Islamism and democracy

Published : Apr 06, 2012 00:00 IST

RACHID GHANNOUCHI, THE Tunisian Islamist thinker behind the success of Al Nahda. He stated that open expressions of atheism would be not only tolerated but also protected in the Islamic state that he envisaged. At the same time, he argued on another occasion that apostasy should be considered a political crime akin to treason.-ZOUBEIR SOUISSI/REUTERS

RACHID GHANNOUCHI, THE Tunisian Islamist thinker behind the success of Al Nahda. He stated that open expressions of atheism would be not only tolerated but also protected in the Islamic state that he envisaged. At the same time, he argued on another occasion that apostasy should be considered a political crime akin to treason.-ZOUBEIR SOUISSI/REUTERS

The two concepts are inherently incompatible with each other at their core.

DOES the emergence of Islamism, or political Islam, as a potentially transformative force in the Arab world augur well for democratic prospects in the region? Will Islamism graduate, under the compulsions of realpolitik, to become the Arab Muslim equivalent of Europe's Christian Democrats or use the electoral route to eventually try and establish a scripturally vindicated form of theocratic or theo-democratic tyranny?

The question assumes special significance now, as political developments over the past one year have confirmed that the fall of dictatorships in Arab countries is most likely to be followed by the rise of Islamists to power. Are the core beliefs and ideological fundamentals that the Islamists stand for compatible with even the elementary concepts of democracy?

Islamism: Prevailing Confusions

The general tendency is to conflate on the one hand Islam as a faith and Islamism as a political ideology and on the other Islamism and other streams of Islamic or Muslim perspectives that view the establishment of a sharia-based Islamic state as a favourable goal. It is noteworthy that no mainstream Islamic sect doubts the favourability of setting up an Islamic state, should the circumstances prove conducive. While the Islamists confer divinely ordained primacy and priority to the task of setting up an Islamic state, others view it as an automatic development once society in its entirety or the majority turns Muslim/Islamic. There is a bewildering gulf between the clearly articulated ideological positions in the core texts of all branches of Islamism and the ambiguous public posturing and tactical positions of the more dominant Islamist groups. The most important factor that complicates the study of Islamism and democracy is the fact that Islamist groups or intellectuals have so far not put forth a blueprint of their political programme or a model of the political system they envisage. Much of the discussion on the contours of a political system as envisaged by the Islamists comprises mere statements of intent laced with self-righteous rhetoric or selective and ambiguous references to a glorious past in relation to an utterly decadent present. In the absence of an Islamist manifesto acceptable to all Islamists, it is almost impossible to arrive at conclusions that can apply equally to all branches of Islamism.

Islam and Islamism

It is crucially important to state that we are not discussing the compatibility between Islam and democracy. Islam as a faith and democracy as a political concept and a cultural framework are eminently compatible with each other. Many of the core values and concepts that either permeate Islamic scriptures or manifest themselves in the life of the Prophet and his companions can be fairly interpreted as being quite in line with the fundamental concepts of democracy. Shura (internal consultation), justice, strictures against imposing faith, ijma (consensus) and ijtihad (independent interpretive judgment), and assertions of equality are some of those values and concepts generally marshalled to clinch the argument about Islam being democratic. In any case, Islam in its long history as a lived global faith has proved itself to be flexible or elastic enough to accommodate changing social, political and cultural patterns. It has actually coexisted with or has been subsumed within different types of political orders ranging from dictatorships and totalitarian regimes to full-fledged democracies. The question of compatibility with democracy is therefore relevant only in relation to Islamism because it is an ideology that interprets Islam as an essentially political project.

An attempt at defining Islamism is fraught with problems, but a lack of clarity on this count can lead one in contradictory directions. The word Islamism' is a neologism that was coined in the 1970s, but the Arabic equivalent for Islamists has been in vogue since at least the 10th century A.D. although the word was used in a general sense referring to the Muslim intelligentsia. Perhaps, the first use of the word Islamists' was in the book Maqalaat al Islamiyyin (Opinions of Muslims) by Abu al-Hasan al-Ash'ari (873-935). Islamism, defined broadly, is an ideological construct based on a political reading of Islam in both its history and its textuality. It was an impassioned response to the two thriving ideologies of the early 20th century, capitalism and communism. This response rose in the context of colonialism and against the backdrop of a widespread sense of defeatism and self-pity that gripped Muslim societies. In other words, Islamist thinkers of the period sought to project their version of Islam as an alternative to the two isms then competing with each other for global dominance. According to them, the primary duty of a Muslim was to strive for the establishment of an Islamic state, without which Islam would remain a house half-built.

