Islam and Liberal Democracy
Two Visions of Reformation
By: Robin Wright
Robin Wright is global-affairs correspondent for the
Of all the challenges facing democracy in the 1990s, one of
the greatest lies in the Islamic world. Only a handful of the more than
four dozen predominantly Muslim countries have made significant strides
toward establishing democratic systems. Among this handful - including
Albania, Bangladesh, Jordan, Kyrgyzstan, Mali, Pakistan, and Turkey - not
one has yet achieved full, stable, or secure democracy. And the largest
single regional bloc holding out against the global trend toward political
pluralism comprises the Muslim countries of the
Yet the resistance to political change associated with the
Islamic bloc is not necessarily a function of the Muslim faith. Indeed,
the evidence indicates quite the reverse. Rulers in some of the most
antidemocratic regimes in the Islamic world - such as
Overall, the obstacles to political pluralism in Islamic
countries are not unlike the problems earlier faced in other parts of the
world: secular ideologies such as Ba'athism in
In other words, neither Islam nor its culture is the major
obstacle to political modernity, eve if undemocratic rulers sometimes use
Islam as their excuse. In Saudi Arabia, for instance, the ruling House of
Saud relied on Wahhabism, a puritanical brand of Sunni Islam, first to
unite the tribes of the Arabian Peninsula and then to justify dynastic
rule. Like other monotheistic religions, Islam offers wide-ranging and
sometimes contradictory instruction. In
Yet Islam, which acknowledges Judaism and Christianity as its forerunners in a single religious tradition of revelation-based monotheism, also preaches equality, justice, and human dignity - ideals that played a role in developments as diverse as the Christian Reformation of the sixteenth century, the American and French revolutions of the eighteenth century, and eve the "liberation theology" of the twentieth century. Islam is not lacking in tenets and practices that are compatible with pluralism. Among these are the traditions of ijtihad (interpretation), ijma (consensus), and shura (consultation).
Diversity of Reform
Politicized Islam is not a monolith; its spectrum is broad.
Only a few groups, such as the Wahhhabi in
The common denominator of most Islamist movements, then is a
desire for change. The quest for something different is manifested in a
range of activities, from committing acts of violence to running for
political office. Reactive groups - motivated by political or economic
insecurity, questions of identity, or territorial disputes - are most
visible because of their aggressiveness. Extremists have manipulated,
misconstrued, and even hijacked Muslim tenets. Similar trends have emerged
in religions other than Islam: the words "zealots" and "thugs" were coined
long ago to refer, respectively, to Jewish and Hindu extremists.
Contemporary Islamic extremists have committed acts of terrorism as far
At the opposite end of the spectrum are proactive
individuals and groups working for constructive change. In
Less visible but arguably more important - to both Muslims and the world at large - is a growing group of Islamic reformers. While reactive and proactive groups address the immediate problems of Islam's diverse and disparate communities, the reformers are shaping thought about long-term issues. At the center of their reflections is the question of how to modernize and democratize political and economic systems in an Islamic context. The reformers' impact is not merely academic; by stimulating some of the most profound debate since Islam's emergence in the seventh century, they are laying the foundations for an Islamic Reformation.
The stirrings of reform within Islam today should not be compared too closely with the Christian Reformation of almost five hundreds years ago. The historical and institutional differences between the two faiths are vast. Nonetheless, many of the issues ultimately addressed by the respective movements are similar, particularly the inherent rights of the individual and the relationship between religious and political authority.
The seeds of an Islamic Reformation were actually planted a century ago, but only among tiny circles of clerics and intellectuals whose ideas were never widely communicated to ordinary believers. At the end of the twentieth century, however, instant mass communications, improved education, and intercontinental movements of both people and ideas mean that tens of millions of Muslims are exposed to the debate. In the 1980s, interest in reform gained momentum as the secular ideologies that succeeded colonialism - mostly variants or hybrids of nationalist and socialism - failed to provide freedom and security to many people in the Muslim world. This sense of ferment has only grown more intense amid the global political upheaval of the post-Cold War world. Muslims now want political, economic, and social systems that better their lives, and in which they have some say.
