2004 Report (Continued)
Moderated by Seri Ahmad Sarji bin Abdul Hamid, former Chief Secretary to the Government and current Chair of the Institute of Kefahaman Islam of Malaysia, the second session focused on going beyond the question of whether Islam and democracy are compatible, to consider how democracy could be defined in an Islamic context. What are the roots of participatory governance in Islamic scripture and history? What role can these traditions, such as shura, play in modern Islamic governance? Are elections the best method for ensuring participatory governance and, if so, what types of elections are needed?
Seri Ahmad Sarji introduced the discussion by challenging participants to consider the ways in which citizens in Muslim countries can participate in government: referenda, advisory bodies (shura councils), elections for legislatures, elections for heads of state, or some combination of these practices.
Ghazi Suliman, human rights activist and chairman of the National Alliance for the Restoration of Democracy in Sudan, began a discussion of the ways in which Islam has been used in some countries, for instance Sudan, as a means for suppression and the installation of autocratic regimes. This, coupled with the censorship of moderate Muslim voices and increasing state patronage of religious scholars, has led to the propagation of a dogmatic form of divisive Islamic extremism, a form that rejects democracy, human rights, and good governance as devices of Western imperialism. He stated that Islam is in fact an accommodating religion of moderation that maintains, at its core, enlightenment values of natural justice, humanitarianism, and mutual consultation. If Muslims were to delve into their theological and historical heritage, they would find that Islam not only encourages but obligates Muslims to conduct their political affairs in a consultative manner through the shura. This concept is enshrined in the Qur’an in two places. In the first, the Prophet is ordered by God to “deal gently [mercifully]” and not to be “severe and harsh-hearted” in governing, but rather to “consult with [the people] in their affairs.”1 The second reference appears in Surat al-Shura, where Muslims are enjoined to “answer the Call of their Lord, perform the salat [prayers]…and…conduct their affairs by mutual consultation.”2 Other than these two verses, there is no further mention of shura as a system of governance in the Qur’an, continued Suliman. Islamic history, on the other hand, offers many different models of governance as practiced by the Rightly Guided Caliphs (al-khulafa ar-rashidun) and subsequent Muslim rulers.3 For example, while the first caliph, Abu Bakr al-Siddiq was elected through a pledge of allegiance, or bay‘a, by the people, other leaders were directly appointed, as was the case with the third caliph, Uthman ibn ‘Affan. It is important to note, he said, that the variety of methods through which the concept of shura was practiced—both then, and to some extent, now—clearly indicates that there is no single model of governance in Islam. Hence, from a jurisprudential point of view based primarily on the Qur’an, Muslims are free to implement any system of governance, provided that it is fair, just, and consultative. There is therefore no fundamental conflict between Islam and democracy.
Syed Shahabuddin, President of All India Muslim Majlis-e-Mushawarat and former member of Parliament, agreed with Ghazi Suliman, adding that democracy is not a trademark of the West and need not take any one single form. The central premises of democracy—justice, the rule of law, the guarantee of rights and freedoms, consensus, and accountability, as listed by Ghazi Suliman—are also Islamic values, enshrined in the Qur’an. Moreover, a key principle of Islamic jurisprudence is the “rule of permissibility.” This stipulates that whatever is not categorically forbidden by God and His Prophet is permissible for Muslims. Under this doctrine, elections, ijma‘ (consensus), shura, and referenda can all be mechanisms for achieving participatory governance in an Islamic context. It is up to Muslims to select those methods which best suit their realities.
Abdel-Monem Abul Futuh, senior member of the Muslim Brotherhood’s Maktab Al-Irshad in Egypt, concurred with the view that Islam is not averse to democracy. He added that the concept of shura in Islam has implications for participatory governance that go beyond the more limited understandings of governance in Western political thought. First, shura is an obligation upon all Muslims not only in the political realm. Rather, it must be practiced in every aspect of a Muslim’s life, including in the home and workplace. Second, as the above-mentioned Quranic verses demonstrate, a primary condition for shura is that it be practiced with mercy and in truth. This ethical dimension of shura means that where consultation is achieved through coercion and/or in falsehood, the obligation of shura is unfulfilled. Abul Futuh added that democracy as practiced in some countries in the West does not observe the same ethical values. Instead, democracy is practiced alongside political hegemony, and even terrorism. In some countries, even though elections are held, citizens are anxious about expressing their opinions for fear of repression or charges of being unpatriotic. In other instances, fraudulent methods are employed, either directly or indirectly; money and the media can manipulate voters’ views.
