For a long time, it has been debated whether Islam and democracy can be workable in a region like the Middle East where politics of extremism is dominant. Many scholars think that reconciling Islam and democracy is not impossible; in fact, Islamic values seem to coincide with democracy. It is with the interpretation of Islamists that makes reconciling democracy and Islam difficult. The problem of reconciliation lies in the political and social structure of the Middle East. It is not in Islam itself as a religion.
Undemocratic Middle East
There are several reasons why many scholars claim that democracy in the Middle East is incompatible. Reasons point out to historical, political, social, and economic reasons rather than religious ones. It can be seen that Muslims rather than Islam is the main cause why democracy has been very difficult to integrate to the current political situation in the Middle East.
The Middle East has a dictatorial and authoritarian political history and even until now, the regime is still continuing. Many people know that the Soviet Union, during the Cold War, supported Arab regimes which were dictatorial during that time. Many people thought that as the Soviet Union collapsed, the dictatorial regime in the Middle East would end as well. Instead, the Arab regimes were left with its authoritarianism.
The current political situation in the Middle East is ruled by radical Islamists which are the representation for politics of extremism and violence. Politics in the Middle East is demonstrated and ruled by the likes of the Taliban, Hamas, Hezbollah and Iran (Ghanim 4). All demonstrate extremism which gives way to authoritarianism and hinders democratic processes.
The region has strong Islamist movements which dominate the social scene. Violence is prevalent and human rights are wildly debased. The most basic democratic rights are not present, particularly freedom of speech and minority rights.
In the Middle East, the economy is state-controlled. Democratic reform for the economy is not impossible but the elites and big industrialists in the region make the free market very difficult to happen. Having several players and competitors for the same product as a democratic economy encourages is unacceptable for many elite businessmen in the Middle East, not to mention that the economy of the whole region is actually rooted in oil or petroleum.
Democracy and Islam in the Middle East
For many Muslim conservatives, they view democracy as incompatible to Islam because for them, democracy represents the rule of the people and not the rule of God. Islam has many religious ideas that are open of interpretation. In this case, interpretation of Islam is dominated by Islamists who rule different countries in the Middle East.
Islam, in itself, does not really contradict democracy. In this section, Islamic values that are in tune with democracy will be discussed. There are also evidences that point out to working out Islam and democracy into one political working system.
One belief that hinders reconciling democracy is the belief of hakimiyyah or sovereignty of God versus the sovereignty of the people puts democracy in the Middle East at a standstill. In fact in any kind of state whether in a democratic, dictatorial or Islamic state, sovereignty will always be human. In an example, God was hypothetically sovereign in the Taliban but in fact, it was Mullah Omar who ruled in Afghanistan (Soroush, “Islam and Democracy”). Soroush mentions that though sovereignty actually belongs to God, it is still “delegated in the form of human agency.”
Democracy with its principles of check and balances, limited government, transparency and public accountability aims not replace the sovereignty of God with the sovereignty of people. According to Soroush (“Islam and Democracy”), it supposedly “limits the de facto sovereignty of the people” to prevent abuse of power. In several Islamic countries where dictators, despots and elites are dominant, limitation of human sovereignty is needed.
Shura and jma’
Shura (consultation) and jma’ (consensus), two important Islamic values, coincide with democracy. In fact, even the prophet Mohammad himself set a precedent with the compact of Medina. Soroush (“Islam and Democracy”) discusses that before Muhammad established the first Islamic state in 622 CE, a compact was signed between “Muslim immigrants from Mecca, the indigenous Muslims of Medina, and, significantly, the Jews of Medina.” It was after this compact was signed that Muhammad became the political head of Medina and the emerging leader of the Muslim community during that time. The compact of Medina was based on a social contract where the ruler actually ruled formally with a written consent from the constituents.
In the compact, it mentioned how Muslims and non-Muslim were all equal under the Islamic state that Muhammad ruled in (Soroush, “Islam and Democracy”). The compact illustrated the importance of the democratic principles of identical rights, equality and consensual governance. Khan, director of International Studies at Adrian College in Michigan, noted how compassionate and democratic Muhammad was (Soroush, “Islam and Democracy”). It was so different from many of the rulers in the Middle East like the Taliban where the contemporary interpretations are dictatorial and intolerant.
The compact’s example is already one of the evidences that it is not Islam itself that hinders democracy in the Middle East. In fact, the principle of shura and jma’ are one of the functioning principles in democracy. As it turns out, these two should supposedly work as the essential principles for considering Islamic democracy. The history of the compact of Medina may be able to serve as a guiding principle for democracy in the Arab world.
Islamic democracy: Turkey
Because of Turkey’s geographical location, it can confuse many on whether Turkey is Middle Eastern or European. It’s religious and cultural heritage points to the former. Also, Turkey’s example is used because of its Arab citizens that are largely Muslims. Its geographical location and neighboring countries also proved to be a viable reason for it to be used as an example for a successful Islamic democracy.
In 2002, AKP, an Islamist party in Turkey had an electoral of vote of 34.3%. It came in stronger in 2004, where they garnered 42% of the votes. In 2007, they garnered 85% of the seats. For a strongly Islamist party, why then did they garner so many seats and why would the people vote for them? Ghanim (1) argues that AKP’s electoral victory is the result of political moderation as well as economic reform.
The Middle East, where extremist politics and violence are prevalent, lacks moderate politics. Turkey was able to create a more tolerant and realistic politics than its Middle Eastern counterparts – the Afghani, Iranian or Pakistani Islamists. These Islamists in the Middle East actually represent mainstream radical Islam.
Some see AKP as un-Islamic or secular but being different from its other Middle Eastern counterparts because of its being democratic does not make it un-Islamic. In fact, the AKP still upholds the tenets of Islam; it is just more tolerant of other minority groups present in the country.
Unlike several countries in the Middle East where the economy is government –controlled, the AKP actually managed to place a working democratic reform where there are also groups or organizations that represent small to medium-sized businesses apart from the larger ones. This is a big step compared to several Middle Eastern countries where the economy is dominated by rich and elite industrialists.
The example of Turkey also demonstrates that political moderation is also possible and workable for Islamic politics. Turkey represents a successful Islamic democracy model. With political moderation and economic reform combined with a tolerant and compassionate interpretation of Islam in the Quran, reaching democracy in the Middle East is definitely not impossible.
In this regard, Islam and democracy can be reconciled. Several examples and points discuss how the two can complement or coincide with each other. What makes reconciling the two difficult is the authoritarian and repressive interpretation of several rulers in the Middle East.
Bukay, David. "Can There Be an Islamic Democracy?" Middle East Quarterly (2007): 71-79. Print.
Ghanim, David. "Turkish Democracy and Political Islam." Middle East Policy Council (2012): n.p. Web
Otterman, Sharon. "MIDDLE EAST: Islam and Democracy." Council on Foreign Relations 19 September 2003: n.p. Web.
Sarsar, Saliba. "Can Democracy Prevail?" Middle East Quarterly March 2000: 39-48. Print
Sheives, Kevin. Islamism as the Fruits of Poor Middle Eastern Governance. Islam and Democracy Project. Waco, Texas: Dawson Institute of Church State Studies, 2003. Web
Soroush, Abdolkarim. "Islam and Democracy." n.d. Works of Dr. Soroush. 19 August 2012
Wright, Robin. "Islam and Liberal Democracy: Two Visions Of Reformation." Journal of Democracy (April 1996): 64-75. Print.