The reformers contend that human understanding of Islam is flexible, and that Islam's tenets can be interpreted to accommodate and even encourage pluralism. They are actively challenging those who argue that Islam has a single, definitive essence that admits of no change in the face of time, space, or experience - and that democracy is therefore incompatible or alien. The central drama of reform is the attempt to reconcile Islam and modernity by creating a worldview that is compatible to both.
Two Middle Eastern philosophers symbolize the diverse
origins of Islamist reformers and the breadth of their thought. Abdul
Karim Soroush is a Shi'ite Muslim and a Persian from
Abdul Karim Soroush
The degree to which Soroush now frames the debate in
Soroush's writings on three subjects are particularly
relevant. At the top of the list is democracy. Although Islam literally
means "submission," Soroush argues that there is no contradiction between
Islam and the freedoms inherent in democracy. "Islam and democracy are not
only compatible, their association is inevitable. In a Muslim society, one
without the other is not perfect,: he said in one of several interviews in
His advocacy of democracy for the Islamic world rests on two pillars. First, to be a true believer, one must be free. Belief attested under threat or coercion is not true belief. And if a believer freely submits, this does not mean that he has sacrificed freedom. He must also remain free to leave his faith. The only real contradiction is to be free in order to believe, and then afterward to abolish that freedom. This freedom is the basis of democracy. Soroush goes further: the beliefs and will of the majority must shape the ideal Islamic state. An Islamic democracy cannot be imposed from the top; it is only legitimate if it has been chosen by the majority, including nonbelievers as well as believers.
Second, says Soroush, our understanding of religion is evolving. Sacred texts do not change, but interpretation of them is always is in flux because understanding influenced by the age and the changing conditions in which believers live. So no interpretation is absolute or fixed for all time and all places. Furthermore, everyone is entitled to his or her own understanding. No one group of people, including the clergy, has the exclusive right to interpret or reinterpret tenets of the faith. Some understandings may be more learned than others, but no version is automatically more authoritative than another.
Islam is also a religion that can still grow, Soroush argues. It should not be used as a modern ideology, for it is too likely to become totalitarian. Yet he believes in shari'a, or Islamic Law, as a basis for modern legislation. And shari'a, too, can grow. "Shari'a is something expandable. You cannot imagine the extent of its flexibility", he has said, adding that"in an Islamic democracy, you can actualize all its potential flexiblities".
The next broad subject that Soroush addresses is the clergy. The rights of the clergy are no greater than the privileges of anyone else, he argues. Thus in the ideal Islamic democracy, the clergy also have no a priori right to rule. The state should be run by whoever is popularly elected on the basis of equal rights under law.
Soroush advocates an even more fundamental change in the relationship between religion and both the people and the state. Religious leaders have traditionally received financial support from either the state (in most Sunni countries) or the people (in Shi'ite comminutes). In both cases, Soroush argues, the clergy should be "freed" so that they are not "captives" forced to propagate official or popular views rather than the faith and Koran.
A religious calling is only for authentic lovers of religion and those who will work for it, Soroush says. No one should be able to be guaranteed a living, gain social status, or claim political power on the basis of religion. Clerics should work like everyone else, he says, making independent incomes through scholarship, teaching, or other jobs. Only such independence can prevent them- and Islam- from becoming compromised.
Finally, Soroush deals with the subject of secularism. Arabic, the language of Islam, does not have a literal translation of this world. But the nineteenth-century Arabic word elmaniyya- meaning " that which is rational or scientific"- comes close. In this context, Soroush views secularism not as the enemy or rival of religion, but as its complement; "it means to look at things scientifically and behave scientifically-which has nothing to do with hostility to religion. Secularism is nothing more than that".
Modernism, according to Soroush, represented as a successful attempt to challenge the dictatorship of religion" by increasing the emphasis placed upon unaided reason in the conduct of human affairs. He maintains that the tension between reason and religion since the sixteenth century has been "welcome and beneficial for both" and has opened the way for an eventual postmodern reconciliation between the two.