Needless to say, the Islamist zest for the capture of power reflected an unquestioning internalisation of the idea that the state represented the entire emancipatory, therapeutic and transformative potential of a society. Once you establish the kind of state that conforms to your lofty ideals, every other virtue automatically follows, as had supposedly happened in the early days of Islamic glory. In short, the most crucial invention of Islamist thinking is the notion that Islam has unfortunately, and wrongly, been internalised by its followers as a mere instrument of persuasion, to the utter exclusion of its potential as a powerful instrument of coercion. The proper and just utilisation of this coercive potential, many Islamist writings argue, will liberate Muslims from all kinds of bondage. The pacifist sociality rooted in a ritualistic and anaesthetic conception of Islam must give way to a militant politicality based on the hakimiyyah (authority, sovereignty) of Allah. That alone is the solution to liberate the society from both internal decadence and external domination. Success in this pursuit will guarantee justice on earth and salvation in the hereafter.

Abul A'la Maududi articulated it eloquently as follows: Human relations and associations are so integrated that no state can have complete freedom of action within its own principles unless those same principles are in force in a neighbouring country. Therefore, Muslim groups will not be content with the establishment of an Islamic state in one area alone. Depending on their resources, they should try to expand in all directions. On the one hand they will spread their ideology and on the other they will invite people of all nations to accept their creed, for salvation lies only in it. If their Islamic state has power and resources, it will fight and destroy non-Islamic governments and establish Islamic states in their place (Abul A'la Maududi; Haqiqat-i-Jihad; page 64).

Islamist concept of state

There are two clear concepts of an Islamist state within the Islamist discourse. One is the idea of an Islamic state articulated in a populist conciliatory idiom. Representatives of this idea do not accuse the entire civil society of kufr (unbelief) or jahiliyya (a state of pagan ignorance and moral decadence); nor do they dub the lands of Islam Darul Harb (land of war). According to them, the Islamic ruler, the caliph or imam, is a civilian ruler whose legitimacy and authority are derived from people's endorsement, which is expressed by the phrase Ahl al Hall wal Aqd. Hasanul Banna, Hassan al Hudaibi, Mustafa Al Sibai, Rachid Al Ghannouchi and several others promote this concept of an Islamic state.

The other idea, represented by the likes of Abul A'la Maududi, Syed Qutub, Mohamed Abdussalam Faraj, Saeed Hawa, Fathi Yakun and others, represents the Islamic ruler as a theocratic figure who is elevated to the status of God's representative. He derives his authority from God himself and the shura for him is a mere consultation that is not binding on him. All the mainstream Islamist groups, it must be stated clearly, argue for a civilian ruler who derives his authority from the community.

The only difference worth noting between the so-called radicals or extremists and the moderates is that while the former's project aims at the seizure of power through revolutionary means and violence, the moderates try to change the system from below and rely heavily on social and charitable activities in addition to political mobilisation. Guilain Dinoeux has noted that the strategy of the radicals follows a Leninist approach.

Even within the so-called moderate camp, we often see extremely radical vestiges of the foundational doctrines of political Islam coexisting rather uncomfortably with highly refined and conciliatory ideas that are compatible with the requirements of democratic pluralism. For example, Rachid Ghannouchi, the Tunisian Islamist thinker behind the success of Al Nahda, stated categorically that open expressions of atheism would be not only tolerated but also protected in the Islamic state that he envisaged. At the same time, he argued on another occasion that apostasy should be considered a political crime akin to treason.

Another moderate, Fahmy Huweidi, the famed journalist from Egypt and fellow-traveller of Islamism, is ambivalent on the punishment meted out for apostasy in Islam. Writing in the context of the assassination of seven intellectuals in Algeria by Islamists on charges of apostasy, he tries to express his criticism against the brutality in a rather patronising tone. His main argument is not that the killing is unacceptable in principle or because expressing one's opinion on something should not be the ground for murder. Rather, his criticism is that only the judiciary has the right to pass a judgment on whether or not a person has committed apostasy and the punishment for it. Not fully satisfied with his own ambivalent position, especially since he was flooded with critical letters from Islamist sympathisers from around the world, including from Pakistan, he seeks counsel with the celebrated moderate' Islamist cleric Sheikh Yousuf Al Khardawi. The learned scholar, while emphasising the legal option of death against apostasy, tries to appear benevolent in the end and says there are precedents for apostasy being either punished rather lightly or not being punished at all in the hope of eventual repentance on the part of the alleged apostate.