Asef Bayat, academic director of the International Institute for the Study of Islam in the Modern World at Leiden University, disagreed with the view that shura is a broader concept than democracy. To the contrary, he argued that it is a misconception to limit democracy only to formal electoral practices. Democracy is a culture of political participation that involves both rights and responsibilities that must be encouraged at every level of society. Moreover, a key pillar of democracy is its insistence upon the turning over of power, for this is what allows citizens to remove their rulers if they so wish. This, however, is not the case with shura.
Humam Hamoudi, senior member of Iraq’s Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution, agreed that the turnover of power is not a simple issue in the Muslim world today. This is an important point for consideration, as is the need for developing political institutions in Muslim societies. He said that we should go beyond a jurisprudence that focuses on the interests of individuals. What is required in Muslim countries today is a jurisprudence of the state, which operates at the broader level of national and societal interests.
Essam El-Eryan, former member of Parliament for the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, disagreed with the view put forward by Asef Bayat. He stated that the underlying premise of shura is that it guarantees that governments respect the will of the people. If shura is administered correctly, through mechanisms such as elections that allow for wide political participation, it can ensure the turnover of power when that is the will of the majority.
Fatima Gailani, member of the Afghan Constitutional Commission of the Loya Jirga and spokesperson for the National Islamic Front of Afghanistan, agreed with most of the participants that democracy and Islam are essentially compatible. However, she questioned whether this view is widely accepted in the Muslim world. She argued that there are Muslim countries where ignorance and illiteracy still abound. In such places, as in Afghanistan, ordinary people are excluded from religious and political discourse and tend to accept the views put forward by their local imams or mullahs. These religious leaders largely endorse literal or traditional interpretations of Islam, insisting that notions of democracy and human rights are Western constructs and are categorically forbidden in Islam where sovereignty resides with God alone. Muslims are made to believe that they will go to Hell if they vote in elections—and that they have no option but to follow the divine law, of which the mullahs serve as guardians.
In the ensuing debate, some participants agreed with this view, while others questioned the exact nature of the “Islamic” knowledge that would be advanced through the proposed educational programs. Would this knowledge be limited to certain interpretations of Islam and exclude others? Similarly, several participants, including Anil Seal, director of the Malaysian Commonwealth Studies Centre of Cambridge University, expressed reservations, maintaining that participatory governance in the Muslim world cannot be delayed until all the educational and economic needs of society are met. Citizens must have a role in determining how they want these needs to be satisfied in the first place, and this can only be guaranteed through electoral democracy.
In agreement with Anil Seal, Khalid Al-Mubarak, a Sudanese scholar, author, and analytical commentator on Islamic politics, warned that we can no longer continue to simply pay lip service to the idea of democracy in the Muslim world. If there is such a clear consensus that Islam and democracy are compatible, and that an “Islamic” democracy can deliver all the requirements of good governance, then why is the Muslim world today facing such problems? He maintained that he does not dispute the fundamental compatibility of democracy and Islam, or the plausibility of developing just, Islam-based systems of governance that ensure citizen participation. The reality in the Muslim world is, however, that Islamist groups and governments have repeatedly hijacked the political process, deposed democratically elected governments, and oppressed populations—all in the name of Islam. In return, these groups have promised to institute “Islamic” systems of government that are authentic, indigenous, and non-Western, and that meet the needs of the people. At best, they have failed to deliver this Islamic ideal; at worst, they have used it simply to mask their despotism. In line with Syed Shahabuddin, Al-Mubarak insisted that formal democracy could be a viable way forward in the Muslim world, precisely because of its aforementioned compatibility with Islam. He added that democracy is a universally accepted system of governance that, despite some limitations, works well overall. Muslims must recognize that we do not exist in isolation, but as part of a global community. On the basis of the Qur’an, which requires us to live harmoniously with other nations and to honor our agreements, we are bound to adhere to international standards.