Soroush's thought has wide-ranging implications. His work
often echoes themes that lay behind the Christian Reformation. He shows
how to empower Muslims by establishing a role for the individual - as a
believer and as a citizen. Soroush refines, even downgrades, the role of
the clergy- a particularly sensitive topic in
In a spirit similar to the one that characterised the Christian Reformation, he argues against rigid thinking and elitism. Soroush is a believing Muslim and has no wish to abandon the values of his faith; rather, he wants to convince his fellow Muslims of the need to face modernity with what he calls a spirit of "active accommodation... imbued or informed with criticism." By pointing the way to innovate interpretations of the Koran and shari'a, he provides a foundation for a pluralist and tolerant society.
While Soroush prefers the cosmic overview, Rachid
al-Ghannouchi's thinking is rooted in his experiences in
In 1987, Ghannouchi was again arrested and charged with
plotting to overthrow the government. He was released after a bloodless
coup in November 1987, which led to another political thaw. The MTI,
renamed al-Nahda in early 1989 to remove religious overtones, was promised
a place at the political table. But by the time of the April 1989
legislative elections, the thaw was over. Reforms were stalled and
confrontations mounted. Ghannouchi went into voluntary exile. The
government charged al-Nahda with plotting a coup; the party was outlawed
and Ghannouchi was sentenced in
Ghannouchi is controversial. In speeches and interviews, he
often declares himself to be "against fundamentalism that believes it is
the only truth and must be imposed on all others," yet he has visited
Of all the major Islamist leaders, however, Ghannouchi seems
to have expanded his thinking the most in recent years. In
Ghannouchi advocates an Islamic system that features majority rule, free elections, a free press, protection of minorities, equality of all secular and religious parties, and full women's rights in everything for polling booths, dress codes, and divorce courts to the top job at the presidential palace. Islam's role is to provide the system with moral values.
Islamic democracy is first the product of scriptural interpretation. "Islam did not come with a specific program concerning our life," Ghannouchi said in one of several interviews between 1990 and 1995. "It brought general principles. It is our duty to formulate this program through interaction between Islamic principles and modernity." Believers are guaranteed the right to ijtihad in interpreting the Koranic text. Their empowerment is complete since Islam does not have an institution or person as a sole authority to represent the faith- or contradict their interpretations. The process of shura, Morever, means that decision making belongs to the community as a whole. "The democratic values of political pluralism and tolerance are perfectly compatible with Islam," he maintains.
Second, Islamic democracy is also a product of recent human experience. The legitimacy of contemporary Muslim states is based on liberation from modern European colonialism, a liberation in which religious and secular Muslim and Christian, participated together. "There is no room to make distinctions between citizens, and complete equality is the base of any new Muslim society. The only legitimacy is the legitimacy of elections," he said. "Freedom comes before Islam and is the step leading to Islam."
Ghannouchi concedes that Islam's record in the areas of equality and participation has blemishes. Previous Muslim societies were built on conquest. But he contends that the faith has also traditionally recognised pluralism internally, noting the lack of religious wars among Muslims as proof of Islam's accommodation of the Muslim world's wide diversity. Citing the Koran, he explains that Islam condemns the use of religion for material or hegemonic purposes: "O, mankind! We created you from a single [pair] of a male and a female , and made you into nations and tribes, that ye may know each other, not that ye may despise [each other]" (Sura 49:13).
Ghannouchi calls the act of striking a balance between holy texts and human reality aqlanah, which translates as "realism" or "logical reasoning". Aqlanah is dynamic and constantly evolving. As a result Ghannouchi, like Soroush, believes that Islam and democracy are an inevitable mix. In a wide-ranging address give in May 1995 at the Royal Institute of International Affairs in London, he said: "Once the Islamists are given a chance to comprehend the values of Western modernity, such as democracy and human rights, they will search within Islam for a place for these values where they will implant them, nurse them, and cherish them just as the Westerners did before, when they implanted such values in a much less fertile soil." He pledged al-Nahda's adherence to democracy and alternation of power through the ballot box, and called on all other Islamist movements to follow suit in unequivocal language and even in formal pacts signed with other parties.
