2004 Background Paper (Continued)
Substantive electoral politics emerged in the Muslim world in the nineteenth century. In more recent decades, elections have been held with some regularity in Turkey, Iran, Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, Morocco, Kuwait, and Yemen. Yet these elections have more often served to entrench regimes with narrow support bases than to open up the political process to broad participation. Nevertheless, the experience of elections has given the citizenry of these states some familiarity with how the process is conducted and in some cases has given rise to meaningful electoral politics in the form of parties and electoral campaigns. Beyond the Middle East, Pakistan and Malaysia have frequently held elections, as have several Muslim states (i.e., Senegal), and African states with sizable Muslim populations (i.e., Nigeria). In India and South Africa, and increasingly in Europe, North America, and Australia, Muslim minorities actively engage in electoral politics. In most parts of the Muslim world, Islamists have either participated in elections or sought to participate, and in so doing they have shared in the common political experience of making tactical calculations based on their appraisals of voters? desires.15
Many commentators have observed that contemporary Islam is experiencing a fragmentation of authority and widespread disagreement over who speaks for Islam.16 In the past, the religious scholars (?ulama) who administered and interpreted Islamic law and staffed the religious schools that provided basic education had a recognized authority that was challenged only by unofficial or popular religious leaders and preachers, such as the sheikhs of Sufi brotherhoods. Both the scholars and the Sufis based their authority ultimately on the Qur?an and the words and deeds of Muhammad. Though there was no hierarchy in the Sunni world through which a particular individual or institution could claim universal authority, the Muslim populations at large generally respected these leaders as the spokesmen for their faith.
The breakdown of this traditional pattern of religious authority took place during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries as would-be government reformers introduced new practices and new principles derived from European political practices.17 In the long run, this contributed to the rise of new authorities, characterized as Islamists, who relied more on media appeal than on official religious posts. In order to justify their ?right? to speak for Islam, various groups of Islamists radicalized their doctrines to conform to greater and greater degree with religious tradition.
This competition among Islamist movements introduced an element of pluralism into a realm (that of religious politics) that had hitherto operated on the basis of consensus. Leaders of Islamist groups appreciated that within a pluralist system they would have to compromise and engage in practical political processes. Negotiation and democratic procedures thus came into use as ways of containing or resolving social and ideological conflict, even if these tools were not recognized as morally desirable ends in themselves. In other words, the Islamists? turn toward electoral politics came about less out of ideological commitment or virtue than out of necessity.
Development of the Electoral Principle
Our consideration of the history of the electoral principle in the Muslim world will begin in the early nineteenth century when different regions first encountered and responded to European ideas of governance. This does not preclude other constructions of history that might stress purely Islamic precedents for the electoral principle as embodied in the history of the institution of the shura. Our choice of a chronological starting point is determined by the widespread contemporary perception that Islam is, or might be, in conflict with the notion of an electoral principle drawn from European history and example. Oxford historian James Piscatori begins his account as follows:
The first stirrings [of the electoral principle] are detected in the 1830s in Egypt and Crete where local councils with both Muslim and non-Muslim members were created. The concept and limited practice came into their own, however, in the Ottoman empire of the Tanzimat period in the nineteenth century. In part influenced by reforming, Europhile bureaucrats and in part [responding to the pressure] of the Great Powers, the imperial government issued a series of edicts that opened the door to political experimentation. The Hatt-i Humayun of G?lhane (1839) did not promise parliamentary government, but it did proclaim the rights of all subjects under, and their equality before, the law. The principle of representation was first recognized in a firman (edict) of January 1840 whereby, in addition to the abolition of tax-farming, administrative councils were established in the major districts of the empire. Of the thirteen members in the large urban councils, six were appointed by the government, but of greater importance were the fact that the majority?seven?were chosen by a complex and indirect process of selection and that non-Muslims were allowed a place.18 To the extent that the electoral principle had been introduced, it should also be remembered that this was still on the corporate basis of the millet system and not, as we have come to expect, on the foundation of individual rights.19