The issue of apostasy is of utmost relevance to our present discussion because all art and literature, let alone academic and intellectual pursuits, can be brought under the scanner and judged blasphemous if the law of apostasy is given teeth.

Apostasy as the Sword of Damocles

The case of Dr Nasr Hamed Abu Zeid is a frightful example of what could happen to intellectual life if the state of Islamist dreams comes into being. Abu Zeid was not only declared an apostate by an Egyptian court, but his divorce from his wife was also decreed on the basis of the argument that a Muslim woman should not be married to an apostate or blasphemer. The prominent scholar of Islamic studies and author of a number of profound books was judged an apostate in Hosni Mubarak's supposedly secular Egypt. His crime was that some of the opinions he had expressed on the Quran and its interpretations ran counter to popular positions. More shockingly, the verdict was manipulated through convoluted legal procedures and on the basis of a hasba (third party) petition because Egypt did not have a law on apostasy. He had to flee the country with his wife and seek shelter in the Netherlands because Islamic Jehad declared its intention to murder him on the basis of the judgment.

Two points need to be noted here. First, Abu Zeid's books, especially the one that brought him under attack, were all academic ones. He did not indulge in a polemical offensive against the religion or declare himself blasphemous. Second, he declared himself to be a Muslim who had the right to express his views on the religion even if they differed from popular views on the subject. This is what he said in his defence: I'm sure that I'm a Muslim. My worst fear is that people in Europe may consider and treat me as a critic of Islam. I'm not. I'm not a new Salman Rushdie and don't want to be welcomed and treated as such. I'm a researcher. I'm critical of old and modern Islamic thought. I treat the Quran as a nass (text) given by God to the Prophet Muhammad. That text is put into a human language, which is the Arabic language. When I said so, I was accused of saying that the Prophet Muhammad wrote the Quran. This is not a crisis of thought, but a crisis of conscience.

The judges would not concede any of that. They rejected his defence, declared him an apostate and ordered him to divorce his wife. It is important to note here that one of the issues that clinched the verdict of apostasy on Abu Zeid was his criticism against the secondary status accorded to religious minorities in the Islamist discourse.

If a highly reputed thinker of Abu Zeid's stature could meet with such a cruel fate under the influence of Islamists in a political system notoriously opposed to them, imagine the situation when they actually govern a country. Fahmy Huweidi wrote articles empathising with Abu Zeid's detractors. It is instructive to quote from some of Huweidi's articles on the issue, which are marked by cleverly veiled fanaticism and outward expressions of moderation.

The ominous title of Huweidi's first response on the Abu Zeid controversy is Beware of Playing with Fire. This article was published before the court verdict came out and dealt with the controversy on the denial of promotion to Abu Zeid at Cairo University. It articulates clearly what a moderate Islamist considers to be tolerable limits of free expression, beyond which one is playing with fire. In the Indian context, this statement bears frightening resemblance to many of the declarations from Sangh Parivar ideologues on many occasions, most recently during the debate on A.K. Ramanujan's essay on the Ramayanas.

Huweidi says in the article: We need to frankly make a comment about the issue of the freedom of scientific research and the uproar raging around it. Those who are calling for unlimited freedom without any regard for the society's values and its public order are wrong in their understanding of freedom. They are playing with fire at the same time, especially if they, on the basis of this mistaken understanding, open the doors to mess around with the faith and sanctities of people.

We want to clarify the issue this time, citing the opinion of one of the legal luminaries of Egypt, Dr Asmat Saif Al Daulath, who wrote in a study about the topic: The safety of the society, in terms of its existence, limits, territory and humanity, is an objective condition for the right to free expression, in the sense that whoever expresses a thought that occurs in his head which subverts the society, the society has to, by all means, incriminate him, outlaw him, prevent him and to restrict him. All Constitutions and laws in the world comprise rules that incriminate, outlaw and prevent transgression committed on the pretext of freedom of expression against those elements essential for the shaping of a society.

In light of the above, we would unambiguously determine that messing around with religious texts, the Quran and the Sunnah precisely, should be out of bounds for those who invoke freedom of expression or research and promote claims that aim at the invalidation and termination of the texts in the name of the historicity of the text and relativity of religious rules, or other pretexts for aggression against the faith of the society and its conscience.

