth running of its executive, judicial, and legal branches, the authors argue that even within the largely oppressive state, there is some semblance of democracy. But this case falls short on their own criteria. The oppressive, authoritarian regime permits little move for pluralistic opposition. Sudan, according to Esposito and Voll, offers another example where some degree of democratic participation is observable. Here, Islamic movements have operated within a multiparty parliamentary system. But they associate this method of political action with sectarian in-fighting, and have frequently been brought to an abrupt halt with military coups. These coups were popularly supported and marked the majority preference of an Islamic state. The authors find the current system as noninclusive of oppositional movements, and so it also fails on their criteria.

Pakistan and Malaysia represent the status of Islamic movements as established opposition within a political system. Pakistan shows a stronger, more open political system in which Islamic movements have wielded a great deal of control thanks to their bargaining power within the system. But these movements are content to operate on and within a system bound by democratic principles. As such “Islam and democracy have proven pragmatically compatible, although their content and form have varied.”[8]

Egypt and Algeria present case studies wherein Islamic movements make up a repressed minority, and take on a revolutionary nature that opposes the present regime. In these cases, the present governments are less than accommodating to the Muslim minority and pursue policies that tend to marginalize them within the political sphere. As such, the participation of these groups in the democratic process is rather limited. In Algeria, which the authors take as a sort of worst case scenario of Islamic political involvement, the institution of parliamentary processes highlighted the fundamentally contested nature of Algerian identity. In this context, in which Islamic and governmental violence went back and forth, there has been “social polarization and radicalization and secular and religious extremism.”[9] Egypt, on the other hand, marks a state where Islam is a minority faction yet Muslim cultural factors are widely accepted and constitute an important critical edge for the current government.

Esposito and Voll have chosen to tackle a largely theoretical issue, or rather pair of issues. The fact that they have chosen to compare the different ways in which Islam functions in regard to democratic principles by studying six actual cases is admirable, but their methodological approach suffers from a few deficiencies. Because their concern with democracy is largely theoretical, they approach each case in broad strokes. By conceiving of democracy as an inclusive concept, they eliminate a clear numerical means of comparison. Some hard data, such as electoral participation results in their case studies, as well as an examination of the popular conceptions in each of the states would be a welcome addition. It would also serve to ground their case studies and make the comparisons more implicit and meaningful. While the units of analysis are well chosen in that they do offer a number of different views of Islamic politics in action, there too great a focus upon the reaction of Islamic groups to popular policy and not enough explanation of they work themselves. A deeper exploration of the actual political processes involved in each case might go farther to establishing the degree to which they can be described as democratic.

At the theoretical level, the authors cast a wide net in their explanation of democracy. They point that it is a “heavily contested term”[10] but do very little to explore the contested definitions, or to even pin down a comparatively useful definition. It is as though there main contention is that there is no clear definition of what exactly democracy is, so therefore almost any system can qualify. This gives them a large amount of conceptual wiggle room in which they can argue that almost any system can be considered democratic, as long as it somehow represents the will of the people. This conception is too broad and all-inclusive to be empirically useful. In their discussion of the contested nature of democracy the authors point out the differences between the parliamentary system of Great Britain and the anti-Parliamentary style of the plebiscitary of the French Revolution. It is easy to argue that the French Revolution, especially the myriad minis systems of government that arose in the chaotic interim periods, might barely qualify as democratic. The authors also include Marxism as a form of democracy, and while at the theoretical level this may be true, in practice it seems an entirely different kettle of fish. To identify highly authoritarian structures as democratic in nature is to cast too wide a net.

In his review of the book, Leonard Binder argues that as the book is largely theoretical, it should devote more time to developing its own terms. Islamic approaches to democracy, while played out in the case studies, are not given ample investigation according to Binder. They “take for granted that the fundamentalist definition of the Islamic state as a sharii state is the only one worth considering, even though they are unwilling to grant that there is any established standard, or even core idea, of democracy.”[11] This seems to be a valid criticism, and Binder further points out that the conceptions Islam that see it as supportive of democracy by nature are largely from the same source, that of scholar Mulana Abul’ala Mawdudi. That his conception is particularly friendly to patterns of consensus without much reference to the differing ways in which Islamic polity has been interpreted is a minor failing.

In the course of the case studies, the authors point out even though they have accepted a rosy view of the possibility of Islamic democracy they are not unaware of the practical shortcomings that have been apparent. But their assertion is that while there have yet to be truly democratic Islamic states, however you choose to define the term, there is nothing inherent in the faith itself that precludes democracy. Even in theocratic or authoritarian regimes there is a philosophical and cultural groundwork in which the global urge to democratization can play out. Islam is not fundamentally opposed to democracy, but democratic tendencies must be understood within the context of non-western forms of popular representation and political participation.

At this level, the argument is a convincing one. Although the conclusions the authors reach are based upon their interpretation of theosophical orientations, and not upon the empirical realities of the cases they studied. This is a strong potential weakness. But they do successfully demonstrate that even in largely oppressive states, such as Iran there are high levels of political participation and democratic tendencies. That their findings are positive in outlook, while negative in finding is not as grave a contradiction as it may seem. This book was written in 1996, well before the American invasion of Iraq, but it does have something to say on the nature of democratic processes within the Muslim-dominated society and the findings of the authors may offer some small comfort to American policy makers as they try to install some form of democratic replacement. If nothing else the process would provide the authors with more grist for their mill.


[1] John L. Esposito and John O. Voll. Islam and Democracy. 1996. P. 14 All following quotations are from this source unless otherwise noted.

[2] p. 18

[3] p. 198

[4] p. 27

[5] quoted on p. 28

[6] p. 30

[7] p. 74

[8] p. 122

[9] p. 171

[10] ibid

[11] Leonard Binder, Review of Islam and Democracy. Appearing in International Journal of Middle East Studies, Vol. 29, No. 3. (Aug., 1997), pp. 427-430.

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