By B S Prakash
Oct 21, 2013
A distinction needs to be made between a country with a large Muslim population and an ‘Islamist’ country.
Are ‘Political Islam’ and democracy compatible? This is a provocative question that is being debated by scholars of Islam, students of political theory or analysts in West Asia. It is not a new question, but the withering of the Arab spring adds an element of topicality.
But why raise this question at all, some will ask? Are there not democratically elected and functioning governments in Turkey, Indonesia, Bangladesh, and Malaysia and on occasion in Pakistan? Are these not Muslim majority countries and aren’t the governments ‘Islamic’ in some manner?
First, a distinction needs to be made between a country with a large Muslim population, whether majority or minority, and an ‘Islamist’ country. Second, the ‘manner’ in which a country is Islamist, whether only in name, or in spirit, or in actual practice and if so the degree of detail and rigour, is at the core of this debate. The current arguments swirl around the Arab world and West Asia region since the ideologues of ‘political Islam’ of various shades have their origins there, in Egypt, Saudi Arabia or Iran. A certain view of the impact of Islam on governance has been developed and we have seen its fierce advocates emanating from that region.
The governments in Turkey, Bangladesh or Indonesia may pay obeisance to Islam but are far less involved in an assertion and promotion of the principles of political Islam. But what is ‘political Islam,’ a much bandied around term these days? By using this term, we are referring not to the individual faith of Muslims, but at a belief - system that seeks to organise the society and the polity based on principles of Islam. Let us look at some examples first before delineating the concept.
To run a country according to Islamic beliefs and laws is the objective of Muslim brotherhood, a political party which came to power albeit briefly through elections in Egypt. Another major example is the Islamist Salvation Front (FIS) in Algeria which had won the elections in 1991, but was never allowed to form the government with the argument that if it came to power, it would never again allow another election. Al Qaeda, to the extent that it is a political system is another example since it claims that its beliefs are derived from Islam, however, repugnant this idea may be to the peace loving. Iran's polity, with its three decades of continuity too is a form of political Islam. There are other names and labels in Tunisia, Libya, Syria and it should be clear form these examples that there are different strands under the common rubric.
What Are The Fundamentals Of This World View?
Simply stated, that Islam is/ has the answer not only to spiritual impulses or religious needs but for social and political order, as well. Islamism in this sense not only defines and regulates the relation between man and God but equally between man and man (and woman) and this includes the relation between the ruled and the ruler. The adherents also advocate that the ideal society is one in which Holy Prophet lived in Medina and there ought to be a reverting to the practices of that period. Governance according to the Islamic law, the sharia is a central tenet.
Before we look at the implications of this belief-system for a democratic political order, we need to be clear about what is meant by ‘democracy.’ We need not see it necessarily in terms of a particular model, Jeffersonian, or Westminster, or another; or essentially as consisting of change of governments by elections. We should also keep in mind other features: the space for divergent beliefs, possibility of dissent, assertion of pluralism, minority rights, and individual liberties.
With this understanding, we can look at the interplay between the two nodes in the equation, the ‘Islamist’ and the ‘democratic’ character of the polity. Critics within these countries often contend that their polity is not sufficiently ‘Islamic’ or sufficiently ‘democratic.’ Analysis shows that it is when we move towards the inherent logical extremities of either of these nodes that problems arise.
Adherents of an absolutist form of political Islam contend that answers to all dimensions of life -- personal, social and political -- are already available and should be sought in Islamic texts and pristine practices. There is no room for compromise, mistakes, fallibility of beliefs or dissent in such a view.
It must be noted that there are scholars who contend that such an absolutist view is unwarranted and that there is room in the Islamic tradition for interpretation of texts (Ijtihad), for consultation (Shura), and that in general space exists for accommodation of social practices dependent on contemporary realities. But such views are rejected and a roll back to original, pure, and no deviationist practice is advocated by the strict adherents. This is a debate within Islamism.
Islam does not prescribe a particular form of government. But an absolutist view as described above does not sit well with expectations under a democracy such as compromises, dissent, deviant behaviour that is tolerated, and unconventional personal practices. If by democracy, we mean expression of popular will alone, there is no inherent conflict. If we include respect for all forms of freedom and for all kinds of individuals, problems do arise between the two systems. Issues relating to gender, minorities, blasphemy, and punitive code are obvious examples.
Is there a clear answer to the compatibility question, then? The answers will lie in state practice where Islamist governments actually rule and how their governance accommodates or confronts day to day realities. As of now, we have seen too little of such governments -- Iran, and Taliban and Muslim brotherhood for short periods - and their track record is insufficient, to come to conclusions.
B S Prakash is a former ambassador and currently a visiting professor at the Jamia Milia Central University