Having discussed participatory governance and Islam on a conceptual basis, the session then focused on the question of whether elections, as a mechanism, are the best alternative. Participants acknowledged that elections as a process of ensuring participatory governance can be imperfect and may not always lead to fair results. Shri J.M. Lyngdoh, former chief election commissioner of India, cautioned that elections, like economic competition, produce winners, but these are not necessarily the best candidates, morally speaking. The biggest drawback to democracy, he explained, is that elected representatives may not consider good governance their objective and may seek to usurp the electoral process in order to satisfy their own interests—and this unfortunately tarnishes the democratic ideal. Furthermore, he added, in many cases democracy does not conform to the classical model of citizens directly electing their representatives; instead, leaders are chosen by caucuses, which limits competition.
Seri Ahmad Sarji responded that although elections are not perfect tools for democracy, they reinforce the relationship between the people and their leaders, empowering citizens to remove and replace their governments in a peaceful and orderly manner. The only basis for a peaceful society is providing people with the opportunity to express their opinions and their will, and elections are instrumental in doing so. He put forward the example of Malaysia as an ethnically and religiously diverse country where open political participation has managed—to a large degree—to moderate sectarian conflict by ensuring that all social groups are given a voice. The Malaysian electoral system is administered by an independent electoral commission that inter alia, delineates electoral constituencies, handles voter registration, conducts elections, counts votes, and resolves claims and objections from candidates and voters. This guarantees the integrity of the electoral process to the extent that Islamic groups do not contest the process. On the contrary, Islamic parties have secured substantial majorities through elections and currently govern two of Malaysia’s thirteen states.4
Syed Shahabbudin commended the Malaysian example, adding that in countries where Muslims are in the minority—and, as in India, constitute a large percentage of the world’s total Muslim population—there can be no alternative to elections as a means of ensuring Muslims’ rights.
Returning to the question of elections and Islam, Essam El-Eryan argued that elections could properly be considered Islamic if their outcome is fair. In some countries, the electoral system does not take into consideration, or formally excludes, certain political groups on the basis of their tribal or religious affiliation or simply because they constitute a minority. Such exclusions come into effect especially when the interests of those groups challenge the position of those in power. Islam, he insisted, condemns such political repression.
Mohamed Charfi, former Tunisian minister of education and professor of international law at the University of Tunis, noted that while the electoral principle has been accepted in some countries, there still exist a number of structural issues that can impede participatory governance. For example, there are many cases in which an elected parliament has only limited legislative power. This, coupled with the role of the clergy as an influential group in national politics, has, in some instances (and especially on matters relating to gender equality), mitigated the constitutional role of the legislative body as representative of the people. He concluded that formal elections that are not supported by democratically sound structures cannot deliver true participatory democracy. The integrity of the ballot box must be combined with the impartiality of government institutions if an accurate representation of the will of the people is to be realized.
In conclusion, the session found that Islam and democracy are not antithetical, and that the principle of shura, or mutual consultation, premised on the notions of justice and mercy enshrined in the Qur’an, can be interpreted in a way that encourages participatory governance. A somewhat different view was expressed by Nouri Mohammed, senior member of Al-Da’wa Islamic Party in Iraq, who maintained that good governance, both in principle and in practice, is not universal but culturally specific; he warned that creating a mixture of different ideologies might lead to confusion. When we speak of democracy in the Muslim world, he insisted, we need to speak of it only in Islamic terms.
As to the question of whether elections constitute the only means of achieving participatory governance, most participants agreed that elections define the concept of citizenship, and are therefore an acceptable apparatus for achieving democracy, provided that certain principles are adopted. These principles include respect for human dignity, for the beliefs of all citizens, for the public’s will, and for the rule of law. There was consensus that for electoral democracy to be effective as a true expression of the will of the people, elections should be free, which should be ensured by the electoral process. Moreover, due consideration should be given to election expenses and the participation of minority and interest groups. When electing a head of state there should be more than one candidate, and electoral procedures should make the government accountable and removable in cases in which it fails to act in accordance with the will of the people.
Finally, some participants made reference to geopolitical concerns that they felt must be adequately addressed if there is to be any real prospect for democracy in the Muslim world. Noteworthy among these were the predicaments of the Chechen and Palestinian peoples, who, in the views of many participants, continue to face oppression and the denial of their rights to self-determination and statehood.Back to the top.