After further experiments at the provincial level, and agitation by the Young Ottoman intellectuals who wanted to see a European-style liberal regime established, a constitution was promulgated in the year 1876.20 This constituted a major change by establishing an elected chamber of deputies. Each deputy represented 50,000 male electors, but they were intended to serve as representatives of all Ottoman subjects, and not just of particular electoral districts.21 The sultan retained real power under the constitution, and most of the ?ulama were opposed to it. In practice, the electoral process did not live up to its promise, though a law prohibiting religious discrimination was passed. Sultan Abd?lhamid rejected the law, but it eventually reappeared during the Young Turk period (1908-1918), after the constitution was restored and the sultan was forced to abdicate. The law was finally applied in the parliamentary elections of the post-World War I Turkish Republic and until 1939.22
During almost the same period, the Constitutional Revolution in Iran provided another experiment in the application of the electoral principle in the Muslim world. Internal and external pressures and royal miscues combined to weaken both the power and the popularity of the Qajar Shah during the late nineteenth century. Matters came to a head in the summer of 1906 when thousands of protesters took refuge, or bast in Persian, on the grounds of the British Legation. Contemporary accounts of the bast portray it as a kind of ?school? or ?workshop? for learning about politics and law. Some protesters, for example, maintained that Shah should mean not ?absolute monarch,? but ?representative of the nation.?23 As the crisis continued, more and more matters came to be debated; the ?ulama became divided between those in favor of major political reform and those loyal, at least to some degree, to the court. While it was evident that some sort of consultative assembly should emerge, people disagreed as to whether it should be an Islamic assembly?that is, one explicitly based on Islamic law, the shari?a?or a national (milli) assembly. Finally, on August 6, an imperial decree proclaimed ?the establishment of a majlis of elected representatives.? This was to be made up of various social classes, which would provide advice to the Shah?s ministers. It would further propose reforms that would be ?enforced in accordance with the shari?a.?24
The electoral law drawn up for choosing representatives to the majlis was based on the Belgian constitution, which reflected the unwritten practices of Great Britain. Both merchants and bureaucrats, two of the groups that had agitated for a constitution, supported the law, and elections took place in Tehran at the end of September 1906. In accordance with the electoral law, sixty of the 200 members of the Majlis were chosen from Tehran. They were further divided into five categories: thirty-two representing the guilds, ten the merchants, ten the landowners and the notable citizens (a?yan), four the ?ulama, and four the Qajar royal family. The number of eligible voters for each category of representative amounted to only a few hundred. To be eligible to vote, a person had to be a literate male, a Persian national over the age of twenty-five, and either a substantial property owner or a practitioner of a recognized trade or business. Religious affiliation was not an explicit requirement, but heretics were specifically excluded from the vote along with women, minors, bankrupts, and convicts.25
The ensuing debates, including one on whether and to what degree to limit the powers of the Shah, split opinion among different Shi?ite religious authorities. Some tentatively supported the legislature while others found fault with the idea of majority rule. An analysis of the views of one prominent figure, Shaykh Fadlallah Nuri, depicts him as believing that ?the equality of all citizens was ?impossible? in Islam, for it would be nonsensical to put believers and unbelievers, the rich and poor, husbands and wives, the learned and ignorant on the same plane. Moreover, there was no need for a legislative body because ?Islam does not have any shortcomings that require completion.??26
Schools of Thought
Three modern schools of thought emerged in the aftermath of the early Ottoman and Iranian experiments with elections. The first accepts that elections are fully consistent with Islamic principles, the second rejects any notion of popular sovereignty, and the third deems democracy acceptable, but not in its Western form.
Supporters of the first school express admiration for the electoral experience of Europe and, usually to a lesser extent, the United States. Rifa?at al-Tahtawi (1801-73), one of the first Egyptian intellectuals to sojourn in Europe was also one of the earliest proponents of this view. He referred approvingly to what he called dhawi al-intikhab, ?the elected officials.?27 But more concrete analyses arose in the twentieth century when figures like the Moroccan Allal al-Fasi (1906-73) expressed the view that competition among political parties was desirable with the majority party providing a link between parliament and the executive.28 Fasi employed the term once used for the people who selected the caliphs: ahl al-hall wa?l-?aqd, ?those who loose and bind.? Before him, Khayr al-Din al-Tunisi (d. 1889) had likened the ahl al-hall to a parliament.29 Muhammad Rashid Rida (1865-1935) used it for members of republican Turkey?s Grand National Assembly.
