Islam and Democracy

By Esposito, John L.; Voll, John O. | Humanities, November/December 2001 | Go to article overview

Islam and Democracy


Esposito, John L., Voll, John O., Humanities


THE RELATIONSHIP BETWEEN ISLAM AND DEMOCRACY in the contemporary world is complex. The Muslim world is not ideologically monolithic. It presents a broad spectrum of perspectives ranging from the extremes of those who deny a connection between Islam and democracy to those who argue that Islam requires a democratic system. In between the extremes, in a number of countries where Muslims are a majority, many Muslims believe that Islam is a support for democracy even though their particular political system is not explicitly defined as Islamic.

Throughout the Muslim world in the twentieth century, many groups that identify themselves explicitly as Islamic attempted to participate directly in the democratic processes as regimes were overthrown in Eastern Europe, Africa, and elsewhere. In Iran such groups controlled and defined the system as a whole; in other areas, the explicitly Islamic groups were participating in systems that were more secular in structure. The participation of self-identified Islamically oriented groups in elections, and in democratic processes in general, aroused considerable controversy. People who believe that secular approaches and a separation of religion and politics are an essential part of democracy argue that Islamist groups on] advocate democracy as a tactic to gain political power. They say Islamist groups support "one man, one vote, one time." In Algeria and Turkey, following electoral successes by parties thought to be religiously threatening to the existing political regimes, the Islamic political parties were restricted legally or suppressed.

The relationship between Islam and democracy is strongly debated among the people who identify with the Islamic resurgence in the late twentieth century and the beginning of the twenty-first. Some of these Islamists believe that "democracy" is a foreign concept that has been imposed by Westernizers and secular reformers upon Muslim societies. They often argue that the concept of popular sovereignty denies the fundamental Islamic affirmation of the sovereignty of God and is, therefore, a form of idolatry. People holding these views are less likely to be the ones participating in elections. Many limit themselves to participating in intellectual debates in the media, and others hold themselves aloof from the political dynamics of their societies, hoping that their own isolated community will in some way be an inspiration to the broader Muslim community. Many prominent Islamic intellectuals and groups, however, argue that Islam and democracy are compatible. Some extend the argument to affirm that under the conditions of the contemporary world, democracy can be considered a requirement of Islam.

In these discussions, Muslim scholars bring historically important concepts from within the Islamic tradition together with the basic concepts of democracy as understood in the modern world.

The process in the Muslim world is similar to that which has taken place within other major religious traditions. All of the great world faith traditions represent major bodies of ideas, visions, and concepts fundamental to understanding human life and destiny.

Many of these significant concepts have been used in different ways in different periods of history. The Christian tradition, for example, in premodern times provided a conceptual foundation for divine right monarchy; in contemporary times, it fosters the concept that Christianity and democracy are truly compatible. In all traditions, there are intellectual and ideological resources that can provide the justification for absolute monarchy or for democracy. The controversies arise regarding how basic concepts are to be understood and implemented.

A relatively neutral starting point for Muslims is presented in a 1992 interview in the London Observer with the Tunisian Islamist leader and political exile, Rashid Ghanoushi: "If by democracy is meant the liberal model of government prevailing in the West, a system under which the people freely choose their representatives and leaders, in which there is an alternation of power, as well as all freedoms and human rights for the public, then Muslims will find nothing in their religion to oppose democracy, and it is not in their interests to do so. …

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