As we speak around the country in Encountering the World of Islam (EWI), we are frequently asked this question: “Can an Islamic society be democratic?” The difficulty with the question lies in the vast difference of opinion between Muslims about what Islam has been, is today, and should be in the future.
In the past, most Muslims looked to the legal scholar or judge as religious leaders, and the ruler, tribal chief, or elders as the benevolent leaders. Both leader types functioned with a combination of consensus, permission, and honor. For example, the caliph (ruler) would seek advice from the religious scholars and ulama (judges) in the form of a fatawa (religious ruling) to justify and affirm his actions. However, the will of the people (from the tribal council, local governor, all the way up to the grand vizir) could and often did overrule both the caliph and the ulama. Many tribal leaders sacked their judges; many ulamas undermined and replaced their elders. Can you see some democratic functions: rule of law, representatives, checks and balances? In this is system, the combination of both religous and benevolent leadership was viewed as “Islamic.”
In our perspective, what is this lslamic system missing? We define a modern democracy as a government in which universal human rights are respected and each person receives one vote. This kind of “democracy” is a post-WWII, United Nations creation (1948) and was not realized for many European-held colonies until 1960s nor in the Soviet dominated bloc until the 1990s. The American understanding of democracy evolved over time – originally America was more of a one-vote-per-family (by the head of household) democracy. It wasn’t until the 1920s, after more than 70 years of debate, that this changed to include a woman’s right to her own vote.
Most Muslims today suffer under ineffective and corrupt dictators or in situations where power has shifted to those not chosen or accepted by the people. Many see their current situation as “un-Islamic” compared to their past (as described above).
Islamist radicals tend to view theocracy as the future, as in Iran, where a theocracy means the scholars and judges rule, not the benevolent leader. The real power in Iran is the Supreme Islamic Council of Ayatollahs, whereas the President is the court jester who distracts the American media. Most Muslims would rather have the Islamic law of the scholars and judges remain in balance with the will of the people and the effective rule of the government authority. Muslims are used to having a say in choosing their local/tribal leaders. It’s in national elections where problems tend to arise from inept national systems, ethnic strife, and dictatorial rule - all of which the people declare “not Islamic.”
From the point of view of most Muslims, the radicals are not calling for a return to early Islam but for a unfounded and dangerous innovation of Islam for the future.
Image: Propoganda poster posted in Bengali community of London in the 1990’s (to raise money and recruit for an Islamic group, Hizb ut-Tahrir).