With the same amount of clarity, we will say that acceptable and legitimate Ijtihad (independent reasoning) on religious text is only that which springs from conformity to it, meant to put it in its right frame in order to extract from it utmost possible energy for the revival and advancement of the society and for the good of people in this world and in the hereafter. Any adverse Ijtihad aimed at assaulting the religious texts and pulling down their fabric and texture will not include most definitely in freedom of expression. It will be banned and the society has to prevent and outlaw it, particularly if the Constitution stipulates Islam to be the state religion and Shariah to be the principal source of legislation. This is because messing around with texts is an act of aggression against not only the faith of the community but also the Constitution and the public order of the country (Fahmy Huweidi; Al Muftaroon (Slanderers); Cairo, Dar al Shuruq, 1996; pages 100-101).

Huweidi concludes with a passionate call for the establishment of what he fondly calls a safe zone in the world of thought where the religious faith and beliefs of people are preserved away from critical approach. This precisely is the core issue that comes to the fore when we look at the extent to which Islamists can incorporate democratic values when they come to power. The presumption of a mandatory inviolable safe zone in the sphere of thought (we are talking here not about defamation or libel but about thought) is a deeply anti-democratic idea. That the whole argument was made at a time when an academic was condemned to a life of exile and declared an apostate merely for the crime of expressing his opinion is ample proof that the Islamists hardly care about free speech and democratic freedoms.

Democracy and Islamism

Islamist views on democracy can be classified essentially into two. The main current of Islamism views democracy as being closer to Islam than other political systems, while the jehadi approach rejects democracy on the grounds that it derives sovereignty/authority from the people instead of from Allah.

Islamists of the main current are now of the near consensual opinion that the best method to bring about an Islamic state is to establish a democratic system with Islamic legislative, legal and moral content. But they make it amply clear that it does not spring from any conviction about the virtues of democracy as a whole, but because it is the best bet in the given circumstances to somehow get to power. They are clear that they adopt democracy only to the extent of procedures and institutions and not beyond its formal structures. In his foreword to Rachid Al Ghannouchi's famed book Common Freedoms in Islamic State, Mohamed Salim Al Awa, the Egyptian Islamist scholar, makes these points clear: 1) Democracy is nothing more than a means to organise rotation of power; 2) Democracy is part of a larger integrated system that comprises economy, society, public policy and individual life; 3) In all these aspects, Islam has its own rules of permission, prevention, and prohibition, and only when all these Islamic rules and regulations are implemented will the Islamic project be accomplished; and 4) The difference between means and procedures on the one hand, and principles, values and ideas on the other is clear. The former can be adopted from any source regardless of its faith and communal affiliation.

Ghannouchi's approach is, however, more nuanced. He accepts democracy as the best bet among the given alternatives in the absence of the Islamic system. According to him, a society ruled by a defective law is better than a society whose law is the will and whims of the tyrant. A reading of his various writings together provide a clearer idea of his approach to democracy. There is a need to distinguish the legal legitimacy of democracy from the religious legitimacy that only an Islamic system can claim. He sees the transition from dictatorship to democracy as a natural and necessary stage leading up to the eventual establishment of the Islamic order.

Mohamed Imarah, the prominent Egyptian Islamist, gives a hand of support to pro-democratic voices within Islamism by saying that the Islamic concept of shura does not differ from democracy in its experiences, institutions and mechanisms. But the fundamental difference between them, he says, is that the democratic notion of freedom is absolute, while shura curtails these freedoms on the basis of the primacy of Allah's rights over those of human beings (ibid page 105).

Imarah's candid admission about curtailing freedoms in the name of the primacy of divine rights over those of lesser mortals is significant. It is the hermeneutical hair-splitting on this aspect that determines the dividing line between the so-called radicals and the moderates within the Islamist bloc. The radicals are honest and straightforward on this point: they do not prevaricate or equivocate about the inevitable curtailment of freedoms and the discrimination against outsiders inherent in a confessional system. The moderates prevaricate and indulge in semantic gymnastics in order not to appear undemocratic and discriminatory in their approach to outsiders.