Ghannouchi's acceptance of pluralism is not limited to the
Islamic world. Responding to Samuel p. Hunitington's widely discussed
essay on the "Clash of Civilizations" Ghannouchi contends that cultural or
religious differences do not justify conflict, but instead can provide
grounds for cooperation rooted in a mutual recognition of complementarity.
"We appeal for and work to establish dialogue between Islam and the West,
for the world now is but a small village and there is no reason to deny
the other's existence. Otherwise we are all doomed to annihilation and
destruction of the world," he said in 1994 interview. In his 1995
A Long Way To Go
Christianity's Reformation took at least two centuries to work itself out. The Islamic Reformation is probably only somewhere in early midcourse. And the two movements offer only the roughest of parallels. The Christian Reformation, for example, was launched in reaction to the papacy and specific practices of the Catholic Church. In contrast, Islam has no central authority; even the chief ayatollah in the Islamic Republic of Iran is the supreme religious authority in one country only.
But the motives and goals of both reformations are similar. The Islamic reformers want to strip the faith of corrupt, irrelevant, or unjust practices that have been tacked on over the centuries. They are looking to make the faith relevant to changing times and conditions. They want to make the faith more accessible to the faithful, so that believers utilize the faith rather than have it used against them. And they want to draw on Islam as both a justification and a tool for political, social, and economic empowerment.
The Islamic reformist movement has a very long way to go. Although there are a handful of others besides Soroush and Ghannouchi making serious or original contributions to the debate, they still represent a distinct minority. The changes that they seek to promote will experience bumps, false starts, and failures, and may take a long time. Yet the Islamic Reformation represents the best hope for reconciliation both within Islam and between Islam and the outside world.
Excerpts from Notes by Robin Wright on Lectures and Interviews Given by Abdul Karim Soroush, April-May 1995
Freedom of Faith: In a democracy what you really want is freedom of faith. The other thing is this: justice is important. That is not the consequence of the rules of shari'a. The third thing is this: there is no authority on matters of religious. So you have to build a society in such a way as to accommodate these principles.
Text and Context: How do we reconcile the immutable
principles of religion with the changing conditions of the world? The
solution will be like this: we have to find something that is at the same
time both changeable and immutable. And what is that?
Religion and Reason: he ancient world was based on a single source of information: religion. The modern world has more than one source: reason, experience, science, logic. Modernism was a successful attempt to free mankind from the dictatorship of religion. Postmodernism is a revolt against modernism- and against the dictatorship of reason. In the age of postmodernism, reason is humbler and religion has become more acceptable. To me the reconciliation between the two has become potentially more visible.
Excerpts from a Letter by Sheikh Rachid al-Ghannouchi
The Koran acknowledges the fact that conflict and competition are natural features of development and the balance of power within each individual, within each society, and at the global level. However, while the Koran calls for jihad as well as the use of peaceful means to establish justice and equality, it condemns aggression and oppression and warns against falling captive to selfishness and lust. Furthermore, the Koran recognizes the legitimate right of an oppressed to resist and even fight in order to deter oppression, but it warns against the perpetration of injustice. .
Koranic teachings encourage humans to seek justice and to cooperate ... in serving the interests of humanity, which is perceived as a single family that ... is created by One Creator ... Thus Islam recognizes as a fact of life the diversity and pluralism of peoples and cultures, and calls for mutual recognition and co-existence..
Contrary to the claims of
While on the one hand Islam guarantees the right of its adherents to ijtihad in interpreting the Koranic text, it does not recognize a church or an institution or a person as a sole authority speaking in its name or claiming to represent it. Decision making, through the process of shura, belongs to the community as a whole. Thus the democratic values of political pluralism and tolerance are perfectly compatible with Islam.
Outside its own society, Islam recognizes civilisational and religious pluralism and opposes the use of force to transfer a civilization or impose a religion. It condemns the use of religion for material or hegemonic purposes...
Once the Islamists are given a chance to comprehend the values of Western modernity, such as democracy and human rights, they will search within Islam for a place... [to] implant them, nurse them, and cherish them just as the Westerners did before, when they implanted such values in a much less fertile soil.