The first school of thinkers about Islam and democracy also accepts another fundamental Western idea: that government rests upon the consent and participation of the governed. This notion is reflected, for example, in the title of a book by the Egyptian secularist Khalid Muhammad Khalid (b. 1920):Muwatinun, la Raya? (Citizens, Not Subjects ).30 More recently, the prominent Egyptian mufti Jad al-Haqq has maintained that governmental forms depend on current circumstances. ?The umma chooses its ruler (hakim) by whatever form of shura (consultation) is prevalent at a given time. Amir, caliph, or president, the exact title is a matter of historical contingency, not theological imperative.?31
Yusuf al-Qardawi (b. 1926), now a popular media commentator and head of the Shari?a Faculty at the University of Qatar, maintains that since authoritarian regimes have consistently acted against the interests of Islam, it seems only reasonable that the Islamic movement should favor elections. He asserts that Islam is a unique political order and should not be understood by comparison with others. He also asks Islamists to resist the distortions of secular democracies, and demands that Islamic law replace ill-conceived positive laws.32 He argues that Muslims have to be realistic and understand that democracy comes closest to incorporating the values that Islam advocates, including, among others, consultation, enjoining what is good and prohibiting evil, and resisting unbelief. Though parliament is basically good, it needs an environment of democracy and political freedom to develop this goodness. The concept of ahl al-hall wa?l-?aqd retains its importance, but he explains that in the present day and age it should be chosen by ?way of election? (tariq al-intikhab).33 Voting itself he sees as a kind of certification of a candidate?s credentials. Like witnesses in an Islamic court, voters themselves must be both just and reputable. Accordingly, if Muslim citizens neglect the ?duty of voting? (wajibuhu al-intikhabi), they thereby allow unjust people to come to power. This is tantamount to abdicating the responsibility of serving witness to the truth. Similarly, voting for candidates because of kinship or advantage, instead of voting for the upright candidate, is like giving false testimony in a religious court.
This does not mean that al-Qardawi sees no problems with elections. He acknowledges that an irresponsible majority might use elections to impose their will. But he concludes that this can be avoided if common sense, Islamic law, and ?reality? (al-waqi?) work together to assure that the majority votes and takes decisions in a practical manner. He further observes that because the society in question is a Muslim society, the majority (al-kathra) can be trusted to pass only such legislation as is not in contradiction with the basic principles of the faith. If such an offensive law should be enacted despite these precautions, a constitutional provision could be instituted to provide for its nullification. In sum, he maintains that the people have a fundamental right to govern themselves and that this does not diminish in any way God?s ultimate sovereignty. Moreover, eliminating tyranny and instituting political freedom are necessary for the proper practice of the faith and realization of religious aspirations. A ?jurisprudence of balances? (fiqh al-muwazanat), therefore, can be conceived of as serving both the fundamental principles of the faith and the practical interests of Muslims through its endorsement of democratic participation.34
In stark contrast to al-Qardawi, the second category of thinkers about Islam and democracy begin with a Quranic rejection of any notion of popular sovereignty: ?Dominion (al-hukmu) belongs to God alone.?35 Sayyid Qutb (1906-1966), the influential theoretician of the Muslim Brotherhood, sees man as the vicegerent of God on earth, but believes that freedom and rights could come only from submission to divine will. Man?s volition (irada) must be used responsibly and not debased by selfish and animal instincts.36 He further maintains that tyrannical governments have deprived individuals of the right to choose and have thwarted their freedom of belief (hurriyyat al-?aqida).37 Under these circumstances, jihad serves to overthrow despotism and establish justice.38 Individual liberty, he claims, is guaranteed, even for those not professing Islam. But everyone is subject to a basic covenant (?ahd) with God. No one can justly impose their views by resorting to control of legislation (al-tashri?a), for authority is vested by the community only in those who uphold the shari?a.39 His reading of the Quranic verse, ?were you to follow the majority (akthar) of those on earth, they will lead you away from the path of God? (6:116) states that this applies to people who change the norms of Muslim society in harmful ways.40 In Ma?alim fi?l-Tariq (Signposts on the Road), Qutb declares that since God?s sovereignty is supreme, any form of popular sovereignty is a fundamental deviation. ?Man-made? law must be eliminated.41
In 1982, Shaykh Muhammad Mutawwali al-Sha?rawi, a popular Egyptian religious leader, created controversy by proclaiming that Islam and democracy are incompatible and by rejecting the idea that shura could mean domination by the majority. He denounced ?partyism? (hizbiyya) in particular, finding it a source of discord and tantamount to fitna, a traditional religious term for all kinds of social disorder. Another Egyptian, Hassan al-Banna, the founder of the Muslim Brotherhood, similarly warned against the formation of political parties, which he considered a threat to Islamic unity. The divisiveness of party politics, he argued, could play into the hands of Islam?s enemies, the imperialists. Instead, he argued that all elements within the umma should work together politically as one unified bloc.42
