Modern History and Politics-Islam and Democracy

By AbuKhalil, As'ad | The Middle East Journal, Summer 1997 | Go to article overview

Modern History and Politics-Islam and Democracy


AbuKhalil, As'ad, The Middle East Journal


Islam and Democracy, by John L. Esposito and John O. Voll. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 1996. 202 pages. Notes to p. 220. Further Reading to p. 223. Index to p. 232.

$45 cloth; $17.95 paper.

Reviewed by As'ad AbuKhalil

Amid the plethora of books on Islam and politics, this book is a rare and original contribution. It deviates refreshingly from the conventional approaches and discards the recycled cliches. It treats Islam as more than a religious phenomenon without falling into the pitfalls of vulgar Marxism, which sees only expressions of class resentment in religious identification. The authors, wellknown to readers of this journal, do not engage in generalizations and abstractions that are divorced from reality; instead, they study the subject through detailed examinations of Algeria, Egypt, Iran, Malaysia, Pakistan and the Sudan. John Esposito and John Voll should be commended for refusing to treat Islam as an exclusively Arab phenomenon; it is often forgotten that most Muslims reside outside of the Arab world.

The most important parts of the book are the introduction and the first two chapters. In them the authors debate and critically analyze democracy and Islam and their relationship. They emphasize that Islam should be studied within national boundaries (p. 8), an advice they follow in this book. They also remind readers that democracy itself is "an essentially contested concept" (p. 14). This should raise objections from political scientists of the Middle East who have recently substituted the dogma of "democracy" and "civil society" for the old magic wand of "modernization." Why should one accept at face value the liberating and equalizing effects of democratization when events in eastern and central Europe have only dashed the hopes of those who wrongly have assumed that Western capitalism was enough to solve acute social and economic problems and achieve the grandiose promise of freedom? Furthermore, the authoritarian state in the Middle East has often adopted non-Islamic models of governance (p. 16). The authors fault the American government for insisting on rewarding only "Western models for democratic systems" (p. 19). Yet one may look in vain for evidence of US promotion of democracy in the Gulf region, for example. Just as governments ruling in the name of Islam are not necessarily principled about the doctrines of the faith, the American government does not mind Islamic models of government as long as US economic and political interests are protected. One wishes that this sole superpower would truly push for democratization in the Middle East. In reality, the United States only wants democracy if it leads to the ouster of anti-American governments.

While the authors make a strong case for closer attention to the diverse political views among Muslims, they go too far in considering the Declaration of the Islamic Council of Europe as representative of Muslim popular opinion (p. …

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