By Omid Safi
October 5, 2012
Modern nation states utilize political models that were unanticipated in any of our pre-modern scriptures. It is anachronistic to ask whether “Islam” endorses constitutionalism or democracy. Islam as such does not proscribe any one particular system of government. (Of course “Islam” doesn’t do anything, Muslims do. We human beings are the agents of our religious traditions.)
Rather, there are general ethical principles that have to be guaranteed under any system of government that Muslims adopt, like social justice; protection of life, property, and honor of humanity; accountability of rulers to law; distribution of wealth; and protection of minorities. All systems of government are imperfect, and it is not only good but also healthy to be perpetually vigilant against abuses of any form of government. However, it may also be the case that a genuine and robust democracy is the least imperfect of all imperfect political models today, as others before us have said.
There must be a democracy of Muslims who live side by side in a commitment to a 'greater we' alongside our neighbours.
By speaking of a robust democracy, we are not talking about simply copying the American model of democracy, which is in many ways broken — beholden to special interest groups, and perhaps better labelled as an oligarchy or plutocracy. The ideal model that I see for Muslims would be more akin to some of the European models that combine democracy with guaranteed social services like universal health care, widespread education, respect for human rights and minimized military spending. Then again, we see some of those same European models struggling today with their own inherent racism toward Muslims, so we have to be honest enough to admit that the “perfect” system is one that we will have to adapt, rather than adopt wholesale.
The conversation is ultimately about citizenship, not some mythical blending of “Islam” and “democracy.” All of us, Muslim and non-Muslim, are now citizens of pluralistic societies where we live together as neighbours. We have to begin by realizing the holistic nature of justice (and injustice); that what happens to the least of us has a profound political and moral impact on all of us.
If we are going to insist that Muslim Americans are full and complete citizens, not merely tolerated guests (and we do); if we are going to insist that Muslim Indians are full and complete citizens of India, not the tolerated descendants of “foreign invaders” (and we do); and if we are going to insist that Palestinian Muslims (and Palestinian Christians) are not second-class citizens in Israel but fully deserving of the exact same set of rights, responsibilities and privileges that Jewish citizens of Israel receive (and we do) — then moral consistency demands of us that we recognize the exact same set of rights and responsibilities for non-Muslim citizens of Muslim-majority societies. In other words, quite apart from world opinion and public relations, the fundamental commitment of justice demands that our commitment to democracy goes hand in hand with a robust notion of citizenship that encompasses every citizen of a country regardless of race, religion, gender, class and ethnicity.
To sum up, there may not be an “Islamic democracy” any more than there can be a “Christian democracy” in American that privileges Christians over non-Christians or a “Jewish democracy” that privileges Jewish citizens of Israel over Palestinians, but there can be — and today, must be — a democracy of Muslims who live side by side in a commitment to a “greater we” alongside our neighbours
Omid Safi, a professor of religious studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, is the author of "Memories of Muhammad: Why the Prophet Matters" and the editor of "Progressive Muslims: On Justice, Gender, and Pluralism."