2004 Report (Continued)
The closing session began with the moderators’ summaries of the workshop’s five sessions. His Royal Highness Prince El Hassan bin Talal offered his remarks, which were followed by Mustapha Tlili’s reading of the draft of the workshop conclusions, and finally by participants’ comments on and responses to the proposed conclusions.
Seri Ahmad Sarji, moderator of the session on participatory governance, noted that this session had framed the workshop’s subsequent discussions by laying out the political and social situations in which Muslims find themselves today, both in Muslim-majority and Muslim-minority states. The discussion also addressed the question of what constituted participatory governance (rather than government) and the utilization of terms other than “democracy,” which has been widely linked to Western political aims. Participants accepted the necessity of constitutions as organizational frameworks for governance. Discussion here focused on two issues: first, whether and in what way constitutions in Muslim countries should incorporate provisions for the recognition and promotion of Islam and the Muslim community; and second, how these constitutions could best reflect Quranic values of good governance. Elections were accepted by all as the preferred mechanism for ensuring participatory governance in contemporary Muslim society. However, participants recognized the need to establish electoral regulations and procedures—and to enforce these—in order to ensure fair elections with results that would be accepted as legitimate. Finally, the session addressed the need to grant the umma—whether defined as the Muslim community worldwide or the Muslim population of a particular nation—fundamental freedoms and human rights, including freedom of religion, freedom of assembly, and freedom of association. In a Muslim country these freedoms should be extended to all citizens, Muslim and non-Muslim alike. Democratic institutions independent of the executive power must be established to protect and to foster the development of these rights and freedoms.
Marina Ottaway, moderator of the session on pluralism and Islam, outlined that session’s areas of consensus and of dissent. First, participants agreed that the concept of a pluralistic society that includes people of various faiths is compatible with Islam; various historical examples and religious texts were cited in support of this point. There was also general consensus that acceptance of pluralism does not merely reflect a decision to make a virtue of necessity by tolerating ecumenical coexistence, a reality in today’s world. Pluralism was seen, rather, as a desirable concept in and of itself. But participants recognized that a pluralistic society in which all citizens are equal is accepted only by the most modern schools of Islamic interpretation. The more traditional strains, still active today, reject pluralism, particularly religious pluralism, in favor of a hierarchical society with Muslims at the apex. Without fully adhering to this traditional position, some participants nevertheless expressed reservations regarding the possibility of a truly secular system of governance. In particular, many were concerned at the suggestion that a non-Muslim could serve as the elected leader of a Muslim state.
First among topics requiring further consideration was the degree of overlap between political and religious realms, which, it was recognized, cannot entirely coincide since there can be no absolute rules in politics as there are in matters of faith. The complete separation of these realms was resisted, however, by many. Second, participants agreed that the acceptance of pluralism does not necessitate an acceptance of all opposing views; every democratic system draws “red lines” to exclude those ideas and views too extreme to be entertained and accommodated within the system. However, there was little agreement as to where those boundaries should lie. Some participants suggested the use of international charters to establish these guidelines. Finally, it was noted that more precise discussion was needed to distinguish between and take into account the interaction of political, religious, ethnic, and linguistic pluralism. Furthermore, it was suggested, any future considerations of the issue of Muslims in Muslim-minority countries by the Dialogues program should go beyond the issue of Muslims in the West to include Muslims in Muslim-minority states such as India and Thailand.
Fatima Gailani, moderator of the session on an Islamic approach to the question of rights and freedoms, began by noting the session’s fundamental point of agreement: that all people should enjoy rights and freedoms, with some contextually appropriate limits and/or cultural differences in their articulation. Most participants agreed that these rights and freedoms should be mentioned in, and should receive the protection of, the state constitution. Although the session did not produce a complete list of such rights and freedoms, most agreed that freedom of expression and freedom of worship should be included. Moreover, participants noted the responsibility of the government and other social bodies to inform and educate citizens of their rights. The question of who should draw up this list of rights and freedoms remained contested. Some participants advocated acceptance of international charters and human rights agreements, partly as a sign of Muslim willingness to participate in the international community, and partly based on the logic that anything that is good for people around the world must also be good for those in Muslim countries. Others, noting the minority status of many Muslims today, suggested that those in Muslim-majority countries should treat religious minorities in accordance with the ways in which they would like Muslims in Muslim-minority countries to be treated. Gailani closed with a question for future consideration: what bodies, groups, or institutions should serve as the protectors of human rights and freedoms?