In Algeria, ?Ali Belhadj (b. 1954), a leader of the Front Islamique du Salut (FIS), justified his group?s electoral participation in the ill-fated elections of 1990-1991 as a way of affirming the role of Islam in public life. Yet he argues that democracy erroneously puts faith and impiety on the same moral ground with unrestricted liberty ending in anarchy and decadence. Corrupted by money and tending toward rule by a privileged minority rather than the majority, popular sovereignty, in his view, leads to the rule of scoundrels and is thus the antithesis of God?s authority. Hence, Islamic principles of governance, principally shura, are inherently superior to democracy.43
Tahir Mahmood (b. 1968), a young British-born Muslim, provides an example of a Muslim living within a participatory democracy who denounces popular sovereignty as ?tantamount to the postulation of the inferiority or non-existence of God.? God?s sovereignty cannot be shared, and so-called ?Muslim parliaments? merely mislead believers. Divinely ordained law cannot be legislated and is beyond human manipulation.44 He further maintains that Muslim modernists who seek to accommodate democracy harm the umma by imitating their colonial and post-colonial tutors. They have forgotten the superior spiritual vision of Islam and embrace democracy, partly for personal benefit.45 He writes: ?[T]hanks to the mass character of democracy, typified in its concept of ?majoritarianism? that is concretely expressed via the electoral system, the party system inevitably and naturally ignores the particular, the unique and individual dimensions of each human being.?46
Among those in the third school of thought, which accepts aspects of democracy but rejects its Western forms, is Abul A?la Mawdudi (1903-1979), founder of the Jamaat-i Islami in South Asia, who maintained that Islam promoted its own kind of ?theo-democracy.? According to this system, each individual is God?s khalifa (vicegerent) and the government is constituted by ?the general will of Muslims.? Hence they have a right to depose it. Majority voting in an advisory body is a practical necessity, though Islam does not regard a majority vote as proof of truth or rectitude. Furthermore, only those well-versed in religious subjects, Arabic, and the modern sciences can be considered qualified to serve in a legislature (shura).47
Mawdudi?s theory holds that there is nothing to prevent a legislative assembly from being elected, but only Muslims should vote. Elections themselves are, to his mind, deeply flawed:
There is no room in Islam for candidature and electoral propaganda. Even the very idea of three or four persons offering themselves as candidates for a post and then duping the vote[r]s by issuing posters and placards, holding public meetings, engaging in press propaganda, and adopting other methods of this nature, is repugnant to the Islamic mentality. Islam detests the notion that the voters should be fed and feasted and taken around in motor-cars and that the candidate who beats others at the game of lying, cheating and squandering money should win the game. These accursed methods are characteristic of a Godless democracy. Under an Islamic government if the activities of a person even smack of such a procedure he would, instead of being elected to the council or caliphate, be prosecuted for doing so and punished.48
Some current writers emulate Mawdudi?s example. One of them is Ali Bula? (b. 1952), a Turkish intellectual who previously argued that Islam and democracy are incompatible but has now come to advocate an Islamic democracy predicated on what he refers to as a new Compact of Medina. The original document, in accordance with the traditional life of the Prophet, regulated relations between Muslims and non-Muslims in the aftermath of the hijra, the exodus of Muhammad and his followers from Mecca to Medina in 622 AD. A new agreement, Bula? argues, would bring together different communities?Muslim and non-Muslim?in a single political union. The guiding principles of this union would be determined by a consensus among these autonomous ?social blocs.? Since each bloc, or religious community, would have a specific say in any legislation, impulses that might at first seem contradictory could be reconciled: in accordance with the views of Muslims, the shari?a would be upheld but other communities would be allowed to follow their own ways in areas where consensus with the Muslims could not be reached.49
The three tendencies outlined above do not encompass the full range of views on Islam and democracy. The language in which the writers couch their arguments, however, indicates the degree to which the vocabulary of participatory government has steadily filtered into the discourse of Islamic politics. One final factor in the proliferation of views on Islam and democracy is the phenomenon of Muslim countries inheriting electoral institutions from colonial powers. Unlike Turkey and Iran, where local political thinkers struggled to adapt Western democratic institutions, countries like Senegal, Algeria, Tunisia, and India first experienced elections as a result of colonial imposition. The institutional forms differ from country to country according to the traditions of their previous occupiers with the result that Islamists must tailor their theories and tactics to colonial practices even as they work to carry on a theoretical conversation with Islamist thinkers in different regions.Back to the top.