When they claim the political order they envisage is democratic, they overlook two cardinal facts: 1. Unlike other confessional systems, the Islamic state as envisaged by the Islamists derives its legitimacy primarily from its adherence to the sharia, a legal framework of divine origin. The problem with such a system is that soteriological and eschatological postulates and concerns, which are absolutist in their essence and abstract and unempirical by their very nature, underpin the entire business of governance and political activity. Therefore it is incapable of running the affairs of a polity that consist of not only a plurality of faiths and belief systems but also a large number of people who prefer to either remain outside the fold of faith or live according to their own subjective understanding of their faith, away from institutional mechanisms of religion. 2. A confessional political party that makes soteriological and eschatological convictions the basis of its political programme is sure to turn the logic of democracy upside down because it is premised on the notion of permanent majorities. Democracy is secure only when the majority keeps shifting on the basis of competitive interests of the citizens rather than on the basis of confessional consolidation. The moment a permanent majority around confessional calculations gets solidified in a democracy, it ceases to be a democracy and turns into tyranny.

The following statement by a prominent Islamist scholar is sufficient to demonstrate the ethical dilemmas and undemocratic potential implicit in the Islamist idea of the state in regard to religious minorities and dissenting groups. Muhammad Asad, the Polish convert to Islam and one of the most celebrated figures of Islam in the 20th century, is candid in admitting that an Islamic state is impossible without allowing for certain amount of differentiation between the majority and the minority. He is also clear that members of the minority communities however great their integrity and loyalty to the state cannot be expected to work wholeheartedly for the ideological objective of Islam. The resemblance between this rhetoric and Sangh Parivar discourse on Muslims is striking!

To be sure, this fear of discrimination relates only to the theory and not to the practice of government; for in countries where Muslims form an overwhelming majority (and only these can justifiably be termed Muslim countries'), the leadership of the state automatically accrues to them. Nevertheless, in the context of modern political thought, which is strongly influenced by Western concepts and prejudices, even a theoretical discrimination on the ground of religion might be unpalatable to many Muslims, not to mention the non-Muslims living in their midst. One must, therefore, frankly admit from the outset that without a certain amount of differentiation between Muslim and non-Muslim there can be no question of our ever having an Islamic state or states in the sense envisaged in Quran and Sunnah. ...One cannot escape the fact that no non-Muslim citizen however great his personal integrity and his loyalty to the state could, on psychological grounds, ever be supposed to work wholeheartedly for the ideological objectives of Islam; nor, in fairness, could such a demand be made of him[T]hose who are to wield supreme authority in the Islamic state and are to be responsible for the shaping of its policies should always be Muslims; and this not merely de facto, by virtue of their majority in the country, but also de jure, by virtue of a constitutional enactment. If we are resolved to make Islam the dominant factor in our lives, we must have the moral courage to declare openly that we are not prepared to endanger our future by falling into line with the demands of that spurious liberalism' which refuses to attribute any importance to men's religious convictions; and that, on the contrary, the beliefs a man holds are far more important to us than the mere accident of his having been born or naturalised in our country (Muhammad Asad; The Principles of State and Government in Islam; Kuala Lumpur, Islamic Book Trust, 1980; page 40-41).

From what preceded, it will not be unfair to conclude that Islamism in all its diversity is fundamentally incompatible with democracy in the sense of a liberal, competitive political system that does not discriminate against certain groups and constituencies. A democratic state is impossible to sustain unless it is able to maintain some sense of neutrality with regard to people's faiths and other markers of identity.


Although claims of moderation and adherence to democratic values by Islamists must be taken at face value, the fact remains that Islamism and democracy are inherently incompatible with each other at their core.

While Islam as a faith and lived reality and democracy as a culture and political system are compatible, Islamism as a political ideology is premised upon the total negation of all the fundamentals of pluralist democracy, most importantly the idea of equal citizenship. Dissenters, liberals and freethinkers from within the Muslim community stand to suffer the most in an Islamic state as envisaged by the Islamists.

The construction of a permanent majority throws democracy out and brings tyranny in because a polity can remain democratic only if the majorities are constantly in a state of flux. The wanton use of religion as an instrument of coercion, power and political mobilisation and its consequent desacralisation will impact adversely on the polity in ways that go far beyond the immediacy of electoral politics. It will not only undermine and distort the democratic processes and unleash physical and emotional violence at all levels but also kill the soul of a culture. While religion as faith as well as an instrument of persuasion has historically played a humanising role, religion as ideology and an instrument of coercion has only resulted in structures of violence, hidden and manifest.

Will democracy be ill-fated to become a vehicle to usher in theocracy in West Asia?

Shajahan Madampat is a writer and cultural critic. He has published three books in Malayalam, in addition to articles and essays in Malayalam, English and Arabic.

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