Mohamed Charfi, moderator of the session on Islam and constitutions, divided that session into two main topics: (1) the position of constitutions in Islam, and (2) the position of Islam in state constitutions. On the first issue, he reported, participants agreed that there is textual and historical support for constitutions in Islam; consequently, they agreed on the need for constitutions and free elections for all Muslim states. Participants further supported that constitutions should serve as the basic guarantee of freedoms, although there was again dissent regarding the establishment of limits on rights and freedoms. Regarding the second topic, Charfi outlined two positions taken by participants. Drawing on historical examples, the first group sees rule by religion as leading to authoritarian government, in which case the religious neutrality of the state should be the best guarantee of freedom, and the political and the religious should be two separate spheres. This he described as a particularly apt system for those states with Muslim-minority populations. A system of separate spheres facilitates the adoption of international charters and human rights instruments without reservation, enabling Muslims to live harmoniously with the rest of the world. The second group argues that Islam should be the religion of the state, reflecting the popular will in the case of Muslim-majority countries, where Islam constitutes the primary reference for all aspects of most citizens’ lives. The position of Islam should be enshrined in the state constitution, with systems of governance designed accordingly. The problem for those espousing this position is how to control the constitutionality of laws: what structures will serve to mediate between the need to devise laws that are in line with shari‘a and the need to grant power to lawmakers?
Bahman Baktiari, moderator of the session on the design and conduct of Islamic elections, noted that, in this more technically focused session, participants concentrated on designing political systems that would recognize the rights of citizens by conducting the most free and fair elections with maximum participation. Such designs should be evaluated for structure, procedure, and the incorporation of Islamic influence. The presentations by electoral commissioners from three geographically, religiously, and ethnically diverse states provided participants with examples of functioning electoral systems. The presentation of the United Nations position on electoral advising shifted concern toward electoral credibility as the key determinant of a system’s legitimacy. The United Nations sees itself not as an advocate of any one state’s electoral system, but as encouraging governments to use existing systems as flexible models in devising systems appropriate to their local needs. With regard to transitional situations such as those in Afghanistan and Iraq today, the difficulty of holding credible elections under military occupation was noted. The session overall produced several points of agreement: first, that a strong, independent electoral commission enjoying immunity from the executive power is necessary to guarantee free and functioning electoral systems; second, that elections in Muslim countries must be sensitive to specific cultural, historical, and religious practices and traditions; and third, that elections are critical for all societies, regardless of the level of development. The main concern was determined to be the design of an electoral system that maximizes citizens’ political participation, in turn minimizing undue influence by appointed or unfairly elected officials.
Following the moderators’ summaries, the floor was opened for debate. On the topic of pluralism, Ghazi Suliman said that the consensus that Islam is compatible with pluralism in all its aspects, whether political, ethnic, or religious, was not adequately stated. Al-Sartawi attempted to clarify a problem that Ottaway had described, that of how to prevent pluralism from degenerating into factionalism. First, he pointed out that shura is understood to be a binding process. Then, with respect to different points of view, he described “good pluralism” as characterized by critical thinking, which builds society rather than dividing it. Thus the Islamic prescription of shura respects the human mind and human creativity, allowing the particular form of governance—whether monarchy, emirate, or republic—to reflect this creativity as well as local context. Abdel-Monem Abul Futuh then noted that authoritarianism does not have a basis in Islam. He also pointed out that Islamic political parties are civil rather than religious organizations, and as such are open to all citizens regardless of their faith. Finally, in response to the discussion on human rights, he stated his disagreement with the belief that polygamy constitutes a form of discrimination against women. Next, Essam El-Eryan reiterated his concern that models of governance must be developed within the society, rather than copied from non-Muslim countries, in order to reflect cultural and religious context. Just as there is no universal model of governance, so there is no universal model of democracy. Ghazi Suliman contested this point, insisting that there is only one “democracy.”
