By Saad Hafiz
May 14, 2014
Is religion based on the Absolute (with its fixed laws) compatible with the concept of democracy or the principles of human rights and equality? Should any religion enjoy pre-eminence in politics or the affairs of the state?
The theological ethicist Reinhold Niebuhr summed up his arguments on democracy and religion in two powerful sentences: 1) “Man’s capacity for justice makes democracy possible but man’s inclination to injustice makes democracy necessary”; and 2) “Religion is so frequently a source of confusion in political life and so frequently dangerous to democracy, precisely because it introduces absolutes into the realm of relative values.” Taking heed of Niebuhr’s concerns, modern secular, mostly western liberal democracies have tended to exclude religious considerations from civil affairs or public education. These societies actively foster democratic traditions and institutions and discourage strident religious dogma. Secular institutions ensure equality under the law, human rights, freedom of expression and respect for all religious beliefs. In the political sphere, a tradition of free and fair elections encourages politicians and political parties to work together, play by the rules and share power.
In contrast, many developing countries, particularly those with Muslim majorities, encourage a top-down conservative, illiberal authoritarian model as an alternative to democracy. Powerful constituencies advocate the centrality of religion and the monopolisation of power at the expense of a broad based inclusive government and society. Naysayers are quick to suggest that the assumptions of democracy are risky, involving a great leap of faith, and unsuited to address the widespread poverty, economic stagnation, endemic corruption, political instability, weak institutions and social conflict in these societies. They point to the absence of genuine citizenship and millions of ill-educated and poor voters who cannot be relied upon to choose their own government.
Some Islamic scholars argue that secular democracy is in conflict with Islamic principles of governance and the ethical goals of Islam; that democracy (and modernity in general) undermines faith. They suggest that modernity or modernisation means a lapse from faith into non-faith, from religious devotion into agnostic rationalism, and from the holistic unity of ‘truth’ into a radical relativism denying truth. In the most provocative formulation, Islamists assert that modernity has replaced the reign of God (Hakimyya) with the reign of ‘man’ or humanity — a replacement equalling a lapse into paganism and the state of pre-Islamic ‘ignorance’ (Jahiliya). According to the noted political theorist Youssef Choueiri, radical Islamists push this point still further by viewing the entire course of western history as “a connected series of Jahiliyyas: Hellenism, the Roman Empire, the Middle Ages, the Renaissance, the Enlightenment and the French Revolution” (and its democratic offshoots). As an antidote to modernity and modern democracy, Islamist thinkers typically propose a return to “God’s sovereignty”, that is, to a semi or quasi-theocracy, which usually means some form of religious authority or elitism.
It can be argued perhaps that some amount of spiritualism may be salubrious for the social health of mankind. Voltaire said it: even if there is no God, we have to invent Him. Religion can bring about some relative harmony and peace to a certain extent. It could serve as a ‘moral authority’ in culture and civil society. However, is religion based on the Absolute (with its fixed laws) compatible with the concept of democracy or the principles of human rights and equality? Should any religion enjoy pre-eminence in politics or the affairs of the state? The issue is the wisdom and sensibility of politicised religion, seeing that the yoking together of power and religion inevitably exacts a heavy toll both on the sobriety of political judgment and on the integrity of religious faith.
The respected Islamic scholar Fethullah Gülen suggests that the reductionist view of seeking political power in the name of religion contradicts the spirit of Islam and that when religion and politics are mixed, both suffer — religion more so. Gülen is of the view that accepting every person — regardless of colour or creed — as a dignified creature of God is not a compromise on Islamic beliefs but demonstrates respect for the free will God has given all human beings. Gülen goes on to say that respect for diversity of all kinds, religious, cultural, social and political, forms the fabric of a thriving nation.
Democracy is an institution that enshrines universal human rights and the principle of equality within it, based on reason and common sense. There is no alternative to democracy. All nations should move towards it. No culture or tradition nor any organised religion should stand as an obstacle to its realisation or present itself as an excuse for its delay. There are no variations in democracy when it comes to upholding basic human rights and defending it for the wellbeing of the people. Nations can pursue different democratic paths but to be truly democratic they must adhere to the principal benchmarks of a democracy, which are the absence of coercive autocratic structures, freedom of association and religious practices, and respect for the plurality of beliefs and disbeliefs. Once institutions and democratic political practices are enshrined, the debate on individual rights and minorities, and the role of the sacred in politics, can be managed through freedom of expression and change of majorities in parliament.