Following these comments, Mustapha Tlili invited Prince Hassan to offer his thoughts on the workshop. Prince Hassan noted, with respect to the provisional constitution being signed that same day in Iraq, that it described the Iraqi people as having ratified the basic law of the country. Yet no provisions had yet been made to conduct a national referendum. He also noted that, on the issue of pluralism, Article Nine mentions Kurdish as one of Iraq’s official languages. The prince wondered how this would be put into effect: would all official documents be available in two languages, as in Canada? Would both Kurdish and Arabic be acceptable for use in all official meetings? He reminded participants that pluralism is not only geographic but linguistic as well—and that acceptance of pluralism might have unforeseen consequences. For example, the Iraqi constitution does not describe Iraq as an Arab state. How will this affect its relations with the other Arab states in the region? Finally, Prince Hassan noted the significance of the Iraqi case as an example for the region. Any setbacks experienced by Iraq during its move toward constitutional, participatory governance could have a negative impact throughout the area.
With regard to the broader themes of the workshop, Prince Hassan emphasized that both state and non-state actors—opposition groups, liberation movements, etc.—must be cognizant of human rights and act in accordance with humanitarian law. He noted the irony that most of today’s human rights and humanitarian provisions were issued in times of, and in relation to the laws of, modern warfare. Given that we all live in a world in which there is no “law of peace,” it is all the more imperative to stress the ethic of Islam, which is an ethic of peace, he said. The prince also noted that protecting the public interest has historically been a primary concern of Muslim jurisprudents. Today, that public interest is understood to be best served through participatory systems of governance. However, around the world, money obstructs the functioning of democratic systems by allowing candidates with strong financial backing to dominate the media and seize the public spotlight. Prince Hassan also suggested that a distinction, if not a separation, might be drawn between the political and the religious spheres. He noted the existence of political parties in various European states with religious names—the Christian Democratic Party in Germany, for example. The religious aspect of such parties does not necessarily make them “Christianist”; rather, the religious affiliation provides a moral authority undergirding that party’s approach to good governance. In a functioning democratic system, Islam might play a similar role—which is not the same as envisioning a separate “Islamic” democracy.
After reading the preliminary conclusions, Tlili accepted comments and amendments from participants. Most of these reflected participants’ desires to clearly delineate points of consensus and dissent, and to refrain from overstating the degree of consensus reached in some areas. Nouri Mohammed, in particular, expressed concern that certain points of consensus were insufficiently addressed in the conclusions, including the fundamental compatibility of elections with Islamic principles, the obligation to educate people concerning their rights as citizens and as human beings, and the need to recognize that no political system allows absolute freedoms. He also suggested that a note be made of the negative image of democracy that has been created by various “democratic” regimes in the Muslim world. The phenomenon of moneyed interests manipulating elections and the perceived amorality of candidates and electoral campaign strategies, among other things, have contributed to the perception shared by many Muslims that Western democratic practices do not reflect Islamic ethics. Anil Seal then criticized the conclusions’ “abstract” quality, noting that they provided no clear message regarding concrete problems such as being experienced in Iraq. The United States government and its allies today speak of democracy as something that must be brought to the Muslim world from the outside, Seal argued, charging the workshop with abrogating its responsibility to the Muslim world by issuing vague statements in its conclusions. The meeting should instead provide a clear and cogent statement that rejects the current American agenda, he said.
These concerns having been addressed, the session concluded with the participants’ adoption of the conclusions in their finalized form.Back to the top.